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Ethiopia and the Virginia Governor's Race

Real Fiction Radio Broadcast: December 1, 2021 Noon ET WERA (96.7 FM) Streaming-

Ethiopia and the Virginia Governor’s Race

Lori Messing McGarry

Real Fiction Radio

December 1, 2021

As the democratically elected Ethiopian government struggles to contain violence and unrest in the country, Ethiopians in the United States are voicing their disapproval of the Biden administration's foreign policy. They did this on election day in Virginia.

Virginia and metro Washington DC are home to the largest Ethiopian population outside of Ethiopia. Located in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is the second most populous country on the African continent.

Post-election narrative of the Virginia governor's race points to parent’s role in public school curriculum and social agendas. But only now is there some acknowledgement about the Ethiopian-American impact in the nationally watched race between Terry McAuliffe and Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin.

In my conversation with Mesfin Tegenu for Real Fiction, we highlight an underreported story with local and global implications. Mesfin Tegenu is Chair of the American Ethiopian Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and a leading voice in the Ethiopian community.

LM: Ethiopia recently declared a state of emergency. US Secretary of State Blinken has returned from a diplomatic trip in Africa and American citizens working in Ethiopia have been urged to leave the country. Looking back to early November, the White House suspended trade benefits with Ethiopia. Is it fair to say that policy decisions in Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea have not been well received by Ethiopians living in the United States?

MT: Yes, it's absolutely fair to say that the American Ethiopian Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and broader diaspora, were shocked and disappointed that President Biden and his administration made a decision that will directly impoverish thousands of Ethiopians who have nothing to do with the conflict.

Trade benefits were suspended. Just prior to that, there were sanctions issued against the Ethiopian ally, the government of Eritrea. So, this was not a singular incident. This has been a pattern of concerning foreign policy objectives coming out of the White House.

The Biden administration has sided with the organization that that is attempting to overthrow a democratically elected government. An insurrection is what's happening in Ethiopia at this point. The sanctions imposed would impact the Ethiopian government and their ally, the government of Eritrea. There hasn't been a balanced approach.

LM: We will touch on the situation in Tigray region. I first want to get your sense about the election in the Virginia in November. There were narratives by both parties about voter decisions. Ethiopian-Americans who have traditionally voted for Democratic candidates, reportedly turned out in large numbers for Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin. He is now the Governor-elect. What can you tell us about the mobilization effort?

MT: Yes. First, a recent poll showed that seventy-nine percent of Ethiopian-Americans identify themselves as Democrats. AIPAC reached out to both gubernatorial candidates with questions with the full understanding that this is a gubernatorial run, not a national office. The attempt was to get the Biden administration to express attention toward the Ethiopian-Americans who are concerned about the imbalance over the conflict in Tigray. The attempt included individual townhalls with the gubernatorial candidates to discuss matters important to the Ethiopian-American diaspora living in Virginia. Governor Terry McAuliffe didn't respond. He just totally ignored the whole thing. Whereas the Republican candidate, now Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin promised to expand the state's trade relations with Ethiopia if he were to take office.

LM: You mentioned that 79% of the members of Ethiopian-American voters identify as Democrat. One point that I have been curious about is the approximate number of Ethiopian-Americans based in metropolitan Washington DC.

MT: Based on the census, 300,000 Ethiopians are estimated to be living in DC, Maryland, Virginia. When you see that are 29 churches just in this area and 150 to 200 restaurants in the Washington DC and Virginia, the majority of Ethiopian immigrants have migrated to the Washington DC area.

LM: A report from the Washington Post had targeted that number as much lower. Thank you for clarifying the data. There's no question that Ethiopian community has significant business and cultural impact in Virginia and Washington DC, which is why this shift in voting is important to note locally and globally. President Abiy Ahmed is the democratically elected leader of Ethiopia. In 2019, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation. And for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea. Ahmed is under pressure from global leaders and on social media platforms to end the conflict in Tigray. What do you want people to understand about President Abiy Ahmed, and the state of democracy in Ethiopia?

MT: That's a good question. First, I would like people to understand that the current government of Ethiopia is legitimate and democratically elected and, therefore, should have the support of the US and other countries in the West. The Prime Minister took power in 2018. Since then, the economy has rapidly grown and Abiy led the country to hold a free election in June 2021. He was elected with a decisive mandate. So, this is an important milestone in the country's democratic journey. And this is really important for people to understand and respect. This was this election was observed by international observers, the African Union and the United Nations. The trajectory has been positive, Ethiopia is playing a leading political role in the continent of Africa. It's really important to understand that the leadership in place has brought in so much value to that end. Nobody is perfect. We don't expect perfection at this point. But given the circumstances, given the situation that we are in, the government is doing what they are asked by the Ethiopian people to do – to keep the integrity of the country and establish order in the country and freely fight back the insurgency of the TPLF, which is trying to overthrow a legitimately elected government.

LM: For those who are just dipping into Ethiopian politics, the TPLF is a political organization based in the northern region of Tigray.

MT: Yes, Tigray People's Liberation Front, stationed on the northern on the region on the Tigray region.

LM: The TPLF was the ruling party of Ethiopia for 27 years and, now, this northern region of

Ethiopia, is the focus of international media coverage. It is challenging to sort through competing news accounts and social media posts. How are you getting your news?

MT: You're right, there are several outlets coming up with all kinds of news. There is significant misinformation, disinformation. Incredibly coordinated disinformation, actually. So that being the case, we are getting some news from the ground and, in general, we wait for the official news from the Ethiopian government. And there are a few international TV channels that try to bring in balanced information. For the most part, international media is not helpful at this point. The information that people read on major news outlets is very biased to one side.

LM: When I was looking into this broader story, I found something that surprised me. It's not often to see a group like Amnesty International, which is considered a very progressive organization aligned with Senator Inhofe of the state of Oklahoma, arguably one of the most conservative U.S. Senators. Both have characterized TPLF as a terrorist organization. How are members of the Ethiopian community in the DC area and other cities around the country with ties in Tigray region navigating this crisis?

MT: Yes, that's the very correct statement. Just to get back to your previous point, the misinformation is so much. In the past four or five months, we have reached out to mainstream journalists to offer an alternative view to make sure that they get a balance view of the information, since so many people read bigger news outlets. But as far as the Ethiopian American community is concerned, Tigray Region is one state within Ethiopia. We are a totally integrated society. We grew up together, we went to school together, we lived in colleges together, we intermarried. This is difficult for immigrant families. It is difficult for all families. It's impacting everybody.

LM: The crisis in Ethiopia offers insight into how news is shared and consumed over social media platforms. It also exposes the fragile state of democracy and how the members of the global Ethiopian diaspora are mobilizing. We started this conversation discussing the role the community played in the recent governor’s race in Virginia. What are you focused on in the coming weeks and months ahead in your role with the APAC?

MT: AIPAC’s primary goal is to advance US interests in the Horn of Africa, with a pro-Ethiopia agenda. Everything that AIPAC intends to do is bring the US values to human rights, democracy and free market entrepreneurship to that part of the world. We are going to also organize the Ethiopian-Americans across the United States, especially in seven or eight swing states. Not getting involved is not an option. Not voting is not an option. Not fulfilling our civic responsibilities is not an option anymore. It's not somebody else's business. It is our business, to inform and educate our legislators.

LM: There is a long history between the United States and Ethiopia. Mesfin Tegenu, you’ve given us an opportunity to reflect on an underreported story involving a global issue that played out locally in the State of Virginia. Thank you for your help in navigating this complicated subject.

MT: Thank you for the opportunity.

Click below to hear the radio interview.


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