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Ethiopia's hugely influential diaspora split on Abiy

Kate Hairsine
July 17, 2020

Ethiopian diaspora groups are calling for global protests today. The diaspora has a significant influence on politics in Ethiopia — but is divided over support for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

A man wearing a pullover in Ethiopia's colors holds up the US flag in protests from July 8, 2020
Image: AFP/B. Bell

Diaspora groups are calling for Ethiopians abroad to join rallies starting Wednesday in cities as far afield as London, Geneva, Manchester, Seattle and Washington. Marches are also planned for Berlin, Frankfurt and Nuremberg over the weekend. 

The slaying of the immensely popular Oromo activist and singer Hachalu Hundessa, who was gunned down in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa on 29 June, has galvanized Ethiopia's global diaspora to take to the streets.

The singer’s killing has further increased tensions after the government recently delayed the national election, citing the coronavirus pandemic.

The demonstrators have a slew of grievances — and are at times divided about why they are protesting.

Some are calling for an independent investigation into Hachalu's death.

Then there are those who also want the immediate release of prominent Oromo opposition leaders, such as Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba, who were arrested for allegedly inciting violence in the wake of the killing.

Many Oromo in the diaspora are also protesting against the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and calling for his resignation.

Still photo of Hachalu Hundessa
Hachulu Hundessa's songs provided a soundtrack to a generation of Oromo protestersImage: Leisa Amanuel

The Oromo — Ethiopia's largest ethnic group — make up about a third of the country's 110 million people and have long complained of political and economic exclusion. Aspiring for more regional autonomy, Oromo ethnonationalists feel let down by Abiy, Ethiopia's first Oromo prime minister, who is pushing an agenda of national unity.

At the same time, some rallied on Friday for an end to the surge in ethnic violence triggered by Hachalu's killing.

At least 239 people and security forces died in the latest unrest. 

"We want to stop the violence and are calling on Ethiopians to respect peace and order," said Zelealem Tesema from United Ethiopians in the UK, who planned to attend a rally in London.

"There is no excuse for targeting people's identity and religion. That is not the sentiment of the community," he told DW.

Protesters supportive of Abiy and his reforms that have opened up many political freedoms in the country are also expected.

'Influential diaspora'

Ethiopia's diaspora, which is estimated to number around 2.5 million, has significant political clout within the country.

"It is perhaps the single most influential diaspora community around the world," said Awol Allo, an Ethiopian academic in a telephone interview from his home in London.

Members of Germany's Ethiopian diaspora hold Ethiopian flags in Frankfurt
Demonstration of the Ethiopian Human Rights Committee in Frankfurt on July 15 to commemorate those who lost their lives in the recent ethnic attacksImage: DW/E. Fekade

"These are politically active individuals who left their country because of their political views and because they faced persecution in their country. What that did to most people is that they continued to struggle, to fight for those causes even after leaving Ethiopia," said Allo, a law lecturer at Keele University in the UK.

The largest Ethiopian diaspora is in the US, totaling around 305,800. The Middle East, Canada, Italy, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands also have large Ethiopian communities. So does Germany, with large numbers of Ethiopians living in and around Frankfurt. 

Dissent flourished overseas

Decades-long political repression within Ethiopia meant "people on the ground" didn't have the freedom to express themselves, said Yared Hailemariam, the Coordinator of the Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Coalition.

"The diaspora become their voice," said Hailemariam, who spent 13 years living in exile in Belgium before returning to Ethiopia after Abiy became prime minister.

"The diaspora are in a free land, they can protest, they can give a voice to the voiceless."

Before Abiy came to power and invited opposition members back home and released others from jail, three of Ethiopia's most important political opposition organizations were run from outside of the country.

"The only steps the opposition had to mobilize and organize to pursue their political objectives was by using the diaspora collective," university lecturer Awol Allo told DW.

Until Abiy ushered in media reforms, Ethiopia was also one of the most censored countries in the world, systemically harassing, arresting and jailing independent media workers.

Read more: Press freedom under siege again in the new Ethiopia

This information black hole was eagerly plugged by a plethora of bloggers, online news sites and even satellite TV stations operated from the diaspora.

This combination of factors makes the diaspora, as Allo described it, "almost the nerve center" of Ethiopian opposition politics and critical voices.

Mobilizing social media

Since the first wave of Ethiopians fled famine, civil war and the repression of the Derg regime in the 1970s, diaspora groups have played a role in internal politics.

"In the 1980s, they mobilized resources and financed and supported armed groups that toppled the Soviet-affiliated Derg regime," said Merga Yonas Bula, a doctoral student researching Ethiopia's diaspora at the University of Leipzig in Germany.

But it was the advent of social media that led to groups abroad becoming a force to be reckoned with, Bula believes.

"Social media platforms became an alternative for them to voice their discontent. And beyond that, social media became a tool for resistance ... to mobilize resources and financing, and also to share their strategies," Bula said.

With their skillful harnessing of social media, the relatively young diaspora became deeply involved in the anti-government protests that flared in 2016 and that three years later led to the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and Abiy's election.

"The uprising and demonstrations that led to the change of leadership in 2018, they were greatly influenced by the diaspora," said Annette Weber, a Senior Fellow and Horn of Africa expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Internet shutdown

When violence escalated after Hachalu Hundessa's killing, Abiy quickly shut down the internet, which only partly started returning on Tuesday this week.

This not only made it difficult to get information on those killed and injured in the protests, it also meant Ethiopians again turned to the diverse diaspora media to find out what was going on.

"In the past two weeks, with the closing down of the internet, the diaspora media is playing maybe even more of a role than the media inside [the country] could play because they are basically shut off," said Weber.

Now though, given the flaring ethnic tensions in Ethiopia, she is concerned the various diaspora groups might not currently be the "best influence," given the "tremendous increase" in hate speech on social media.

A destroyed building in Shashemene in Ethiopia
In Shashemene, 200 km south of Addis Ababa, buildings owned by ethnic non-Oromos were heavily vandalized and set on fire in the wake of Hachalu Hundessa's deathImage: privat

"It's normal for the diaspora to be more polarized but the question is how divisive are they? Are they only arguing? Are they calling for calm? Because they are massively influential," Weber said.

Doctoral student Merga Yonas Bula goes so far as to call social media "a battlefield" for diaspora groups at the moment, where they are mobilizing their protests and collecting funds.

"The diaspora can make or break the country even if they don't have a weapon in their hand," he said. "They have social media, which is comparable to any kind of weapon."

Sometimes, the hate speech spills over into the streets. A correspondent of DW’s Ethiopian Service was attacked by a mostly Oromo mob at a demo in Frankfurt on July 3, and had to be escorted to safety by local police officers.

"It was the second such incident involving a correspondent of DW in Germany alone," said Ludger Schadomsky, the head of DW Amharic.

Given the split in the diaspora between those for and those against Prime Minister Abiy, it remains to be seen which voices emerge as the strongest.

A previous version of this article erroneously stated that 239 people died in ethnic clashes after Hachalu's killing. This has been changed to reflect that this figure includes security forces and others who died during the demonstrations as well as those who were killed in ethnic violence. The Africa desk apologizes for the error.