Why is the EPRDF reaching out to the Ethiopian diaspora?
By Nagessa Dube: Nagessa Dube is a human rights activist and Chairman at OFC-International Support Group. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of OiPlatform. He can be reached by his email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Ethiopian diaspora is huge, estimated at two million worldwide. As many as one million of them live in North America. From a political and business perspective, there are at least three clearly identifiable groups within the Ethiopian diaspora in the U.S:
- politically-active supporters of the current government
- politically-active opposition to the current government
- pro-business groups who are likely to return to and invest in Ethiopia.
The first two are mainly politically motivated and less business-oriented, whereas the last one displays little or no interest in politics.
Currently, the new EPRDF leadership is making a desperate effort to attract the diaspora. The alleged request by Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed to speak at this year’s annual event of Ethiopian Sports Federation in North America (ESFNA) in Texas, along with allowing an Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) delegation to come back home were among measures intended to appeal to the diaspora.
One may wonder: Why does the Ethiopian government care about the diaspora? Why does the government that brutally kills and tortures its people try to attract members of the diaspora? Does it love the diaspora? Does it want the skills, knowledge or capital they bring in? In my opinion, the answers to these questions are mostly NO. Here are my speculations behind the government’s motivations to attract and pacify the diaspora.
- Ethiopia is a closed-door country and the government is the sole provider of information. The diaspora plays a key role in breaking the government stranglehold on the flow of information and in exposing this government’s propaganda. The diaspora runs various newspapers, radio and television programs, and websites that target the Ethiopians inside and outside the country. These media outlets expose the human rights violations in the country to the outside world.
- Ethiopia is a police state that effectively silences any sort of meaningful opposition. The diaspora fills that vacuum and plays a key role in mobilizing and organizing the youth back home. In this case, members of the diaspora play a major role in awakening, advocating and articulating the struggle of the Ethiopian people. There has been a tendency of Ethiopians at home to listen to and accept the diaspora activists and their political organizations as liberators. This is due both to the difficulty opposition faces when trying to function inside the country and the fact that some of the diaspora figures were former politicians in Ethiopia.
- The diaspora is vocal in its criticism of Ethiopia and has been getting a lot of attention among the donor countries lately. The recent advocacy efforts such as the H.Res 128 and Res 168 show its tremendous influence and are a great challenge for a system that plans to continue in its authoritarian tendencies.
- Although loathed at home, the diaspora is a source of much wanted foreign currency. The National Bank of Ethiopia estimates private diaspora remittances for the 2017 fiscal year at USD 4 billion, representing an important source of desperately-needed foreign currency. In this respect, the Oromo protest across Oromia and the market boycotts produced an economic crisis. Now the Ethiopian government wants to normalize its relations with the diaspora community to guarantee the flow of hard currency.
- The diaspora is involved in advocating for political reform or regime change, but the government actively attempts to restrict their involvement in politics. Opposition parties and militant groups such as the Oromo Liberation Front and Ginbot 7 maintain offices abroad.
- The Ethiopian diaspora is the financial backbone of opposition parties. The government wants to strengthen its relationship with the diaspora to drain this money flow.
This attempt to attract the diaspora communities is not a first-time policy measure. Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs established a Directorate for Ethiopian Expatriate Affairs (EEA) in 2002. The EEA provides the following incentives for the diaspora to return to invest in Ethiopia:
- Tax and customs-free rights given for returnees.
- Issuance of urban land for the construction of residential buildings for those organized in housing cooperatives free of charge.
- Under proclamation 270/2002, foreign nationals of Ethiopian origin are treated as Ethiopian citizens in matters of investment.
To attract the diaspora community, the Ethiopian embassy in Washington, DC maintains an office solely dedicated to reaching out to the Ethiopian diaspora in the U.S. This office has particularly targeted groups identified as interested in returning and investing.
If the Ethiopian government carries out real democratic reforms and if it addresses the grievances of its people, it will have no fear of popular uprising. Then the diaspora community would respect and invite the government officials to visit them rather than the government initiating the request. But for that to happen the new administration should be ready to do what it takes to democratize the country. Every member of the diaspora wants to visit their loved ones and their home village or city. If the political barrier is lifted, and if real change takes place, people will go and invest and send money without being courted by the government. The fact that they made this request before making real change feels like déjà vu and is merely a continuation of their previous strategy.
In short, the Ethiopian government always tries to attract and appease the diaspora whenever it faces a serious challenge at home. This is what we saw after the 2005 elections. This backward thinking brings to mind a Bible verse: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” In this case, if the government seeks first to rightly respond to the demands of Ethiopians living in Ethiopia, then all these things – the diaspora’s support and investment – will be given to them. We must cautiously examine the government’s efforts to reach out to the diaspora and respond in one voice to ensure that the government does NOT get a chance to undercut the influence of the diaspora this time around by dividing us. Some might argue that ‘it is a reconciliation effort’. On its face value, it seems that is true; however, what EPRDF is doing does not show any characteristics of a genuine reconciliation process. I will come back soon with another piece focusing on why I said ‘it is not a reconciliation attempt.’