By the Strathink Editorial Team
Berhanu Nega, leader of Ginbot 7, a self-described terrorist group committed to overthrowing the Ethiopian government “by any means necessary,” is back in the United States. Why? Presumably, the economist turned military commander of a 200-man army based in Asmara is here to raise money and the flagging hopes of an aging diaspora political opposition. This raises a number questions about the U.S.’s commitment to global terrorism as well as the motivations for the Ethiopian opposition in the diaspora.
It remains a puzzling contradiction in U.S. foreign policy to allow Berhanu Nega free entry and unfettered fundraising opportunities for arms to overthrow a friendly government. This is particularly true today when the U.S. President has tried to deny ordinary people entry into the U.S. based on religion and national origin. If a five-year-old boy from Syria is denied entry simply because he is from Syria, how does a self-professed terrorist be welcomed and allowed to blatantly break the law that forbids raising money for a foreign military enterprise or expedition?
According to the Neutrality Act, promulgated in 1794:
…that if anyone person shall within the territory or jurisdiction of the United States begin or set on foot or provide or prepare the means for any military expedition or enterprise to be carried on from thence against the territory or dominions of any foreign prince or state with whom the United States are at peace, every such person so offending shall on conviction be adjudged guilty of a high misdemeanor and shall suffer fine and imprisonment at the discretion of the court in which the conviction shall be had, so that as such fine shall not exceed three thousand dollars nor the term of imprisonment be more than three years.
And the 1948 Expedition Against a Friendly Nation (18 U.S. Code 960) upholding the Neutrality Act saying:
…Whoever within the United States, knowingly begins or sets on foot or provides or prepares a means for or furnishes money for, or takes part in, any military or navel expedition or enterprise to be carried on from thence against the territory or dominion of any foreign prince or state, or of any colony, district, or people with whom the United States is at peace, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years or both.
Why, then, is Berhanu Nega allowed to flaunt U.S. law? It appears that support from several members of Congress, including Congressman Chris Smith and Ed Royce, has given free reign to Berhanu Nega to come in and out of the U.S. as he pleases and beg money from the opposition faction of the diaspora. The hypocrisy of the current Administration over immigration and the acquiescence of Congressmen such as Smith and Royce call into question the Administration’s rationale for the recent Executive Order. However, we leave that debate to the U.S. government.
Our concern is the latitude given to a self-professed terrorist to raise funds for his 200-man army based in Eritrea, called the “North Korea” of Africa. And why would Congressman Smith and Congressman Royce, although longtime foes of the Ethiopian government, support a terrorist government based in a country sanctioned by the United Nations—with the full support of the U.S. government? Congressman Smith most recently (September 2016) co-sponsored a House Resolution (861) “supporting respect for human rights and encouraging inclusive governance in Ethiopia.”
When Congressman Smith calls a hearing to condemn the government of Eritrea, front and center is Ginbot 7 leader Berhanu Nega, testifying about human rights and governance, having used his Eritrean passport to enter the United States.
Just three days later after his most recent resolution condemning Ethiopia, Congressman Smith issued a statement Congressman commending “the work of [American] law enforcement in making a speedy arrest of a terrorist suspect thought to be connected to bombing attacks against targets in New Jersey and New York…”
So, apparently, in Congressman Chris Smith’s mind, it is o.k. to target civilians in Ethiopia with terrorist attacks, as long as it is directed against overthrowing the Ethiopian government, but not o.k. to target civilians in the U.S.
Next, we turn to the Ethiopian opposition in the diaspora. Who are they and what do they want?
Many supporters of Ginbot 7 in the diaspora had fled the oppression of the Mengistu years beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Arriving in the capital cities of Europe and the big cities throughout the United States, Ethiopian refugees settled into their new lives as immigrants. Like any immigrant community, every family adjusted to life outside of their country in different ways and the community today is a mosaic of lifestyles. Some went on to pursue the higher education interrupted by the chaotic and violent struggle to overthrow the emperor and later, the military. They became engineers, information technology specialists, medical professionals and business people, moving from the urban enclaves of immigrants located in every major city to the middle and upper class suburbs.
Others found employment in the service sector—parking lots and small gifts shops–where some took financial shortcuts to achieving the American dream.
Yet, when that day [the fall of the Derg]finally came, there was no big rush to give up their comfortable lives outside of Ethiopia.—because there is a price to pay when returning home after so many years. Many who left behind their country in the late 1970s and early 1980s were young and today have spent three or four times as long outside the country as they had living in Ethiopia.
The Ethiopia in their minds is long gone—the familiar streets and landmarks that marked the days of their youth have been replaced by an urban landscape not that much different from cities and metropolises of the West.
Their families have been transformed by the passage of time—no longer do parents await the return of their now aged children. The children who fled their homes beginning with the Red Terror are now grandparents. Their own children and grandchildren, like the offspring of immigrants everywhere, may only vaguely understand the languages of Ethiopia. Their cultural connection to Ethiopia may only be the colors of the flag and the food prepared by the first generation immigrant who still insists on injera as their staple food. McDonalds and sushi now hold sway over their children and grandchildren’s taste buds and the music of Ethiopia may only be heard at family gatherings held by the older generation.
Nearing retirement age, the first generation Ethiopians who fled Red Terror are comfortable in their exile with first-rate healthcare, mortgages paid off, and their children and grandchildren living nearby. They may remember the household full of serategnas but not the current wages demanded for housemaids driven by employment opportunities in Middle Eastern countries. They may remember the status they enjoyed as members of elite families, but Ethiopia has undergone a fundamental social transformation and feudal families, beginning in the Derg time, have lost their former place in society. They may remember bucolic areas of Addis Ababa but the reality is miles of infrastructure, residential and industrial areas. The Ethiopia in their memories no longer exists.
What remains is the unfinished business of the Ethiopian revolution.
Many of those in the diaspora who fled the consequences of their political activism cannot seem to come to terms with others finishing what they started. No one can deny their sacrifices—their youth, some their healthand even their lives, their families, their homes and their “belonging”. What Kiflu Tadesse, one of the founders of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (EPRP) calls “the generation,” this group had made an enormous contribution to the political, economic and social transformation of the country with the abolishment of the feudal monarchy. Even for those who fled, already they have made their indelible mark in history. Well done, we say, to everyone in “the generation” who gave so much to the transformation of the country.
It is unfortunate that, for the past 25 years, a great many people in that generation living abroad have continued the battles of the student movement of the 1960s and 1970s into the 21st century. Despite the significant changes that have occurred in Ethiopia under the current government, the Ethiopian opposition has not let go of the past. Just look at the leadership and we see the same people who led different groups against the monarchy, the Derg and even each other today wage an unproductive struggle promoting violence in a country weary of the gun.
Berhanu Nega once played a productive role in shaping contemporary Ethiopian politics. Beginning with the Ethiopian Economic Research Association and the formation of the Rainbow Party, Berhanu Nega worked within the constitutional framework to provide data-driven analysis to oppose EPRDF policies and, later on, stand for election to replace the majority party with his own. That is democracy.
Democracy was derailed when the Berhanu’s coalition party emboldened themselves to claim total victory in an election where the numbers gave them partial victory. Rather than take the sizeable number of seats the CUD won in the 2005 parliamentary election, they decided it was all or nothing—and in the end, it became nothing.
The amnesty granted CUD leaders gave Berhanu the opportunity to leave and return to the United States to teach and begin building a new organization unabashedly committed to overthrowing the Ethiopian government by force. The Ethiopian opposition in the diaspora, disappointed by the failure of the opposition party coalition to take power, was presented a consolation prize in the formation of Ginbot 7. Their dreams of taking were restored.
An immigrant’s life is marked by an unanswerable “what if”—what if he/she had stayed in their country? Blessed with the opportunity to start over again and, at the same time, cursed with the opportunity to start over again, there is a cognitive dissonance in belonging yet not belonging. First generation immigrants cling to their language, their food, their music and everything that bonds them to the elusive concept of “home.”
“The generation,” that Kiflu Tadesse writes about in his personal history of EPRP, has the additional burden of avoiding the fate of their comrades who met death before many had even begun shaving. Others spent years in prison or living on the margins of life under a regime that trusted no one under 30.
So let’s go back to the question of “why?” Why, when Berhanu Nega comes back to the U.S., does the Ethiopian opposition in the diaspora open their wallets to fulfill a terrorist’s dreams of power? Maybe they want to forget their decades in exile and feel once again the exhilaration of their youth in smashing the power structure. Maybe they want to justify the reality of their life abroad and the fantasy of their return home. Maybe they, too, have dreams of power and anticipate the day when they can return home as a Minister or powerful government official.
For whatever reason, it is wrong. It is wrong to promote violence while enjoying the relative peace and security of their adopted country. It is wrong to buy arms for other peoples’ children to use while their children, like Berhanu Nega’s, spend their youth in college or in the workplace. It is wrong to ask others to do what they are unwilling to do themselves.
It is wrong. It is wrong. It is wrong.
What, then, are the next steps for those who have been squandering their hard-earned money on Berhanu Nega’s quest for power?
Stop. Stop funding the violence. No one wants violence in their own neighborhoods. Stop funding violence in Ethiopia.
By the way, these contributions are illegal and one day those who contribute may be asked by the legal system to account for these funds.
The next time Berhanu Nega comes to the U.S., the Ethiopian opposition in the diaspora needs to act responsibly and refuse to fund the violence that is feeding the current dictator in Eritrea his Ethiopian lackey.
It is time now to take a stand up and say no. It is now time for “the generation” to stop living in the past and use their many resources to advance the revolution they began so many years ago.