Protest in Victory: Feyisa Lilesa of Ethiopia

Yesterday, in one of the last events of the Rio Olympics, Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa ended his race with a silver medal and an act of defiance. Feyisa Lilesa is of the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest group, and his gesture was meant as an act of solidarity with the Oromo people as they stage some of the largest protests ever seen in Ethiopia’s history.

Ethiopia only officially became a democracy for the first time in its history in 1991. However, given that the ruling party consistently ‘wins’ by absurd margins (winning 100 percent of parliamentary seats in elections this year) and the repressive and brutal nature of the government Ethiopia’s designation as a democracy is dubious at best. The Oromo people, in particular, have long been oppressed by successive governments with active, state-sponsored suppression of their language only ending in 1991. But as the protests spread to other ethnic groups across the nation, it is increasingly clear that this is not simply a case of ethnic conflict. The Oromo protests seem to have struck a chord across a country weary of the state’s heavy hand and the preponderance of the state’s power held by Tigrayans (one of Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups, far from a majority).

It is highly unlikely that the government will be toppled by the protests however. It faces no real political opposition, being essentially a single-party state. The government has firm control of the security forces and the opposition is only very loosely organized. Furthermore, the near total control of media sources by the state (there is only one, state-owned, internet provider) makes it difficult for the opposition to organize further. However, it is important to note again the unprecedented nature of these protests. When the unprecedented happens, it is impossible to predict what will happen next.