By Catherine Nalule

4th November 2016

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Photo by Buda Mendes (2016)
When it comes to crossing the finish line in Olympic Games, many competitors have their unique celebratory gestures; from Usain Bolt’s lightning pose to Mo Farah’s “M” sign.

However, Ethiopian Olympic medallist, Feyisa Lilesa’s gesture, was far from celebratory. In Ethiopia, having your arms crossed above your head is a sign of suffering under the government and its institutions. It is traditionally used by Ethiopia’s Oromo people who have suffered from police brutality. Lilesa took it upon himself to finish the race by forming this anti-government gesture to stand in solidarity with his fellow Oromo tribespeople. A gesture which potentially put both his life and career at risk.

The Oromo people make up a third of Ethiopia’s population as the largest ethnic group in the country. Despite this, they have felt marginalized and underrepresented. Their largest and legal political party Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), currently holds no seats in Parliament. Many have felt that their human and constitutional rights have been and continue to be infringed upon. This has resulted in protesting and unrest throughout the country since April 2014. The initial trigger for these protests was the proposal for the expansion of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, into Oromo territory. Although this proposal has since been dropped after an unforgivable death toll of approximately 150 people, there has been a continuation of protests from the Oromo people as well as Amhara. This therefore highlights an underlying sentiment of marginalisation. The Amhara are the second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia and have joined in protest against the ruling Tigrayans; for greater autonomy and ownership of their own land. The Tigrayans, one of the smaller ethnic groups in Ethiopia, make up just over 6% of the population but hold the most power.

A few responses from people on social media living in Ethiopia, on the current political state of the country:

“We are under occupation for 25 years by the tgrien [Tigrayan] elite mafia government. We live 25 years under state of dictator so there is no new thing happen. We need freedom.”

“We the Oromo people had enough of what’s going on in Ethiopia and so are others ethnic groups. The Ethiopian government all they care about is money and giving / selling away the Oromo lands to the foreigners. The government thinks that by shutting down the internet in Ethiopia and burning people alive while they’re in jail for a crime they never committed just because they’re Oromo, doesn’t mean that we will step down! Enough is enough, we the Oromo people want freedom and our land!”

“They [the government] are accusing Egypt and Eritrea, when they know they don’t give freedom to their people politically and economically. This government is fully corrupted.”

The death toll has since risen to over 500 people and having almost 60% of the country’s population in protest; Ethiopia has thus declared itself to be in a state of emergency – its first in 25 years. Recent events have seen the government act overwhelmingly brutal against what they deemed to be anti-peace demonstrations and have even accused the protesters of acting together with terrorist groups. Are the government’s actions just a tactic to curtail their dissenters? Are the historical scars of the Oromo people, fuelling their current frustrations to go beyond peaceful protesting?

Ethiopia’s current political dynamic is uncertain. While the central government remains a close ally to the West and has total control over its security and intelligence, its social capital continues to deteriorate. The future of the state’s stability lies in the hands of ethnic disparities and provocations. Although not as economically and politically strong as the Tigrayans, the population size along with the determination of the Amhara and Oromo cannot be overlooked. The government’s authoritarian and ethnic minority style dictatorship appears to retain its legitimacy through rather illegitimate means.

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Cartoon by Alex Tefera (Alemayehu Tefera)

Titled “Democrazy” with a z instead a c, the above cartoonist depicts how voters are forced to vote for the current government by literally placing their political freedom into corrupt pockets. The writing in the cartoon is Amharic for “ballot box”. It is represented by a pair of shorts, similar to the ones worn by members of the current government when they fought against the previous regime.

Oftentimes authoritarian regimes tend to present themselves as a democracy by simply holding elections. However, in the case of Ethiopia, these elections are heavily restrictive and recently excluded international observers from Western countries in 2015. This is not to say that Western observation necessarily equates to a fair election – they are after all in alliance with the central government. What must be flagged however, is the landslide victory for the ruling party (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), who attained 100% of the parliamentary seats. EPRDF is dominated by Tigrayans, who hold the most important government posts. Choosing people to manage key institutions based on ethnicity and loyalty to the Tigrayans elites, has seen to an emergence of a patron-client system. This is what is perpetuating the current protests.

Ethiopian writer and blogger, Befekadu Hailu, deems the treatment of the Oromo and Amhara people to be evidently unfair; with the ethnicization of Ethiopia’s politics showing clear underrepresentation of the larger population.

“We never had political freedom in our history. In this regime, however we have a constitution that guarantees the basic political rights, it is not respected by the government. There are hundreds of political party members, journalists and activists jailed in notorious prisons of the country. I perceive that the government is not viewed as legitimately assigned to office by the majority. Despite the occurrence of violence and protesting, the government will take any measure to elongate its stay in power for unlimited number of years. The ‘State of Emergency’ is important for the group in government; it helps silence protesters but does not actually bring peace. It was a necessity for the government’s short sighted control of power, but dangerous for the long term stability and peace of the country, as well as the region.”

When asked about the severity of the restriction on people’s freedom of speech and expression, Hailu gave a personal account:

“As an author, I was jailed from April 2014 to October 2015 for writing. I was charged with my colleagues who were blogging for ‘Zone 9 Bloggers Collective’, as well as another three journalists. Every time I write on something political, I must censor myself. What happened to my colleagues and I before, during and after our arrest is evidence enough of the restriction of people’s freedom of speech. What had begun as blogging in enthusiasm to influence the government with our opinions, landed us in jail. Although we were able to challenge the charges in court and be freed; we lost our jobs, banned from travelling abroad and now live a life of fear that we may be arrested again.”

What may appear to be a democracy in Ethiopia, is gradually emerging to be a brutal authoritarian regime; with censorship, civilian control and death toll increasing.