"I really think that I would be killed or imprisoned. Some of my family members are already in prison. I worry about the safety of my wife and two children.” - Feyisa Lilesa
Imagine living under a government that has the legal right to remove you from your native land for no reason. Imagine living under a government that has persecuted your people for decades. Well, this is what Ethiopia has done to one of its largest groups of native tribes, the Oromo. The Oromo people are an ethnic group which inhabit Ethiopia, northern Kenya, and parts of Northern Somalia, where there is a small refugee population. With around 38 million members, they constitute the single largest ethnicity in Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa, at approximately 40% of Ethiopia's population, according to their 2015 census.
The Oromo make up well over a third of Ethiopia's, 100 million people. Historically, Oromos have been pushed to the margin of the country's political and social life and rendered unworthy of respect and consideration. The Oromo culture and language have been banned and their identity stigmatized. The government wishes them to become invisible and unnoticeable within mainstream culture. When the current government came into power a quarter of a century ago, it pursued a strategy of divide and conquer, in which, the Oromos and Amharas, the two largest ethnic groups in the country, were presented as eternal adversaries. Oromos are blamed as secessionists to justify the continued monitoring, control, and policing of Oromo intellectuals, politicians, artists and activists. By depicting Oromo demands for equal representation and autonomy as extremist and exclusionary, it tried to drive a wedge between them and other ethnic groups, particularly the Amharas. This allowed the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, and Tigrayan elites, to present themselves as the only political movement in the country that could provide the stability and continuity sought by regional and global powers with vested interests in the region. Although these protests are triggered by more recent events, they are microcosms of a more enduring and deeper crisis of political representation and systematic marginalization suffered by the Oromo people. In its 2015 comprehensive country report titled "Because I am Oromo," Amnesty International found evidence of systematic and widespread patterns of indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks against the Oromos, simply because they are Oromo.
The protests have become so widespread that at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Feyisa Lilesa, an Oromo from Ethiopia, may have just turned himself into a political exile because of the way he won a silver medal in the Olympics marathon on Sunday. He strode across the finish line with his arms crossed over his head in a sign of solidarity for the Oromo people, the sign of his native group. In an interview after the race, Lilesa said he wanted to draw attention to the Ethiopian government's ongoing persecution of the Oromos. Because of this, he may never be able to return to Ethiopia in fear of imprisonment or worse, death.
Now, imagine that you are an African American in the United States. Imagine that as an African American, you are more likely to be pulled over by the police. You are more likely to be brutalized by the police. You are more likely to be shot and killed by the police. You are more likely to be charged for crimes that you did not commit than any other race. You get longer sentences for lesser crimes. Your poverty rate is higher per capita, than any other race. You are stigmatized by the public media as a criminal, a degenerate, and something to be afraid of. This has been the every day life of African Americans in this country for over two centuries, and as of late, it has only gotten worse. The Black Lives Matter movement is now in the midst of a deep struggle to end the constant shooting deaths of unarmed African Americans by local American police forces. Interestingly enough, related to both this and the protest of Feyisa Lilesa for the treatment of the Oromo, is a similar protest that took place in Mexico City, Mexico at the end of the 1968 Olympics. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, in protest of African American's treatment in the Untied States, gave the Black Liberation Salute, when they were receiving their medals. They were not exiled from the United States, as Lilesa fears he may be from his country, but the decade following their protest, was one of the most oppressive in US history. Propaganda and government violence made the Black Liberation Movement out to be extremists to be feared and kept at a distance, and men and women, who should have been remembered as heroes, were made out to be violent criminals. The two sound pretty familiar.