Ethiopian diaspora using US democracy to change politics at home

Ally gets one of US’s largest aid packages among sub-Saharan African countries

Ethiopia’s newly elected prime minister Abiy Ahmed: widely seen as a reformer. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri

A recent declaration by US lawmakers could signal a significant shift in Washington’s approach to addressing Ethiopia’s human rights record.

Ethiopian diaspora activists joined members of Congress on the steps of the US Capitol to celebrate the passing of legislation that sends a clear – and rare – message to the Ethiopian government.

A week after the April 2nd swearing-in of Abiy Ahmed as Ethiopia's new prime minister, the US House of Representatives unanimously adopted a resolution titled "Supporting respect for human rights and encouraging inclusive governance in Ethiopia. "

Unusually outspoken for US public policy in its criticism of Ethiopia’s government, the resolution – known as HR-128 – condemned the killings of peaceful protesters and excessive use of force by Ethiopian security forces; the detention of journalists, students, activists, and political leaders; and the regime’s abuse of the anti-terrorism laws to stifle political and civil dissent and journalistic freedoms.


"The passage of HR-128 without any opposition was a historical achievement," says Tewodrose Tirfe, chair of the Amhara Association of America, a US-based advocacy group for the Amhara, Ethiopia's second-largest ethnic group.

“The Ethiopian-American community is finally understanding how the American democratic process works, and believes they can make a difference in Ethiopia by being engaged in the democratic process.”

Ethiopia’s new prime minister, a relatively spritely 42 years old and a breath of fresh air in the stuffy labyrinth of Ethiopian politics, is widely seen as a reformer who could take the necessary steps to calm a nation that has been engulfed in unprecedented levels of political unrest since the end of 2015.

Cloak-and-dagger affair

At the same time, however, Abiy faces numerous challenges domestically from those members of the establishment resistant to reform or reconciliation efforts, fearful of the power and wealth they have to lose, and who ensure Ethiopian politics is a cloak-and-dagger affair.

“The resolution could give Abiy a freer hand to deal more decisively with those resisting change,” says Hassen Hussein, an academic and writer based in Minnesota.

As the US’s most important ally in the volatile East African region, Ethiopia receives one of the US’s largest security and humanitarian aid packages among sub-Saharan African countries.

This partly explains why previously the US government, though aware of well-documented problems with regards to human rights abuses, lack of democracy and corruption at the highest levels of the Ethiopian state, didn't forcefully act to pressure Ethiopia's government.

But US House’s resolution appears to signal a shift in such realpolitik, indicating that more is expected from the Ethiopian government if it wants to continue receiving vast sums of US humanitarian aid and bilateral support.

The US Senate is considering a partner Bill to HR-128, which is even stronger in its implications, calling on the department of state and the United States Agency for International Development "to improve oversight and accountability of United States assistance to Ethiopia and to ensure such assistance reinforces long-term goals for improved governance".

This would, Tewodros explains, tie aid to improved governance and more scrutiny. Even though resolutions don’t wield the binding power of laws, the combination of strong bipartisan backing and Congress’s power of oversight means agencies named by them have to seriously consider implementing recommendations.

Advocacy partners

Emboldened by this recent legislative success, the Amhara Association of America and other advocacy partners are now working to introduce binding legislation that if it got to President Donald Trump’s desk and was signed would become the law directing how the US deals with Ethiopia.

“We believe this is a much easier task now since the Ethiopian diaspora groups are activated and engaged, the [US] policymakers are educated, and we have built strong bipartisan support in Congress,” Tewodrose says.

That said, opposition exists in the Senate, after which many hurdles would remain before a new law guiding US foreign policy towards Ethiopia emerges.

The UK, another important bilateral partner providing lots of financial assistance to Ethiopia – in 2016 Ethiopia was the third highest recipient of UK foreign aid – has not followed the US's legislative lead yet.

“It is really disappointing because the UK has a lot of influence on the Ethiopian government,” Tewodros says. “A US and UK combined legislation would have a significant effect and an opportunity for real reform in Ethiopia.”

Nevertheless, Ethiopia appears in the midst of unprecedented reform. Political prisoners have been released, and a state of emergency was lifted in early June at the same time the Ethiopian government announced it would cede land at the heart of decades of rancour with Eritrea, and that it would loosen the state's grip on the economy by opening previously restricted parts to private, domestic and foreign investment.

“The new resolution is a reminder to the Ethiopian government that should it fail to reform, it can no longer rely on US largesse to contain problems at home,” Hassen says.