Reviewing the Damaging Effects of Ethiopian Diaspora Politics on the Wider – Part I

Community and its Future Initiatives: The Search for Alternative Mechanisms

 By Dr. Maru Gubena


Before commencing with the thematic issues to be discussed, let me just express my personal views, disappointments and embarrassments related, not just to the untimely and sensational end of the working partnership among the imprisoned, then released, opposition leaders and the sudden split of their political party, but mainly to the appalling (and still persisting) war of words, with intolerable insults against innocent Ethiopians from the unorganized interest groups who support the now divided political leaders – leaders who became divided and hostile to each other, not for reasons of Ethiopia’s short and long term interests, its territorial integrity or the multiple tragedies plaguing our people at home, but for personal reasons. This has been extremely sad and disappointing to see, and indeed beyond the capacity of most of us to comprehend. Though time has elapsed and the embarrassing war of words between the then Kinijit leaders and their followers in late summer and early fall of 2007 may have become blurred in our minds, many of us have remained in a state of shock, disappointment and complete disbelief. The unexpected split among Kinijit leaders and the distasteful war of words have undoubtedly been and are still a major reason for the sudden disappearance of a large number of concerned political activists, participants and article contributors, including myself, from the troubled Diaspora political stage. The shameful events are also unequivocal evidence that the process of merging and constructing what was to have been Kinijit’s house took place hastily and irresponsibly, without first creating the necessary understandings, as well as mechanisms for working together and guiding the organization.


As for some of my compatriots (and as can be read in my previous articles), I in fact have never, from the very outset, anticipated that there would be a fertile ground for Kinijit to exist and grow as a functioning political party in the land of Ethiopia, as long as Ethiopians remain reluctant to rise up against a prolonged economic impoverishment and persistent political repression. Bringing a new political party into existence and having it function well is not just a question of people at the top and a particular party platform. Fundamental changes in the mindsets and perceptions of the people, and in the case of the Ethiopian people an irreversible desire for freedom, equality and democracy, would be required. The willingness of Ethiopians to remain divided and keep their heads buried in the sand, while women and children are being shot to death on the streets of Ethiopian cities and towns and opposition political leaders and artists are being endlessly harassed, arrested and convicted, shows clearly that Ethiopians are most concerned with their personal and family wellbeing, and that the winds carrying the torches for collective wellbeing, freedom and democracy are far remote from the skies and high mountains of Ethiopia (see: The May 2005 Ethiopian Election, part I; The May 2005 Election and the Missing Ingredients, part II)


Even though, as can be remembered, I was one of a few staunch opponents of the participation of Kinijit and other opposition political parities in the parliamentary election held in May 2005, and criticized the formation and function of KIL (Kinijit International Leadership), as well as the establishment of the carefully and strategically named Alliance for Freedom and Democracy (AFD), I nevertheless did not realize how tragic, divisive and embarrassing the effects and repercussions of the demise of Kinijit would be. I had always had believed – as I had been taught – with great conviction, though perhaps foolishly, that Ethiopians were kind and generous to one another and even to foreign visitors. I certainly never, even in my wildest dreams, thought that Ethiopians could also be so hostile, so outrageously cruel and so humiliating to one another. Yes, even though I was one who occasionally accused Ethiopian political leaders and activists of recklessness and of leading weakly organized and dysfunctional organizations housed in shaky buildings constructed from cane and bamboo, with supporters who are lawless, scary militants, blindly following in the footsteps of their political leaders and of activists those who are not in peace with themselves and with each other, much to my astonishment and naïveté, however, I never envisioned that the sudden waves of optimism that existed between the spring of 2005 and the early months of 2006 might be replaced by additional shackles of hatred. I honestly did not know that we Ethiopians could be so inhuman and so ready to obliterate those who refuse to be blind followers, who disagree with our self-centred and hidden ends and our feeble, vague organizations or political parties – political parties that have little or none of the necessary fundamental political structures, strategies, political maps and legal foundations. Nor did I know that we Ethiopians could be so terribly stubborn and jealous - unashamed liars who appear determined to trash and eliminate our own compatriots – not to maintain the territorial integrity of our country, to realize carefully planned socio-political and economic transformation, or to help educate Ethiopians about the terribly necessary modern political culture (a political culture that is entirely absent in the land we call Ethiopia and among the Ethiopian Diaspora community) or about the meaning and significance of democracy and accountability. Instead we do this for the most hazardous and frightening reasons – to support personal, family and group status and interests. Isn’t this extremely frightening and depressing? What is most disturbing is that these cruel and shameless individuals call themselves “the gallant and true children of Ethiopia,” and do everything to convince us that they behave the way they do – engaging day in and day out in character assassination and false charges against known and unknown innocent individuals – because, they argue, they love their country, Ethiopia, enormously – more than anyone else. They also continue to insist that they are the ones who are capable of scaring Meles Zenawi’s regime, preventing them from handing over Ethiopia’s fertile land to Sudan and continuing the repression of our people at home (see also: Sharing the Sources of my Anxiety: A Critical Look at the Responses and Strategies of Ethiopians to Decades of Political Repression, and The changing face of Kinijit.)


Although we will know little about the views and conclusions of Ethiopian and other political historians before their books reach our bookshelves, it would nevertheless not be an overstatement to say that the May 2005 parliamentary election and the subsequent turmoil not only dashed the incalculable hopes and expectations of Ethiopians for relative freedom and a smooth process of democratization, but also added more heavy clouds above the skies of our country. This prolonged any future process of democratization and contributed greatly to an increasing suffocation of the already scarce freedom of speech and movement for each and every individual Ethiopian, and the already scarce freedom of the press encountered yet more widespread repression. More importantly and depressingly, however, the political events of May 2005 have magnified the long existing unhealed wounds and darkened the prospects for positive, relatively civil and respectful communication within the Ethiopian Diaspora community and Ethiopian society at large. Yes, even though most Ethiopian political activists and the unorganized interest groups would prefer to tell us otherwise – saying that the May 2005 election helped to expose the repressive nature of Meles Zenawi’s regime and weakened its political and economic position, both nationally and internationally – in fact in concrete terms, for the majority of Ethiopians both at home and abroad, the direct and indirect repercussions of the May 2005 election and the subsequent turmoil of the past four years have been costly, dreadful, tragic and full of disappointment and embarrassment.


Outlining the Purpose of the Article


Having aired my disappointments, which continue to smoulder in the minds and hearts of many Ethiopians, let me now try to give a brief rough outline of the purposes of this paper. After a time of absence from the tragically wounded Ethiopian Diaspora politics and debates, I am here again to share my views with you regarding the damaging effects of Ethiopian Diaspora politics and media outlets on future organizational hopes, aspirations and initiatives for socio-political and economic changes in Ethiopian society, both at home and in the Diaspora. Also I hope to briefly formulate and present some alternative mechanisms, which I deem helpful in addressing and redressing the long-existing negative images of our troubled Ethiopian Diaspora politics. The absence within Ethiopian Diaspora politics and in the community in general of organizational culture and its most valuable components, such as organizational norms, guidelines and organizational expectations, will also receive its share of time and attention. Yes, I am here again, at least for a while, and I hope to briefly and clearly review the historical background of Ethiopian Diaspora politics and how it began. I will do my best to explain, not just why Ethiopian Diaspora politics remained dysfunctional, but also why many in the Ethiopian Diaspora community came to regard it as either a leisure time activity or as a pastime of “Serafitoch/bozenewoch,” those who have little or nothing else to do. This description has particularly often been used by a good number of Ethiopian wives and girlfriends who loudly, confidently and sometimes angrily accuse their husbands or boyfriends of spending too much time in fruitless politics instead of doing something meaningful in the house – fulfilling their properly expected household roles and responsibilities as loving husbands and fathers.


In addition to outlining alternative policy strategies and new directions that might help to redress and redirect the exceptionally chaotic and negative images that have affected Ethiopian Diaspora politics for many years, my unexpected appearance towards the end of a fading political era is also intended to provide a review of the most important factors and actors that have persistently, perhaps even permanently, prevented the Ethiopian Diaspora community from becoming a collective, harmonious force with a single face, a community that is both respected and proud of itself and its activities, and has kept it from playing a meaningful role that contributes to mending bridges among community members and to alleviating Ethiopia’s multiple, prolonged suffering. More essentially, this paper will make every possible effort to dissect and deal with many of the complex, entangled issues and causes that have led to increasing tensions and gaps among individuals and groups in the community, including the conditions that have given the Ethiopian Diaspora political activists, along with their apparatus and mottos, the reputation of being nothing more than “barking dogs that are unable to bite.” It will also raise questions of why Ethiopian Diaspora politics and media outlets have become and continue to be a force of division among members of the wider Diaspora community, a damaging and in fact paralyzing factor in contemporary Diaspora politics and social relations, freezing out the possibility of new future organizational processes, hopes and aspirations, including many types of potential initiatives.


An additional vitally important – and probably the most difficult – question, which most of us prefer not to discuss, not even to hear about, will be incorporated and examined: can democracy and its most essential components take root in a country where modern political culture is entirely absent; whose people appear to be historically and culturally family and group oriented, regionalist and undemocratic, with little or no feeling or love for a nation state; and who, paradoxically enough, choose remaining in conflict with each other above forging bonds and working peacefully and harmoniously together with those across the entire land of Ethiopia. Though painful, relevant questions such as why Ethiopians seem to remain addicted to repeatedly splitting apart and prefer to “go it alone” in Ethiopian politics, while each and every one of them knows perfectly well that they cannot make or remake politics by associating only with family members and personal friends – those with whom they can easily agree – and while they also know that such disappointing and fruitless political activities are not just a waste of time, but are also hurtful to themselves and to the community, and have divisive and demoralizing effects on current and future political initiatives, will be included and discussed. Also, to help me understand the repeated tragic debacles of Ethiopian politics and their subsequent repercussions, and also to be able to get some insight into the mindsets, behaviours and political cultures, outlooks and political strategies of the present political activists, an attempt will be made to look closely at the interrelated historical sources and causes that have shaped and reshaped contemporary Ethiopian politics, Ethiopian political culture and our society at large.


It is perhaps necessary to give a brief introductory note related to the text above. It is quite possible that some of the questions raised and the major issues and concerns stated here will seem sensitive or even a bit offensive to some or even most of my Ethiopian compatriots. This is because, I imagine, we Ethiopians quite often choose to think only about the positive side of our history and culture, preferring to walk with a profound feeling of pride, leaning heavily but irresponsibly upon the ceaselessly fascinating history of Ethiopia, proud of simply being the children of those who fought gallantly and decisively against foreign powers, despite their relatively modern, deadly firearms. For known or unknown reasons, however, we are unaccustomed, perhaps even allergic to confronting ourselves and engaging with the other, negative side of the coin – facing our own historical and cultural processes, errors and realities and relating them to the contemporary political challenges, personal and group acrimonies that are all sources of the persistent tragedies that plague us in our never-ending attempts and struggles to free ourselves from the shackles of longstanding impoverishment and from successive repressive regimes. In our persistent endeavours to democratize our country we attempt to imitate the systems, political and democratic models of other nations, to implement them in our own land and incorporate them into our minds, but we fail to first understand and deal with the cardinal foundations and requirements of the many-sided components of democracy and democratic patterns and principles, and to consider and study their appropriateness to our situation, the openness of our culture and our socio-culturally molded attitudes and mindsets.


It is therefore vitally important, especially given the infrequent nature of debates and discussions involving such sensitive issues, to have an open mind and pay the necessary attention, so as to comprehend both the primary and wider purposes of this paper: not just to initiate new discourses and educate ourselves, but first of all to stress the urgent need to think and look critically, either individually or collectively, at the historical components that have shaped Ethiopian culture and molded our uncompromising, irreconcilable and sometimes vindictive attitudes and uncaring behaviours. Only then will we be able to meaningfully and effectively address and redress the family socialization and group orientations we have had, including our regionalist mentalities, and to envision and cultivate the new political culture that is essential for the entire land of Ethiopia. This engagement with our history and culture is, in my view, indispensable, and will be highly conducive to redirecting our discourse into more mature, logical ways of looking at the sources of the persistent feuds, infighting and divisions among us. Through such engagement, after addressing the root causes of our inabilities to forge bonds, live and work together and find the remedies we need, and after inculcating concepts of respect, trust, confidence, accountability and shared responsibility for each other – combined with a mindset among the members of our society that includes a sense of belonging, a feeling of nationhood – we can achieve a basis for democracy and democratic systems to gradually take root in the land of Ethiopia. Only then can the needs, desires and aspirations of the people be realized – to live together, side by side and peacefully, as children of a single nation state under a democratic system and under collaboratively achieved, agreed and accepted rules and socio-cultural values and norms.


Let me now outline a few remaining primary intentions of this paper. One important additional objective is to consider the composition of the Ethiopian Diaspora, including the increasing differences within the community in terms of educational background and the extent of involvement in Ethiopian Diaspora politics. A more crucial element in relation to Diaspora politics, which I would like to see taken under consideration by the Ethiopian Diaspora community – especially if we are willing to make a serious attempt to forge bonds among ourselves, become a socially and politically influential community and play a meaningful role in helping ourselves and possibly also our country – is to again issue my previous repeated calls underlining the urgent need for the establishment of a common, single House for the Ethiopian Diaspora, a professional institution, free from any direct or indirect influence from any political party, with visions and strategies, systems and rules – systems and rules that reward and obligate its members to serve, provide support and comply. This would be an institution within which we can all educate ourselves; provide the means and the required material and educational tools to help in the development and expansion of civil society in our country; rebuild the badly needed trust, confidence and accountability among ourselves; engage in positive and constructive discourse and research about the many sided positive and negative cultural elements of our society; redress previous wrongdoing; and fashion new and helpful tools and strategies that will help to heal wounds, whether long existing or freshly inflicted, upon particular sections and generations of Ethiopian society. Within such an institution we can produce acceptable, maturely written policies relevant to our contemporary political challenges and debates about the process of democratization, the development and role of civil society and the future face and direction of our country and its people, and we can rebuild the badly needed respect and love among ourselves. Such an institution is also needed to help maintain and expand our long-established positive cultural elements and use these to fashion a new political culture, extending our cultural patterns to include habits of working and living together with accountability and responsibility. This will allow us not only to influence the forces and processes of future socio-economic and political changes in our country, both directly and indirectly, but to play an indispensable part, with a meaningful, positive, substantial role in helping and defending each member of our community in times of personal or collective difficulty, no matter how severe (see the last page of my article: Lessons for Ethiopians from the downfall of US-supported dictators.)


For methodological purposes and to provide a clear, effective review of the interlinked topical issues and questions raised above, two critically important terms, functional and dysfunctional will be employed in relation to community or society. In this paper the use of these terms will be strictly limited to the Ethiopia Diaspora community and its involvement and role in areas of politics. All of the issues and topics outlined above will be incorporated and highlighted within the following four sub-themes:

  • Contemporary Ethiopian Diaspora Politics in Historical Perspective

  • The Changing Face of the Ethiopian Diaspora and its Impact on Politics, the Wider Community and Future Organizational Hopes and Initiatives

  • Revisiting the May 2005 Ethiopian Parliamentary Election and its Role in Generating a Spontaneous Mood of Unity Among the Diaspora Community

  • Can Democracy take Root in a Country where Family, Group Orientation and Regionalism are entrenched and Political Culture is lacking?


My brief remarks, conclusions and alternative suggestions will be incorporated at the end of the paper, together with the fourth sub-topic. This concluding remark will include some concrete alternatives and helpful suggestions about what precisely needs be done – a new path, including new socio-political mechanisms conducive to freeing Ethiopians from family, group-oriented and regionalist politics, helpful in forging bonds among ourselves


Finally, I must note that there are few helpful written materials or study guides regarding the history of the Ethiopian Diaspora community and how its politics began and developed. Therefore this paper will be based primarily on highly limited personal participation and observations of three decades ago, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to present a proper, relatively balanced overview. I am nevertheless determined to confront myself, to refresh my memories, and to make every effort to take a brief, close look at the historical processes and growth of the Ethiopian Diaspora and its role in Ethiopian politics.


Maru Gubena

Readers who wish to contact the author can reach me at



• The issues, questions and concerns raised above will be included and examined, together with the remaining four sub-topics,  when I return with chapters two and three of this paper.













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