Last month, Teshale Gebremichael helped organize a protest for members of North Carolina’s Ethiopian American communities who condemned the U.S. government’s support of what they describe as a “terrorist” group that is attempting to usurp their country’s democratically elected government.
On November 21, the demonstrators assembled in front of the old state capitol grounds near the intersection of Hillsborough and Salisbury Streets at about three p.m. before marching to the front of the old Wake County Courthouse on Fayetteville Street. There, a man with a bullhorn exhorted the crowd to a call-and-response protest.
“African solutions for African problems!” he shouted into the bullhorn.
“African solutions for African problems!” his countrymen and women replied in unison.
“We are united!”
“No more! We say no more!”
“We stand with Ethiopia!”
“We stand with the Ethiopian government!”
Gebremichael, an Ethiopian American, has been living in the Triangle for over a decade.
“Why is the Biden administration standing with bad people? Why is Biden standing with gangsters?” Gebremichael asked, while speaking with the INDY last week. “And now our country is about to fall apart.”
Nearly 200 Ethiopian Americans, many of them wrapped in the red-green-and-gold flags of one of the world’s oldest nations, assembled at the old state capitol and voiced their disapproval on a day when similar protests were taking place across the globe.
The Ethiopian American protesters were joined by expatriates from neighboring Eritrea and gathered under a banner stating #NoMore to denounce what they described as the Biden administration’s “disastrous foreign policy” by way of sanctions that have hurt their country; the threat of sending U.S. ground troops into the country, and a disinformation campaign carried out by Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to discredit the current government.
It’s a complicated issue.
A civil war erupted late last year between the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and inhabitants of the country’s Tigray region.
On October 8, the United Nations issued a 156-page report following a nearly three-month joint investigation by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights “into alleged human rights violations and abuses, and violations of international humanitarian law, and refugee law” as a result of the conflict.
At the end of the investigation, the joint investigation team found that combatants on both sides of the conflict had carried out attacks on civilians that caused deaths and injuries, including ethnicity-based killings. There was also evidence of torture, abductions, sexual and gender-based violence, the displacement of thousands of refugees and disappearance of hundreds more, pillaging, looting, and destruction of property, along with denial of basic freedoms and trauma inflicted on children and the elderly.
The report marks a remarkable fall from international grace for Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, who was elected in 2018 and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize one year later “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea,” according to the Norwegian Nobel Committee.
There have been recent calls from some quarters on the world stage to revoke the prime minister’s Nobel Prize. But as The New York Times recently reported, the embattled leader has the support of younger Ethiopians. Many of them—including two-time Olympic gold medalist Haile Gebrselassie—cheered his arrival late last month on the front lines of the conflict, where he vowed to lead the army against a group of Tigrayan rebels who were advancing into Addis Ababa, the country’s capital city.
That conflict is more than 8,000 miles away in the country’s northern region. The fighting and subsequent U.S. government sanctions could have dire consequences for Democratic Party candidates during the 2022 election. If President Joe Biden does not lift the sanctions, Ethiopian Americans here and across the United States are threatening to vote for Republicans next year.
Ethiopian Americans typically cast their votes for Democratic Party candidates, but they are deeply hurt by the Biden administration’s decision on September 17 to authorize sanctions that do not single out specific factions but hold the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea and the Tigray forces responsible for participating in a civil war that has left “nearly one million people living in famine-like conditions” while “millions more face acute food insecurity as a direct consequence of the violence,” according to a White House statement.
“I am appalled by the reports of mass murder, rape, and other sexual violence to terrorize civilian populations,” stated President Biden, who added that the “sanctions are not directed at the people of Ethiopia or Eritrea but rather the individuals and entities perpetrating the violence and driving a humanitarian disaster.”
But Ethiopian Americans here in the Triangle, and across the globe, say the sanctions are hurting their families and neighbors back home in an impoverished country that ranks 173 out of 189 countries and territories in human development, according to the 2020 Human Development Report.
On November 2, Biden suspended Ethiopia from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) “for gross violations of internationally recognised human rights,” according to Reuters. Days later, officials with the global fashion giant PVH Corp. announced that the company was shutting down a manufacturing factory in Ethiopia, owing to the loss of duty-free access to the United States because of the war.
Muna Mengesha, one of the organizers of the Raleigh protest and a real estate agent and mother of two, told the INDY the factory closing has left 150,000 people without work, but according to Reuters, officials in her homeland warned the shutdown “could take away 1 million jobs, disproportionately hurting poor women, who are the majority of garment workers.”
Mengesha says that in addition to factory workers losing their jobs in Addis Ababa, the country’s suspension from AGOA is also being felt in the rural parts of the country.
“Without AGOA, small farmers can’t send what they produce to the United States tax free,” she explains. “That’s their livelihood. That’s how they send their kids to school. That’s how they provide for their family.” Raleigh’s protest organizers say there’s currently a global movement among Ethiopia expatriates to heed Prime Minister Abiy’s call to return home for the Christmas holidays with the aim of supporting their country’s economy to offset the Biden administration’s sanctions.
“It’s a big movement right now,” Gebremichael said. “I’m not going because I went back last year. But I wish I could.”
Ethiopian expatriates point to last month’s gubernatorial election in Virginia where the Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin, narrowly beat incumbent governor Terry McAuliffe. According to reports, a coordinated effort from Ethiopian expatriate voters helped contribute to Youngkin’s narrow margin of victory.
“That’s the plan here, too,” Mengesha said. “Personally, I don’t want to vote Republican, but at the end of the day that’s my homeland. In Virginia, people who don’t ever vote voted just because of the Biden administration and the way they handled the situation.”
Another Raleigh protest organizer, Fitsum Kedebe, 37, is a native of Ethiopia now living in Durham. During the past presidential election, Kedebe helped Democratic Party candidates by canvassing in Bull City neighborhoods.
“Donald Trump was saying things no world leader should ever say,” Kedebe, a married father of two children, told the INDY. “But I was never expecting Biden to go this extreme. I never expected him to go this far to support Tigray. Even [the U.S. government] has been saying since 1992 that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front is a terrorist group.”
Kedebe acknowledged the Sisyphean irony of casting a vote for an American political party enamored with misinformation to help bring about the downfall of a political party in his native country that also thrives in a false news ecosystem. He brushes aside the suggestion that a Republican administration may feel more comfortable with TPLF holding the reins of power in his country.
“The Democratic Party says it looks out for the poor, but it’s fractured,” he said. “It’s losing ground. The only reason Biden was elected was because of Black Lives Matter, and 79 million people still voted for Trump. We should be united. We see freedom losing.”
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