Human rights work might be compared to preparing for a long race— like a marathon— requiring long, hard, and grueling dedication to a task where the final outcome— often years in the future—remains unknown. At times along the way, the barriers to success appear so large that one can easily get off course and go through periods where the possibility of reaching the ultimate goals looks grim. In the midst of that struggle, something can suddenly emerge from what otherwise appears as darkness, which acts to bring new light, insight and a change of attitude to those who witness it.
For Ethiopians, that unexpected source of new inspiration is Feyissa Lilesa, the Ethiopian winner of the silver medal for the marathon Olympic event held in Brazil on August 21, 2016.
His actions have jumpstarted a swell of renewed hope and vigor among Ethiopians who see him as an Ethiopian for all Ethiopians. Feyissa, an Oromo, made a stand against oppression when he crossed his wrists and lifted his arms over his head as he ran across the finish line in Rio. His actions brought international attention to human rights conditions in Ethiopia.
His expression of protest was the same as that of many other Oromos who had been protesting since November 2015 regarding the land grabs and eviction of tens of thousands of Oromo from their homes and land. More recently the protests had intensified. As they demanded their rights, they symbolized that struggle by crossing their wrists, as if handcuffed, and holding their arms above their head as a sign of a peaceful, non-violent protest against injustice and oppression in general.
The regime’s security forces had responded with bullets; killing thousand of protestors Oromia and Amhara regions, since November 2015. The victims included children, youth, pregnant women, and the elderly. Disturbing images of their dead bodies flooded the social media, further inciting protests and outrage.
In response to Feyissa’s gesture of protest, he has been recognized as a hero of the Oromo people. However, after I had the opportunity to listen to Feyissa Lilesa talk at a press conference held in Washington DC this week and to also personally meet with him, I discovered Feyissa to be clearly and decisively bigger and more complex than his ethnic identity.
His ideas break through the ideological barriers of ethnocentric thinking— views that are promoted and exploited by the current regime of the TPLF-controlled EPRDF as a tool to divide and disempower Ethiopians of differing ethnicities. Many expected him to focus only on the Oromo, while ignoring others— an approach favored by the TPLF— but, he did not.
In his responses to many questions posed by the press, he articulated viewpoints that were inclusive to all Ethiopians. He did not claim grievances as only an Oromo experience, but instead attested that the oppression being experienced in Ethiopia had no ethnic, religious or geographical limitations.
In an article appearing in The Guardian on September 13, the author quotes Feyisa’s remarks to reporters: “The Ethiopian government is killing, imprisoning and oppressing its own people. The situation in Oromia, Amhara and Gambella region is deeply concerning at the moment.
“I’m an Oromo, I grew up in Oromia, so I understand the suffering of my people very well. So far the government has opened fire on peaceful protesters who are asking for their rights and more than 1,000 people have been killed. Others have been forced into exile and been slaughtered in the deserts of Libya. Many more have become food for fish in the Mediterranean Sea.”
His words reflect my own conclusions, reached after first attempting to advocate for the rights of people of my own ethnic background, the Anuak. In December 2003, the TPLF/EPRDF and militia groups they had armed, slaughtered 424 people in less than three days and later killed many more in an ongoing effort to exploit Anuak land and resources.
It was not long before I became aware of the injustice faced by others in the country and began to recognize that systemic and widespread injustice must be addressed as a whole— without either ethnic bias towards one’s own people or ethnic-based apathy towards the human rights abuses inflicted on others within Ethiopia. Sustainable freedom and justice would only come to one’s own people when it was available for all.
This led to the establishment of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE), with the mission of advocating for the well being of all Ethiopians based on the God-given value of every life. This foundational principle is missing among those who cannot break out of their ethnic boxes. The present model of ethnic federalism feeds this viewpoint, with its blatant disregard for others and favoritism towards their own group, especially their cronies.
I realized the TPLF/EPRDF’s justification for the brutal massacre of the Anuak in 2003 came out of that worldview (ideology) that devalued the human lives of the Anuak. Feyissa understands this principle and how dangerous it is to the country for Ethiopians to fall into the TPLF/EPRDF ethnic trap.
In the same article he warns:“If this situation [widespread ethnic-based killing and ethnocentric favoritism] continues as it is, I have no doubt Ethiopia is staring into the abyss. You are going to see a great tragedy unless the international community intervenes and helps bring about change in that country. I am personally very fearful this is going to take an ethnic dimension. You are going to see a Rwanda-like scenario where ethnic groups turn on each other. It is important the international community understands the gravity of the situation and intervenes so we don’t have to go there.” (Click page 2 below to continue)