The athlete looked up at the sky when he crossed the finish line, and made an X shape above his head with his wrists. The stadium cheered, a new moment in history was made. Later when he took to the podium with ‘Ethiopia’ written across his top to collect a medal for the marathon he had run, he made the gesture again.
Two months after the 2016 Olympics, this protest salute made by runner Feyisa Lilesa before a TV audience of millions, is still the most audacious red flag on what was a largely ignored iceberg. The iceberg being the Ethiopian state’s deadly crackdown on its Oromo people. His protest was in support of the struggles of an estimated forty million Oromo in Ethiopia’s Oromia region against an authoritarian rule historically committed to keeping them in their place. In a month that has seen Ethiopia call a State of Emergency in an attempt to stop the massive Oromo protests from spreading, Lilesa’s daring stand and the will he-or-won’t he question of whether he will return to Ethiopia continues to force the subject onto the global news agenda and to encourage people to ask- who are the Oromo and why are they protesting?
The answers lie in the history of the Oromo. The Oromia region was once made up of autonomous sultanates with distinct cultural traditions. Its people lived on the land for over five hundred years before the Abyssinian Empire moved in and established its new capital of Addis Ababa in the centre of Oromia at the end of the 1800s. What followed was a mass eviction of the Oromo, and then a state waged campaign against them, continued to this day by the modern Ethiopian government, which has previously sought to extinguish Oromo traditions, ban the language of Oromiffa in schools, and prevent Oromo civil and political status.
For the last year, the Oromo have been protesting the Ethiopian government’s plans to extend the capital into Oromia further still, however in recent months the protests have turned into a broader call for a multi-ethnic government, justice and the application of the rule of law. The Amhara ethnic group, their number estimated at 20 million, have now begun their own protests in the Amhara region and voiced their concern at a repressive government made up of one ethnic group. However since the protests began, at least 500 deaths have been confirmed, reports of torture and forced disappearances are widespread and an additional one thousand people have been detained in October alone.
Media attention on the protests therefore couldn’t come at a more important time. Since Lilesa’s salute and following a horrific stampede at an Oromo thanksgiving festival at the start of October, killing between 52 and 300 people (concrete figures are difficult to come by in Ethiopia) after police used teargas, rubber bullets and batons on protesters, the Ethiopian government has ordered a six month state of emergency. It has also continued to blame the violence and deaths at protests on banded opposition groups and gangs funded by Egypt and Eritrea, the former of which has already denied the claim and the latter of which has maintained a frosty silence. Human Rights groups however implicate the security forces in the deaths.
As a result of the state of emergency, Ethiopia is on lock down. Foreign diplomats have been banned from travelling more than 40kms outside the capital, protests in schools, universities, and other higher education institutions are forbidden, there are country-wide curfews, security services are barred from resigning, satellite TV, pro-opposition news and foreign news are banned and posting links on social media a criminal activity. In short, there is a total news black-out of anything that is not state sponsored.
On the African continent, condemnation of Ethiopia’s actions by African governments has been very quiet. However, the protests have been well covered by African media and civil society organizations particularly in Uganda, Kenya and South Africa, while protests supporting the Oromo have taken place in South Africa and Egypt.
Although it is disappointing that African governments have not spoken out, it is important that the Ethiopian diaspora, along with African and global civil society continue to call loudly for an independent investigation into the deaths and violence occurring and that wealthy Western governments continue to evaluate their support for the increasingly authoritarian Ethiopian state.
Indeed an independent investigation is key and not without precedent. The Burundian government vowed to cooperate with an African Union investigation into state abuses only this week. However, the Ethiopian government should also be pressed to pass inclusive multi-ethnic state reforms as quickly as possible before this crisis escalates. The Oromo and Amhara are 65% of the Ethiopian population so it is suggested the Ethiopian government tread more thoughtfully and less violently because as precedents on the continent show, mismanagement can lead to devastating losses in any numbers game.