Open the Doors of Washington, D.C.’s Ethiopian Embassy

by the Strathink Editorial Team

There is no question today that security for embassies is a high priority for governments around the world. Global terrorism is a threat to everyone. Embassies are highly visible symbols of a country’s government and stand as a convenient target for terrorist acts.

However, despite several high profile acts of violence directed at embassies such as the bombings of the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, data shows that embassies are not being targeted. In 2014, there were eleven attacks on foreign diplomatic missions; in 2015 there were seven; and in 2016 there were four.

Why, then, are the doors shut to Ethiopia’s embassy in Washington, D.C?

Located on a hill in northwest Washington, D.C., the Ethiopian embassy occupies a prestigious location on Embassy Row. When the embassy was first built in 2001, it was a sleek, modern edifice of granite and glass. On the outside the building, just as you walk in to the massive lobby, is art produced by internationally renowned artist Iskindar Boghasian and Kebedech Tekleab. The aluminum relief sculpture shows motifs representing Ethiopian religious traditions—Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

Today, an enormous guard building, outsized for the courtyard, dominates the empty space in front of the embassy. Weeds dot the perimeter of the embassy. Once inside the embassy, if you are successful in getting past the guard, the enormous, light-filled lobby is empty of people. Going up the flights of stairs, containers collect the drip-drip-drip of water leaking from the ceiling.

Why are the doors of the embassy shut to the public?

One explanation is the consular services. Once a beehive of activity serving hundreds of people in person a day, the consular service does all of its business now by mail. Fair enough. The volume of consular service requests is enormous and responding through the mail can maximize the limited human resources available at the embassy.

However, the emptiness of the consular section combined with the overall deterioration of a once magnificent embassy makes us pause and reflect on the silence of Ethiopia’s embassy in the hub of the free world.

By shutting its doors, the embassy is sending a message —we assume not intentionally—that its doors to the public are closed for business.

Again, we assume this is not intentional but it creates a perception that does not se

The Strathink Editorial Team has written extensively about the failure of the Ethiopian government to tell its story to the U.S. government and the American people. There seems to be no political will to articulate the successes—and the challenges—of Ethiopia’s journey towards democracy and a prosperous economy.

Let’s just say it—Ethiopia has few friends in the United States.

Ethiopia’s image problem in the United States is well known. The reasons are multiple and include: 1) the overall negative image of Africa portrayed in the mainstream media and popular culture; 2) the themes of Ethiopia’s civic unrest, poverty and famine that have dominated the U.S. media since 1974; 3) the overwhelming presence of U.S. NGOs in Ethiopia and their influence on U.S. policymakers; and, 4) a large and vocal opposition in the U.S.

Africa’s “Heart of Darkness” Syndrome

Africa’s image in the West was best summed up the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe in explaining the impact of Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, on the Western psyche. He wrote, “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and of therefore civilization, a place where a man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality”. [1]

Although Conrad was neither the first nor the last European writer to cast Africa as something far less than Europe, it remains the dominant image of Africa in the Western imagination. The pervasiveness of this image is reflected not only in the Western media but popular culture as well.

The media’s portrayal of Africa’s problems—poverty, conflict, bad governance, to name a few—has no better example than the sensationalist coverage of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The subtext of mainstream news reports on the Rwandan genocide was dominated by images that titillated the Western imagination of African savages spontaneously rising up in a primordial frenzy of bloodletting. As events unfolded, there was little attention given by the media to analyzing the causes, the context nor the systematic planning of the genocide in the struggle for power among Rwandan elites. Instead, the reader of these news accounts was treated to a story that reinforced Conrad’s perspective of Africa as “the other world”—where such massive savagery is less than an extraordinary event.

Ethiopia’s famines are subject to a similar reportage. Emaciated people are broadcast juxtaposed against Ethiopia government officials. The image projected implies starvation either by omission or commission on the part of the government.

These images were first constructed during the death throes of the Haile Selassie government, best illustrated by the documentary produced by Jonathan Dimbleby. The Derg itself used these images to legitimize the coup and therefore portray itself as the champion of Ethiopia’s starving masses. It worked. The visual impact of seeing the Emperor feeding meat to his dogs and then the masses of starving people was no less than extraordinary. It captured not only the crisis but the response—in this case, lack of response—by the imperial regime. For Western audiences, however, it also served to imprint an image of Ethiopia characterized by hunger, an image that has yet to diminish.

The overall negative image of Africa is ingrained in the American psyche. The media plays a significant role in perpetuating an image that has endured over time—beginning with the America’s justification for the slave trade and the ensuing slave economy that fueled America’s economic prosperity beginning in the 19th century. The savagery of Africa’s traditional rulers has been replaced by a stereotype of brutal, repressive governments—more often than not called “regimes”—hell-bent on looting the country’s resources for the massive self-consumption of luxury goods from the West. Mobutu stands out as the classic modern African ruler.

A content analysis of major American newspaper articles shows a pattern of words used to describe events in Ethiopia, including “famine”, “hunger” “poverty,” “violence”, “rebels”, “authoritarian”, “dictator”, one-party state,” “ethnic repression,” “human rights violations”, “crackdown”, “press freedom violations”, “political prisoners”, “HIV/AIDS epidemic” and so on.

There is no good news coming out of Ethiopia. A partial explanation is the nature of a news cycle—newspapers need to make money and crisis reporting sells newspapers. However, reportage on other African countries include positive stories that highlight both a government’s progress towards a certain goal and the good news that comes out of civil society.

For the most part, even news stories about civil society in Ethiopia tend to focus on opposition politics, human rights organizations, and efforts to bring down the government.

Ethiopian contemporary history and politics is difficult to understand by even scholars. Journalists, driven by deadlines and the quest for sensational news depend on a quick read and a few willing sources, including other journalists, to construct a story that will sell to their editor. There is little space for nuance or ambiguity. Hence, the late Prime Minister Meles, although grudgingly described as “intelligent,” was characterized as shrewd, wily and thoroughly repressive.

The Ethiopian people are characterized as “noble” in their suffering, both from an oppressive government and hunger. “Rebels”, such as the OLF and ONLF, are characterized as “freedom fighters” struggling against an ethnically monolithic authoritarian state.

This image of Ethiopia that is embedded in the mind of the broader public has its counterpart in the more narrow confines of Washington, D.C.’s foreign policy establishment. While the media perpetuates this mythical Ethiopia for the broad masses, two other influential groups build on this negative perspective to serve their own agendas—the opposition Diaspora and U.S. NGOs.

 

The Ethiopian Diaspora in the United States

The Ethiopian Diaspora in the United States, although certainly not a homogenous community, includes a number of well-organized groups and individuals with enough financial, material, and intellectual resources to mount credible campaigns against the Ethiopian Government. They have been highly successful in projecting an image of a thoroughly authoritarian and corrupt government that governs in a malicious and deliberate attempt to dismember Ethiopia and destroy the Ethiopian people.

This image, although tempered at times, was consolidated and magnified following the 2005 elections. Indeed, the general view that permeates the U.S. government, NGOs, advocacy groups, think tanks and the media is a stolen election and an increasingly repressive government that has almost eliminated “political space” for any kind of political opposition to exist.

The vocal Diaspora who opposes the current government has a number of tools at their disposal and includes: 1) political parties/support committees; and, 2) civil society organizations.

 

Political Parties and Support Committees

The Ethiopian Diaspora in the United States has been actively engaged in Ethiopian politics since the early 1970s. However, their numbers were small, most were students, and their ideological underpinnings precluded any serious engagement with the United States government. This changed, however, in the 1980s following the influx of Ethiopian refugees, mainly from the Sudan, who had fled the Derg and were able to take advantage of the 1980 U.S. Refugee Act.

Ethiopian refugees were by far the largest group of African refugees resettled in the United States under this legislation. Ironically, the objective of the 1980 Refugee Act was to open the door to opponents of communist regimes worldwide. Although Ethiopian refugees were undoubtedly against the Mengistu government, it would be a stretch to characterize them as anti-communist. The majority of these refugees had fled Ethiopia having participated in the political struggles that began in the early 1970s and culminated in the early 1980s with the demise of the EPRP and other organizations. These organizations still loosely define the current Diaspora activists, if not in name then certainly in historical and emotional affiliation. [2]

The number of political party offices and support committees in the United States reflects the number of opposition parties both inside and outside Ethiopia. The impact of these external political organizations is significant, despite the fact that some may not even have a support base or constituency inside Ethiopia.

These organizations command sizeable budgets and use their financial power town a disproportionate amount of power within the organization’s leadership—at times, usurping the elected leadership inside Ethiopia. In addition, these organizations have members who provide not only the finances but their broad and influential network of contacts among the U.S. government, media, and advocacy groups.

The combined effect of all these organizations working against the image of the Government of Ethiopia in the United States has been devastating. Political parties and support committees have waged public campaigns that not only discredit the Ethiopian government but promote an image of the opposition that is greatly appealing to Americans. Like any advertising agency hired to sell a product, organizations such as the ONLF have been able to use the language and the symbols embedded in the American psyche to create an organizational mythology—one that reflects the principles and values most appealing to an American audience.

Civil Society Organizations

There are a number of Ethiopian civil society organizations in the United States. Civil society groups exist in a variety of forms—professional associations, single focus interest groups, sports associations, and alumni associations, to name a few. Some of these organizations, particularly the professional associations, were formed to engage in altruistic efforts to positively contribute to the country’s social needs in terms of public health, education, and other developmental activities. One example is the Ethiopian Health professionals of North America (EHPNA).

Others, such as the Ethiopian Sports Federation in North America (ESFNA), combine entrepreneurialism and politics to create a massive forum for Ethiopian Americans to watch football, eat injera and plot to overthrow the government. The July 4th football games held in rotation in cities around the United States have spun out dozens of political organizations that have risen and fallen to varying degrees.

Academic organizations, such as the Oromo Studies Association, have served to cultivate supporters within the academic community to lend their names and titles to different petitions and rallies, as well as Congressional hearings, around political issues.

The last group of organizations is citizen advocacy groups and tend to be organized around a single issue, such as the Free Andargachew Tsige. These organizations have initial success in mobilizing large groups of people but then tend to fizzle out.

 

U.S. NGOs

The Government of Ethiopia is well-aware of the negative aspects of the increasingly large numbers of NGOs operating in Ethiopia. And while the recent CSO law was an attempt to regulate NGOs, it mainly succeeded in reinforcing Washington, D.C. view that the Ethiopian Government was trying to repress civil society at the expense of those Ethiopians receiving assistance.

As recipients of an enormous amount of U.S. funding, NGOs are key political actors in Washington, D.C. U.S. NGOs have a great deal of influence in the foreign policy community—mainly on shaping a country’s image. The large presence of American NGOs provides U.S. embassies and USAID mission staff a cadre of professional report writers. Their reports inform the embassy of news and events which the embassy, in turn, uses to report to headquarters in Washington, D.C. These NGO reports, given the lack of knowledge and language fluency among ex-pat staff, and alarmingly enough interest in increasing their knowledge, are shaped by those educated Ethiopian staff working for the NGO.

Many of the educated Ethiopian professionals, particularly in urban areas, have been associated with the political opposition. Hence, much of the information passed on by U.S. NGOs is attached to a particular political agenda. This information goes straight to Washington, D.C.—for the most part, unfiltered.

At the same time, NGO headquarters, competing for U.S. government resources, have an inherent conflict-of-interest in their portrayal of the Ethiopian Government. The way to justify the need for an NGO to deliver public goods and services to Ethiopia is to highlight the Ethiopian Government’s weakness in that service delivery.

NGOs are not inherently bad. It is the system that drives NGOs to present a case of filling a need that is unmet. The vast majority of NGOs depend on government funds for their operations. Therefore, NGOs engage in a perpetual cycle of proposal-writing that begins with a statement of need accompanied by a discussion of the GoE’s lack of capacity to meet that need.

NGO staff come to Ethiopia with little knowledge of the history, politics, or culture of Ethiopian society. Their gullibility is exploited by the professional elites who are recruited to run the programs. This, too, contributes the negativity that is transported to Washington, D.C. through the embassy and the NGOs.

Five Simple Suggestions

In today’s world of public diplomacy, images are no longer fixed. Communication technology can transform a nation’s image at incredible speed. By targeting audiences with resonating messages—whether the Administration, Congress, or constituencies within the general American public—Ethiopia can tell its story the way it is and not the way others want it to be.

 Open the doors of the embassy.

The first step the government should take is to open the doors of the embassy—literally and figuratively. Security is indeed a necessary condition for the embassy to operate effectively. However, despite the security measures taken by embassies such as Israel, the doors remain open to the public. The Ethiopian embassy was built at great cost and the physical space should be maximized to showcase the country.

The Ethiopian embassy needs to engage in a more broad-based public diplomacy campaign. The embassy appears too focused on the diaspora and is missing important opportunities to build constituencies among other U.S. communities.

There are endless opportunities to engage Ethiopian Americans and the broader American public—cultural shows, academic forums and roundtables, and film festivals. Ethiopia’s embassy seems stuck in time, where diplomacy focused on state-state relations. Today’s embassies conduct robust public diplomacy campaigns that make friends—friends that hold sway over the U.S. government.

Engage more with the media.

 When was the last time the Ethiopian Ambassador held a press conference? Wrote an op.ed. for one of the major newspapers? Taken a group of reporters to Ethiopia? Pitched a positive story? The Ethiopian embassy needs to take a more proactive approach to the negativity that dominates press coverage.

Engage with NGOs working in Ethiopia.

Most international NGOs are headquartered in Washington, D.C. The embassy should carry out a targeted campaign to educate the NGO community about realities, rather than perceptions, in Ethiopia. Roundtables, forums and one-on-one meetings with NGO officials can start to move the barometer up towards a more real, nuanced thinking about how to best address Ethiopia’s challenges.

Hire a lobby firm with a proven track record that can deliver results.

 It is risky to hire a lobby firm without a proven track record for delivering results. In order to tell Ethiopia’s story, it is critical to understand that story—and it is a complex and nuanced narrative.

 Work on messaging

 It is all about the messaging. Messages are not just one-line sentences or catch phrases. Effective messages emerge from a process, which begins with:

  • The goals trying to be achieved
  • The needs of the target audiences
  • The appropriate framing of the messages

For all of Ethiopia’s sophistication across many sectors, the government has failed to use an appropriate messaging framework, both domestically and internationally. There has to be a set of consistent messages that are developed, agreed upon and deployed at all levels of the government. These messages need to go out on social media platforms everywhere to begin to re-shape Ethiopia’s current narrative—outdated, simplistic and binary.

 

Conclusion

Ethiopia’s embassy in Washington, D.C. stands as a symbol of the “business as usual” approach to public diplomacy in the U.S. The time has come to open the doors of the embassy to shed light on the current realities of Ethiopia’s remarkable trajectory upwards towards democracy and economic prosperity—no more hiding behind a wall.

[1] Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa,” in Massachusetts Review, vol. 18, no.4 (Winter 1997), pp. 782-794.

[2] Another irony is the alliances between former anti-Derg activists and former Derg government officials.

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