Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lilesa held his arms over his head, wrists crossed, as he finished second at the Olympic marathon on Sunday in a gesture of support for members of his Oromo tribe who have been protesting at government plans to reallocate farmland.
Plans to allocate land surrounding the capital for development prompted fierce demonstrations in November and spread for months, in the country’s worst unrest in more than a decade.
Ethiopia has long been one of the world’s poorest nations but has industrialised rapidly in the past decade. However, reallocating land is a thorny issue for Ethiopians, many of whom are subsistence farmers.
Authorities scrapped the scheme in January, but protests flared again this month over the continued detention of opposition demonstrators.
Rights groups say hundreds have been killed. The government disputes the figures and says illegal protests by “anti-peace forces” have been brought under control.
“Oromo is my tribe … Oromo people now protest what is right, for peace, for a place,” Lilesa explained after his silver-medal performance, adding that he feared he would face consequences for the gesture when he returned home.
“Maybe I move to another country … you get the freedom if you support only the government. You cannot work without that.”
Any sign of unrest is closely watched in Ethiopia, a Western ally against Islamist militants in neighbouring Somalia and an economic power seen as a centre of relative stability in a fragile region.
“Oromo people now protest what is right, for peace, for a place,” Lilesa said.