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  • This Ethiopian runner just won silver in the marathon. And then he led a protest of his government that could land him in jail - WASHINGTON POST - AUGUST 21, 2016




    NAIROBI — When he crossed the Olympics marathon finish line, Feyisa Lilesa put his hands above his head in an "X." Most of those who watched Lilesa's spectacular silver medal performance didn't know what that meant — or just how dangerous a protest they were watching.

    Lilesa was protesting the Ethiopian government's killing of hundreds of the country's Oromo people — an ethnic majority that has long complained about being marginalized by the country's government. The group has held protests this year over plans to reallocate Oromo land. Many of those protests ended in bloodshed. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 400 people have been killed since November.

    For months, the Oromo have been using the same "X" gesture that Lilesa, 26, used at the finish line.

    At a news conference following the race, he reiterated his defiant message.

    "The Ethiopian government is killing my people, so I stand with all protests anywhere, as Oromo is my tribe," Lilesa said. "My relatives are in prison and if they talk about democratic rights they are killed."

    It was a remarkable turn of events — within seconds, Lilesa had gone from a national hero to a man who might not be able to return to his home country. In addition to those killed, many Oromo protesters are currently languishing in prison.

    In Ethiopia, the state broadcaster did not air a replay of the finish.

    Lilesa was conscious of the danger. He immediately suggested that he might have to move somewhere else.

    "If I go back to Ethiopia maybe they will kill me. If not kill me, they will put me in prison. I have not decided yet, but maybe I will move to another country," he said.

    It wasn’t the first time an Ethiopian athlete had considered defecting after competition. In 2014, four of the country’s runners applied for asylum in the United States after disappearing from the international junior track championships in Eugene, Ore.

    The plight of the Oromo and the Ethiopian government's use of force against civilians have received some attention recently, but nothing as prominent as Lilesa's defiance. Earlier this month, the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa said that it was “deeply concerned” about the most recent killing of protesters. But likely because Ethiopia remains a U.S. ally in the fight against Somali Islamist group Al-Shabab, American officials have been reluctant to offer any further condemnation.
    Oromo dissidents, particularly those outside Ethiopia, have been active on social media about their cause. As soon as Lilesa crossed the finish line, tweets and Facebook posts went up with pictures of their new folk hero. Ethiopia is one of Africa's fastest growing nations, and it seen by many as a model of economic potential. The government has played down the protests, saying earlier this month that “the attempted demonstrations were orchestrated by foreign enemies from near and far in partnership with local forces.”

    Lilesa has been racing internationally for Ethiopia for more than eight years, and holds one of the world's fastest ever marathon times: 2:04:52.

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  • Ethiopia doesn't want you to know these things are happening in the country - Washington Post. August 20, 2016

    ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA — After going through its worst drought in 50 years, Ethiopia is again seeing rain. In fact, in some places, it’s falling too hard and has set off floods.

    So while the number of people requiring food aid has dropped slightly from 10.2 million in January to 9.7 million, according to the latest figures, there is a new threat of disease in a population weakened by drought.

    Measles, meningitis, malaria and scabies are on the rise. And most seriously, there has been an outbreak of something mysteriously called “AWD,” according to the Humanitarian Requirements Document, issued by the government and humanitarian agencies on Aug. 13.

    “There is a high risk that AWD can spread to all regions with high speed as there is a frequent population movement between Addis Ababa and other regions,” it warned.

    [1 in every 113 human beings is forcibly displaced from their home right now]

    The letters stand for acute watery diarrhea. It is a potentially fatal condition caused by water infected with the vibrio cholera bacterium. Everywhere else in the world it is simply called cholera.

    But not in Ethiopia, where international humanitarian organizations privately admit that they are only allowed to call it AWD and are not permitted to publish the number of people affected.

    The government is apparently concerned about the international impact if news of a significant cholera outbreak were to get out, even though the disease is not unusual in East Africa.

    This means that, hypothetically, when refugees from South Sudan with cholera flee across the border into Ethiopia, they suddenly have AWD instead.

    [South Sudanese civilians fear the U.N. can’t protect them from a massacre]

    In a similar manner, exactly one year ago, when aid organizations started sounding the alarm bells over the failed rains, government officials were divided over whether they would call it a drought and appeal for international aid.

    The narrative for Ethiopia in 2015 was a successful nation with double-digit growth, and the government did not want to bring back memories of the 1980s drought that killed hundreds of thousands and left the country forever associated with famine.

    “We don’t use the f-word,” explained an aid worker to me back in September, referring to famine.

    Like many of its neighbors in the region, Ethiopia has some issues with freedom of expression and is very keen about how it is perceived abroad. While the country has many developmental successes to celebrate, its current sensitivity suggests it will be some time before this close U.S. ally resembles the democracy it has long claimed to be.

    Ultimately, the government recognized there was a drought and made an international appeal for aid. The systems put into place over the years prevented the drought from turning into a humanitarian catastrophe — for which the country has earned praise from its international partners.

    In the same manner, even though it doesn’t call it cholera, the government is still waging a vigorous campaign to educate people on how to avoid AWD, by boiling water and washing their hands.

    Yet this sensitivity to bad news extends to the economic realm as well. Critics have often criticized Ethiopia’s decade of reported strong growth as being the product of cooked numbers. The government does seem to produce rosier figures than international institutions.

    After the drought, the International Monetary Fund predicted in April that growth would drop from 10.2 percent in 2015 to just 4.5 percent in 2016.

    Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, maintained, however, that growth would be a robust 8.5 percent, despite the falling agriculture productivity and decreased export earnings.

    In the political realm, news of unrest and protests is suppressed. During a weekend of demonstrations on Aug. 6 and 7, the Internet was cut, making it difficult to find out what happened.

    Human rights organizations, opposition parties and media tried to piece together the toll from the deadly demonstrations, which according to Amnesty International may have been up to 100.

    The United Nations has called for international observers to carry out an investigation in the affected regions, which the government has strongly rejected even as it has dismissed estimates of casualties without providing any of its own.

    “That is one of the factors we are struggling against with this government, the blockade of information,” complained Beyene Petros, the chairman of a coalition of opposition parties. “Journalists cannot go and verify. We cannot do that.”

    Local journalists are heavily constrained, and as Felix Horne of Human Rights Watch points out, Ethiopia is one of the biggest jailers of journalists on the continent.

    “Limitations on independent media, jamming of television and radio signals, and recent blocking of social media all point to a government afraid to allow its citizens access to independent information,” he said.

    Foreign journalists do not fare much better, especially if they attempt to venture out of the capital to do their reporting.

    In March, the New York Times and Bloomberg correspondents were detained by police while trying to report on the disturbances in the Oromo Region.

    They were sent back to Addis Ababa and held overnight in a local prison before being interrogated and released.

    In a similar fashion, a television crew with American Public Broadcasting Service was detained on Aug. 8 south of the capital trying to do a story on the drought conditions.

    They and their Ethiopian fixer — an accredited journalist in her own right — were released after 24 hours, and they were told not to do any reporting outside of Addis.

    In both cases the journalists were all accredited by the Government Communication Affairs Office, with credentials that are supposed to extend the breadth of the country but in practice are widely ignored by local officials.

    The government spokesman, Getachew Reda, has dismissed the allegations about the information crackdown in the country and in recent appearances on the Al Jazeera network he maintained that there are no obstacles to information in Ethiopia.

    “This country is open for business, it’s open for the international community, people have every right to collect whatever information they want,” he said.

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  • EXCLUSIVE: Overweight Ethiopian swimmer nicknamed 'Robel the Whale' makes dramatic U-turn and vows to compete at Tokyo Olympics — two weeks after retiring following embarrassing Rio performance - August 21, 2016

    - Robel Habte, 24, was body-shamed after he appeared at the Rio Olympics sporting an unathletic paunch

    - He was the target of much online criticism and dubbed 'Robel the Whale'

    - After his lackluster performance, he famously retired from the pools

    - But now Habte has made a U-turn, vowing to better his performance and return for the Tokyo Games

    - He also set up the 'Robel the Whale Foundation' to help more Ethiopian swimmers compete and represent their country in the Olympics

    The Ethiopian swimmer body-shamed and dubbed 'Robel the Whale' after a disaster in the Olympic pool has made a U-turn and will swim at the next games.
    Robel Habte, 24, was so hurt and insulted by the global internet criticism he received that he vowed his Olympic days were over.
    But he has decided to embrace the moniker given to him by internet trolls and hope for 'something positive and to help others.'
    He has set up the 'Robel the Whale Foundation' to bring more Ethiopian swimmers to the Olympic pool in four years' time at the Tokyo games.
    Much of the negative remarks were not only made against his physique, but also at claims that nepotism played a part in his Olympic inclusion, as his father is a member of the Ethiopian swimming federation.
    But Habte said: 'I have to be strong and overcome what people say about me.
    'I will take the cyber and verbal bullying that I received after the Rio Olympics and convert them into motivations, which will help me achieve my set of goals and become the best swimmer that I could be.'
    'I am not that fat, but I do not have the right body for swimming now. But I will show them and I will help other swimmers from my country too.'
    Ethiopia does not have an Olympic size 50m pool. Habte wants to raise funds so that better training facilities will mean stronger Olympic swimmers in four years.
    'I have been hurt, but I can be stronger and fitter and stop the laughing that people have done,' he said

    'With my foundation, I hope that people in Ethiopia will get the chance to train in a proper swimming facility that I was not able to receive.
    'I want to see more swimmers from my country, but I do not want them to be scared that they will be called fat and abused like I have been.'
    Habte appeared in one event in Rio 2016 and achieved worldwide fame for his persistence — as well as infamy his body shape.
    The furniture shop owner, who was making his first appearance at the Olympics, finished half-a-lap behind his two rivals in the 100m freestyle heats.
    By the time he had emerged for air from his opening dive off the blocks in the 100 meters freestyle heats, he was already almost a body length behind. It did not get better from there.
    The only one of the 59 entrants in the heats not to complete the distance in under a minute, Habte touched the wall with a time 17 seconds slower than Australian pacesetter Kyle Chalmers, who clocked 47.90 seconds.
    Habte's only rivals in the three-man opening heat, Thibaut Danho of the Ivory Coast and Johnny Perez Urena of the Dominican Republic, had removed their caps and were leaning on the lane markers as he trailed in more than 12 seconds behind.
    When they finished, he was half a lap behind.
    The crowd, recognizing the effort, raised a cheer for him for staying the course in a similar way Eric the Eel was cheered in Sydney 2000 as a distinguished loser.
    But the internet was open to critics who fat slammed him and joked about his weight.
    He admitted he was ‘too fat for the Olympics’, but blamed his excess weight on a car crash.
    He said the injuries he received as he drove his Rav 4 in Addis Ababa sidelined him for two months in which he gained 40kgs in flab.
    'I am now around 82kgs and that is still much.
    'I should be 72 or 74kgs when I swim. But I could not manage it. My girlfriend Selam was telling me I had to lose weight, but I could not do it all.'
    Habte fought to lose the weight in the run up to Rio, but didn’t quite manage to shake it off.
    He said he had been hurt by some of the remarks comparing him to a whale and had stopped reading his Facebook page and Twitter.
    He added: 'They have used dirty language against me and called me fat and a big man and a whale.
    'But I will lose the weight and I will be fit and ready for more swimming competitions.
    'I was against going to Tokyo, but I have to prove myself and I have to show people that I can swim fast. I hold Ethiopian national swimming records.
    'Ethiopia is not a swimmer's country and I have not trained in an Olympic size pool,' Habte added.
    'My country is famous for runners. I wanted to be famous for being a swimmer.'
    He initially said the experience was enough to stop him competing in Tokyo in 2020 at the next Olympics, but he had changed his mind ‘to show the world.’
    His disaster in the Olympic pool was compared to the experiences of of Eric Moussamban from Equatorial Guinea who rose to global fame at the 2000 Summer Olympics.
    He swam his heat of the 100m freestyle in 1:52.72. a time which was more than double that of his faster competitors.
    He was quickly dubbed ‘Eric the Eel’ and lauded for his efforts in finishing despite the race being long over.
    Habte said: ‘My dream is more than a personal achievement — it is about surging national pride.'



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  • Ethiopia: Protests in Oromia, Amhara Regions Present 'Critical Challenge' - U.S.

    The Obama administration's top official promoting democracy and human rights,Tom Malinowski, says the Ethiopian government's tactics in response to protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions of the country are "self-defeating". Writing ahead of the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Nairobi for talks on East African issues, including security, Malinowski says Addis Ababa's "next great national task is to master the challenge of political openness." The United States and Ethiopia have years of strong partnership, based on a recognition that we need each other. Ethiopia is a major contributor to peace and security in Africa, the U.S.'s ally in the fight against violent extremists, and has shown incredible generosity to those escaping violence and repression, admitting more refugees than any country in the world. The United States has meanwhile been the main contributor to Ethiopia's impressive fight to end poverty, to protect its environment and to develop its economy. Because of the friendship and common interests our two nations share, the U.S. has a stake in Ethiopia's prosperity, stability and success. When Ethiopia does well, it is able to inspire and help others. On the other hand, a protracted crisis in Ethiopia would undermine the goals that both nations are trying to achieve together. The recent protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions present a critical challenge. They appear to be a manifestation of Ethiopian citizens' expectation of more responsive governance and political pluralism, as laid out in their constitution. Almost every Ethiopian I have met during my three recent trips to the country, including government officials, has told me that as Ethiopians become more prosperous and educated, they demand a greater political voice, and that such demands must be met. While a few of the protests may have been used as a vehicle for violence, we are convinced that the vast majority of participants were exercising their right under Ethiopia's constitution to express their views. Any counsel that the United States might offer is intended to help find solutions, and is given with humility. As President Barack Obama said during his July, 2015 visit to Addis Ababa, the U.S. is not perfect, and we have learned hard lessons from our own experiences in addressing popular grievances. We also know Ethiopia faces real external threats. Ethiopia has bravely confronted Al-Shabaab, a ruthless terrorist group based on its border. Individuals and groups outside Ethiopia, often backed by countries that have no respect for human rights themselves, sometimes recklessly call for violent change. Ethiopia rightly condemns such rhetoric, and the United States joins that condemnation. But Ethiopia has made far too much progress to be undone by the jabs of scattered antagonists who have little support among the Ethiopian people. And it is from within that Ethiopia faces the greatest challenges to its stability and unity. When thousands of people, in dozens of locations, in multiple regions come out on the streets to ask for a bigger say in the decisions that affect their lives, this cannot be dismissed as the handiwork of external enemies. Ethiopian officials have acknowledged that protestors have genuine grievances that deserve sincere answers. They are working to address issues such as corruption and a lack of job opportunities. Yet security forces have continued to use excessive force to prevent Ethiopians from congregating peacefully, killing and injuring many people and arresting thousands. We believe thousands of Ethiopians remain in detention for alleged involvement in the protests - in most cases without having been brought before a court, provided access to legal counsel, or formally charged with a crime. These are self-defeating tactics. Arresting opposition leaders and restricting civil society will not stop people from protesting, but it can create leaderless movements that leave no one with whom the government can mediate a peaceful way forward. Shutting down the Internet will not silence opposition, but it will scare away foreign investors and tourists. Using force may temporarily deter some protesters, but it will exacerbate their anger and make them more uncompromising when they inevitably return to the streets. Every government has a duty to protect its citizens; but every legitimate and successful government also listens to its citizens, admits mistakes, and offers redress to those it has unjustly harmed. Responding openly and peacefully to criticism shows confidence and wisdom, not weakness. Ethiopia would also be stronger if it had more independent voices in government, parliament and society, and if civil society organizations could legally channel popular grievances and propose policy solutions. Those who are critical of the government would then have to share responsibility, and accountability, for finding those solutions. Progress in reforming the system would moderate demands to reject it altogether. Ethiopia's next great national task is to master the challenge of political openness, just as it has been mastering the challenge of economic development. Given how far Ethiopia has traveled since the days of terror and famine, the United States is confident that its people can meet this challenge - not to satisfy any foreign country, but to fulfill their own aspirations. The U.S. and all of Ethiopia's friends are ready to help. Tom Malinowski is the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

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