By the Strathink Editorial Team
Ethiopia has had a strong diplomatic presence in Washington, D.C. since 1945, interrupted only from 1977-1992 when the U.S. and Ethiopia cut formal diplomatic relations. Since 1992, with the emergence of the EPRDF-led government, the Ethiopian embassy has had four ambassadors: Berhane Gebre-Christos, Kassahun Ayele, Samuel Assefa and Girma Birru. Each put his mark on the embassy and diplomatic relations with the U.S.
Ethiopia’s current ambassador, Girma Birru, has served in Washington, D.C. for the past seven years and as his tenure is winding down, perhaps it is time to move forward in a different direction. There is a new administration in Washington, D.C. and new opportunities to re-shape the prevailing Ethiopian narrative and strengthen ties between the U.S. and Ethiopia.
In a city filled with diplomats competing for attention, how can Ethiopia stand out on such a crowded platform?
It’s easy to identify a qualified candidate who has moved up in the ranks of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ethiopia has no shortage of English-speaking, sophisticated diplomats who are capable of managing both an embassy and relationships with the U.S. government.
Perhaps Ethiopia should use some political imagination to spark interest in Ethiopia’s bold federal experiment and economic miracle. Despite Ethiopia’s problems, the country has an intriguing story to tell that is lost in the contemporary political narrative that belies the gains made in the past 25 years. Can the Ethiopian government shed its diplomatic conservatism and disrupt the status quo?
How? Ethiopia should make history and appoint its first woman ambassador? Why? We offer three reasons: 1) women ambassadors in Washington, D.C. stand out; 2) a woman ambassador with a compelling story will appeal to U.S. audiences; and 3) a woman ambassador will be able to better mobilize the power of Ethiopian women in the diaspora.
In the history of diplomatic relations with the U.S., Ethiopia has never sent a woman to serve as ambassador. Women have served elsewhere, but never in the United States. Why consider a woman? In a city crowded with diplomats, women simply stand out. Women ambassadors in Washington, D.C. are noticed—the media writes about them and they have automatic entrée into the formal and informal sisterhood of women in diplomacy and women in government.
For Ethiopia, appointing its first woman ambassador to the United States is a positive story that will generate media coverage and invitations from across the city. The number of powerful positions in Washington, D.C., from Congress to the Defense Department, is increasing filled by women. Ethiopia’s first woman ambassador to the United State would have many doors opened both within the wider diplomatic corps and the United States Government?”
This is equally true for public diplomacy. Ethiopia’s ambassador needs to broaden and deepen American constituencies. What better way than for its new woman ambassador to make the rounds of women’s organizations, religious institutions, and chambers of commerce to talk about Ethiopia from the unique perspective of a woman? The new woman ambassador becomes part of the new narrative Ethiopia wishes to share globally.
A Story to Tell
The best ambassadors have their own story to tell that reflects the principles, values and challenges of the country they represent. Ethiopians, especially the generation of Ethiopians who made a revolution, have compelling stories to tell. Why not choose a woman who participated in the struggle? A woman ambassador who was a fighter has a story to tell with broad appeal—to the media, the U.S. government and the wider American public.
The story of Ethiopia’s women fighters is a compelling narrative that is relatable—few people in the U.S. can read enough material to understand the complex and layered history of a 3,000 years old country. The story of one person, however, can be understood, even to non-Ethiopians. People can understand dissatisfaction with a government, the status quo and even social norms and culture. Youthful rebellion is universal. And the principles and values that this generation fought for—despite the current political environment in the United States—are those that underlie the American democratic system.
And then there is her story as a woman—perhaps as a wife, a mother, and a daughter. The story of Ethiopia’s women is both unique and universal. The universality is obvious. Less obvious, and certainly interesting, is the story of Ethiopia’s women who were part of an extraordinary generation of women who fought against centuries of social oppression. The women who grew up in the 1960s under the feudal monarchy had rigid expectations imposed upon them about marriage, motherhood and family.
By the early 1970s, Ethiopian women from both modern and feudal families were challenging not only the political status quo but also the social status quo. Their struggle was against society, their families and even their comrades in the movement.
What was it like for Ethiopian women to break away from the family and their community to stand shoulder to shoulder with the men during the Red Terror? How did the women survive the physical and emotional hardships of war? How did they adjust once the struggle ended and they returned to their families and communities? How are Ethiopian women leaders addressing the political, economic and social realities of Ethiopian women today?
This is a powerful narrative that has the potential to shift attention away from the clichés repeated about Ethiopia in an endless loop of negativity to an uplifting story of progress and hope.
Ethiopian Women in the Diaspora
Few women have served Ethiopia diplomatically in Washington, D.C. What message does that send to Ethiopian American women? In 2006, when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent five diplomats to Washington, D.C. to mobilize ethnic communities, not one was a woman. In fact there has only been one woman diplomat in the last ten years who served at all. The message is clear. Women are not on the government’s radar.
Ethiopia’s embassy in Washington, D.C. should reflect all of Ethiopia. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a conscious decision to recruit diplomats from all of Ethiopia’s regions. Unfortunately, women—half of Ethiopia’s population—failed to be considered in the multi-ethnically balanced diplomatic equation.
A woman ambassador sends a strong message to the Ethiopian women in the diaspora that women count. Watch and see. Diaspora engagement in Ethiopia will significantly rise by assigning a woman ambassador and other women diplomats to the Ethiopian embassy in Washington, D.C.
Who Will Be Ethiopia’s Next Woman Ambassador to the United States?
We end this editorial not with the question: Will Ethiopia’s next ambassador to the United States be a woman but Who will be Ethiopia’s next woman ambassador to the United States.
Ethiopia has never had an easy time in Washington, D.C. For the last two years, it has been even more of a struggle. The bigger story about “Ethiopia rising in the last 25 years is buried beneath the headlines generated by what’s wrong with Ethiopia—never what is right. Although the Ethiopian government maintains excellent relations with the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies, many parts of the U.S. government, along with the media and human rights organization, drive the overwhelmingly negative perception.
Now is the time to show political imagination and re-imagine Ethiopia’s diplomatic presence in Washington, D.C. Ethiopia has an incredible story to tell—maybe a new storyteller can shift the narrative.