Diaspora politics: What does it yield?

October 31, 2012

By Belachew Mekuria Fikre, Addis Ababa University Centre for Human Rights

It was very enlightening to read Terrence Lyons’ Article titled ‘Conflict-generated diaspora and transnational politics in Ethiopia.’ This is interesting partly because of the recent events in the country that have raised high levels of optimism and hope. These events, however, have been greeted with multiple feelings by the ‘locals’ and the ‘non-locals’, by those ‘fighting within’ and those ‘firing from afar.’ The scientific research findings suggest, as also alluded to by Terrence, that because of their traumatic past, the conflict-generated diaspora remain unflinching to compromise and usually demand for radical changes. This rigidity tends to protract conflicts, where they exist, or antagonise an already emboldened dictatorial regime.

These findings relate to cases of conflict-generated diaspora which presumably has had a traumatic past to come to terms with. What makes Ethiopia’s diaspora increasingly precarious is the character it exhibits as a mixture of a community that had left the motherland for want of higher socio-economic opportunity [probably the better part falls here] and the one that had crossed borders due to a genuine fear of persecution. This mix inevitably leads to a confused state of both apathy and empathy that ultimately ends up being conflictual among the actors. While one side would just settle for a peaceful, albeit less free, state of affairs, the other becomes angrier, more antagonised, not just by what is happening across the Atlantic, but also by the apathy found at its midst. Either way one has to interrogate the yield all this has for the political landscape in Ethiopia. The idea of transnational politics is ever more important for every nation in this time of information age and globalisation.

The right strategy?

I was enormously gratified to listen to Dawit W/Giorgis on one of the diaspora media outlets saying ‘it is only an opposition from within that would bring a rightful change to the country.’  This, I submit, is the right path for lasting democratic transition in Ethiopia and elsewhere for that matter. Diaspora’s role has had a recorded history of fuelling and prolonging conflicts in many countries and one stands out as the most notorious: the Sri Lankan diaspora that financed the secessionist movements of the Tamil Tigers to carry on prosecuting their attacks during those prolonged years of civil conflict. Just like a number of people express their disdain towards international aid(in the form of directly subsidising the budget) to developing nations as an ineffective development strategy, so too is diaspora-financed political parties that define themselves as belonging to the opposition. This is because any political agenda that lacks local roots and does not recruit its members who are committed to its cause from within is doomed to achieve little or even fail. Where the supporters of a political party who rally behind it predominantly have their base outside the country, the chain of accountability to the local constituency is to that extent weakened. Quoting Andreson, Terrence, probably rightfully, writes that diaspora groups are ‘long-distance nationalists’ who are inherently unaccountable because they do not have to pay the price for the polarising politics they support.’

The usual counter-claim to this submission relies on the schizophrenic and authoritarian nature of regimes that tolerate no dissent. While some regimes deal with oppositions by the usual methods of harassment, imprisonment and extra-judicial killings in closed borders, some others tend to be trendy and open up their gates so that the ‘uncomfortable’ could walk away. Thus, many of them would claim that they walked away because they had to and the only way is to have one’s head shielded in one of the freer nations and ‘attack.’ However, politics is for those who dare. The bar for the ‘daring’ that is referred to here is too high to be equated with shouting freedom words on the streets of nations which are filled with people who exactly know what freedom means.

It is humbling to witness the surge in writings of those who tirelessly keep on penning down words of wisdom and truth that add a real value to the maturity levels of Ethiopia’s politics, discourses on democratic governance, ethnic nationalism, history, etc. Those are the ones genuinely discharging their role as Ethiopian nationals who reside abroad and claim a stature of transnational activists. They are the ones deserving to be regarded as agents of change whose contribution will transform the nation’s political landscape to the better sooner than later. The insistence, however, on the cultivation of ‘transnational patron-client relationships’ between those living outside and those in-country would rather prolong the much anticipated democratic transition, and makes peace more elusive than it already is.

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