Ethiopian Diaspora Voters to Politicians: Ignore us at your peril
U.S. politics are weird. Americans don’t directly elect their President. There seems to be a constant, relentless cycle of elections going on. You can have whack-job crazy mavericks in either party who go off and do their own thing in either the House or Senate. It’s a political culture where candidates boast about “not being a career politician” and “cleaning up Washington” and then everyone acts surprised when people elect an idiot.
And like so much else about Ethiopia’s conflict, the mainstream media didn’t seem very interested in what Ethiopian-Americans thought about the Midterms. Which is a shame because they were a fascinating occasion when Ethiopia’s diaspora communities flexed their muscles and again demonstrated that they shouldn’t be taken for granted.
And it’s no big secret that many Ethiopian diaspora voters are bitterly disappointed over the Biden administration’s attitude and policies towards Ethiopia for the past two years.
When I asked Mesfin Tegenu, executive chair of the powerful American-Ethiopian Public Affairs Committee (AEPAC), about it, his response was immediate: “Absolutely.”
“The Biden administration’s hostility towards Ethiopia, Eritrea, Haiti, Somalia, and other majority black nations has enabled our community to connect the dots and see a pattern emerging that actually spans over decades,” writes Nebiyu Asfaw, Ethio-American Development Council and one of the co-founders of the #NoMore Movement.
“The Democrats’ policy towards Africa and its descendants has sadly been paternalist,” adds Nebiyu. “It sends a message to our community that the nature of the relationship is founded on disrespect and the assumption of incompetence.”
I contacted both men about how Ethiopian-Americans made their feelings known at the polls, because we might be seeing a seismic shift in party loyalties.
Now it’s necessary to make a disclosure of interest here: these two organizations provided financial and activist support for my reporting trips to Ethiopia in 2021. But they also happen to be two of the most prominent voices out there for U.S. Ethiopian diaspora communities, so it’s natural to knock on their door.
And Nebiyu and Mesfin have some similarities, as well as some differences in their takes on the election, both very interesting.
Nebiyu is scathing over the Democrats’ approach to Ethiopia. “It’s the attitude of ‘We know what’s best for you, therefore you should just comply and be grateful.’ What is even more sad is the use of foreign aid to corral Africans into submission. This has been a rude awakening for a majority of our community who were lifelong loyal Democrats.”
He recalls how a meeting was arranged by local Ethiopians in Minnesota who were part of the AEPAC Minnesota chapter. He happened to be a guest speaker and the state’s powerful Representative Ilhan Omar was invited. She was a no-show. At a second meeting, she sent a staffer, a person who came late and who had to apologize for her not making it.
When I ask Nebiyu about organizations like his seemingly asking its members to “vote Ethiopian” more than “vote American,” he argued that “when we support candidates, we consider all aspects and make a decision as community leaders.”
“Our community is sick and tired of the Democrats pretending that they own us, and we have no choice. And many of the so-called Democrats are neither liberal nor progressive. They are globalist warmongers funded by corporations.”
According to Mesfin Tegenu, AEPAC endorsed 35 local and national candidates, with 32 of them getting elected. “There were more Democrats than Republicans overall, but if you only look at the U.S. House and Senate candidates the endorsement is almost equal, one or two up or down.”
Mesfin has also seen Democratic political candidates take the Ethiopian diaspora for granted.
We are days away from the December 6 run-off that will decide who will take that valuable Senate seat for Georgia, whether it’ll be incumbent Raphael Warnock or his challenger, Herschel Walker. The Democrats will already have a majority to control the Senate whatever the outcome, but the race is still considered a bellwether.
Georgia is what Mesfin calls a “worst-case scenario.” Warnock is a Democrat “supported by the Biden administration and all the Democratic infrastructure, and Walker is an ex-football player endorsed by Trump — he probably doesn’t even know where Ethiopia is.”
“The Democratic candidate has clearly shown his contempt for the Ethiopian-American diaspora and for the Ethiopian people in general by openly being for the TPLF… Every effort we did to reach out to him, nothing worked, nothing we did, he didn’t care. He just stood with TPLF.”
A couple of years ago after Warnock was elected, “everyone went home,” says Mesfin, except TPLF activists who suggested to the new senator that they were responsible for getting him his seat — that “We are the ones who made it happen,” and that’s how their relationship with him began.
AEPAC sent a simple questionnaire to both candidates. Its first question asked if the candidate supported the organization’s mission of advancing good relations and friendship between the U.S. and Ethiopia. “There was nothing to say no” to there, argues Mesfin. The second question asked if the candidate thought the peace agreement recently signed between Ethiopia and the TPLF should be supported by the U.S. government.
This was another no-brainer in a way, at least for Warnock, as President Joe Biden already committed his administration to supporting the deal when he spoke in September to the UN General Assembly. And the third question asked if the candidate approved of the lifting of all sanctions on Ethiopia, including reinstating the country within AGOA.
“Neither team got back to us. Warnock’s policy people sent us a memo from June 2021 which condemns Ethiopia and the Ethiopian government instead. Walker’s team continued asking for more time.”
Against this contextual backdrop, AEPAC’s position on the Georgia run-off starts to make sense.
“It is with great regret we have decided to encourage you, our members and voters in Georgia,” AEPAC stated in a news release, “to use your vote as a protest against Senator Warnock.” But at the same time, it would not endorse Walker, who as far as Ethiopia was concerned, “has not engaged on the issue at all.”
Mesfin says he and AEPAC recognize that some people “have struggled with” the notion of voting on the single issue of Ethiopia, and the AEPAC release is revealing over this.
“We appreciate voting Republican is not an easy decision and we recognize many of you are lifelong Democrats, but our votes and our voices can’t be taken for granted. On balance, we believe Herschel Walker’s neutral stance is a better option than Senator Warnock’s broken promises.”
According to Mesfin, AEPAC didn’t want one party to dominate either the House or the Senate. With such a divide from the Midterms, Democrats and Republicans will have to “work together to get to the middle to get stuff done. This being the situation, if Warnock was to lose because of our lack of support, it will not change this reality — still, the Senate will be a Democrat majority.”
In effect, AEPAC has bet on the new numbers in Congress leading back to genuine consensus building, the old method of Beltway politics that seemed to fall out of favor as left and right got increasingly polarized in the States.
And ironically, in asking Ethiopian diaspora voters to choose their motherland as the single issue for their ballot, they may help preserve one of the most vaunted American political values in U.S. history.