Ethiopian Diaspora Frustrated by U.S. Policy – By: Kira Zalan ( The Root)

May 12th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

Activists say the Obama administration has placed the war on terror above democracy in the Horn of Africa. (more…)

Activists say the Obama administration has placed the war on terror above democracy in the Horn of Africa.

Chris Flaherty, an American documentary film producer who’s married to a woman from Ethiopia, started a hunger strike early last week in front of the White House to convince President Obama to push for democracy in Ethiopia. Occasionally, someone would wander over to Flaherty to look at his homemade poster boards with photos of Birtukan Mideksa, a young woman judge and Ethiopian dissident arrested shortly after announcing her candidacy, challenging the current prime minister, Meles Zenawi.

Literally wed to Ethiopia’s Washington-area Diaspora, Flaherty is part of a wider campaign that has emerged in recent years to urge the United States to promote democracy in Ethiopia. The next Ethiopian election is scheduled for May 23. Many Ethiopians in the D.C. area are concerned that the Obama administration overlooks democratization of Ethiopia in favor of strategic security interests; some actively lobby the U.S. government.

”There is considerable pressure from the Ethiopian Diaspora, which is almost completely anti-the current Ethiopian government,” said the State Department’s Ethiopia desk officer, who agreed to speak to The Root anonymously.

Last month, an estimated 500 Diaspora activists attended a pro-democracy conference at the Doubletree Hotel in Arlington, Va. At the podium, Flaherty announced his hunger-strike plans. The day before starting the strike, Flaherty issued an open letter to Obama, urging him to make a statement calling for Mideksa’s release. Flaherty recently released a film on Ethiopia’s political struggles, which includes an interview with Mideksa while she was on a visit to Washington. The documentary aired last Friday on the Africa Channel, an English-language cable network focused on Africa.

A group called Ethiopian American Civic Advocacy published a statement last year addressed to the U.S. Congress and the administration, ”to convey to you our growing concerns over ongoing human rights violations, war crimes, government-sponsored brutality, ethnic cleansing, suppression of independent media, torture and illegitimate detentions of those who criticize the government.”

Some in Congress have been responsive to the lobbying. In March, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) issued a statement on the ”Fragile State of Democracy in Africa.” Regarding Ethiopia he noted, ”Several key opposition leaders remain imprisoned, most notably Mideksa, the head of the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party. There is no way that elections can be fair, let alone credible, with opposition leaders in jail or unable to campaign freely.”

But the Obama administration has resisted openly criticizing America’s most valued partner in the Horn of Africa. The relatively stable Ethiopian government is America’s trusted ally in the war on terrorism, and receives half a billion dollars annually in aid and millions more in military assistance.

Pro-democracy activism has been on the rise since 2005, since Ethiopia’s last general election. The ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, did the unprecedented by providing access to state-owned media for opposition candidates. Most believe there was pressure to appear democratic to Western donors, which provide substantial financial aid to Ethiopia. The opposition took advantage of the opportunity and debated the state of the country, criticizing the ruling party. The government didn’t anticipate the momentum that the opposition would gain among the people, explains Abebe Belew, host of a political weekly radio show on Washington-based Addis Dimts Radio.

”The government was being openly criticized on television, radio and newspapers. People really believed that there would be a democratic change, that their votes would count,” said Belew. ”I reported on the radio, ‘The sun is coming.”’

In 2005, millions took to the streets in support of opposition parties, and the government began to jail opposition leaders and political organizers. The election, with a reported 80-90 percent turnout, was considered flawed by almost all international observer delegations. Zenawi, the prime minister, declared victory in the election, which most Washington-area Ethiopians label as ”stolen.” Protests erupted on the streets of Addis Ababa, sparking a violent military crackdown.

Realizing that his hopeful reports had been premature, Belew had to retract his optimism. ”I was tricked,” Belew said. ”I thought history was being made. Independent-minded media has been eliminated, journalists arrested, and the opposition jailed in advance.” This time, with an upcoming election, the government has learned its lesson, he said.

Several new laws make the clampdown appear legitimate. A law on Ethiopian charities and societies prevents non-governmental organizations, which often deal with issues of democracy, accountability and human rights, from operating if more than 10 percent of their funds come from foreign donors. Another law bears down on the press. Last summer, the parliament passed new anti-terrorism legislation, which the Human Rights Watch warns ”could provide the Ethiopian government with a potent instrument to crack down on political dissent.” The possible penalties include death.

The ruling party recently accused dozens of political activists of plotting a coup against the government and jailed popular political leaders, including Mideksa, the dissident for whom Flaherty is protesting.

Still, the war on terrorism trumps concerns about the state of Ethiopia’s democracy, and new intelligence about terrorist activity in Africa is making Ethiopia more important to the United States than ever before. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew announced last summer that the United States plans to expand financial assistance to Ethiopia.

Last year’s congressional budget allocated almost half a billion dollars of annual aid to Ethiopia, which doesn’t include military and weapons assistance. The budget stated that a major objective of U.S. assistance in Ethiopia, is to ”help the government of Ethiopia to proceed with the difficult transition from a de facto one-party state to a representative multi-party democracy.”

After meeting with Ethiopia’s prime minister last year, Lew said he touched upon points of concern, including the controversial laws. Regarding the issue of Mideksa, he was quoted in media reports, saying, ”I reinforced our concern that the matter be resolved quickly and finally.”

Activists don’t think the expression of concern goes far enough. ”The U.S. government can withhold aid and give funding to opposition groups,” Belew said, suggesting how the United States can affect Ethiopia’s actions. In 2007, Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) introduced H.R. 2003, the Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act, which would directly tie aid money to democratization activities. But the bill never became law.

”I think it is fair to say that we have become more vocal in our criticism of the Ethiopian government’s shortcomings in terms of human rights and good governance,” said the Ethiopia desk officer. ”This administration’s emphasis on democratic reforms means that the relationship between our two countries now has more tension that in the previous administration. I think this is a better way to characterize the changed relationship, rather than to say that the alliance is weakening.”

The upcoming election and the political crackdown is a growing concern within the Ethiopian Diaspora. The Ethiopian Women for Peace and Development was created in 1991 to focus on humanitarian efforts, like fighting famine and poverty. Recently, the group has become more political. Last week, dozens of women marched from the State Department building in Washington, D.C. to the U.S. Capitol. They stopped by the White House where Flaherty was stationed on the fifth day of his hunger strike. They, too, were demanding that the U.S. government call for Mideksa’s release.

Flaherty is realistic about his expectations. ”I am not asking you to move mountains,” he wrote in the letter to Obama. ”I have studied the issue extensively, and I conclude that such an effort on your part will not dilute anything from U.S. foreign policy. It will simply send a powerful message to the world that the U.S. still believes and supports the idea of democracy and freedom everywhere.”

Kira Zalan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

  1. Gyrofrog
    | #1

    Is part of the article missing? It never explains who “Flaherty” is. I can only assume the writer is referring to filmmaker Chris Flaherty.

  2. Tazabi
    | #2

    ……”There is considerable pressure from the Ethiopian Diaspora, which is almost completely anti-the current Ethiopian government,” said the State Department’s Ethiopia desk officer, who agreed to speak to The Root anonymously…..

    Please Please…Why twist facts??? There is no such thing as State department’s Ethiopian desk….

  3. Michael
    | #3

    The fact that the Ethios in USA are here looking for help and nobody is really willing to stick their neck out and help them.

    The false Islamic phobia or Terrorism in the Horn of Africa — have dominated the agenda at the U.S. Government and other EU summits for years now. But there should be more support for the Ethiopian Diaspora for crying true democracy in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian diaspora seem confused – really genuinely confused – about why the international community is dragging its heels on supporting really democracy in Ethiopia.

    The US diplomats are aware of the brutality of the EPRDF, but are painting rosy pictures; the fact that is, Ethiopians are been executed daily by the Meles regime. The US Diplomats and the Defense attaché in Ethiopia are a puppets of the EPRDF.

    Ethios need to go home and remove the EPRDF by force. I know Meles will call you all terrorists; but you don’t have other alternative.

    Good luck with your struggle.

  4. Zenabu wakgera
    | #4


  5. mateos
    | #5

    The US tax payers might have been misled by Abebe/Mathza/Legese/Meles and his boss Mebrahtu Gebrihiwot (aka Bereket Simon) BUT make no mistake the gumbling with the life of Ethiopians, Somalians, and Eritrean people will be over soon. The truth is around the corner despite the pampering of the little dog in Addis. Ethiopians will reclaim their country, heritage, respect, and there will be peace in the horn of Africa ones the cancerouse disease of Ethiopia are erradicated from the face of the planet!!!!

  6. Anonymous
    | #6

    I gave $100 to the Obama campaign and convinced some of my Ethiopian friends and some people I met at Starbucks to donate to his campaign because I was hoping Obama will have a different policy than Bush toward Ethiopia, now I really feel stupid. Well all I can do is wait for 2012. Hope he will leave office and I wouldn’t be deceived by a moving speech again.

  7. Alazar
    | #7

    I gave $100 to the Obama campaign and convinced some of my Ethiopian friends and some people I met at Starbucks to donate to his campaign because I was hoping Obama will have a different policy than Bush toward Ethiopia, now I really feel stupid. Well all I can do is wait for 2012. Hope he will leave office and I wouldn’t be deceived by a moving speech again.

  8. Anonymous
    | #8

    I am also very disappointed with President Obama and Secretary Hilary Clinton when it comes to about Meles. I think President Obama lives in the bubble; may be certain people who work close to President Obama are working hard to block all the information about Meles not to get to President Obama. Meles has people in the higher places through the Law Firm DLA Piper. A few years ago it was reported that Meles was paying over $600.000.00 US Dollar a year to DLA Piper; who knows maybe Meles is paying DLA Piper over a million dollar these days. The DLA Piper knowingly represents a Dictator that has given orders innocent Ethiopians to be tortured and murdered–are doing everything in their power so the flow of blood-money never stops going in their dirty pockets.

  9. atuba dolla
    | #9

    The current US admintration is clearly failed to practice what it preaches.Dictators don’t and can’t tolerate democracy and freedom;this,had been fully backed by the current US adminstration either covertly or indirectly.when domcracy wins,Ethiopia will estblish a new way of relationship wiht US solely depends on common values.

    It is true and a fact that dictators can not value democracy and freedom because of a misguded and fabricted ideology that takes care the system they build to suppress and oppress citizens.Zinawi and its obselete and rotten,revolutionary democracy hurts citizens and Ethiopia.It is sad and unair for US taxpayers;even,in this economic hardship,the us adminstration collects American taxpayers money and delivers it to Zinawi and the system system he builds as a tool of supprssion that hugely harms Ethiopians.Is it fair?

    Ethiopian diasporas must redouble their efforts to convince the US adminstration to do the right thing when it comes to Ethiopia and Ethiopians.Ethiopia needs responsible and accountable individuals to carry out their duty of adminstration and leadership.Of course,voters will win the coming 2010 election and the new adminstration that assumes people’s power will definitely challange the US amdinstration on the past relationship it has with dictator Zinawi and with the future bilateral relationship it will have with the democratic republic of Ethiopia.

  10. Drama
    | #10

    This is not a true report, whoever you are, you indian sounding Fahrt.

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