The Untapped and Immense Potential of the Ethiopian Diaspora as a Force for Good – Part II




By Nahome Freda

During the time of the dreadful Derg, outward migration surged to levels unheard of in Ethiopia’s recent history due to push factors of government brutality and repression, famine, internecine fighting between the government and a plethora of liberation fronts. With the demise of the Derg and the end of the war, many internally and externally displaced refugees returned home. But those lucky enough to have been resettled in the West stay put to see if the victorious rebels would follow through promises of democracy, rule of law, and an accountable government. Initially, there was indeed a slight ray of hope with the limited opening up of the economy and a degree of personal freedom unseen in the country’s prior history. Unfortunately, these positive developments didn’t last long. After a few years of consolidating power, the TPLF reared its true repressive and vengeful colors and chipped away those budding gains.

The TPLF pursued single-mindedly a plan to remake the country in its contorted image. It introduced, without broad consultation and against established governance conventions, ethnic federalism in a country that is home for over eighty different ethnic groups. Overnight, Ethiopians became outsiders in their own country if they find themselves outside of their designated artificial ethnic boundaries erected by the TPLF. Millions were displaced and lost whatever resources they accumulated over a lifetime and many were murdered. Addis Ababa, with its multi-ethnic composition and relative safety, became so crowded with internally displaced people from all over the country that it has never recovered from that pressure. One can surmise that the Addis Ababa expansion, the trigger point for the current uprising in Oromia, started its early phase because of that pressure. Individuals and organizations that resisted the ill-advised ethnic policies of the TPLF were silenced through threats, illegal sanctions, exile, arrests, and even murder.

Intensified repression, especially after the failed 2005 elections, closed even the slightest avenues for dissent. Today, no one knows how many ordinary political prisoners languish in horrendous jails. With time, the TPLF increasingly became associated with torture, gross human right violations, and corruption. On the economic front, the TPLF controlled key economic sectors through shoddy deals and outright thefts and embarked on a claim of achieving economic success for the country. Last year, it lavishly celebrated its 40th anniversary with millions of dollars, basking at the “success” of its economic achievements. The party that never failed to self-congratulate itself with claims of 10% year-over-year economic growth for the last 10 years and partied hard just last year for “registering” economic miracle, is now panhandling once again before the international community in the name of 20 million citizens facing starvation.

With popular uprisings in many parts and a plethora of economic challenges facing the country, the government’s carefully cultivated image of leading the country to new economic heights is crumbling quickly in front of the world’s eyes. The compound effect of all these failed policies is the continued resurgence and multiplication of push factors that had subsided in the immediate aftermath of the Derg. Today, sadly but not a surprisingly, the dreams of the vast majority of Ethiopian parents and their children is to leave the country. As a result, Ethiopia continues to bleed its most precious resource at an alarming rate. Thanks to the TPLF’s failed policies, Ethiopia remains one of the foremost sources of refugees and asylum seekers in the world.

Certainly, such an environment doesn’t encourage a large number of the established Diaspora to return home with its knowhow, experience, and funds to help rebuild and develop the country anytime soon. With deeming prospects of returning home anytime soon, migrant Ethiopian’s have been planting their roots in all corners of the world for the last several decades. Those fortunate to resettle in the West have done particularly well, thanks to the enabling environment in their newly adopted countries and their industrious and hardworking nature. Most remain strongly connected, despite their spatial and temporal separation, to their homeland due to their deep familial, cultural, and sentimental ties. Ethiopians of all persuasions have done an admirable job of recreating pillars of their culture, faith, and communities in a relatively short period of time. They have acquired notoriety for hard work, discipline, and good citizenship. They are raising their children with strong values and work ethics. They have livened the communities they call home through their vibrant cultures and traditions. They have attained admirable personal and professional achievements in their chosen occupations. The number of worship places, restaurants, small businesses, associations, and community centers that they have recreated in a relatively short period of time is a success story other immigrant communities highly envy and would like to emulate. However, because these nodal points of community power and individual achievement have not been effectively harnessed, the Diaspora’s immense potential for positive influence both abroad and at home remains unrealized.

The plight of Ethiopia and their people remain at the forefront of the Diaspora’s thoughts, dreams, and aspirations. It is their fervent desire to help Ethiopia extract itself out of deep poverty through equitable and sustainable development. They want to see a self-sufficient, industrialized, and democratic Ethiopia that is at peace with itself, its neighbors, and the world. According to a 2010 World Bank report, the Diaspora sends an eye-popping $3.5 billion dollars in remittance payment to Ethiopia ever year. This is about 20% of the country’s annual budget, a sum as much as the aggregate humanitarian and development assistance Ethiopia receives per year. The Diaspora is also a key conduit for the transfer of knowledge, skills, and technology.

The Diaspora certainly is a formidable force for good and should be proud of its contributions. But at the same time, should find a way to ensure that its contributions have systemic and lasting impact on the development, democratization and national integrity of Ethiopia. Most of the Diaspora’s aspirations for Ethiopia are shared by democratic Ethiopian forces and are potential points of cooperation with Ethiopia’s Western partners. However, these lofty goals are unachievable as long as the holder of state power in Ethiopia is unrepresentative and remains anathema to compromise and reform. The current arrangement whereby the government gleefully feeds off remittance in-flow without concomitant accountability has certainly not helped and a new approach is urgently needed. Likewise, support to the opposition should be conditioned on measurable performance that benefits all Ethiopians. It’s also in the Diaspora’s long term interest, as recent immigrants and minorities, to organize and advance its interests effectively at the local and national level in their newly-adopted countries.

TPLF’s Nefarious Interventions in Diaspora Affairs

Many believe that the Diaspora’s crucial financial, diplomatic, intellectual, and moral support helped the opposition win the fateful 2007 elections, which the TPLF violently reversed. Badly wounded by that experience, the TPLF has since pursued an aggressive policy to curtail the Diaspora’s influence on domestic politics. It has established within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Security, Immigration and Refugee Affairs Authority well-funded divisions to clip the influence of the Diaspora and turn it into a powerless and unquestioning cash cow for the TPLF. The main mission of these departments is, if possible, to coral the Diaspora as a supporter of the government’s ill-advised political and economic agenda, and if that fails, to prevent it from coalescing around viable opposition forces. To this end, the TPLF works to keep the Diaspora fragmented and busy infighting with itself. It uses long-arm overt and covert interventions in immigrant Ethiopian communities throughout the world. It employs both incentives and threats to induce compliance from the Diaspora.

It purposely aggravates ethnic and sectarian fissures to prevent the Diaspora from bridging ethnic divisions, building strength, and exerting positive influence. It engages in extensive propaganda to distract, confuse, and discourage the Diaspora from speaking for the voiceless multitude back home. It presents the Diaspora as either a supporter of the government’s policies or as a “good for nothing” disgruntled bunch. Look around and you will notice plenty of TPLF-funded (directly or indirectly) radio stations that parrot the government’s propaganda and never question its blatant transgressions. Likewise, it has trained and deployed cyber warriors to poison social media discussions and disseminate venomous propaganda. It engages in jamming and blocking independent broadcasts to Ethiopia. The Diaspora should take lessons from the few Ethiopian organizations that have managed to remain independent and cleanse itself off outside influence. For instance, the Ethiopian Football Federation in North America, despite its own weaknesses, deserves our collective admiration for withstanding and outwitting repeated TPLF interventions and remaining independent. It is indeed a pride for all Ethiopians and an example for others to emulate. Others, such as, the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia and the relatively new Ethiopian Heritage Society in North America have also done admirable job in bringing Ethiopians together. These and other beacons of hope should be encouraged and supported.

Religious Institutions in the Diaspora

The TPLF perceives religious institutions as a significant threat, given Ethiopians’ deep connection to their faith and the influence religious institutions exert on their flock. For this reason, religious institutions are not immune from TPLF’s subversive attacks. The TPLF also realizes that religious institutions played a significant role in the past (and do play today) in positively influencing politics in many countries around the world. For example, the exiled Ethiopian Orthodox Church regularly condemns TPLF’s excesses and incorporates prayers and teachings on peace, liberty and freedom for all Ethiopians in its services. Ethiopian Muslim religious leaders have courageously stood up against the TPLF, demanding religious freedom, and for that reason, they are now languishing in TPLF’s jails. In U.S. politics, the evangelical Christian right is very active and one of the largest voting blocks. Pope Francis, the beloved leader of the Catholic faith, is not shy about using his bully pulpit to advance the economic and political interests of the downtrodden around the world. So far, the independent Ethiopian Orthodox Church in exile is the only church that I know of that has publicly and forcefully condemned the TPLF’s killings and arrests of innocent Oromo protesters and other Ethiopians. It will be interesting to see for how long the Ethiopian Evangelical Church will remain silent in the face of unprecedented brutal crackdown on the Oromia region, which by far is home to the largest number of evangelicals in the country.

A cursory look at the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa are instructive on this point. Religious institutions in both cases, played a central role in raising public awareness and financial support and in galvanizing pressure and civil disobedience everywhere. The resultant pressure forced the U.S. to outlaw racial discrimination and for the apartheid regime to eventually collapse in South Africa. Perhaps the best example of Diaspora political clout and influence can be found in the highly-organized and disciplined Jewish community throughout the world. For example, the Jewish community in the U.S. worked (and still does) with like-minded civil rights and religious organizations to combat racism, reverse discriminatory policies, and fight injustice. It uses its significant clout to advance the cause of Israeli and the Jewish people throughout the world. One thing all these entities had in common was their success to ward off subversive interference from dark forces.

Sadly, most Ethiopian religious leaders have abdicated their religious and moral duty and stayed silent in the face of widespread government abuses and the country’s precarious situation. They remain dogmatic and purposely avoid practicing what they preach. The TPLF certainly doesn’t want the Ethiopian Diaspora to learn from these models and pause a challenge to its repressive rule. To this end, it infiltrates religious institutions and uses various underhand tactics to censor religious leaders into silence in the face of repression. It is well known that the TPLF handpicks the home based Orthodox and Muslim leaders (the reasons for the ongoing conflict with the later). Unfortunately, it has succeeded in doing the same in several Diaspora churches. Some churches that have stood as pillars of their communities for many years are now divided and at each other’s throats, in part, because of suspected TPLF-instigated divisions.

A Clearer Diaspora Vision Needed

The Diaspora has so far failed to develop and execute proportionate clout in a manner that best services its own long term interests, that of the homeland, and that of their newly-adopted countries vis-à-vis Ethiopia. This in my view is due mainly to the lack of trust, deep suspicion within the various sectors of the community, and inability to learn from other successfully organized immigrant communities in the West. But also due to the failure of some in the Diaspora to truly internalize the lessons of the prevailing progressive and ideologically-based democratic political systems in the West. It is morally wrong and hypocritical to embrace and thrive under multiparty democracy in the West, while at the same time encourage regressive, divisive, and corrosive ethnic politics at home. We have to recognize that at the end of the day, Ethnic politics is discriminatory to “others” and has no place in the 21st century.

The TPLF-led government recognizes the immense potential of an organized, principled, and disciplined Diaspora, and as stated earlier, throws every trick possible to keep it divided and ineffectual. If the Diaspora is to realize its lofty and worthy objectives of serving its own interests abroad and advance the cause of Ethiopia, it has to first cleanse itself off outside influence and assert its independence. It is time for the Diaspora to contemplate some tough questions: How can the Diaspora breakout of its own ethnic divisions and come together and advance its collective interests both abroad and at home? How can it capitalize on its affinity to Ethiopia and unique position in the West to serve as a natural bridge between the West and the homeland? Why has the Diaspora failed to develop sufficient clout, despite its huge financial and other forms of support to Ethiopia, to positively influence the agenda of the Ethiopian government, the opposition parties and the West? Is remittance inflow helping embolden a belligerent government in Ethiopia to continue on its destructive and uncompromising path? What are the best ways for the Diaspora to channel its talents, skills, and resources to help Ethiopia overcome debilitating humanitarian, economic, and political challenges? I don’t pretend to have answers to these and similar questions. They should be researched by academics, graduate students, and Diaspora organizations to form the basis for a clearer Diaspora vision and policy positions moving forward.

The Diaspora should recognize that building an independent, visionary and strong organization that advances its day-to-day and long term interests abroad and that of Ethiopia’s is in its own long term interest. But let there be no mistake, the first order of things is for the Diaspora to assert its independence using legal means available at its disposal. The Diaspora, therefor, has lots of work to do. They should gather evidence and raise awareness about the TPLF’s nefarious interventions among the Diaspora. They should pursue and support legal means to identify and systematically weed out TPLF interventions and other political organization from their communities, religious, and civic organizations. They should build their organization at the local level on democratic governance principles with the mission of advancing the interests of current and future generations. They should push for an umbrella organization that can exert influence at the state (provincial) and national level and create alliances with like-minded external organizations that stand for minority rights and the pursuit of shared goals and objectives. They should extend or deny support to causes on the basis of universal values and principles of freedom, liberty, justices, and opportunity on equal basis for all.

They should capitalize on their growing numbers, expertise, and unique position in the West to push for a mutually beneficial pro-democracy, pro-human rights, and pro-development agendas that account for the national security interests of their native Ethiopia and that of their newly-adopted countries. From the position of such collective strength, they should elevate their lobbying efforts from the streets of Western capitals into the corridors of power. We should never forget that a peaceful, equitable, self-reliant, and democratic Ethiopia is in the best interest of all Ethiopians and an enduring pride for Diaspora Ethiopians and their offsprings wherever they may find themselves in this world.

In Part III, I will focus on resurrecting and strengthening civil society and the independent press and discuss possible points for engaging the West.
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