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.
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.