Tigray conflict divides Ethiopian diaspora, complicating US policy

By Julian Pecquet

Posted on Tuesday, 3 August 2021 14:49
Members of the Ethiopian diaspora, the largest outside of Ethiopia, in Washington, U.S., July 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

As chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, US Congress representative Karen Bass (Democrat-California) has the tricky task of threading the needle on the proper congressional response to the conflict in Tigray. She also represents part of Los Angeles, home to the nation’s second-largest Ethiopian diaspora community after Washington, DC.

As if things weren’t complicated enough, many of her Ethiopian-American constituents who have long supported the congresswoman’s almost two-decade political career are no longer on speaking terms with each other.

Those tensions were apparent on a Friday afternoon in late July as the fractured community clamoured for a say in Bass’s pending House resolution condemning the violence.

To avoid a potential shouting match, Bass opted to hold not one but two Zoom sessions: one with supporters of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s response to the conflict, the other with activists who accuse him of abetting genocide in Tigray.

Meanwhile ethnic lobbies critical of both Abiy and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have launched their own advocacy campaigns to make sure attacks against their group aren’t swept under the rug.

“We were once one community,” attorney and human rights advocate Christina Sara lamented on the second Bass call. “But since the war in Tigray, we have grown apart.”

Allies turned rivals

While heartfelt, the sentiment doesn’t fully capture the complexities of one of America’s largest and most diverse immigrant communities. Ethiopian-Americans are estimated to number between 500,000 to upwards of one million, the second-largest African immigrant group after Nigerians.

Politically active and relatively wealthy, they have had an outsized impact inside Ethiopia through billions of dollars in annual remittances and control of TV stations and online media outlets. That includes lobbying policymakers in Washington, which has a deep strategic relationship with Addis Ababa stretching back more than a century.

As in Ethiopia itself, the diaspora has always had its share of ethnic divisions. Escalating tensions and violence over the past year, particularly since the outbreak of hostilities between the TPLF and the Ethiopian military in November, have only exacerbated those differences.

“Now there’s really a division in our community,” Tewodrose Tirfe, the chairman of the North Carolina-based Amhara Association of America, tells The Africa Report. “And it’s because of a failure of leadership by the Abiy administration, by the regional presidents, and by the opposition political parties, allowing space for armed groups to attack civilians.”

Three years ago, Tirfe’s association was one of several groups including the Oromo Legacy Leadership & Advocacy Association of northern Virginia and the Colorado-based Ethiopian American Civic Council to champion a resolution co-sponsored by Rep. Bass denouncing human rights abuses and welcoming Abiy’s election. Today the three organisations all have separate agendas.

The Oromo group is demanding that Abiy’s government release imprisoned activists including Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba. The Amhara association is lobbying the US to acknowledge atrocities by both the Abiy government and the TPLF, including the 9 November massacre of hundreds of Amhara civilians in Maikadra. As for the pan-ethnic civic council, it insists that most Ethiopians both back home and in the diaspora stand with Abiy.

“This is where the West always makes a mistake about Ethiopia – that we [are fighting among each other] like cats and dogs,” says Yoseph Tafari, a deacon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the council’s chairman. “That does not define the general diaspora sentiment about saving Ethiopia as a country.”

Other groups have also sprouted since war broke out.

Tigrayans in the diaspora established the Tigray Center for Information and Communications in the Washington suburbs in December to lobby for a cease-fire and humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile defenders of Abiy’s approach launched the American Ethiopia Public Affairs Committee in Pennsylvania earlier this year and quickly proceeded to hire a top Washington influence firm, Mercury Public Affairs. Two former lawmakers – Republican senator David Vitter of Louisiana and Democratic Congressman Joe Garcia of Florida – are lobbying on the Bass bill.

All eyes on the House

The lobbying onslaught has put the spotlight squarely on Bass and her House colleagues after the Senate version of the bill sailed through the upper chamber unanimously in May.

United States, you’re too big of a country to pick sides. And we just need you to be balanced and judicious about this.

The House of Representatives has taken a more deliberative approach. Bass introduced her resolution in late May and Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) called a hearing on Ethiopia a month later. With the House adjourning for a six-week recess on July 30, action on the bill won’t occur until September at the earliest.

Ethiopian activists of all stripes are looking to her to rectify a US policy that has left everyone unsatisfied.

Abiy’s defenders are furious at the White House and the State Department for cutting some economic and security assistance and announcing visa restrictions on unnamed Ethiopian and Eritrean officials, Tigrayan rebels and Amhara militias. Tigrayan activists meanwhile want the US to declare that Abiy’s government is conducting a genocide.

No pushover

Bass made clear to both groups that she was no pushover.

She told the Tigrayan community that she had yet to see evidence that genocide is happening right now. She also warned them that if allegations of Tigrayan forces using child soldiers pan out, “I will be condemning that, along with other atrocities.”

As for Abiy backers who accuse the US of turning against him because he’s “too independent,” Bass, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, dismissed the idea out of hand. She reminded them that she was excited to meet Abiy in 2018 and “thrilled” when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.

“One of things that I would like to ask you that I’m not really clear about from your perspective is, if you think that the Ethiopian government has done anything that is problematic?” asked Bass.

During her Zoom calls, Bass told both groups that she had asked for permission to travel with colleagues to Ethiopia in mid-September. She said she hoped to be able to enter Tigray during the trip.

“Hopefully this visit will help to make the United States take a pause and reassess their approach, Tafari says.

“All we are asking is, be fair. United States, you’re too big of a country to pick sides. And we just need you to be balanced and judicious about this.”

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