Feyisa Lilesa: the new symbol of Ethiopian resistance


Feyisa Lilesa: the new symbol of Ethiopian resistance

The Olympics have provided a stage where athletes display immeasurable physical will, but, as Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion explains, it can quickly get political.

As he crossed the finish line for the silver medal during Sunday’s marathon in Rio de Janeiro, Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms above his head. He would repeat the gesture in front of the world’s media during the press conference later. The gesture may have appeared somewhat innocuous to many, but it sent an audacious message of defiance to Ethiopia’s ruling party, the EPRDF, which is facing the most widespread protests against its rule since it came to power in 1991.

Lilesa’s salute was a courageous act of solidarity with the thousands of Ethiopians at home and in the diaspora protesting against the Ethiopian government. Not only does he risk losing his medal – the International Olympic Committee takes a dim view on any politically-inspired sporting acts – but fears of reprisals by the Ethiopian government also led to a crowd-sourcing campaign to support Lilesa in what is assumed will be a long exile abroad. By Monday afternoon, 24 hours after Lilesa crossed the marathon finish line, the fund had swelled to $40,000.

The Ethiopian government denies that Lilesa, 26 and from the Oromo region, will face any reprisals. The government insists that he is a national hero. It is instructive, however, that the government quickly removed all footage of his defiant gesture from State-run TV.

Since December last year, hundreds of thousands of people from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups, primarily the Oromo and Amhara, have rallied to protest political marginalisation and systematic persecution by the minority-led government. Rights groups say that at least 400 anti-government protesters have been killed and countless others arrested by authorities in the ongoing crisis in Ethiopia.

In Oromia, the most recent flare-up goes back to late 2015, when protesters rose up to resist government plans to expand the municipal boundaries of Addis Ababa, the capital, into the Oromia Region. 

In June this year, Human Rights Watch released a 61-page report condemning the Ethiopian government’s crackdown on the protesters. The report, Such a Brutal Crackdown: Killings and Arrests in Response to Ethiopia’s Oromo Protests, documents the protests, largely arising within Oromia (but now extending to other regions), showing how Ethiopian security forces resorted to excessive and unnecessary lethal force and mass arrests, engaged in the harsh, ruthless mistreatment of those in detention, and restricted access to information.

More recently, in late July, unrest erupted in Gondar, a city located in the northern Amhara region, as locals protested the minority-led government’s expansion into traditional Amhara lands, the lack of local autonomy, and increasing state repression and control. Opposition and international rights groups estimate that dozens have been killed and arrested by authorities during the government’s heavy-handed response.

The protests arise from a variety of complex factors, all rooted in the government’s policy of ethnic-based federalism enshrined in the 1995 constitution and the exclusion from power of the largest groups. Oromos, the largest, constituting between 35-40% of Ethiopia’s population of 100 million, while the Amhara constitute nearly 30%. Opposition groups and protesters allege that the government, military, and important institutions are dominated by the Tigrayan ethnic group, who constitute about 6% of the population. 

Moreover, corruption and poor governance remain deeply embedded within Ethiopia’s socio-political structure, and the country consistently scores extremely poorly on a range of international governance indicators. The Ethiopian government has been consistently criticized by an array of international rights groups for its broad range of human rights abuses including its harsh repression of minorities and journalists, press censorship, draconian anti-terror laws that are utilized to silence all forms of dissent, and brutal crackdowns upon opposition groups and protesters.

In Brazil, the young Lilesa, used his silver medal finish to stand up for justice. In doing so, he emphasized the underlying socio-political significance of sport.

For years, the banned colles castelleres (human towers) or trekking excursions and support for FC Barcelona were a reflection of Catalonian resistance against Franco’s fascistic regime in Spain, while support for Spartak Moscow was, at times, seen as a symbol of political resistance against the official establishment in the former USSR. Additionally, in Korea, football within the curricula of physical education created a platform for Korean resistance to Japanese colonialism (Numerato 2011: 109-110).

Similarly, in Eritrea, the most popular sport, cycling, became a symbol of resistance to Italian colonialism. The first sighting of a bicycle in the country was in the latter half of the 1800s in Massawa, having been introduced by the Italians. By the 1930s, clubs were being organized, and on 21 April 1937, the first race took place in Asmara. However, during this period, Eritreans were barred from races and clubs due to the segregationist policies of fascism. Not to be denied, Eritreans soon created their own competitions and formed their own clubs. Then, in 1939, a special “trial of strength” was organized by the Italian colonial administrators; Eritreans and Italians would compete together in the same race. In Mussolini’s Italy, sporting success was to embody the greater glory of the fascist nation-state, and the joint Eritrean-Italian race was expected to display the superiority of the colonial master. Instead, like Jesse Owens’ spectacular destruction of Hitler’s Nazi propaganda about Aryan supremacy in the 1936 Munich Olympics, Eritrea’s Ghebremariam Ghebru won the race and shattered colonial myths about Eritrean inferiority.

During the turbulent 1960s, in the midst of the growing black power movement, the civil rights struggle, and the anti-Vietnam war movement, Muhammad Ali, widely regarded as the best boxer ever, became a global symbol of resistance to racism, militarism, and inequality. He unapologetically raised troubling questions and forced society to come to terms with civil rights, race, religion, war, and imperialism, defying all convention and the US government (Rowe 2016; Zirin 2016). 

“I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong,” Ali stated forcefully. “They never called me ni–er.” With that, despite being at the peak of his career and understanding the implications, he refused to serve in the US Armed Services. Subsequently, he was stripped of his heavyweight title, convicted of draft evasion (facing a 5-year prison sentence), fined thousands of dollars, and banned for several years. While he would eventually make a glorious return to the ring, it was his strongly principled stand and unwavering activism that truly made him “the greatest” and an inspiration for millions worldwide.

In 1968, a year after Ali was convicted of draft evasion, two black American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medallists in the 200 meters, made history at the Mexico Olympics by staging a silent protest against the continuing racial discrimination of blacks in the US. They stood with their heads bowed and a black-gloved hand raised as the American national anthem played during the victory ceremony. Although they were immediately booed and castigated by many, and then quickly suspended by their team and expelled from the Olympics, Carlos and Smith’s brave act, which soon gained much support from black athletes around the world, “shifted dissidence from the periphery of American life to primetime television,” and “was understood as an act of solidarity with all those fighting for greater equality, justice and human rights” (Younge 2012). 

Although the authoritarian Ethiopian government has attempted to forcibly crush the protests and rules the country through the politics of fear, Lilesa’s gesture embodies strength, hope, courage, solidarity, and defiance, while poignantly illustrating the broader socio-political significance of sport.

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