In August 2016, Olympic runner Feyisa Lilesa won silver in the marathon. His next challenge: keep himself and his family alive and safe in the face of Ethiopian ethnic purges.
Part 3: The Olympic Runner and the New Prime Minister
For the better part of two years, Ethiopian Olympic runner Feyisa Lilesa lived and trained in the United States. His wife and two children managed to obtain temporary immigration visas to join him in America in 2017. They later obtained green cards to remain in the country. But back in Ethiopia, Lilesa’s other family and friends suffered.
His brother-in-law, Tokkuma Mulisa, was imprisoned in early 2016 and reportedly tortured. Government soldiers attacked his brother Aduna later that year. Aduna managed to immigrate to America with Lilesa’s wife and children but had to return to Ethiopia a month later. And throughout Lilesa’s home country, government crackdowns continued against Lilesa’s Oromo ethnic group.
Through it all, Lilesa continued to train and race. He earned top-three finishes in half marathons in Houston, San Diego and Bogotá and finished sixth in the Tokyo Marathon earlier this year. And he did so while working to bring attention to the conditions in his home nation.
Then in February, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn unexpectedly resigned. Desalegn took office in 2012, following the death of Meles Zenawi, who had ruled the country since 1991. It was Zenawi whose government delayed final vote counts, killed almost 200 protesters and arrested 20,000 more during the 2005 elections. But it was Desalegn whose government proposed the “Integrated Master Plan” to expand the capital city of Addis Ababa into neighboring Oromo villages and towns and evict Oromo farmers from their ancestral lands. Suddenly, Desalegn stepped down, a move he said was “vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy.”
Following weeks of closed-door negotiations, Dr. Abiy Ahmed Ali was confirmed as the country’s new prime minister. In the process, he became the first Oromo chairman of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
Abiy is the son of a Muslim mother and a Christian father. When violent conflict erupted between the two communities, he was an active participant in a peace forum for reconciliation. As a teenager, he joined the resistance movement against the Marxist “Red Terror” regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. After Mengistu’s regime fell, to be replaced by Meles’s government, Abiy joined the Ethiopian army and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He served in the United Nations peacekeeping mission during the Rwandan genocide and in the Ethiopia-Eritrea border war.
In 2007, Abiy founded the Ethiopian Information Network Security Agency (INSA), a cyber intelligence service. In 2010, he joined the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization and was later elected to the House of Representatives. He became the Federal Minister of Science and Technology in Addis Ababa in 2016 and earned a Ph.D. in peace and security issues from Addis Ababa University in 2017.
In the seven months of his leadership, Ethiopia has undergone such rapid change that the BBC wrote “it is almost like observing a different country.” In that short time, Abiy has lifted the state of emergency declared during the unrest of the previous years, ordered the release of thousands of dissenting prisoners and unblocked hundreds of websites and television channels. He also ended the nearly two-decades-long war with neighboring Eritrea, giving up the disputed border territory in the process of restoring the relationship between the two nations.
Most importantly for the country’s famous Olympic runner, Abiy continued to forge peace between combative ethnic groups. In August, a delegation of the Oromo Liberation Front met with government officials in Addis Ababa and agreed to end hostilities with the government. Later in the month, Ethiopia’s Olympic committee and Athletics Federation invited Lilesa to return home safely and as a national hero.
“I was waiting for a change to happen in the country. And there are changes after the new prime minister came to power,” Lilesa said in response to the invitation. “There is a chance I will be running again for my country.”
All accounts suggest he intends to pursue that chance. And if he recognizes his role in improving the situation in his country, he remains humble about his influence. “I just want to share my gratitude,” he said. “I would like to thank our citizens who sacrificed their lives … all of the young people and the elders who participated in the struggle.”