The Influence of Ethiopian Diaspora in the United States on Communal Violence in their Homeland
By Roos Baudewyns, Jonas Krohn, Hannah Magnes, Eden Roberts & Phillip Togado
Ethiopia’s recent history has been significantly marked by emigration due to ongoing communal violence and other factors. As a result, more than three million Ethiopians and people of Ethiopian origin currently reside outside of their homeland, with the United States (US) hosting the largest diaspora community. Most of the Ethiopian diaspora remains closely tied with their homeland and actively engages in its domestic politics. Against the background of reverberating ethnically and religiously motivated violence since the escalation of the Tigray conflict in 2020, a closer look at the various ways in which the largest Ethiopian diaspora community influences the production of violence in their homeland might add an explanatory variable to the ambiguous situation on the ground.
In a report by the European Institute of Peace it is stated that ‘[s]ocial media plays an important role [...] through indiscriminately disseminating information and misinformation and amplifying conflict narratives [...]’. It is added that in 2019 alone, over 95 percent of social media posts relating to ethnicity and religion in Ethiopia contained hate speech, with the majority originating in the Ethiopian diaspora. The country’s weak media landscape and the people’s struggle to differentiate between fake and correct news play additional decisive factors. Altogether, the combination contributes to ethnic tensions in the US, as well as in Ethiopia.
Additionally, social media platforms have become ‘tools for resistance’ and ‘an alternative for Ethiopia’s diaspora to voice their discontent’. Facebook, for example, is extremely popular among the diaspora. It is and was used by controversial actors, such as the formerly US-based Oromo opposition activist, Jawar Mohammed, who contributed to ethnic tensions by spreading hate speech. Before returning to his home country, Mohammed had many social media followers in the US, which made him a highly dangerous influencer, online as well as offline, as he could easily set protests in motion through his social media engagement.
Demonstrations and Protests
The Ethio-American political protests have changed in nature since Abiy Ahmed’s new government in 2018. Before, Ethiopians with oppositional views were only safe to speak up outside of the homeland which meant the conflict-generated diaspora was more engaged in supporting governmental opposition. During the EPRDF’s government, it was banned to carry any other flag than the Ethiopian flag with their emblem on it. The simple act of carrying one of the various other Ethiopian flags such as with the Lion of Judah or the pan-African tricolours alone on it became a common place form of protest during public events of the diaspora. This act displays political support towards particular communal identities or beliefs which can fuel communal violence. Since then, the Ethiopian diaspora has protested both against and in favour of the government.
Furthermore, a group of African intellectuals, some belonging to the US-based Ethiopian diaspora, published an open letter on the 26th of August 2021 as a means of calling for peace and justice in Ethiopia in response to its expanding and ‘ongoing civil war’. Thus, the US-based Ethiopian diaspora’s protests reflect the population’s plurality of opinions which contribute to peace-building and conflict in multifaceted ways.
In 2020, Ethiopia received $3,7 billion in remittances despite the global economic crisis, amounting to up to five percent of the country’s GDP. In recent years, the amount of money sent back to Ethiopia has steadily grown also due to reforms by Abiy Ahmed’s administration since 2018. Remittances directly linked to the violent crises in Ethiopia have historically been either untraceable or do not go through the official banking system. One of the only accounts of conflict related remittances were $12.6 million dollars of donations sent from abroad to finance the Ethiopian Defense Forces in their efforts in the Tigray war since 2020.
Nevertheless, it can be assumed that part of the money sent to Ethiopia finds its way into processes of communal violence whether intentionally or unintentionally. Although scholars disagree on the implications and effects of remittance flows into conflict regions (see for example Asal et al. 2013; Lyons 2009), the high remittance inflows constitute a decisive factor in how the Ethiopian diaspora influences homeland politics and conflict transformation.
There are various community groups and civil organisations that have lobbied to US policy makers in Washington. One of the most active is the Ethiopian American Civic Council advocating for a united Ethiopian American diaspora. The council has stated that the Tigray conflict should only be addressed by the Ethiopian people and democratically-elected government. Naturally, the Ethiopian diaspora is often divided on positions concerning the politics (of conflict) in their homeland, and consequently, ethnically demarcated interest groups have been created.
For example, the Amhara Association of America and the Oromo Legacy Leadership & Advocacy Association have called for the US Congress to pass resolutions that denounce human rights abuses by the TPLF and welcome Abiy's election. In contrast to that, the Tigray Center for Information and Communications has emphasised the human rights violations by the government in Addis Ababa and lobbied for humanitarian aid for the Tigray region. Senate Resolution 97 which called for ‘[…] the US to push for the exit of Eritrean troops and independent investigations into atrocities against civilians in Tigray’ can be largely attributed to lobbying efforts by the center.
Peace wreckers or peace builders?
Against the background of continuous occurrences of communal violence in Ethiopia and a powerful Ethiopian diaspora in the US, the research examined how the diaspora influences the conflict in their homeland. It can be concluded that the Ethiopian diaspora shows interest in politics and links can be drawn between the diaspora’s activities and communal violence production in Ethiopia. This is manifested through the highlighted mediums of social media, protests and demonstrations, remittances, and lobbying activities. Nevertheless, the scope of the diaspora’s influence extends beyond these four areas. Additionally, the research showed that the engagement by the diaspora has increased since the coming into power of Abiy Ahmed.
Turning to the degree of their involvement, the limited scope of this blog post does not allow for a decisive conclusion about the ‘peace-making’ and ‘peace-wrecking’ qualities of the engagement of the Ethiopian diaspora in the US. While there are some evident ‘peace-making’ efforts, the majority of analysed cases point towards the diaspora as a ‘peace-wrecking’ actor that prolongs the conflict and fuels communal violence by keeping communal identities and tensions alive. In fact, every incident of communal violence in Ethiopia (and other countries) has to be analysed according to its highly complex historical, cultural, social, political and economic context, which is reflected in the diverse nature of the diaspora’s political engagement, too. If not, conclusions risk drawing on simplistic generalisations and causal fallacies. Therefore, further in-depth research on the implications of diaspora engagement in communal violence is needed by using more elaborate methodology and other case studies.