Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s vow this week to head for the front lines of his country’s brutal year-long war has boosted recruitment for the beleaguered armed forces.
At least one prominent distance runner — marathoner and Olympic silver medallist Feyisa Lelisa — has joined thousands of ordinary Ethiopians keen to follow Abiy’s lead.
World powers have voiced alarm about a military escalation that could scuttle efforts to broker a ceasefire, as rebels claim they are advancing towards the capital Addis Ababa and foreign governments tell their citizens to leave.
On Wednesday hundreds of new army recruits took part in a ceremony held in their honour in the Kolfe district of Addis Ababa.
As officials corralled sheep and oxen into trucks bound for the north, the recruits broke into patriotic songs and chants.
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“I was amazed when I heard” Abiy planned to join soldiers in the field, one of the recruits, 42-year-old driver Tesfaye Sherefa, told AFP.
“When a leader leaves his chair… and his throne it is to rescue his country. His focus is not to live but to rescue this country, and I sobbed when he said ‘follow me’ and went to the front line.”
Abiy announced on Monday night his plan “to lead the defence forces” from the front, but officials and state media have not provided details on his movements since then.
The recruits in Kolfe nevertheless took his statement to heart, sporting T-shirts emblazoned with a picture of Abiy in uniform and the words “We have a historic responsibility to defend the free name of Ethiopia.”
“I feel proud and I stand with him,” 25-year-old Esubalew Wale, another recruit, told AFP.
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Ethiopia’s war erupted in November 2020 when Abiy sent troops into the northernmost Tigray region to topple its ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The 2019 Nobel Peace laureate said the move was in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps and promised a swift victory, but by late June the rebels had retaken most of Tigray including its capital Mekele.
Since then the TPLF has pushed into neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions, and this week it claimed to have seized a town just 220 kilometres (135 miles) from the capital.
Feyisa, the distance runner, told state media the rebels’ advance presented “a great opportunity” to defend the country.
The marathoner gained political prominence by raising and crossing his arms as he finished the marathon at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — a gesture of solidarity with fellow ethnic Oromos killed while protesting abuses committed during nearly three decades of TPLF rule.
In the state media interview which aired Wednesday, Feyisa said he would relish the chance to fight the TPLF himself.
“When a country is violated, there is no way I will stand by and just watch,” he said.
A separate state media report quoted Ethiopia’s most famous distance-running champion, Haile Gebreselassie, as saying he, too, would fight at the front.
But footage of the interview did not air and AFP could not independently verify it.