THE ROLE OF THE DIASPORA IN ETHIOPIAN POLITICS
By Asefa Tola | March 10, 2007
Over the last few decades, the role played by Ethiopians in the Diaspora has a profound effect on the internal politics of our country. From introducing various kinds of political philosophies and ideologies, to organizing and leading political parties, establishing Liberation Fronts, the Diaspora has stamped some positive but mostly negative inputs on the political map of Ethiopia. The contribution of the Ethiopian Diaspora in bringing about positive changes to the political framework of our country and in improving the living standards of our people has been disastrous. If we are to measure achievements based on positive results, it will be very difficult to see any positive achievements. On the other hand, what the Ethiopian Diaspora or the so-called “educated elite” brought to the country is dictatorship under the disguise of Communism, Secessionism, “The Right to Self Determination up to Secession” and Political Anarchy. The living standard of our people and Ethiopia’s standing among nations of the world has plummeted from bad to worse. As a result, the Ethiopian Diaspora bears much of the responsibility for the political predicament that our country finds itself and the subsequent degeneration of the economy and lack of progress. The purpose of this article is to make a short synopsis of;
- Impacts of the Diaspora in the development of a democratic system of government in Ethiopia,
- Shortcomings of the Diaspora involvement in Ethiopian Politics and
- What should be the future role of the Diaspora in the pursuit to bring about a democratic change to our country?
Impact of the Ethiopian Diaspora
In order to analyse the impacts of the Ethiopian Diaspora in the development of democratic system of government in our country, we need to look briefly at their political history.
For generations Ethiopians have struggled very hard to bring about a political system that enshrines the rule of law, justice, democracy, human rights, freedom of speech, etc. During the Imperial regime, the student movements within Ethiopia championed slogans of “Land to The Tiller”, “Education for all”, “Social Justice for All” etc. To achieve these goals, Ethiopians in the Diaspora have pursued a mixture of ideologies and political philosophies. Many opposing principles were advocated and fought over at various forums and political groupings. These philosophies and ideologies were imported to our country via Ethiopians who went out for education and from books that University students managed to put their hands on. Consequently, in the mid sixties and early seventies, the political struggle was divided into two categories – those who advocate for radical change along the path of Marxism-Leninism and those who want less radical or incremental change. After a brief period of synthesizing the various modes of political ideologies the dominant weapon of struggle that gripped the hearts and minds of the political activists was the Stalinist version of Marxism-Leninism, leading to an era of unending political feud that embroiled all the different actors from all sections of the population. The “elite”, as they often call themselves though they were only University students, and all the political actors of the time found themselves locked in the never ending struggle of bringing about a never ending political division.
By falling behind the Stalinist political ideology, the political thinking of the so-called “elite” and many leaders of the student movement became totally radicalised and ethnicized. The Stalinist theories and principles of Nations and Nationalities and the “Right to Self Determination” flourished and became the central focus of the political discourse. The student movement, in their “enlightened” effort to be the ultimate communists, also added the alien term “Up to Secession” on top of the “Right to Self Determination”. Thus the road to a radicalised political belief that threatened the very existence of our country started. Most of us who weren’t born or grew then, wonder why the “elite” chose to walk along this treacherous path of Marxism-Leninism. Why “liberal democracy” didn’t catch the attention of these people, in spite of being students in the west, is beyond our imagination.
It is very difficult to rationalize the underlying factors that led to a procession of the “elite” and students behind a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary ideology. In his recent article entitled “The Ethnicization of Ethiopian Politics: Origins and Significance” Dr Messay Kebede explained “The venture into revolutionary path is the direct product of the infatuation of Ethiopian students and intellectuals with Marxism-Leninism”. There is no doubt that the obsession with Marxism-Leninism played a significant role in the down ward spiral of our country. The role played by the Diaspora, in bringing this political scourge to our country, couldn’t be emphasized enough. Messer’s Senai Like, Tesfaye Debesay, Negede Gobeze, Shimelis Mazengia, etc. have instilled in the minds of many young Ethiopians the lust for radicalism and secessionism. Most of the liberation fronts that are working hard to dismantle our country are the products of this generation.
The adoption of Marxism-Leninism as the main political philosophy has brought with it major problems from which our country still suffers. The ethnicization of politics, creation of multiple secessionist forces and emergence of ethnic political organizations can be traced back to the ideology adopted and vigorously followed by the then Diaspora Ethiopians and the student movement. Even today, the “infatuation” of political parties and remnants of the student movement generation with Stalinist version of Marxism-Leninism continues to be the main political obstacle in finding a coherent and united democratic path within our country.
In a nut shell, the contribution of the Ethiopian Diaspora to our country was the creation of radicalised and ethnicized political ideologues, whose main objective was to dismantle the Ethiopian state and unity. Although, Marxism-Leninism was followed and advocated by many countries around the world, we didn’t see in those countries the desire to dismantle and destroy their own country, history and heritage. Here, it is worth mentioning the “infamous” article written by Walleligne Mekonnen in which he attests that, there is no such thing called Ethiopia but a mixture of different nationalities. According to Dr Messay, Walleligne by denying the existence of his country of birth led to the creation and promotion of “tribalism into national liberation movements”. With the introduction to power of the EPRDF regime, led by the disciples of the student movement – Meles Zenawi, we now find ourselves in the midst of ethnicized politics and all kinds of liberation movements that vie to dismantle our country into ethnic enclaves.
Therefore, the contribution of the Ethiopian Diaspora in nurturing a united Ethiopia on which all people have equal rights and privileges are Z, Zero and Zilch!. Instead, their contribution was to create a generation of radical Stalinist revolutionaries and a chorus of secessionist movements who are bent on dismantling our nation along ethnic lines, to achieve power and influence at any cost. I share the description given by Hagos Gebre Yesus, quoted in the article of Dr Messay, which states that the people who were at the forefront of the political struggle (including Diaspora Ethiopians) have nothing but “national self-hatred and nihilism and … attachment to ethnicity and separatist politics based on ethnic, religious exclusiveness.” It is my contention thus, the contribution of the Ethiopian Diaspora and the student movement, during the Haile Selassie and Dergue regime, was nothing but the destruction of our national heritage, common history, culture and the creation of ideological zealots who are very happy to experiment with the lives of millions to prove that Joseph Stalin is right. In the end what we produced from the factories of Marxism-Leninism, the student movement and Ethiopians in the Diaspora was leaders and self styled “elite groups” who propagate national self-hatred, chronically attached to tribal affiliations, ethnic favoritism, secessionism and exclusiveness. The Diaspora has played a crucial role by promoting and supporting this crime against our country.
Shortcomings of Diaspora Politicians
Prior to and during the Dergue regime a number of political parties and liberation fronts mushroomed both inside and outside the country. Political parties who were unable to operate within Ethiopia were forced into exile and started their struggle on foreign soils. Most of the organizations’ at that time, save a few, used armed struggle as the main weapon of attaining political empowerment. The common thread between the various political forces operating outside and inside the country, at the time, was their zealous belief in the Stalinist version of Marxism-Leninism and the right of nations to self determination. In order to promote their struggle, the political parties established support groups and branch offices at various countries including Western Europe and America. However, apart from those who were engaged in armed struggle within the country, the role of these organizations in influencing the political dynamics of the country remained very marginal. As a result the change of the Dergue regime could only be effected through the armed struggle of TPLF in cahoots with EPLF.
With the coming to power of TPLF in 1991, Ethiopians in the Diaspora started to reshape their political thinking and strategy. The fall of communism and realization of the strength of liberal democracy also led to a realignment of their political outlook with liberal democracy. Furthermore, the introduction of the infamous Walleligne’s political bible into practice via EPRDF and the secession of Eritrea, led to a resurgence of nationalism among many Ethiopians. New parties emerged with an explicit political objective of preserving the national unity of our country.
Over the last 16 years, the roles assumed by Diaspora Ethiopians in the political struggle of our country have a mixed baggage. Leaving aside the liberation fronts and some nationalist armed struggle groups that emerged recently, two main groups can be identified. These are;
1 – Remote Control Leadership
There are a number of political parties that are established and operated from foreign countries. EPRP, Medhin, Meison, etc., are good examples within this category. Essentially, these parties have been denied legal entrance to Ethiopia and are forced to operate from outside. As a result, this group believes that political change and removal of the cursed EPRDF regime can be achieved through their struggle outside the country.
The leadership of the party’s, members and supporters within these group reside and operate outside Ethiopia. This is mainly due to EPRDF’s prohibition of these parties from operating inside the country. As a result, there is no tangible way of evaluating the support they have garnered on home ground. However, having all their resources outside the country, they believe political change can be brought about within the country by using remote control politics
A good example of this was Medhin. When Medhin was established in 1992, there was a tremendous amount of support and enthusiasm among Ethiopians in the Diaspora. It was considered, at the time, as one of the strongest political party with a lot of educated people in the leadership who were presumed capable of putting forward a vibrant political struggle to challenge the monopoly of power by EPRDF.
Soon after, it emerged that the leadership was muddled with political infighting. The reason for this was the inability of the leader, Colonel Goshu Wolde, to take the struggle from K Street in Washington DC to Ethiopia. In the absence of a real engagement with the enemy and its constituent, they chose the alternative, fight each other. As the saying goes “an idle mind is the devils workshop”, they came up with creative strategy of destroying each other. The result of the infighting was the resignation of a large number of the leadership and lack of faith in the party thereby marginalizing the potential role the party could have played to affect the politics of our country. It is worth mentioning here that a large number of other political parties were created during this period in the Diaspora. However, they didn’t last long to accomplish their objectives, mainly due to the inherent nature of Diaspora politics and lack of real engagement with the people or the enemy. Suffice to say that the role played by parties established and operated from abroad was and still is inconsequential. The main shortcomings of this group is their failure to understand the imperative of working at the heart of the battle ground, i.e., Ethiopia and lack of understanding the reality on the ground. As a result they failed to make a measurable difference on the political landscape of our country.
2 – Support Committees/Branch Offices who believe that they are the main leaders of the struggle
Under this category fall the myriad number of Support Committee’s, branch offices and pressure groups operating in various countries, but most of them are based in North America and Western Europe.
The main objective of this group is essentially to mobilize Ethiopians in order to provide support for the political parties operating in Ethiopia. Their task is to promote the goal of the parties among Ethiopians in the Diaspora, recruit supporters, raise funds and contact government agencies to lobby for their support. However, as we have seen many times, these groups get confused about their role and start to believe that they are the main actors of the struggle at home. They also believe that they are the power house of the party and take actions and decisions which will be detrimental to the party they represent.
On a number of occasions, funds raised for supporting the political parties ends up being used in exile without having any impact on the life of the people or the struggle at home. Even worse, some of the funds raised end up in the pockets of those individuals who were meant to lead the political struggle. Such transgressions have resulted in disconnecting the majority of Ethiopians, from engaging in the political affairs of their country. Furthermore, such incompetent and self centered actions created disillusionment and lack of faith on political parties. In the end, what we have is, empty support committees or branch offices working on few individuals and alienated from Diaspora Ethiopians. This, in turn, disengages their party from the potential support they could garner from Diaspora Ethiopians.
A very good example of this is the huge resource mobilized to help the struggle and families of CUD, who are literally starving in Ethiopia, had become a bone of contention between the CUD support committee leaders. The lion share of the fund raised was used on self promotion, conferences and radio interviews, rather than reaching out to the victims. A huge amount of time was spent in trying to justify it.
The recent debacle within the support groups of CUD in North America and Western Europe is also another example of the shortcomings of Diaspora politics. It is to be remembered that the leader of the CUD Support Committee in North America, without any consultation and authorization from the support committee, decided to sack two members of the unelected Kinijit International Leadership (KIL) and suspend KIL’s operation. In response the two people who were sacked wrote back a letter stating that they have sacked the chairman. Since none of them have been elected or accountable to any constituency there was no democratic mechanism to stop them from declaring war on each other. What followed is a melee of accusation and counter accusation that paralyzed the entire operation of CUD support groups. One important point that needs to be looked at in this regard is the creation of KIL has been the subject of many controversies among the Diaspora. A number of questions have risen about the legality of KIL and its strategy. The creation of KIL by some individuals has effectively changed the political dynamics of the country by shifting the struggle from Ethiopia into the Diaspora. Similar confusions and unaccountable working mechanisms have also surfaced within EPPF.
In general, the examples cited above are not exceptions; rather it is the Modus Operandi of Diaspora politics. What it shows is that, there is lack of a clearly defined role of Diaspora Ethiopians. If there is an opportunity to be in the limelight, we have witnessed many leaders of Support Committees or Branch Offices scrambling to stand on the podium without assessing its implication on the party at home. Furthermore, they don’t shy away from exerting their mini dictatorial and undemocratic behavior on members and supporters. Given this kind of environment we can even conclude that, if these people get the opportunity to hold real power in our country, they will not be any different from the current dictators of our country.
To summarize, the role played by Support Committees and Branch Offices in the Diaspora have a number of defects which made their impact ineffective. These is due to the inherent lack of real engagement or struggle on the issues that matter, the leaders lust for power, inability to unite Diaspora Ethiopians, confusion about their precise role in the struggle and their undemocratic and unaccountable methods of operation. This has resulted in pushing away the majority of Ethiopians from the struggle. This is not to deny the steadfast support many Diaspora Ethiopians have given towards their country. But its impact has been blighted by leaders who are incapable of leading, organizing and exercising the tasks assigned to them by the parties at home.
What should be the future role of the Diaspora?
In short, the Diaspora must humble itself to know its limitations. The number of Ethiopians who immigrated, to the outside world have grown astronomically over the last two decades. Although it is hard to get accurate figures, it is assumed that millions of Ethiopians now live outside their country. As a result there is a huge number of well-educated and financially strong Ethiopian Community residing in various countries. The transfer of income from the Diaspora has now become one of the main sources of foreign exchange to the National Bank of Ethiopia. This enormous professional manpower and financially independent community could play a huge role if it is used properly.
On the political front, Diaspora Ethiopians can contribute significantly to the building of a democratic system of government. They have lived in countries with longstanding history of democratic system of government. They benefited from education, knowledge and wider experience within the countries they lived in. But the application of these experiences and knowledge in the context of developing a coherent political strategy to our country is very limited. What happens more often is that, there is an ill-defined role to be played and as a result aspirations don’t match tangible results. Instead of making things happen, Diaspora politicians tend to engage themselves in bickering and backbiting. These problems are prevalent in every facet of the Diaspora life – from local communities to church associations, pressure groups to political parties, etc. As a result many Ethiopians have lost faith in our organizational as well as managerial capacity. Disillusionment and disenchantment has become the order of the day.
Some years ago, a group of disillusioned and disenfranchised friends sat down together to discuss and define the role we can play to enhance the domestic political struggle. We sifted through the various problems created by various organization leaders in the Diaspora and the reasons behind them. After a prolonged discussion, we concluded that, the role of the Diaspora is very limited. Since the Diaspora is located thousands of miles away from the day-to-day happenings, it can’t play a leading role in the politics of our country. Therefore, it was agreed that the only role of the Diaspora is to support the parties operating at home through various means. In this regard there are three basic roles that can be played.
- To work as a support group.
- To raise funds for the domestic struggle.
- To lobby the relevant government body to support their organization policies and strategies.
Since then a large number of political groupings in the Diaspora have grudgingly accepted these roles. We have also seen some results from this. The various fund raising efforts before, the May 2005 election and lobbying carried out was admirable. Furthermore, the current lobbying work being carried out at the US Congress to pass H.R. 5680 into the statues is also a very good example of what Ethiopians in the Diaspora can accomplish effectively
At the same time, since the incarceration of the leaders of CUD we have also seen some regressions back to the old methods. The illegal detentions of CUD leaders, journalists and human right defenders have sent the wrong message to Diaspora politicians. That is, if the political leaders can’t work freely at home then the political struggle needs to move from the home ground to a foreign land. The establishment of KIL is a very good example of the changing role assumed by Diaspora politicians. This was the first time that, a democratically elected body has allegedly transferred its authority to unelected representatives to lead the struggle outside the country. Therefore, Diaspora politicians started to believe again that, the struggle waged thousands of miles away will bring the change that we cherish. This is the Remote Control Leadership born again. How wrong they are! This shift in strategy has also emboldened the EPRDF regime to continue their oppressive measures in the hope that they could push away the opposition outside the country and to die its eventual death. Therefore, the end result is there is no strong political opposition within the country that can provide the necessary leadership. The creation of KIL has also created a division that is paralyzing the limited role that Ethiopians in the Diaspora can play.
It is, therefore, essential to humble our selves and understand the limited role that we can play to support and help the domestic political struggle. The illusion of providing leadership via remote control shouldn’t be considered as an option. Focusing on what we can do more effectively should be discussed very seriously. Our role essentially can’t go further than playing a supporting role for those who pursue the struggle from the home ground. It is worth to note that, the total failure (two weeks ago) of KIL’s call for a sit in, boycott of classrooms and work in Ethiopia should be a lesson for all of us who delude ourselves into leading the struggle from London and Washington DC.