The Ethiopian Diaspora, Liberation Movements, conflict and my Zelalem


By Tedla D. Tekle

22 July, 2014

team Pics

From left to right: Zelalem and his friends Yonatan, Bahiru and Abraham all in Kilinto Prison. #Ethiopia

Let us just be honest. Ethiopians across all sectors and communities are disgruntled and disappointed with so many things that have to do with governance be it at home or in the Diaspora, the Ethiopian embassies. Be them people in the religious circles, education, health, politics or immigration. The root causes of these problems can not simply be attributed to one specific regime or style of governance – majorly it has a historical origin but presently it has a current and clear maladministration related causes. Some of those have been created by the incumbent itself while the rest have been due to the negligence or intuitive actions of the oppositions. Today, two powers dominating the Ethiopia public sphere and citizenship, the Diaspora and the liberation movements. These two groups are now the leading movers and shakers of Ethiopian politics.

The Diaspora 

The Ethiopian Diaspora grew in large numbers post the Emperor Haileselassie Era as the brutal and barbaric militarist junta, the Derg took power. The savage terror that the Derg committed against its own citizens for mere ideological differences – killing at least 500,000 of Ethiopia’s then Crème de la Crème led to the fleeing of many through all borders of the country. The trend continued until present time when people leave Ethiopia for economic and political reasons. Among the diverse group of Ethiopians living abroad there are many of them that have acquired the citizenship of their host countries, economically and academically succeeded to lead a ‘prosperous’ life that is however filled with endless nudge that haunts them every night saying “how about your own compatriots in Ethiopia? have you forgotten them?”. For this and other personal and political agendas many of these immigrants have been working on the economic, political and socio-cultural transformation of their country; some by ignoring who rules and how it rules but merely doing business while many others investing their time, resources and merits for national transformation that includes political change.  This is the force, these are the Diaspora actors that have a hand in what has been going in Ethiopia for the past 50 years from those that helped the toppling of the Derg to the current ones that are doing all things possible to oust the present regime.  Although at times fragmented and dominated by oldies (the 1960/70s generation that still holds the financial, information and propaganda power), it is an undeniably powerful entity. It has had positive and detrimental roles on the Nation. Now, unlike before, the Ethiopian Diaspora community is taking over the leadership of the Ethiopian politics and governance system. The Ethiopian emigrant communities are among the most strongest politically active constituencies in the U.S. and Europe. They are capable of lobbying politicians and policy makers in the West. The National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE) had reported in 2012 that official receipt of remittance to Ethiopia was 1.5 billion dollars, by registering an 88pc increase. Politically, the most active journalists, civil society activists, politicians and political parties as well as media outlets are all now based outside Ethiopia. The Diaspora funds these diaspora based democratic institutions and activists. Ignore it or love it, the Ethiopian Diaspora today can influence Ethiopian politics.

The Liberation Movements 

Since the coming of the current ruling Front, dissidents and opposition figures that the regime considers as threats were arrested or crippled and hashed. The method has been the same all along, they were all linked to a bogeyman. The first example of such a case is  Dr. Taye Woldesemayat is the former President of the Ethiopian Teachers’ Association. Dr. Taye was arrested on on 29 May 1996 and was charged with links to the armed Arebgnoch (Patriotic) Front that aimed to oust the government through the use of force. Taye was sentenced and then released in 2002. This trend has continued since then. In 2014, the then kids, who listened to the News of Dr. Taye’s arrest on the Radio, have now become the victims of the same circle: my Co-Blogger and friend Zelalem Workagegnehu  and his three friends Yonatan Wolde, Abraham Solomon and Bahiru Degu have been detained suspected of links with the Ginbot 7 Movement on July 8, 2014. I will write another biography about Zelalem but to put him in a phrase “he is a man, who does not tolerate to see anyone being abused: he will intervene.”

After several court adjournments, they are now set to be acquitted or given a guilty verdict on August 21, 2015. The charges against the first defendant, Zelalem especially are many from social media activism, planning to take part in an online security training, sending news reports to Diaspora based media outlets, receiving money from Ginbot 7, being the local organiser of the Movement, conspiring with me and so many others. The pain of losing your loved ones is always a dreadful experience. When the lose is due to such an acceptable arrest, the pain is double.

Ethiopian liberation movements have not entered a life of political struggle because it was fun to do so. They entered because they had a grain of truth. Not just a grain but a chunk of truth. From the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) to Ginbot 7 Movement have all came together because they believed injustices exist, They actually do. There were differences though: some have remained loyal to nonviolent struggle while many after exhausting the peaceful struggle shifted to a struggle that contains a bit of both. As much as their causes have been legitimate, they had their own internal shortcomings that they have not been able to introspect. And that is perhaps one of the major factors that costed the precious lives of many of our colleagues as equally as the regime. The increase of the population’s grievance, the shift in strategy and consolidation of armed groups is seemingly opening the avenues for possible violence in Ethiopia. As I have always argued, coming down of our high heels, to prevent war is a wisdom that we would like to see from all sides.

No doubt that after all locally based Ethiopian media, political and civic organisations have been dis-empowered by legal and political methods, the only strong force is coming from the Diaspora and liberation movements. The say or actions of the two will have huge consequences in Ethiopia, we are already seeing what is coming.

Since the News of the arrest of Zelalem together with locally based opposition officials, whom he had no relations with was broadcast, I have knocked every door, opened all the chests of the drawer seeking his release – applied quiet diplomacy. The countless stress and difficulties we are going through is not easy to describe. It has been one full year, 12 months, now since he was detained. He is still in Kilinto prison among many of Ethiopia’s bloggers, journalists and politicians.

I would love to argue that every government has all the legal prowess to apply the law on all those that defy the jurisprudence. But do they have the legal or the security clout to contain dissidents? Can governments be able to completely wipe out and control every dissenter by detaining them for whatever years, worrying and tiring their elderly parents? Does not even the most careful and  the most frightened react when cornered in an empty room like a cat?

Of course!

Arrests and harassment create unexpected idols like my own Zelalem out of the blue! They may also have dire  regional consequences from refugees to large scale humanitarian crises. Nations and empires may crumble. They could lead  the low keys to come out public, the dormant to be violent.

We cannot afford another bad image for Ethiopia. The famine has done us enough disservice. Civil war should not do us the second disservice in this decade.