The 27-year-old athlete, who is an ethnic Oromo, made headlines last year after he crossed his arms over his head as he passed the finish line in the marathon race at the Rio 2016 Olympics. The gesture is a symbol of resistance Oromo people widely used during anti-government protests in Ethiopia in 2016. Making up 34.4 percent of the country’s 102 million people, the Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.
Demonstrations broke out in the Oromia region in November 2015 and later spread to the Amhara region, northwestern Ethiopia, growing into what has been considered the biggest anti-government unrest in Ethiopia’s recent history and prompting the country to declare a state of emergency —still in place today—that put an end to the protests.
People initially protested over government plans to expand the territory of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, with farmers raising concerns that increasing the size of the city would lead to forced evictions and loss of farming land.
The government later scrapped the plans, but protests continued. Many Oromo people argued for a greater inclusion in the political process, saying they had been marginalized. Protesters also called for the release of political prisoners.
Oromo protesters claim the government is dominated by the Tigray minority, who make up 6.2 percent of the total population.
The country is ruled by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of four political parties that includes the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization.
Last year, in a substantial cabinet reshuffle, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn appointed 21 new cabinet ministers, giving prominent ministerial roles to two members of the Oromo ethnic group.
Rights groups have often accused Ethiopia of arresting and subjecting political activists and opposition leaders to unfair trials. In 2013, Human Rights Watch (HRW) alleged Ethiopian authorities had subjected political detainees to torture and other ill-treatment at a detention center in Addis Ababa. The government denied the allegations and deemed the report as “extremely biased and ideologically marred,” according to the BBC.
Speaking to Newsweek after running the London Marathon on April 23, Lilesa alleged the Ethiopia is still targeting Oromo people who call for a greater recognition of their rights.
Referring to security forces known as “Liyu Police,” present in Oromia and the Ethiopian Somali Regional State, Filesa says: “The government has [deployed the police] to give an impression that there is a border conflict between Somali and Oromo people, but in reality it is targeting Oromo people. The world has not done much, even when the country declared the state of emergency in October 2016. The response of the international media, so far, has been unsatisfactory. The world must know the persecution of Oromo people is continuing, but it just has another form now.”
Rights groups have previously accused the Liyu Police—created in 2007—of being “implicated in extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, and violence against people in the Somali region [Ethiopian Somali Regional State, bordering Oromia state] as well as in retaliatory attacks against local communities.” In March, HRW said there was “growing evidence of attacks by the group [ Liyu Police] against communities outside of the Somali region, including in the Oromia region since late December 2016.”
The Ethiopian embassy in London told Newsweek: “The Oromia Regional State and the Ethiopian-Somali Regional States had signed an agreement, recently following consecutive public consultations at local community level, on how to develop and implement joint development projects in the border areas to ensure mutual and lasting benefits for all people living in the adjacent areas.