bY Siobhán O’Grady and Brian Stout
When Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa held his arms in an “X” as he crossed the finish line for a silver medal last month at the Rio Olympics, he says he was culminating a political protest he’d planned for months. But top Ethiopian officials say he was put up to the stunt by U.S.-based opposition groups in order to protest the government’s crackdown on demonstrations and further fuel controversial secessionist movements at home and in neighboring Eritrea.
Speaking to Foreign Policy in an exclusive interview from the living room of his suite at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Tuesday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said he strongly believes that groups of anti-government Ethiopians based in the United States convinced the athlete to use the Summer Games as a protest venue. He also figures they helped get him from a Rio hotel to Washington, D.C. in time for a televised press conference last week.
“It’s me who sent him to Rio for the Olympics, and we expected him to come back after winning the medal,” Hailemariam said, specifically naming members of the Oromo Liberation Front as having likely contributed to Feyisa’s protest. “This is not the capacity of the man himself. It’s something which has been orchestrated by someone else from outside.”
The OLF did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Feyisa could not be reached for comment, but he told theWashington Post earlier this month that Oromo sympathizers helped him with his U.S. visa application.
Feyisa’s move was meant to signal solidarity with protesters in Ethiopia’s Oromia Region, who have taken to the streets in recent months to protest their marginalization from the country’s central government. International human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have reported that security forces killed more than 400 peaceful protesters in the Oromia and Amhara regions since demonstrations began last November.
Feyisa claims that he had planned his own protest in Rio for months. Fearing retribution for his political demonstration, the silver-medal winner left the Olympic Village after his race and hid in a Brazilian hotel until early September, when he flew to the United States and appeared at a press conference organized by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa. There, Smith announced his plan to introduce bipartisan legislation that would recommend the Ethiopian government allow an independent rapporteur into Ethiopia to assess the human rights situation in the country.
Ethiopia wants nothing to do with that.
Hailemariam, who is in New York for the U.N. General Assembly this week, told FP that he would never allow an outside investigation to take place when Ethiopia has its own institutions available, because to do so would be a “breach of sovereignty.”
In an email to FP, Smith said that the rapporteur would not be imposed upon Ethiopia without its consent, but that “in the absence of any credible human rights reporting from the Ethiopian government on many incidents regarding the denial of human rights,” it would be standard for the U.N. to “gain an impartial assessment” of the situation on the ground.
But Smith’s claim that Ethiopia has not proved itself credible in human rights investigations rubbed both the prime minister and the ambassador the wrong way.
“Ethiopia is a sovereign country and Ethiopia has the capability to investigate its own case,” the Ethiopian ambassador to Washington, Girma Birru, told FP in a conversation at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington last week. “When the Ethiopian government is assumed to have failed to do these things, it’s an insult.” He accepted that protesters have legitimate grievances regarding land reform but denied accusations of institutional discrimination by the government, pointing to Oromia’s share of seats in both chambers of parliament — the largest of any region.
Critics of Ethiopia’s human rights investigations say the government deflates numbers in order to cover up abuses taking place at the hands of their security services. Human Rights Watch’s death statistics roughly quadruple those of Ethiopian civil society groups such as Human Rights Council Ethiopia, a nongovernmental organization that monitors human rights in the country, and those published in an official Ethiopia Human Rights Commission report presented to the country’s parliament.