Resolving the ESFNA Impasse – By Fekade Shewakena
Almost every year there appears to be some ritual around ESFNA of creating a dust up, on issues big and small. I have always found myself on the side of the Federation and defended it to the best of my ability. I did so, like many others, largely because I respect ESFNA as one institution that has survived multiple intra-community rancors to become the only long standing good Ethiopian Diaspora institution we ever succeeded in creating. None of the controversies ESFNA faced so far however, rise to the magnitude I am observing now around the accusation that it reversed its own democratically made decision to invite Birtukan Mideksa as its official 2011 guest of honor. Unless we do a reasoned and civilized discussion and solve this impasse and if we keep digging our heels on all sides, I am afraid this one could end up being the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Already, I came across some Ethiopians who are planning on a huge cultural festival in Washington DC during the same week that ESFNA’s is to be held. We will be making a tragic mistake if we hurt this long standing organization by either diminishing its usefulness or break it up altogether. A good part of the responsibility sits on the Federation. The suggestion that the debate is driven by tabloids, as the recent statement from the Board states, underestimates the community’s knowledge and concerns. We all know a widespread wave is developing. Let’s reverse it.
I assigned myself the role of a shimagille and took some time to do some research to look at the facts before making any accusation or suggestion. Like a good shimagille (unlike the clowns who masquerade as Shimagille between Kaliti and Arat Kilo, and keep desecrating our age old wonderful cultural institution) I will put the facts as I see them, and in the best traditions of our Shimgillina, I will make my suggestions for a remedy in clear language. I will keep an open mind to be corrected and informed if I am mistaken. I want ESFNA to be stronger and live longer and I want to keep supporting my Maryland teams every year. Far more importantly, I also want the events ESFNA holds annually to be, enjoyable, lively and live up to its motto of “bringing Ethiopians together”. Holding the annual event is not an end in itself. Nothing may stop the Board from holding the Atlanta event in 2011, but it is possible that it can hold it without “bringing Ethiopians together”.
I have tried to straddle both sides of the argument without flunking the facts and the substance. I see a lot of over explaining of the problem from both sides of the argument. But more often than not, the explanations veer way out of the core issue of contention and confound the misunderstanding even more. ESFNA’s official press releases and statements were more of defensive and fail all tests of our past experiences with it. It is not helping us, its supporters, or itself. Some accusations against the Board and its members were in many cases over the top and, in my view, should be replaced with more reasoned debate.
One thing that I clearly came to understand as I tried to study the problem is that all the members of the Board are admirers of Birtukan Mideksa as a person, particularly as a young woman, who made sacrifice to fight for freedom and justice in our tormented country. I have found out that even some among those who are accused of being on the side of the decision to reverse her invitation are her admirers. A good number of the members of the board may not be politically minded but all of them are patriots who love Ethiopia and admire what Birtukan did and the inspiration she has become for a generation of Ethiopians, particularly the women of our country. In fact, all the members of the Board believe they are contributing their share to mitigating the divisive policies of the dictators who divide and rule our country and people. The reference by some individuals on the media to some board members as stooges of the ruling regime is off the mark and should stop. If anything, this kind of accusations pushes innocent Ethiopians away from the community mainstream. It is important that we stop trashing their names and services. We should not lose sight of their contribution even when we have to criticize them harshly as I do right here. ESFNA’s board members are like every one of us, members of our community, who love their country and the freedom of our people, and whatever problem that they have are problems that each of us have as members of the community. They make mistakes. End of story.
Clearly the board has mangled its decision making process big time. In fact, I was ashamed to find out that they didn’t even follow elementary procedures of parliamentary democracy when they decided this controversial case. This cannot happen even in private clubs let alone a public nonprofit organization. That this kind of careless disregard for basic procedure happens in America makes it even more damning. Many of the board members are intelligent people and should know better. There is a sound and legitimate procedure we follow everywhere for changing any decision involving collective responsibility. The board has simply stampeded all civilized discourse in this case. To its credit, the Board does not deny that this unspeakable thing happened. The problem it is in now is that it is trying to correct a mistake by another mistake.
In my view the problem is solvable without a lot of legalism and lawyering. The suggestion that the Federation will violate its 501(C3) status if it invites Birtukan is the lamest of all the excuses I heard and read about. I have been a director of a 501(C3) organization for over three years and know how it works. The only time you will violate your 501(C3) status is when you endorse the political view of a partisan political organization of the United States. I suggest that everybody drop this dishonest crap from the argument.
The only plausible argument to exclude a political partisan Ethiopian or a US politician, for that matter, could be only if the bylaws of the Federation clearly state that it will not make political personalities its official gusts. Only then would the argument not to invite Birtukan or reconsider the decision to reverse her invitation will have any merit for debate. But even then that would not prohibit inviting Birtukan as a former prisoner of conscience, that Amnesty International, other human rights groups, the UN and even the government of the United States so declared. Strangely, the bylaws of ESFNA are not on its website. I haven’t read it. But multiple members of the Board told me that that is not clearly stated in the bylaws either. By removing its bylaws from the website, the Board is looking like it has something to hide and should post it at its earliest convenience. Transparency disinfects many things. Moreover, that there were precedents of inviting partisan politicians to speak at ESFNA events, though, in my view, not substantively pertinent to this argument, kills the nonprofit status excuse. I have confirmed from some members of the board that the Board has changed its decision to invite Birtukan after some emotional confrontations took place right after the voting ended and Birtukan was elected and some Board members have already left the hall. It is one thing to reconsider a decision through a normal procedure of submitting petition and reconvening a meeting for reconsideration at a later date, it is another to reverse it simply because an impassioned quarrel occurred right after the decision and some board members have felt the need to quell it. I wouldn’t be surprised if such a decision is made in Ethiopia where it routinely happens, but in America? Com’on!
Another credible argument from the side of those who are for reversing the decision is that her invitation will open precedence for inviting politicians from every political side. One Board member rhetorically asked me what would stop the board if some day it decides to invite Abadula Gemeda or Bereket Simon to be gusts of honor by securing a majority vote. The most reasonable response one could give to this argument is that, yes, if Bereket or Abadula touched our hearts by doing some magnificent things for our people and merit our gratitude they can be invited. If, for example, Abadula stands up to Meles and demands that the thousands of Oromo political prisoners rotting in the jails be released and succeeds in bringing redress to the plight of these citizens, I will consider him a good humanitarian deserving being a guest of honor. If I am a board member I will vote for him. I mean this sincerely. As long as he or she shows a demonstrable achievement that can make us proud as Ethiopians and solves some problems, anybody can be invited in recognition of the specific contribution they made irrespective of what political position he or she holds.
Nobody is arguing that Birtukan be invited as a guest of honor simply because she is a favorite opposition leader or millions of Ethiopians love her for her globally admired sacrifice for our people. The center of the contention is that her invitation which was decided by a majority vote of the members of the Board is reversed unlawfully. We are given this amazing excuse that the people who nominated and seconded her nomination withdrew their nomination after the vote was counted and Birtukan’s election was announced and some board members have already left. I understand they did it to avoid a serious and impassioned conflict that erupted in the meeting hall. That is the truth. But we have to agree that this is a very primitive way of making a collective decision. It is shameful to say the least. We have enough of this kind of things in Ethiopia to be ashamed about: why add one here where we live in freedom? Do you remember when Kenyans were saying, “This is not Ethiopia!” when Mbeki stole their votes in 2006 and went out to fight back to reclaim their votes? We should understand that we have a country where people were massacred demanding that their stolen votes be appropriately accounted for. Wasn’t ESFNA’s condemnation of the 2005 massacre one of its shining moments?
Here is the problem. If the intention of the board was to avoid a political person from invitation, it erred when it let the nomination stand in the first place and we wouldn’t have been in this argument. The decision was legal and binding whether some liked it or not. What the Board does since then is trying to solve a mistake by another mistake. By so doing the members of the Board are disrespecting the community and themselves.
I have no problem with the Federation of accepting the controversial Sheik’s funding. God love the Sheik and add more money in his pocket for that. The only problem I will have is if he demands some sort of a quid pro quo and the federation decides to engage in that. He has every right to support or fund the federation and hold any political view he wishes. The quarrel over this rich man’s funding of ESFNA, we have had so far, is a useless argument as far as I am concerned. But the Board should be reminded of a big hole in its repeatedly stated position. The rich sheik, a self admitted activist and financier of the ruling party in Ethiopia, is sitting as a permanent honoree of ESFNA. This will be hard to stack up what the rationalization of some Board members to revoke Birtukan’s invitation. Are we watching a double standard?
Some Board members are telling me that “ESFNA survived many controversies before and will ride out this one too”. I see this one to be more difficult to ride out without fixing the impasse.
1. Reinstate the invitation of Birtukan and diffuse the widespread anger in the community and avert an impending danger to ESFNA’s survival as a respected organization. Acknowledgment and invitation of Birtukan can be made by referring to her as a former prisoner of conscience declared by International Human Rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, including the government of the United States. Her invitation should not state or relate to her being the leader of UDJ. If avoiding political personalities in the future is the issue, amend the bylaw carefully and apply it as of 2012 and make the decision on the same minutes Birtukans reinstatement is made.
2. ESFNA cannot live in a bubble, completely separated from the social, political and economic realities of our country. That was why it had to take the appropriate and honorable step of condemning the massacre five years ago. The public participating at ESFNA events does not participate because it is a soccer fan. The Board, I believe, understands there is more to ESFNA than pure soccer. I am not suggesting that it become a political activist organization. But nothing should stop it from expressing its position on violations of human rights in Ethiopia, war and peace, poverty, corruption and the like.
I trust that the members of the Board will do the right thing and continue to “Bringing Ethiopians Together” and more closer to one another with every passing year.