Ethiopia’s US diaspora: saviour or agitators?
African Business | James Jeffrey
The largest part of this group have settled in the US, where they number upwards of 250,000, making them the second-largest African immigrant group after Nigerians. As well as running popular Ethiopian TV news satellite channels that broadcast from the US into homes in Ethiopia and being heavily active on social media, the US diaspora is estimated to remit home about $4bn annually.
Many within the diaspora argue all this activity helps give voice to the voiceless in Ethiopia. But the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) doesn’t see it that way.
It has singled out the diaspora’s use of TV satellite channels and social media as exacerbating the unrest which began in November 2015. Starting in Oromia, home of the country’s largest ethnic group, last summer it spread to the second largest group, the Amhara, as well.
In the first week of October 2016, millions of dollars’ worth of damage was done to infrastructure across Oromia. When this was followed by foreign embassies issuing advice against travel to Ethiopia and increasing international media coverage, the government declared a six-month state of emergency.
“Most activists in the diaspora are people pushed out of the political process and into exile by the regime in Ethiopia,” says Mohammed Ademo, a journalist in Washington, DC. “So they see themselves as stakeholders in the efforts to shape the country’s future.”
Nowadays they are also joined by an increasing number of writers, bloggers and journalists who, in tandem with the satellite television channels, and alongside users of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, offer in-depth coverage to pummel the government.
But diaspora influence goes well beyond media coverage. “With the intensification of protests for the last 12 months, the level [of money sent back] has probably increased considerably,” says Éloi Ficquet, former director of the French Centre for Ethiopian studies in Addis Ababa.
Some of these finances fund political groups in Ethiopia, which, according to some, hamstrings constructive political dialogue between the different factions.
“Nearly all of political party funds come from the diaspora and the diaspora is not going to pay for an opposition that cosies up to the EPRDF,” said a foreign member of a large international organisation in Addis Ababa, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It is not what they are funding politics for; they are not paying to have the EPRDF congratulated.”
But those in the diaspora have little time for such an argument. “Opposition groups come to the diaspora for money because they could not ask their constituents and supporters for money lest they will endanger their safety,” says Hassan.
“If there was a level playing field for them and the political space was opened up, these groups could raise lots of money [locally],” he argues. As such, the opposition in Ethiopia remains in disarray and unable to coalesce into an effective body to represent and lead protests toward meaningful goals.
“The government suppresses the peaceful political parties in this country and people became very hopeless about peaceful political struggle,” says Lidetu Ayele, founder of the local opposition Ethiopia Democratic Party. “So they start listening to political parties across the Atlantic.”
Ethiopia doesn’t just lack effective local opposition. Local independent media does exist but remains severely hampered compared with state media.
“Considering the complete absence of freedom to criticise the government or report opposition stories from within the country, people around the world reading about it can help greatly by doing everything possible to amplify this story,” says Endalk Chala, an Ethiopian blogger in the US who can’t return to Ethiopia following the arrest there of his fellow Zone 9 bloggers.
However, many in Ethiopia do feel that the diaspora media are a problem due to the volume of inaccurate or bogus information channelled by social media and overseas activists, often with combustible effects. The violence precipitating the state of emergency was preceded by overseas activists calling for “five days of rage” in response to a deadly stampede at an Oromo religious festival after police and protestors clashed.
Hence the government’s instigation of internet blackouts following the declaration of the state of emergency. These primarily targeted mobile data – most Ethiopians go online via their phones – with numerous applications such as Twitter and Facebook blocked.
Despite widespread criticism of these actions the government is far from alone in arguing that elements of the diaspora play a dangerous role, stoking trouble while safely cocooned far away and not taking any of the risks of those they encourage. “The media will kill this country, they really will destroy it,” was the assessment of an Addis Ababa resident, who is half Oromo and half Amhara, on diaspora influences.
Others, however, counter that protests do not need any urging from the diaspora. And they criticise the Western media for not doing a better job of effectively and accurately reporting the protests.
“They feel left out of the so-called Ethiopian economic miracle that the Western press touts ad nauseam despite the poverty all around the country, especially the Amhara region,” says Alemante Gebre-Selassie, emeritus professor at the William and Mary Law School in the US.
“Foreign correspondents mostly cover only protests in Addis Ababa,” says Ademo, stressing the crucial role of the diaspora media.
For now, the state of emergency appears to be having the desired effect of restoring order. At the start of December the government lifted the blackout on mobile data. This was followed by some relaxing of advice against travel to Ethiopia by foreign governments, although the US continues to warn citizens of the risks of travelling there.
At the same time, the EPRDF conducted a significant cabinet reshuffle, changing 21 of 30 ministerial posts, including 15 new appointees. The selection of technocrats without party affiliation is a positive signal that the party is serious about delivering changes, say some.
The government has also pledged to tackle internal governmental corruption, change electoral law to introduce an element of proportional representation and create a large fund to tackle youth unemployment.
Others, however, aren’t convinced, arguing the cabinet reshuffle changes merely perpetuate the monopoly rule of a select elite over the masses, while the other promises remain vague in terms of implementation. Above all else, after a generation of EPRDF rule, many, particularly in the diaspora, remain sceptical about the ruling party’s willingness to embrace meaningful change – hence the need for continued action.