The Ethiopian diaspora in the US has assumed a significant role in politics back home and are shaping political debate through social media and satellite television.
Clashes between police and protestors at Ethiopia’s Irreecha festival on October 2 this year left more than 100 people drowned or crushed to death. Soon after, social media sites were abuzz with claims that a police helicopter had fired into the panicking crowds.
A helicopter had in fact been circling above the grounds. But it was dropping leaflets wishing participants a happy festival.
After the incident, overseas activists called for “five days of rage.” During the following week, foreign-owned factories, government buildings and tourist lodges were attacked across the Oromo region. On October 9, the government declared a six-month state of emergency.
Members of the large Ethiopian diaspora in the US, who have long used the internet to try to influence politics at home, follow events in Ethiopia very closely.
Successive waves of emigration have formed a worldwide Ethiopian diaspora of around two million people. The largest communities are in the US, with estimates varying from 250,000 people to about one million.
An abuse of freedom of speech?
“They live in a secure democracy, send their children to good western schools, and are at liberty to say whatever they want to cause mayhem in Ethiopia,” said one foreign official who works for an international institution and who asked to remain anonymous. “They call it freedom of speech and they abuse it to their hearts’ content,” he added.
But the growing movement of writers, bloggers, journalists and activists working in tandem with diaspora satellite television channels which broadcast from the US don’t see it that way.
“The role of the diaspora is consciously being inflated by the regime to duck its responsibility for the debacle at home,” says Hassan Hussein, an Ethiopian academic and writer based in the United States. “Western diplomats echo the regime’s spin and exaggerate the role of the diaspora to justify their cosy relationship with a regime lacking popular legitimacy,” Hussein adds.
Either way, the diaspora is shaping coverage of the protests that began a year ago, when protests by Oromo farmers against land grabs mushroomed into a movement against the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In August, Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group, the Amhara, joined the protests.
And diaspora influence goes beyond media coverage. The political opposition in Ethiopia is weak and divided. Its effectiveness has certainly suffered due to oppressive government tactics.