Letter from Ethiopia: election overview: What the Diaspora could do in election 2010 Eskinder Nega (Addis Ababa)

March 26th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

Even I sense it from the great distance I am at from America; home to the largest, richest and most vocal Ethiopian Diaspora in the world. (more…)

Even I sense it from the great distance I am at from America; home to the largest, richest and most vocal Ethiopian Diaspora in the world. Call it what you think is best: disillusionment; disappointment; withdrawal; anger; or even, on an optimistic note, the calm before the storm. But there is no dispute that a considerable element of the Diaspora, many of the very people who came out screaming enthusiastically to welcome CUD’s leaders at Reagan National irport in 2007, are now visibly smaller at political gatherings, less generous in their contribution, are harder to mobilize, and generally exhibit all the signs of atigue.

Regardless of the diversity of opinion in the Diaspora, a consensus of unambiguous support for the democratization of Ethiopia as it is understood in the West has been a superseding facet for the past two decades. And that is no small feat. Between the mid 60s and the fall of the Derg at the beginning of the 90s, what was then a small Diaspora, but with a disproportionately powerful voice in politics, had mitigated the rhetoric of public discourse to the far left of Marxist thought. I still remember reading, in total amazement, old Ethiopian publications from the 60s and 70s, pioneered by intelligent young people like Hagos GebreYesus, Desalegn Rahemato and Endrias Eshete , as they ranted against perceived exploitation of innocent Ethiopians by Western capitalists; how vital Ethiopia was as a dumping ground for the excess goods produced by imperialists; and how great dictatorship of the proletariat really is. (Endrias Eshete’s passion for dictatorship—though not that of the working class anymore—still endures, by the way.) It took about two decades before the Diaspora was able to move beyond this false start; and it took the infusion of a new generation in the 80s, more decisively in the 90s, for the long delayed overhaul in both methodology and substance to take hold. The intellectual rebirth is now best embodied by the weekly articles of the brilliant Professor from LA, Almeayehu GebreMariam. In short, the Diaspora is now positively ingrained in mainstream political thought; far away from—to borrow a phrase from Lenin—infantile extremism.

The 2005 elections was the culmination of the Diaspora’s renaissance in the 90’s and 2000’s, when it was able to entrench itself as a strong and united voice in the CUD; both before and after the elections. It is implausible to envisage the success of the CUD’s last minute offensive in the countryside without the financial backing of the Diaspora; which impacted heavily on the outcome of the election.

Ethiopian political dynamics is now very different than it was in 2005 of course, but there is an important last minute role for the Diaspora to play; yes, even at this late stage of the elections.

Here are some possibilities:

1: ENDORSEMENTS:

Endorsements are an integral part of modern elections throughout the world. Whatever pundits may say about their power to sway votes, they are passionately sought by politicians; which is a mark of their symbolic power. And in politics image is half the bankable asset.

Swaying votes by mere endorsement is too ambitious an undertaking, but doubt not that endorsements will not only help to strengthen the beleaguered opposition in this difficult election year(just how difficult is amply shown by the new HRW report) but will also help to single out the viable ones( or the viable one) in a crowded field where up to twelve candidates are competing for a single seat in Addis.

Not too many people may have been swayed by Oprah’s endorsement of Obama, but the amount of news and excitement it generated was a huge boost for his campaign. And the pundits who seriously wonder if his presidency would at all have been possible without the stirring effect of her endorsement are not few in numbers. But celebrity endorsements are not possible for those who live in Ethiopia for obvious reasons, yet is something that should be considered seriously by those who have opted for exile. Exiled artists have a large following in Ethiopia, and their predominantly young followers—who constitute the majority in Ethiopia—are predisposed to at least listen to their views. This is power that must not be abused, taken for granted; nor, at a time when the national issue is as important as it is now, must it be wasted.

The kind of endorsement common to Iranian politics, in which exiled groups of academics, scientists and public figures publicly endorse the party or candidate of their choice, could potentially be important in the Ethiopian context, too. The Diaspora has an ample reservoir from Ethiopia’s Who’s Who in every conceivable field, and many voters in Ethiopia—including the undecided ones—would be fascinated to learn of their endorsements.

The idea of civic responsibility will hardly be new to this group, nor the fact that in this wired world their access to voters in Ethiopia seriously curtailed by place of residence. What is probably lacking so far is someone who will take the initiative.

2: CYBER ACTIVISM— The court of world opinion.

Few people know what Twitter is in Ethiopia .But those tasked by the government to make sure that what information goes out to the world is highly regulated, particularly in the event of street protests (which are unlikely and not desirable), have nightmares about the possibilities of Twitter. What was casually launched as one more addition to social media by three innovative Americans in 2006, less than a year after the 2005 elections in Ethiopia, has been inadvertently catapulted by the last Iranian election in to a powerful weapon of peaceful political activism.

Tweets go over two networks, the cyber world and text messages of mobiles (cell phones). They are charmingly easy to use, are specifically designed to to spread fast because they are apt to be picked and retransmitted by other Twitters; unlike other social medias, like email, which are neither public nor broadcast like Twitter does. In other words, Twitter is within reach of the vast majority of the Diaspora, and for the first time ever will directly link it with tens of millions of people throughout the world—the court of world opinion. The monopoly of media organizations, who habitually ignore most stories about Ethiopia, could now be overturned for the first time.

Potential Twitters from Ethiopia during the elections, who will be few in numbers but could easily overcome their disadvantage in numbers by sheer force of will, face an overpowering predicament. The government will most probably tamper with the internet and SMS during the elections, as did the Iranian government, which will severely limit their ability to transmit. But the evidence is that the mass of Tweets came from Diaspora Iranians who relayed information they collected from family, friends, embassies, NGOs and political organizations. A similar mass of information, in case the need arises, by the Ethiopian Diaspora that overwhelms the cyber world will reinforce the confidence of Ethiopians that they are not alone and involve tens of millions around the world in an intimate, urgent way with events in Ethiopia. A sufficiently outraged Westerners—if there is due cause—wiil instinctively reach out to their elcected representatives in large numbers; which could change—at long last—Western policy towards Ethiopia by bringing forth the issue of human rights; something the Diaspora had fought for almost two decades now.

But none of these will be possible without a determined minority taking the lead; some working in groups, others alone in the cyber world—the new weapon of the oppressed.

Tidbits:

BRIEF NEWS FROM ETHIOPIA

Azeb Mesfin to face Welay Aschalew.

PM Meles Zenawi’s wife will face an electoral opponent fielded by Mederek in this year’s elections. Medrek’s candidate is Welay Aschalew, who is broadly thought to be sufficiently credible to make this at least an interesting contest; assuming of course a level playing field. Azeb is running as an incumbent in her Welqaiyt constituency, where many residents are apprehensive of a settlement scheme by the regional government which they fear will eventually alter the demographics of the area. Azeb is chair of an important parliamentary committee, which was supposed to have pushed her out of her husband’s shadow; but which has not happened so far. Gebru Asrat is challenging Addisalem Balema(PhD), a long time Ethiopian Ambassador to China who returned from Beijing to Mekele to work in EFFORT, the mysterious business empire of the TPLF. Addisalem is not the grassroots campaigner type, and foreign observers are expected to be visibly present in Mekele, an opening that Gebru is apt to maximize.

Security cameras to be installed on main roads.

The installation of federal police commissioned security cameras in underway on Addis Ababa’s main thoroughfares. The cameras are being installed as part of the government’s extensive preparation against possible post election riots after the May elections.

An undisclosed amount of cameras have been imported from China; much to the irritant of some countries that had hoped(not for commercial reasons) to provide the hardware as well as the expertise to run and maintain them; according to sources.

The cameras have so far been installed on Bole road; but because they will be too provocative few expect them to be installed in Merkato, hub of post election protests in 2005.It will be interesting to see if the government thinks otherwise.

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