EXCLUSIVE/ Ethiopia – one of the EU’s largest recipients of development aid and a key partner in the new Emergency Trust Fund for Africa for halting the flow of migrants – garnered unwelcome headlines last summer, when Olympic athlete Feyisa Lilesa raised his arms in protest at the treatment of the Oromia and Amhara peoples.
He talked to euractiv.com’s development correspondent, Matthew Tempest.
Since then, the government has declared a state of emergency, as – according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International – at least 500 people have died at the hands of the security services.
Interview by EURACTIV last month, the Ethiopian Ambassador to the EU refused to put an official figure on the death toll. But speaking to EURACTIV today, Feyisa said that the real death toll was over 1,000 and his home country – from which he is now about to seek political asylum – could end up in a Libya-style civil war.
[This interview was conducted via a translator]
When I spoke to the Ethiopian ambassador to the EU last month, he made a public assurance that you and your family would be safe. Do you trust that?
This is what they always say. I might be killed or imprisoned if I return home.
The symbol that the TV cameras at the Olympics caught you doing with your arms in Rio, is that supposed to symbolise the ‘X’ of a voting ballot paper? Because Ethiopia is, at least technically, a democracy.
No. It is a sign my people make above their heads to show the police they are unarmed. If we had our hands in our pockets, we might be shot. It is to show our protests are unarmed and peaceful, and to represent the fact that we are all in a prison [Ethiopia].
And why are you here today in Brussels?
To meet with MEPs from the European Parliament to discuss our situation in Ethiopia, and with the head of cabinet for the Parliament President. It was very successful.
And what is your personal situation at the moment?
I have not sought political asylum yet. I have been in the USA long-term since two weeks after the Rio Olympics.
Have your family and relatives back in Ethiopia had any threats from the authorities there?
I am very, very concernced about my family. We live around 60 miles from Addis Ababa, west of the capital, in the Oromia region.
They might attack us in different ways, indirectly. Only 1% of my family actually have jobs. Yet the wife of my brother, who is a journalist, was fired from her job two weeks ago. With no reason given.
They are advancing on us with other measures.
The crux of the issue in Ethiopia seems to be that whilst it is a democracy in theory, the Tigray people have disproportionate power as opposed to the Omoria and Amhara peoples?
Yes – as you say, it is a “democracy”. But the key government and military and defence and police and economic positions are dominated by them [the Tigray].
Based on what you hear from people on the ground, what do you think the death toll from protests over the last year to 18 months would be?
Oromia is a very large region – probably as big as two or three European countries. It has no big road network and very little infrastructure, so it is difficult to get numbers.
But I would say 500 is a very, very small estimate. I would say it is at least 1,000.
And as a voice and a face of the Oromia people now, what would your ideal solution be to the question of representation?
The demand from the public is really not all that complicated at all. It is a demand for equality, for basic human rights, and for an equal share of resources.
And are you optimistic that can happen without further bloodshed?
I am concerned. It is very difficult to be optimistic. At the beginning of the protests [in late 2015], for the first week or two, I was optimistic. But the government crackdown soon came, and this situation has continued.
Ethiopia could become like Libya.
Is that your worst nightmare?
I am very much concerned at this kind of conflict could emerge because they [the authorities] are trying to create tensions between the Amhara and Tigray and others, and because of that, things could get worse in the region.
All though my school life, we had this. In Grade 9, three of my friends were killed by the regime. It continued in 2014. The epicentre was to the west of Addis Ababa. There were other major incidents, killing, repression, and exile.
Repression in the past year was very intensive, even as I was training [for the Olympics]. I have no other job, I was just training. Three months before Rio, they asked me to participate [in the Olympic team], and it was at that point I decided to make my gesture.
And what is your life like currently?
I am now in Arizona. I have permission to stay in the US. Running is my job, and it is my survival. I had much help from the Ethiopian diaspora of exiles, with people helping to facilitate my visa, and fundraising there for me.