The Ethiopian Diaspora’s Old Men: A Failure to Thrive

By The Strathink Editorial Team

They came to the United States and Europe in the late 1970s and 1980’s. Many settled in and around Washington, D.C. Some went on to college, finishing the education they began in Ethiopia during the early and mid-1970s until politics replaced academics. Others bought taxicabs, started small businesses and took over the parking lot industry. Many had lost members of their family and friends in a fratricidal war between ideologies among themselves or in the war waged by the brutal regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Everyone wore the badge of “immigrant.” No one else but the Ethiopian immigrant understood the heady excitement or the deadly terror—the highs and the lows—of the change that overtook their homeland in just a few years.

The Ethiopian Diaspora settled into life alongside other immigrant communities. Marriages, mortgages, and children were the stuff of daily life. Yet, for some Ethiopian immigrants, the dream of going home and taking power never died despite the daily responsibilities of their new lives. Alliances were made and broken. Meetings were held. Governments-in-exile were formed. Day after day, men met in bars and coffee shops to re-live the past and plot the future. In their minds, Ethiopia stood still from the time they left their country.

Today, these former student activists are old men. You still see them in the coffee shops and bars—making and breaking new alliances, holding new meetings, forming new governments-in-exile.

Not all had stayed in America. Some had gone back to Ethiopia, taking advantage of all the privileges granted to Diaspora returnees. Some had even returned to politics. The opposition leadership roster for the 2005 elections had the familiar names of former political activists such as Berhanu Nega and Kiflu Tadesse. And therein lies the problem of Ethiopian political culture today.

The 1970s have not ended. Ethiopia’s opposition has not been able to move past the politics of yesterday. The same leaders, the same arguments, the same lack of vision stymy the creation of a credible Ethiopian opposition. And despite the enormous gains of creating a democratic political culture in Ethiopia, the failure for an opposition to thrive will hold back progress on developing a democratic culture.

Let’s start with the political culture of the Ethiopian Diaspora. A necessary characteristic of civil discourse is the capacity to “agree to disagree.” There is no culture to “agree to disagree” in the Ethiopian Diaspora’s political discourse; therefore, it is all a zero-sum game. Democracy cannot thrive in an environment of a zero-sum game. And if you don’t agree, you are demonized. Not your political beliefs. Not your policy arguments. You. Your personhood. Or your ethnicity. The main arguments against the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had nothing to do with his policies. The argument against Meles Zenawi was that he was “weyene”—a not so code word for Tigray—his ethnicity.

In the 2005 election, what were the policies Kinijit wanted to replace if elected to office? It is still unclear. What Kinijit wanted was for their leaders to replace EPRDF leaders. Land policy? Banking? Credit? Education? Foreign policy? Kinijit’s policy alternatives were never clearly articulated. We only knew that Kinijit wanted EPRDF out and Kinijit in.

The Diaspora opposition’s failure to thrive can best be illustrated by its cyclical call for a government-in-exile. This is so wrong on so many levels—the first level being the total absence of a democratic process. The very notion of a government-in-exile, in the case of Ethiopia, highlights the obsolescence of the Ethiopian Diaspora’s political opposition.

Gentlemen (because it really is dominated by men), it is time to visit your country and see what has happened in the thirty-some odd years since you have been gone.

Even the most obtuse visitor will be able to observe all the changes that have taken place—the economy, the education sector, the health sector, the transportation sector. It will blow your mind. 1970s Ethiopia has been gone for quite a while now. Just jump on the light rail system and take a ride outside the city—a ride that will go on and on past manufacturing plants and commercial farms. There is still grueling poverty in Ethiopia but there are also free health clinics and schools which are lifting households out of poverty—at least for the next generation.

The population has shifted where almost half of the people are under the age of 15. This generation has grown up neither experiencing the monarchy nor the Derg. Their expectations are high. Even the poorest of the poor have witnessed or used some kind of new technology. The information age has a further reach than ever before and this generation will leave the farms and seek urban life. Ethiopia is experiencing a generation-changing transformation. Children living on subsistence farms are better fed and healthier than ever before. The government must now meet new challenges of economic transformation—moving forward in agriculture-led industrialization to absorb and make prosperous this enormous population under 15 from the rural areas.

And what will the old men of the Ethiopian Diaspora do to help the new generation of Ethiopians? The student movement began with the slogan, “Land to the Tiller.” These student activists began their political life with the best of intentions. Their sacrifices were many and deep. Their failure to thrive has a lot to do with immigrant life and the notion that Ethiopia has stood still since they left their country.

Perhaps it’s time for the old men to go home and look at their country with clear eyes. Perhaps it’s time to make peace with the new Ethiopia—including the government—and figure out a better way to make their contribution than a foolish “government-in-exile.” The old men of the Ethiopian Diaspora still have a lot to give their country. After all, they have flourished as immigrants in a foreign country and that is not easy. They started the revolution. They can now go home and finish it.

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