Welcoming PM Abiy Ahmed As He Begins His Diaspora Diplomacy in America

Alemayehu Gebremariam

Diaspora diplomacy as state diplomacy

On behalf of all diaspora Ethiopians of goodwill and good faith in the United States, I welcome Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia to the United States.

PM Abiy will begin his whirlwind “diaspora diplomacy” in America on July 28 with an appearance in Washington, D.C. followed by appearances in Los Angeles on July 29 and Minneapolis on July 30 before he heads back home.

In my June 3 open letter, I asked PM Abiy to “please, please be our guest in the United States.” I was merely lifting the voices of the legions of PM Abiy’s supporters when I posted my letter for the PM’s attention.

We, supporters of PM Abiy Ahmed in the United States, are ecstatic he heard our voices and accepted our invitation. We have been so voiceless for 27 years that we are beside ourselves when PM heard our call. There is much truth in the old saying that the “voice of the people is the voice of God (Vox Populi, Vox Dei)”.

PM Abiy has a diverse diaspora support base cutting across ethnic, religious and linguistic lines. His supporters are fired up and ready to go. They cannot wait to see him, hear him talk and show him how much they support and love him.

Interestingly, his supporters do not look at him as THE “prime minister”.

His older generation supporters see him as their son. Those in his own generation see him as their brother.

The fact that PM Abiy has been able to generate such genuine affection and respect among the vast majority of Ethiopians in the country and in the diaspora is simply incredible.  With the exception of Nelson Mandela, no African leader has ever been able to inspire so much genuine affection and confidence in the people.

Truth be told, our request to have PM Abiy come and visit us in the U.S. may not have been all that fair.

First, we were asking him to do something that is unimaginably taxing physically and mentally. One can only begin to imagine the challenges of a 14-hour plus flight to the U.S. and immediately begin a non-stop coast-to-coast itinerary of speeches and town hall meetings before heading back home without delay.

Second, we were asking him to do something that is unprecedented in diplomatic convention or protocol: Do “diaspora diplomacy” before the traditional diplomacy of an official state visit.

As we jubilantly prepare to welcome PM Abiy, we also offer our humble apologies for making our beyond-extraordinary demands on PM Abiy.

But we believe we had good reasons for making our beyond-extraordinary demands. Over the past decades, diaspora Ethiopians locked out by the previous regime, especially in the U.S., have held our heads low in shame and our hearts lower as Ethiopia became a poster country for famine, massacres, human rights violations, corruption, abuse of power, stolen elections and ethnic division.

There was very little we could do to change things and improve the lives of the people in Ethiopia.

But we always dreamed of the day an Ethiopian leader we are proud of would come to America and make us proud!

Well, here comes Abiy Ahmed! And we are all proud as hell!

We hope is it is understandable that we should be so anxious, eager and restless to have him in America as soon as possible.

On the other hand, we were aware that asking him to visit us now and do his state visit after was unusual and outside the traditional diplomatic protocol.

From our perspective, what PM Abiy is doing in his “diaspora diplomacy” is beyond the traditional. It is beyond historic. It is epochal. No leader in Ethiopian (or African) history has ever made a special dedicated trip to visit its nationals in the diaspora, to our knowledge. It is a first in itself!

But we do not see mutual exclusivity in diaspora/state diplomacy.

We believe PM Abiy’s diaspora diplomacy facilitates and strengthens state diplomacy between the U.S. and Ethiopia. With clear support for PM Abiy in the Ethiopian diaspora in America, U.S. officials can confidently deal with him in their diplomatic relations.

From my years of engagement in human rights advocacy in the U.S., one of the greatest lessons I have learned is the conflicting demands made on U.S. legislative and executive officials. I believe U.S. officials witnessing the massive and unified support PM Abiy has in the Ethiopian diaspora would be in a much better position to engage him in diverse areas of policy, including the most contentious issue of human rights, and work towards a mutually beneficial relationship going forward. They will also find an army of diaspora professionals and technical volunteers ready to help in development efforts.

PM Abiy’s diaspora diplomacy will also strengthen and facilitate his state diplomacy as he can now speak as an authoritative voice on behalf of Ethiopians not only in the country but also in the Ethiopian diaspora in America.

I shall argue that uppermost on the agenda of the diaspora Ethiopian community in the U.S. is the issue of human rights.

Since taking office in April, PM Abiy has made remarkable progress on human rights by releasing tens of thousands of political prisoners and opening up press freedom, among others.

PM Abiy has opened the doors to the UN human rights chief to set up shop and do his work.

PM Abiy has publicly admitted security and other law enforcement officials have committed gross human rights abuses and fired top prison officials.

PM Abiy has pledged to meticulously uphold the rule of law.

On July 20, Ethiopia and U.S. held their 8th Bilateral Dialogue on Human Rights, Democracy, and Governance. That dialogue was unlike any of the previous ones.

Both countries agreed to work closely in strengthening the electoral and legal system, enhancing the role and capacity of the media and civil society, professionalizing law enforcement to respect human rights and accountability for human rights abuses.

For the last 13 years, many of us have toiled day and night doing grassroots human rights advocacy to pass accountability legislation in the U.S. Congress and in the executive branch.

At the core of H.R. 128, (introduced February 2018), co-sponsored by Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Mike Coffman (R-CO), Karen Bass (D-CA) and 114 other members, which recently passed the House of Representatives, are the very same issues agreed to in the 8th Bilateral Dialogue.

I have no doubts that at the 9th Bilateral Dialogue those of us diaspora human rights advocates and activists will be given an opportunity to participate and contribute.

I believe we are entitled to a seat at the table because we have earned it with our blood, sweat and tears!

I believe PM Abiy’s diaspora diplomacy will vastly facilitate his state diplomacy in human rights in the U.S.

Abiy Ahmed’s Magic

On a personal level, I am deeply moved that PM Abiy reciprocated our deep affection and respect for him by doing us the great honor of making his very first visit to America a “diplomatic mission” to diaspora Ethiopians.

For PM Abiy’s supporters in the U.S., his visit is incontrovertible proof of how much he values us as an integral part of the Ethiopian community and respects and appreciates us for our abilities and capacities to make significant contributions.

We know he can come to the U.S. for a state visit at any time. But he must come to visit us NOW! I have explained my reasons in my June 3 open letter.

His impassioned embrace of diaspora Ethiopians in his acceptance speech and repeated invitations thereafter are simply stunning. I do not believe there is a single person in the Ethiopian diaspora who expected an Ethiopian prime minister to invite all who have left their country for whatever reason to return unconditionally and participate freely in any field of endeavor, including politics, without fear of retribution, intimidation or prosecution. That was mind blowing to all of us.

For the last 27 years, the message we heard was about “extremist diasporans”, “anti-peace elements”, “terrorists” and other such things. Simply stated, we were told diaspora Ethiopians were enemies of the state!

Four months ago, Abiy Ahmed came out of nowhere and started preaching, “It is time for forgiveness, reconciliation, peace and Ethiopiawinet.”

He brought a message of total inclusiveness to diaspora Ethiopians. “You are not the enemy. Anyone who says you are the enemy is the real enemy. You are not voiceless. You now have a voice. We need you to help us rebuild Ethiopia from the ashes of ethnic hatred on a rock-solid foundation of Ethiopiawinet. We welcome you with open arms and hearts. Come on home and let’s talk!”

That is why diaspora Ethiopians love Abiy Ahmed and can’t wait to see him.

When we accepted PM Abiy’s message and started to practice it, in less than four months, we all lost our reasons to fight, bicker and hate each other.

That is Abiy Ahmed’s magic.

That is how Abiy Ahmed inspired and won the Ethiopian diaspora. He deleted the old software of hate, bitterness and antagonism and replaced it with a new software of love, forgiveness and reconciliation.

But there are two things that simply blow my mind about PM Abiy Ahmed!

The first one is that all of us have been preaching forgiveness, reconciliation and the rest for decades but our efforts did not make a damn bit of practical difference.

Abiy Ahmed, whom few knew inside or outside the country 6 months ago, starts preaching  forgiveness, reconciliation, peace and Ethiopiawinet and everyone is jumping on his bandwagon and singing his song. He does it all in less than 100 days. How does he do it!? I just don’t get it!!

The second one is even more incredible. I never, in my wildest imagination, thought I would be able to work collaboratively with any agency, official, representative or agent of the government of Ethiopia. Indeed, I have no recollection of ever using the phrases “Ethiopian government” or “prime minister” in my public statements or commentaries before PM Abiy became prime minister. If I did, it was a slip of the pen.

I am amazed at myself how I was able to put all the pent-up animosity, bitterness, resentment and ill-will and unconditionally work with embassy and consular officials to help organize for PM Abiy’s visit. I never believed such a thing was possible.  To me, it was proof of Mandela’s maxim. “It all seems impossible until it is done.” I am still asking myself, shaking my head, “How could that be possible?”

The very idea of PM Abiy’s visit to diaspora Ethiopians in the U.S. has transformed the extremely antagonistic, rancorous and openly hostile relationship between diasporans and Ethiopian officials in the U.S. I believe his visit could go a long way in ending the decades-old negative relationship between diasporans and the Ethiopian government and create more opportunities for Ethiopian diaspora engagement. I believe PM Abiy during his visit will set a new tone for future diaspora relations and integration.

When we asked PM Abiy to make a full-on diaspora visit, we understood the unprecedented nature of our request.

To our knowledge, there is no precedent in diplomatic history for a head of state to visit his diaspora constituents before making an official state visit to the host country. We knew we were asking him to do the impossible. When we made the request months ago, we had no idea PM Abiy’s specialty was doing the impossible.

We were not sure at all he would be able to accept our invitation because of the competing demands on his time and the fast pace of change taking place in the country.

We were also clearly aware that what we were asking PM Abiy was not only unprecedented but could also be seen as absurd. We were asking him to make a special, solely-diaspora focused visit before he made an official visit to the host country.

Some of us argued he would never accept our invitation because it was so unusual. Other argued he would have to give priority to official state matters and would have very little time for us.

The fact of the matter is that it was not an either-or situation. It was not a win-lose situation.

PM Abiy can have his state visit at a time of his choosing, but he must visit his diaspora supporters NOW.

Why?

We let PM Abiy know that there is an enormous pent-up energy in the Ethiopian diaspora in America crying out to be engaged, to be heard in the country’s democratic transition, NOW. People do not want to wait. They want to be engaged, NOW. He cannot delay his visit.

I can personally testify to the fact that there is an army of diaspora Ethiopian professionals in all fields who are willing, able and ready to help, not later, but NOW! They cannot wait. He must address them, NOW!

We let him know of the fierce urgency of his visit NOW because his legions of supporters in the U.S. feel excluded from the life of their country of origin for decades. They appreciate the pace of change under his leadership is stunning and mind-boggling.

We diaspora Ethiopians in America do not want to be cheerleaders from the sidelines or passive spectators. We want to carry our load, do our share. We are ready, willing and able to do our part in Ethiopia’s transition to democracy for nothing more than the honor and privilege of service. We want to be present at the transition and line up with the “construction crew” for the New Ethiopia and share in the heavy lifting. (For those of us in the older generation, we want to line up with the water carriers serving those doing the heavy lifting.)

It is difficult to lead the Ethiopian diaspora in America or anywhere else by YouTube, Facebook and other social media.

We believe it is important for us to share with us his vision of the new Ethiopia and let us know how we can contribute.

We must have Abiy Ahmed in our midst, NOW!

What we want to know from PM Abiy: We are all ears!

We want to hear from PM Abiy his vision for Ethiopia’s transition to democracy.

We want to hear his message of love, forgiveness and reconciliation over and over again.

We want to hear from him the unvarnished truth about the country’s economic, political and social problems. We can handle the truth no matter how hard or tragic it may be because we are ready to be part of the long-term solution.

We want to hear from him what he wants us to do in the short and medium term. We are onboard with his “Ethiopia Diaspora Trust Fund”. But he can give us more details on how the fund could be used and the structure of accountability and transparency that will be employed?

We want to know how we can best maximize our remittances particularly as capital inflow/infusion for investment in small businesses.

We want to know if there are plans to create a “one-stop shop” to simplify bureaucratic and administrative requirements for diaspora investors.

We want to know how he can facilitate for us technology and skills transfers since there is a large capacity of technically trained and experienced volunteer base in all fields.

We want to know if there are plans to provide tax incentives for investors.

In terms of the 2020 elections, we want to know his plans to ensure a free and fair election.

Most importantly, we want PM Abiy to hear the diverse voices of the Ethiopian diaspora in America. We are all Ethiopians but with many voices. We believe in lifting every voice “till earth and heaven ring the harmonies of liberty” and democracy.

We are a microcosm of Ethiopia itself. We have a range of opinions and views that cover the entire spectrum. We want PM Abiy to learn about our issues, concerns and ideas for the future.

We want to know the answers to these questions in a respectful conversation with PM Abiy.

Again, I am acutely aware how unreasonable our demands appear to be. We expect him to answer these and many other questions after spending dozens of hours in the air.  But we deeply appreciate PM Abi’s willingness to undergo extraordinary hardships just to please us.

Of course, we know he does not have all of the answers.

We know some of us will ask him questions that can only be answered by divinity and not a member of humanity.

There are those who think he should solve Ethiopia’s decades-old problems overnight, and if not, at least in less than one hundred days.

There will be some who think his idea of “medemer” (join up/count up), peace and reconciliation is the wrong way.

We can assure PM Abiy the vast majority of diaspora Ethiopians in America are one hundred percent behind him. They have bought the whole nine yards of PM Abiy’s ideas of Ethiopiawinet, love, forgiveness, reconciliation and peace.

Above all, they love him! What more can be said?

MY PERSONAL WELCOME TO AMERICA, PM ABIY!

I cheerfully welcome you to the United States!

I see your visit not as historic but epochal.

You have opened a brand-new chapter in African history that will teach generations of African leaders to come that their diaspora nationals are a vital part of their respective countries.

I am a strong supporter of your Ethiopia Diaspora Trust Fund which is currently operational in various banks in Ethiopia.

I just love your idea of beginning to end our decades-old culture of begging and panhandling by putting together our pennies in one big pile called the “Ethiopian Diaspora Trust Fund”.

A wise man once said, “Human beings have the remarkable ability to turn nothing into something. They can turn weeds into gardens and pennies into fortunes.” That is exactly what I expect from diaspora Ethiopia human beings with the Trust Fund. We can change our pennies into fortunes that will once and forever end our culture of panhandling.

I would like for you to think of us diaspora Ethiopians in the U.S. as your “WMD” (Wealth from Mass Dispersion). We are ready, able and willing to put in the $1 dollar a day you requested from our macchiato fund, and a lot more from our other funds.

I would also like for you to think of us diaspora Ethiopians in the U.S. as your “TST” (Technical Support Team). Hundreds of highly-trained experts and professionals in all fields have already signed up and joined “Team Abiy Ahmed-Ethiopia” as volunteers. They are ready to serve. All professionals in all fields are welcome to join up/count up“Team Abiy Ahmed-Ethiopia”.

I can assure you that you have convinced the vast majority of diaspora Ethiopians that the way of love, forgiveness and reconciliation is the way to go. The civilized way. The way to a durable peace. The way to economic development, prosperity and dignity.

I can assure you that you have convinced the vast majority of diaspora Ethiopians that the way to go is the “MEDEMER WAY” (count up/join up) by building bridges and tearing down walls.

I am sure you are ware the international media is calling you the “perfect bridgebetween the various ethnic groups”.

I dislike walls. I love bridges.

In August 2016, I wrote, “Hate is the one crumbling wall that now stands between the people of Ethiopia and freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia.  The [pre-PM Abiy regime] has weaponized and politicized hate. But the mud walls of hate erected are today collapsing on those who erected them under the volcanic pressure of a popular uprising.”

It is written that the walls of Jericho came tumbling down after the people blew their trumpets around the city. A new era of peace descended upon the land.

In June 1987, US President Ronald Reagan went to West Berlin and shouted out, “Tear down this wall!” That wall came tumbling down.

In July 2018, all Ethiopians are crying out, “Tear down this killil (apartheid style Bantustans) wall that keeps us separated and let us help you build bridges that will let the people come together as one.”

The kilil wall shall come tumbling down too!

No country ever got to be great by being divided or building walls. Ethiopia will never be great by being divided by kilil walls.

But all great countries became great by coming together, or in your word “medemer”.

There is no country in the world that is a better example of “medemer” than the United States.

In America, we have more diversity of views and opinions expressed than any place else in the world.

The United States is great both because of its enormous diversity and its singular unity as one people.

The Founders of the American Republic have enshrined your idea of “Medemer” in the Preamble to their Constitution. They expressed it as an aspiration to “form a more perfect union”. The central purpose in drafting the U.S. Constitution was to bring the splintered states after the American Revolution closer together and unite the people into a true unified sovereign nation under the authority of “We the People of the United States” whose mandate was, among other things, “to form a more perfect Union” or “medemer”.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the great founders of the American Republic said, “When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.” Jefferson also said if he had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, he would chose the latter.

What you preach about the rule of law, accountability and transparency in government, in my view, is classic Jefferson. When you challenge the press to rise up to their duty and serve as watchdogs over corruption, fraud, waste and abuse of power, I would say that is also classic Jefferson.

I never imagined Ethiopia would ever have a leader I would proudly welcome to the United States. That’s does not mean I never dreamed it.

PM Abiy, there is one thing I dream about these days. How great would Ethiopia have been if we had you 27 years ago?

Aaahh!

Well, PM Abiy, I welcome you proudly to the LAND OF THE FREE AND HOME OF THE BRAVE!