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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 the Washington Post earlier this month that Oromo sympathizers helped him with his U.S. visa application.
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PM Hailemariam Speaks 500 Died in Both Amhara and Oromia Region Protests
After almost a year of anti-government protests, Ethiopia on Tuesday (Oct. 11) admitted that the death toll from police crackdowns and deadly stampedes could exceed more than 500 people. The admission came a few days after the government declared a country-wide six-month state of emergency, and blamed external forces for trying to break up the nation of over 100 million people.
Hailemariam Desalegn, the country’s prime minister, said that the death toll in Oromia region had been at least 170, while another 120 died in Amhara since the demonstrations began. But “when you add it up it could be more than 500,” he said. Activists and opposition groups have disputed these numbers in the past, arguing that more people died when security officers dispersed demonstrations.
The continued protests and the recent emergency is a tipping point for one of the fastest rising economies in Africa. The Oromo and Amhara communities, who together make up over 61% of the country’s population, have been protesting against land grabs and human rights violations.