Girma Ashenafi, an Ethiopian Olympic runner who won silver in the 5,000 meters in the 2004 Games, joined the military this week. Ashenafi’s direct command likely won’t translate into war like, say,, a Belgian prince turned soldier in the English Civil War, but Ashenafi is part of a larger push by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front to enlist young people in Tigray, the relatively under-enforced homeland of Eritrea. The TPLF is set to merge three other neighboring regions into what it dubs the autonomous regional state of North Tigray.
Many Ethiopians are now deeply skeptical of the regime of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, an ethnic Tigrayan, as he has proceeded with sweeping reforms, including opening Ethiopia’s borders with its border enemy, Eritrea. This week, the number of protesters killed has risen to 233, many of them students. Ashenafi’s participation in the Ethiopian People’s Defense Forces (EPDF) military program comes after the athlete protested against the Ethiopian government in 2013 when it began its brutal campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against Tigrayans. Ashenafi said he was more likely to fight for the government in 2015 and 2016, before Abiy promised Tigrayans a new constitution and a new path for Ethiopia. At the end of June, Abiy expelled 12,000 military personnel, many of them from Tigrayan units. The decision was hailed by many Ethiopians, as the soldiers were accused of grave human rights violations.
But what of the young athlete who was an unlikely foot soldier in the war for legitimacy? Ashenafi is 31 years old, and said he didn’t feel a need to resign, so he may quit the military rather than be prosecuted for protesting. He is not the first athlete to try. In February, Ethiopia’s Olympic marathon champion, Feyisa Lilesa, dropped out of a world championship in London following a decade-long feud with the national government. Wielding a black-and-white flag with a Star of David on it, Lilesa criticized “Tigrayese marginalization and the brutal repression of the nation.” He went on to call on other Tigrayans to speak out, and in the next day or two, swimmers at a stadium in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa joined him on the podium. Ashenafi’s continued participation with the military as it collapses under the weight of its own anti-reform policies is sure to send a nervous shock wave throughout Ethiopia, a country so ideologically tied to the Tigrayan army that it organized a military strike in Addis Ababa just two years ago against the Rwandan government.
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