Protestors call out Joe Biden’s foreign policy in Ethiopia while its diaspora remains divided over civil war.. As thousands of Ethiopian Americans marched in front of the White House on November 8th, Hermela Aregawi, an Ethiopian American journalist, felt energized.
Protesters waved Ethiopian flags, and carried signs reading “Hands off Ethiopia” and “US Support Ethiopia in its fight against extremists!”
Over the last few weeks between ground mobilization efforts, across the country, and the #NoMore hashtag on social media, Aregawi said Ethiopians across the diaspora are feeling like they can finally express how they feel about the civil war ravaging the east African country.
—The American-Ethiopian Public Affairs Committee (@AmericaEthiopia) November 9, 2021
According to the United Nations, thousands of Ethiopians have been killed in the year-long conflict. A third of the 6 million people in the Tigray region have been displaced with a famine on the horizon, as more than 80% of the region is inaccessible.
As the Tigray People’s Liberian Front inch closer to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Americans told Insider they are fed up with US policy toward Ethiopia in response to the ongoing armed conflict.
They want all sanctions removed from Ethiopia and Eritrea and for the US to support Ethiopia’s democratically elected leaders.
“It’s a lot of disappointment in the suffering that’s happening back in our native country,” Aregawi said. “A lot of disappointment in our home here in America and that some officials just don’t seem to be living up to values that we expected them to.”
Situation in Ethiopia is complex, historian says
While the situation reflects a complicated history in Ethiopia, James McCann, professor of history at Boston University, told Insider that the origins of the conflict draw back to the start of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The TPLF began in 1975 as a insurgent group, which later ousted former President and military leader Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. The group held national power in Ethiopia from 1991 to 2018. The TPLF was listed as a Tier three Terrorist Organization by the US Citizens and Immigration Services.
The US then lifted that status in 1991.
The TPLF said it fights for the interests of the Tigrayian ethnic group, who are mostly based in Ethiopia’s Tigray region – located on the mountainous northern border of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Fast forward to the current conflict, McCann said the TPLF started the unrest last November with a strike against an Ethiopian military base in Tigray.
TPLF take issue with a number of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s policies.
The TPLF’s objectives, McCann says, have always been to highlight all Ethiopian ethnic groups with separate identities. Since he took office in 2018, however, Ahmed has pushed for an Ethiopian national identity.
In 2018, Ahmed’s national unity message spread to mending the decades-long border conflict with Eritrea, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
As a Tigrayian native, Aregawi, said the TPLF does not represent the views of Tigrayian people. She said most Ethiopian Americans support Ahmed’s message of collective national identity and a move past ethnic differences. Ethiopia’s national elections were scheduled for August 2020 but were postponed to June 2021 due to the pandemic. In June, Ahmed’s Prosperity Party won reelection and an overwhelming majority of seats in parliament, assuring him another term and five years in office.
TPLF officials objected to the delay.
“Time is running out for him,” Berhane Gebrekristos, a former Ethiopian ambassador to the US and a TPLF leader, said last week about Ahmed during an announcement of a new coalition between the TPLF and other rebel groups in the country.
Many Ethiopian Americans say the US is picking a side and meddling
The US has been accused by Eritrean and Ethiopian leaders of fueling the conflict, as well as siding with the TPLF’s leaders.
—Simon Tesfamariam (@stesfa) November 21, 2021
The group TPLF is viewed by many Ethiopians across the diaspora as threatening the economic and democratic well being of Ethiopia, Mesfin Tegenu, Chairman of American Ethiopian Public Affairs Committee, tells Insider.
“Ethiopian Americans in the US feel the Biden administration is ignoring the context and history,” Tegenu said.
The US announced sanctions on November 12th targeting Eritrea’s military and other Eritrea-based individuals and entities for their role in fueling the year-long war in neighboring northern Ethiopia. The Ethiopian National Defense Force is allied with Eritrea.
A sanction is an economic penalty applied by a country targeted at another country, group, or individual.
The White House National Security Council wrote in an email to Insider that it is in continuous contact with Ethiopian American organizations and welcomes “their unique ideas and contributions to promote understanding and healing across ethnic and political lines we seek to achieve the shared goal of a united, peaceful Ethiopia.”
For some, US policy during the conflict is confusing
The US has maintained that it is not taking a side in the unrest. It blames all sides for the armed conflict and fatalities.
However, President Joe Biden denounced Ahmed’s government for “gross violations” of human rights earlier this month and removed Ethiopia from a US trade pact.
The US said it has troops ready to respond and has called for a ceasefire between both sides. This week, Ethiopia was placed on Level 4 of the US travel advisory because of the chaos in the region.
According to the Associated Press, the Ethiopian government declared a ceasefire in June but it was quickly over. The TPLF continued to expand its territory into other regions of Ethiopia after the Ethiopian government declared a ceasefire, Al Jazeera reports.
—hermela aregawi (@HermelaTV) November 21, 2021
Insider reached out to Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed’s office for comment.
Last month the TPLF said : “War was not and is not the first option for the people and government of Tigray. We have repeatedly expressed our commitment to negotiate a ceasefire.”
A TPLF spokesperson, Getachew K Reda, did not respond to an Insider request for comment.
McCann says the US policy on the conflict between the TPLF and Ahmed’s government is not consistent. He doesn’t know what to make of what the US aim is. Ethiopia is an ally of the US.
“It’s just very confusing,” he said.
Ethiopian Americans say they fled Ethiopia because of crackdowns while the TPLF were in power
Many Ethiopian Americans say during the TPLF’s time in power in the 90’s their families were forced to flee Ethiopia, arriving to the US on Special Immigrant Visas because of what they say was a “brutal crackdown” by the group.
That’s why they tell Insider they are so frustrated with the US and want them to stop what they say is enabling the TPLF’s push to regain power.
“They’re disappointed that the current administration just seems to be aligning with the previous regime, which has turned into an armed insurgency against the elected government in Ethiopia, Aregawi said.
Ethiopian Americans want peace, but disagree about the process
Some in the Ethiopian American community support what the TPLF are doing and don’t disagree with the US policy, Dr. Tsehaye Teferra, president of the Ethiopian Development Community Council, told Insider.
Some in the diaspora, he says, do not support Prime Minister Ahmed.
But they believe the US could be doing more to get resources to the Tigray region where the UN has declared food, water, and basic resources are needed. The United States Agency for International Development says it has given nearly $637 million to the Tigray region since the conflict began.
“Ethiopia is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic nation,” Teferra said. “There is no one voice that speaks for the entire community.”
While the pathway to peace remains unclear for Ethiopian Americans on either side of the debate, US policy is only hurting their families still in Ethiopia. Neither side is advocating for a US military intervention.
“There is a democratically elected government for the first time in Ethiopian history,” Tegenu said. “We want the US to work with the democratically elected government and be on the side of the Ethiopian people. Resolve the issue in a way that makes sense.”
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