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Ethiopian Diaspora In US Is Split Over Role in Election

Ethiopian-American protesters said they want to promote freedom of speech in Ethiopia, but other members of diaspora say they should stay out of debate
Ethiopian-American protesters said they want to promote freedom of speech in Ethiopia, but other members of diaspora say they should stay out of debate

The Ethiopian diaspora in the United States is split over the role it should play when it comes to the parliamentary election Sunday in Ethiopia.

"Women march for the release of Birtukan," said Hana Haile. "Support the release of Birtukan. We cherish freedom of speech."

Hana Haile recently led protesters marching to the White House, demanding U.S. pressure for the release of jailed Ethiopian opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa.

"We are trying to get the word to President Obama that we need help," said Hana Haile. "We need all American help. We just want to have freedom of speech. We want to be able to be free to go back, without fear of being tortured back home, for things that everybody takes for granted here in America. We really know the value of freedom and democracy. We are seeking to have the same in Ethiopia as we do here."

Birtukan is in jail for a life sentence for treason after a pardon in her favor was revoked. She has been unable to lead her party, Unity for Democracy and Justice, in the upcoming election. Several other opposition leaders have been jailed in recent years, while others are in exile in the United States.

Deadly riots and multiple arrests followed the last election results in 2005, which gave the ruling party the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front a clear victory, after a highly contested campaign. Since those protests were quelled in Ethiopia, most demonstrations against Ethiopia's government have taken place in the United States.

An Ethiopian-American living and working in the western U.S. city of Seattle, Shashu Habtu, says she believes a lot of the anger taking place among the diaspora is misplaced.

"It is really an energy that is very depleting that the vocal diaspora is playing," said Shashu Habtu. "Over and over again they will demonstrate and it is actually energizing Ethiopians in the diaspora, those that are committed in seeing Ethiopia get out of poverty. It energizes me personally, even makes my convictions stronger when I see individuals that want another country to interfere in the affairs of another country, that is totally uncalled for."

Habtu says Ethiopia's current leadership, which came to power in a rebellion in the early 1990s, has brought stability and economic development.

A sociologist at St. Lawrence University in New York state, Mehretab Assefa, says Ethiopians may be the most politically obsessed diaspora of all diasporas. He says it could be because of a crisis of identity.

"I think the diaspora is involved deeply," said Mehretab Assefa. "Those who are completely obsessed with conditions in Ethiopia are actually soothing probably their immigrant's life here. We are first-generation immigrants, most of us, so you need to give some sort of justification for your life and when you talk about Ethiopian politics, you just mutate into a prime minister at least for a day."

Assefa says Ethiopian-Americans should worry more about their lives here, and leave what is happening in Ethiopia to Ethiopians.

"It is easy to talk from here, to call for a revolution or boycotting this and that, but the people back home need some respect from this diaspora," said Assefa. "We should follow them instead of asking them to follow us because we do not even know who we are in this country, let alone lead other people."

Assefa and Habtu are frequent contributors to the Aiga Forum, an article board on the Internet. The Aiga Forum says its mission is to seek constructive contribution to the betterment of life in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian women chanting at the protest in Washington had an opposite view on how to bring about change. They said it is important to take the best principles from the United States, such as freedom of speech, and try to make it a reality in Ethiopia as well.