Most Ethiopians were as clueless as Rio2016 spectators as to who Robel Kiros Habte is before he got names after names following his performance in men’s 100 meters freestyle swimming preliminary heat. Names ranging from “lovable Olympic looser” to “unathletic looking Robel the “Whale” do certainly sound insinuation of his chubby physique, obviously not common for an athlete in the discipline that he happened to compete in. And they probably are for those who tend to relate his performance to poor physical fitness.
In any case, Robel is already back in Ethiopia and announced that he “retired” from Olympic sports. He sounded remorseful when he told The Daily Mail about his feeling : “Too difficult, I don’t know how I feel, but many things. Some of the things people have said or written are not nice.”
Yet, he has got some “nice” people who felt that Robel was unfairly subjected to body shaming, this group seem to be mainly non-Ethiopians with little or no knowledge about Ethioia, and came to his defense. They demonstrated a noticeable effort to dispel narratives of shame about his performance unmistakably explainable with Robel’s fitness, for many , which is probably why it sounded “body shaming” to them. The very reason for this short commentary is to give context to those who are not Ethiopians and who happened to be annoyed by what they thought is “body shaming” of Robel.
For Ethiopians, Shaming? Yes. But it has little to do with Robel’s physique. And it has a lot do with challenges that Ethiopians live on a daily basis for years now and in every parts of Ethiopia. Robel relates to the cause of it in ways that his non-Ethiopian defenders could not probably understand.
The story of Robel resonated among Ethiopians as an embodiment of the malaise of governance in Ethiopia. Despite the narrative of Ethiopia in the western media does in many instances looks flowering – especially as it relates to economy, the country is practically crippled by corruption, nepotism, favoritism, incompetence, ethnic based discriminatory privilege and the list goes on. And now an encompassing conceptual term is already coined by Ethiopians – Robelism – after Robel’s appearance in Rio2013.
Whether one wants to use political lens or economic lens, Robelism emerges as a hallmark of all the challenges that are facing the Ethiopian society for well over two decades now. An ethnic based armed rebels who, in terms of demography, represent only six percent of the Ethiopian population, happened to take power twenty five years ago. A coalition of ethnic parties was used as a cover. Not before long, the minority regime (Robel’s father is apparently an ardent champion the regime – from reports on Facebook) was busy in consolidating political power through illegitimate wealth creation for its ethnic base and other means.
Nearly all army generals,key personnel in the security apparatus, key ministerial government departments, Key economic sectors in the areas of construction, banking, manufacturing, import and export trade – among others things – are in one way or another controlled by people who belong to minority regime. In fact, Ethiopia saw for the first time in its history military generals with a considerably big business in the country.
Robelism as a trend has been resisted by Ethiopians for decades now. Cost paid for putting up resistance to it: lives- thousands of lives. Just last weekend, more than 130 Ethiopians were ruthlessly shot-dead by forces of the minority regime. Unfortunately, it does not even look like the last one.
So through the story of Robel, what resonated with Ethiopians is the way the minority regime exploited and oppressed Ethiopia. From past experiences in matters like scholarship selection, chances are that Robel was not selected through a competitive, fair and transparent process. Can you actually believe that the president of Ethiopian Swimming Federation is Robel’s father. Well, there is no such thing as “conflict of interest” in Ethiopia.
In short, Robel was butchered and ridiculed not just for what many Ethiopians consider to be an embarrassing performance. He was butchered because he reminded Ethiopians about all the things that are going wrong in Ethiopia and the timing was very bad as it happened when Ethiopians were mourning the killings hundreds of innocent civilians.
The writer lives in Toronto and could be reached on twitter : @dimetros