By Mesfin Tegenu*
When the war in Northern Ethiopia started in November 2020 I, like many other members of the diaspora, was shocked to see the country fall into conflict at a moment when Ethiopians were enjoying a new democratic focus, economic liberation and a more progressive society. Seeing the violence and destruction in the country of my birth and seeing the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) try to steal back power, I felt I had to do something. By April 2021, with the support of friends from every state in the US, we founded the American Ethiopian Public Affairs Committee (AEPAC).
Having spoken with leaders from many different diaspora groups: Israeli, Nigerian, Haitian etc. it often takes a moment of crisis, be that war, disease, or a natural disaster, to bring a diaspora community together and to speak with one voice. That was certainly the case for the American Ethiopian community.
There has to be a purpose to this unity, and that is advocating for change in US Government policy. We started the journey with full confidence in the ability and strength of United States foreign policy, today I remain perplexed by the misinformation and ignorance I have witnessed in Congress, The White House and the State Department. I am not alone; this is a view shared across African diaspora groups.
AEPAC has worked tirelessly to try and change that. We have met with more than 100 representatives’ offices to try and educate on the facts of the conflict, we have done our best to defend Ethiopia against condemnation and sanctions and change the conversation to how the United States can actually support Ethiopia find peace, rather than endlessly try to punish the country. We have had some major successes from stopping two sanctions-focused bills, HR6600 and S3199, from going to a vote, we found Members of Congress to advocate for Ethiopia’s place in AGOA and we met with the Horn of Africa Envoy Ambassador Mike Hammer to encourage him to pressure the TPLF to come to the negotiating table.
Thankfully, on November 2nd, peace was secured between the Government of Ethiopia and the TPLF rebels. The accords signed in Pretoria, South Africa, have delivered what we have all been fighting for. The agreement sees the TPLF disarm and disband. The Federal Government will return to governing Tigray and an immediate ceasefire will mean it has been safe enough to begin restoring essential services and upscale humanitarian aid to Amhara, Afar and Tigray.
One of the most important aspects of the peace agreement is that it was secured through the leadership of the African Union. There was an African solution to an African challenge. It is no secret the TPLF wanted the discussions to be led by the United States, but that had no support among the majority of Ethiopians nor the diaspora. The White House and State Department got this conflict wrong, their blind support for the TPLF for the majority of the conflict has lost the trust of many Ethiopian Americans.
The US involvement lacked appreciation for the complexities of the conflict and the country. And the aggressive punitive measures against the government and not the TPLF actually made the situation worse, and probably prolonged the war.
Regardless, Ethiopia has now found peace and there is a need to reset. Reset society in Ethiopia and bring people who have been locked in a brutal war back together. Reset relations between Ethiopia and the United States. And reset AEPAC’s approach toward its efforts to unite the diaspora and turn the international conversation on Ethiopia to a more positive place. The Government of Ethiopia has its work cut out trying to achieve these, there are many big issues to overcome from ethnic federalism to the national economic recovery. But all Ethiopians have a part to play, just as we did during the war.
The American Ethiopian community has never been more united. That was demonstrated as the community voted as a block in the US midterm elections. Out of AEPAC’s 35 nationally endorsed candidates, 32 were successful. We recognise AEPAC and our partners have a leadership role post-peace agreement to bring the community together, AEPAC already has many members and supporters from all corners of Ethiopia including from directly impact areas of Afar, Amhara and Tigray. We hope to continue to undertake outreach to bring the diaspora closer together to match the peace process work being undertaken in Ethiopia.
The reset of relations between the US and Ethiopia I believe started with the new Africa Strategy announced by Secretary Blinken in the summer. The use of the language “U.S.-African partnership” is itself a positive change and a clear departure from the approach taken to date. Seeing African nations as equals is important. There is also a commitment to working more closely with African multilateral organisations, especially the African Union. Some believe this new approach is a reaction to China and Russia’s influence in Africa, others argue the White House and State Department have finally awoken to the importance of the continent to U.S. global priorities, such as the continent’s rapidly growing population, one of the world’s largest trading blocs and its significant natural resources. Motivation doesn’t matter, it is actioning the strategy into real-world scenarios that will tell if there is a real change or if it’s just more talk.
The most promising aspect of the strategy for me was a new commitment to work with America’s African diaspora. It fulfils a Biden-Harris campaign pledge to “elevate” diaspora engagement. Diaspora communities hold the key to transforming waning US influence in Africa, we can offer in-depth knowledge of our respective ancestral homes, we can help bolster support for the Administration’s policy positions here and abroad, we can help boost trade and there are no better ambassadors for America’s democratic values than us.
I hope one day soon the US can undertake the foreign policy transformation that is required to be a successful international partner in 2023. Let’s see if that plays out during the Africa summit in Washington DC.