Reviewing the Damaging Effects of Ethiopian Diaspora Politics on the Wider – PART II



Community and its Future Initiatives: The Search for Alternative Mechanisms

By Maru Gubena

Before anything else, let me just say a few things in simple, straightforward words: my thanks to those who have expressed their views directly to me, sharing their opinions and frustrations. My thanks also to those who posted their constructive and most helpful comments on various Ethiopian websites in response to my recently posted excerpted text and article. This has been an encouragement, helping to pour some fuel into me to remain engaged in my writing, as a part of the voice of Ethiopian politics. Yes, it is indeed true that some of the comments I received were extremely powerful and penetrating; in particular two long comments written in Amharic and one in English managed to awaken my long hidden feelings and painful memories in a highly accelerated fashion – feelings and memories that arrived surrounded by clear images of the cruel and inhuman era of the 1970’s – as experienced by a disproportionately high number of my generation. An era that successfully obliterated the long existing morale and feelings of patriotism of Ethiopians, to the point that these seem immensely difficult, if not impossible, to restore, and an era that is responsible for the disintegration of our country – Ethiopia. Though many of my compatriots who were a part of that most vicious regime, with its hostile, dreadful political machines and mechanisms, might have a different view of the atrocious and untold crimes committed by our own people, it was also the Ethiopian military regime of that particular period that made my country a killing field. The impact of that period is still profound in our lives, making everything impossible, including working together and finding a political solution to the ongoing multiple problems in Ethiopia.

To be honest with you, while reading the comments mentioned above, but also afterwards, I became a bit emotional; not surprisingly, I suddenly ran out of my study, going downstairs in search of someone – someone who carries more or less the same wounds and scars as many of my generation, and someone who can understand my pain and is willing to listen to me and share my emotions. Yes, I went running as fast as I could to be with someone who is willing to hold me as closely and firmly as possible and is capable of offering me the solace and comfort I needed so badly in those remarkably disturbing but most memorable hours. What more can I say, other than thanking the authors of the e-mails and posted comments, except that that I am delighted to have published my text. Had I not posted it, I would have missed the opportunity to share my views and read these memorable, painful but wisely expressed comments.

Most of the questions raised, either in the e-mails I have received or the reactions posted by readers, in response to the recently posted first part of my article entitled “Reviewing the Damaging Effects of Ethiopian Diaspora Politics on the Wider Community and its Future Initiatives: The Search for Alternative Mechanisms,” were about when they would be able to read the rest. In response, as promised, here is the second part of the article. For those who have not had a chance to read the first part – published between the last days of February and the first two or three days of March 2009 – it is advisable to download and read part one before proceeding with part two of the article.

As outlined in part one of this article, for methodological purposes and to provide a clear, effective review of the interlinked topical issues and questions raised there, 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 Ethiopian Diaspora community and its involvement and role in areas of politics. A good many of the issues and topics outlined in part one have been included and examined in this paper, in the section on “Contemporary Ethiopian Diaspora Politics in Historical Perspective.” The remaining critically important questions and concerns will be incorporated and highlighted as a part of the remaining three sub-themes; these will form the third and fourth chapters, which are yet to be written and published.

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?

Finally, I must mention the lack of helpful written materials or study guides regarding the history of the Ethiopian Diaspora community and how its politics began and developed. As a result, 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. And in fact, examining any history – not just the history of the Ethiopian Diaspora community and its politics – and presenting it in a way that is compact and can be followed and clearly understood by the intended readers is tricky for most people, if not for all writers. It is certainly difficult for me. 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. Also, as we Ethiopians are so good at having a variety of views – which can actually sometimes be healthy – I am quite aware that the experiences and observations of others, even if they had an opportunity to be in the same place at the same time, may be far different from my own experiences and observations, and from the views I express here. I would therefore kindly request and encourage my Ethiopian compatriots of my generation to put together their own helpful experiences and views, so that I and many other Ethiopian compatriots and friends of Ethiopia can share and learn from them.

Contemporary Ethiopian Diaspora Politics in Historical Perspective

As long-time Ethiopian political activists and historians of Ethiopian politics know, it would not be wrong to argue vigorously that the history of Ethiopian Diaspora politics is inseparably linked to the early Ethiopian student movement, made up of members and activists who had the opportunity to come and further their studies in North America and Europe. They gradually established their own Ethiopian Students’ Association in North America (ESANA) and The Union of Ethiopian Students in Europe (ESUE), with firm determination to maintain their working partnership with their compatriots back home and help to debate the issues pertaining to Ethiopian political and economic issues and political systems. They also wanted to speak out as loudly as they could concerning the exceptional growth in income inequality, poverty, and urban-rural gaps that plagued the majority of Ethiopians, along with many other socio-cultural problems of their time. It is said that these early Ethiopian student activists also saw a change in leadership, accompanied by radical structural change and socio-political and economic transformation, as paramount among their many objectives.

Disappointingly, however, despite these most ambitious plans, the government of Emperor Haile Selassie –which the Ethiopian students had hoped to see replaced by new political leadership and by the radical socio-political and economic policies they had envisioned – was suddenly deposed in 1974 by yet more radical, inexperienced and self-centred members of the Ethiopian armed forces. Upon learning the bad news about the emergence of the new enemy, only a very few of the large number of the Ethiopian student activists in North America and Europe returned to Ethiopia to join their compatriot comrades who were engaged in political and armed resistance against the untimely and uninvited newly emergent military junta. This government, with its 120 members, called itself the Provisional Military Administrative Council, (otherwise known as the Dergue, or Committee), became the undisputed ruler of the entire nation and the subjugator of the Ethiopian people. The majority of Ethiopian students remained in the USA and Europe, some by extending their studies and others by applying for a new form of living permit – political asylum, which was scarcely known to most Ethiopians of the period. However, some returned home and even those who did not began to focus their interest and energy exclusively on the political events and processes in Ethiopia. A good number of the student leaders and well known political figures within the Ethiopian students’ association and their union in both North America and Europe joined either the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) or the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (MEISON) in Ethiopia. Both the day-to-day activities of ESANA and ESUE and the respect they had enjoyed were eroded, and both organizations were destroyed.

Almost all students and political activists in the early Ethiopian student movement were relatively young, probably on average between the ages of 18 and 25. Also, probably due to the relatively easy life in Ethiopia during the period in which the Golden Period Generation was born and grew up, and because most came from well-to-do families, the majority of the early Ethiopian student activists were relatively tall and good looking, with their rather long hair worn “Afro style.” Yes, life in Ethiopia before the upheaval of the bloody 1974 revolution was easy – and rather cheap as well – and the movements of individuals were not restricted. There were hardly any internal tensions or wars, and external wars were sporadic: the Golden Period Generation never experienced continuous war nor witnessed columns of tanks in their cities and towns, especially in comparison to the experiences of the War Born Generation in the period under the Dergue (for extended information see my two-part article, The Revitalization of Ethiopia’s Most Tragic, Nightmarish and Painful Memories of the 1970s: The Clash of Generations, published in November – December 2006).

As the policy of the military regime became exceptionally harsh and heinous, and widespread atrocious crimes continued throughout Ethiopia, the early Ethiopian student activists in North America, Europe and Africa were joined by new groups, arriving in massive numbers – Ethiopian asylum seekers and refugees, the victims of the Dergue. These new arrivals included a good number of EPRP urban political activists, as well as those from Assimba and surrounding areas and towns, who had been engaged in direct armed struggle with the ruthless military regime of Ethiopia. Refugees from Ethiopia had been periodically registered, selected and admitted as refugees by the immigration authorities of the United States and by some European governments to come and live in their countries. They arrived from their countries of first asylum, such as Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya, but also some Mediterranean or South European countries, such as Italy and Greece. Asylum seekers, on the other hand, are individuals who arrive at any port of entry of a given country and apply for political asylum based on widespread political, religious or other forms of repression in their country of origin. A disproportionately high number of the Ethiopian asylum seekers and refugees of the period, probably over 98 percent, were high school and university students, recent graduates or teachers. Also, due to the severely restrictive policy imposed by the new military regime on those leaving (or trying to leave) Ethiopia illegally – considered to be a huge crime, tantamount to treason – and in addition to the newness and uncertainties, for Ethiopians, of becoming an asylum seeker or refugee in another country, almost all of the victims of the atrociously cruel regime of the Dergue who managed to escape were males. Consequently, like the students, the Ethiopian refugee population of the period was almost exclusively male. Whatever refugee status or student residence permits Ethiopians were given by other countries, however, no member of the community in this period had ever thought, even in their wildest dreams, that these new countries would be where they would be maturing, spending the majority of their years, dying and perhaps being buried. No, no one had ever predicted or even considered remaining a landless people forever. Everyone had a solid plan of returning home within a brief period – probably after a maximum of three to five years (see also: The Future of the Maturing African Diaspora: Sharing my Night Memories of the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution and the Purpose of my Departure).

As the political and military positions of EPRP became progressively weaker on both urban and rural fronts, hopes to overthrow the new military regime continued to fade and the number of Ethiopian asylum seekers and refugees arriving in other countries continued to increase. The accelerating decline in the political position and military power of EPRP also began to cause or contribute to internal tensions, feuds and conflicts among its important organs and supporters in Europe and North America; anxiety grew as the organization became weaker. Despite these problems and the uncertain future of the EPRP, discussions and debates continued during its short life, and political meetings, and study groups were established to collectively follow political developments and other events that were underway in our country, and to actively explore Marxism, Leninism and other relevant theories. In those days meetings of the various study cells always took place face-to-face. This was probably due to the importance of personal and group security as well as the fact that today’s technological possibilities were not yet available: other forms of interaction such as teleconferences or discussions using paltalk software while sitting in one’s own house, perhaps in bed or while cooking, were totally unknown to the early Ethiopian students and political activists who were soon to become known as “Ethiopian refugees” or “the Ethiopian Diaspora community.” Attending a politically oriented meeting and becoming a well known participant in such gatherings and debates were seen by most activists, at least indirectly, as important – just as it would be important, for example in top educational circles, to be associated with the activities of a well known and highly respected educational institution. Also, being familiar with and readily employing Marxist terminology, such as “sectarianism” or the “sectarians,” the “proletariat” or “proletarians” and the “remnants” when speaking in meetings and conferences, was often associated with being a revolutionary who had a profound involvement in and understanding of the fundamentals of Marxism and Leninism. Presenting the communist manifesto and explaining its content and meaning, and talking in great detail about the 1917 Russian revolution and the irreconcilable ideological differences between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, including the deep-seated animosity between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky, were all seen as hugely important and a sign that the Ethiopian political activists or cell members involved were educated and knowledgeable in Marxist and other relevant theories associated with socialism and communism – most likely someone who had attended one of the highly respected universities in Moscow or Beijing. Having a number of personal books in one’s room, preferably hardcovers (red in colour) bearing the names of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Frederick Engels or all three, and carrying one or more of these books while walking, was used to signify some sort of intellectuality and a deep involvement in the concepts of the socialist and communist mode of production.

Unsurprisingly, although almost all of the Ethiopian students and political activists who opposed the regime of our country were residing safely in the western world, either as students or as asylum seekers/refugees, they neither appreciated nor valued the political and economic systems of their countries of residence, including their mode of production. Participants in the various study groups were repeatedly encouraged to study Marxism, Leninism and related books, and to become devoted forces towards socio-economic and political change in a truly revolutionary future Ethiopia. On the other hand, however, the high-ranking individuals in these groups did not appreciate or value time spent by members of the various cells in social or other activities related to personal wellbeing. Even though (as mentioned above), the population of early Ethiopian students and political activists was predominantly male, the desire or temptation to have a girlfriend, or to talk about sex or sexuality was seen as undesired and unhealthy – something that could weaken the group. Such activities were, therefore, socially discouraged and forbidden, not just by the leaders of the group, but also by most participants in the various cells. Yes, as interdependence among Ethiopians was phenomenal, the social control was extremely heavy. There were very few Ethiopian girls, perhaps two or three among the thirty to forty members of each group, and they were usually associated with well-known, dominant figures. Probably because of the limited number of female Ethiopians and because most of the early Ethiopian students and political activists were young, in their early lives, terms such as engagement, marriage or wedding were unfamiliar to most of them. As result, there was little or no talk about such ideas, and no one among us was either engaged or married. Most used to sleep quite often with their Marxist and Leninist books.

Yes, the period was indeed remarkable, and is painfully full of memories, including difficulties and homesickness or nostalgia – difficulties and homesickness experienced by the early Ethiopian students and political activists. Technological communications were less advanced than today, and the number of Ethiopians in Ethiopia who owned landline phones was far more limited, but also the risk of communicating with family members back home was enormously great. Making contact with those who were considered to be enemies of the regime and the country it ruled was seen as reason enough to be arrested, tortured or even killed, so direct contacts with family members and friends were extremely and painfully difficult, if not impossible. Even letters sent from Ethiopians living abroad to families back home were often returned to the senders by the cadres of the ruthless regime with a list of possible messages stamped on the envelope, including: “the person to whom this letter has been addressed has disappeared.” Or “the person to whom this letter has been addressed has been imprisoned or executed,” and so on. In reality, however, the messages received from the cadres of the regime were not always true. Yes, after repeatedly writing to family members and friends most students managed to discover that that those who had been declared to have disappeared, or to have been imprisoned or executed, were actually well and alive!

The exchange of information related to political developments in the country, especially exchanges with those who were engaged in the struggle against the military regime, was limited to the high ranking members of the study groups or cells. The majority of the group knew little or nothing. Remarkably enough, however, whenever there was bad news, such as arrests or killing of important members of the resistance or their leaders in the war front, it could be read in the faces of the group leaders who received or heard the news. Yes, as the measures being undertaken by the military regime of the time against both urban and rural EPRP activists, its supporters and sympathizers, became more atrociously inhuman, the awful and depressing news continued to reach Ethiopians living outside Ethiopia. Though it was difficult to verify the accuracy of the news or to know exactly what had happened, the ambush and assassination of a group of high ranking EPRP leaders by the death squads of the military regime were said to have been the most decisive factors in discontinuing all political activities and engagements, and disbanding the various study groups or cells (for further reading see the article, “Evaluating Three Decades of Ethiopian Resistance, its Challenges, Achievements and Failures: Perspectives for Political and Leadership Change”).

In my recollection, it was in early or mid 1979 that a three day international conference intended for all Ethiopians residing in Europe and North America was called to discuss and debate the future, and probably also to see if anything could be done to arrest the total disintegration of their party – the EPRP. The conference was held in Europe, in Amsterdam, the capital city of The Netherlands. As far as I can recall, participants came from as far as what were then the Soviet Union and the Eastern Block countries, from Sweden, Norway, France, Germany, Great Britain and many other countries. Even though most of the debates were heated, emotionally loaded and conducted in revolutionary tones, in general terms, the conference, which marked the end of political activities, study groups and any other form of political meetings, was rational, friendly, full of closeness among participants and indeed pleasant. Also, as Ethiopians of the period were still fond of being together and sleeping in a single room, five or even ten or fifteen together, there was no need to book hotel rooms. Yes, though we Ethiopians can often be allergic to agreement and to working together in areas related to national issues, sleeping in one room and talking the whole night about Ethiopian politics is undeniably among our favourite pastimes. However, except for some small sporadic educational seminars organized at the national level by universities or Ethiopian community associations, the international conference held in Amsterdam was to be the last gathering on Ethiopian political issues for almost a decade. All political activity halted for what was then an unknown period, while individual Ethiopian activists went on with their studies and personal lives. Yes, it took almost a decade for the political spirits and morale of the early Ethiopian political activists to revive, and for them to return to Ethiopian politics.

Paradoxically, and for most of my readers perhaps strangely, even unacceptably, it was nonetheless the unexpected military strength, as well as the successes and political strategies of the enemies of Ethiopian unity – the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation

Front (TPLF) – that, in combination with the rapid decline in the military and political power of the Ethiopian military regime, contributed significantly to the reviving, reenergizing and regrouping of the Ethiopian Diaspora political activists. The surviving EPRP and MEISON leaders and their supporters and sympathizers who had often joked and talked so disparagingly about TPLF, never believing it could succeed in defeating the military regime and become the unchallenged ruler of the entire land of Ethiopia, finally reappeared from their Diaspora fortresses around 1988 and 1989, after almost a decade of silence. The few leaders of these two historical enemies, EPRP and MEISON, who had managed to survive the killing fields constructed by the inhuman leadership of the Dergue regime, made a marriage of convenience almost immediately after their reappearance in 1991. They announced the formation of a new alliance, the Coalition of Democratic Ethiopian Forces (CODEF), aimed at either forcing the TPLF leadership to form a coalition government with them, or failing that at collectively voicing their opposition to TPLF’s single-handed rule. Knowing the scattered nature of the Ethiopian opposition, their non-existent power base and the disorganization of their parties, however, the TPLF leadership remained determined, continuing to rule Ethiopia and its people single-handedly, under its own terms, desires and policies. As result, despite never-ending feuds, divisions and deep-seated wounds and hostilities (some historical, some freshly inflicted) among the opposition groups, Ethiopian Diaspora politics, whether functional or dysfunctional, with members or without, with a leader or leaderless, with financial resources or not, have persisted to the present day. They have continued in spite of the ineffectiveness of Ethiopia Diaspora politics and the direct or indirect damaging effects these politics have had on the wider Ethiopian Diaspora community, including the harm to current and future political and organizational hopes and initiatives. Additionally, the repressive policies directed by the TPLF regime at conscious and concerned Ethiopians, including human rights activists and the press, along with its arrogant, thoughtless retort that “if you don’t like me and if you don’t agree with my policy, you can go and live anywhere you wish,” have produced a massive number of new Ethiopian asylum seekers and refugees, who in turn have dramatically changed both the composition and the face of the Ethiopian Diaspora community, including the process and direction of its politics.


Maru Gubena

Readers who wish to contact the author can reach me at


• As pointed out on page three, the issues, questions and concerns raised in part one will be included and examined together with the remaining three sub-topics, including, •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; and •Can Democracy take Root in a Country where Family, Group Orientation and Regionalism are entrenched and Political Culture is lacking? when I come back to work on chapters three and four of this paper.

This entry was posted in Articles. Bookmark the permalink.