Ethiopian Diaspora Frustrated by U.S. Policy

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 on background.

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.