By Dawit Hiluf Hailu (PhD)
In this piece, I begin by mentioning a brief history of the Tigrayan diaspora’s involvement in the politics and economics of Tigray and propose a change in its role. From the onset, it has to be underlined that this is not a research-based article, nor intends to be so. The argument forwarded is simple, and that is, in order for the Tigrayan Diaspora to have a measurable impact on the livelihoods of ordinary Tigrayans, it must dissociate itself from, and the influence of, any political entity. Furthermore, the Tigray Diaspora must aspire to be a force of change rather than being limited to the role of financial remittance, business investors, and source of knowledge-transferring agents.
I must first mention that I subscribe to the definition of Diaspora, which means ‘to sow over or scatter.’ In this sense, the word Tigrayan diaspora includes Tigrayans who emigrated from home and their descendants- those that are born abroad to Tigrayan parent(s). The role of the Tigrayan diaspora, so far, can be summarized as a source of remittance and a developmental agent. Although this in itself is a necessary and valid contribution, the implementation of which relies on a third party such as a home-based government and/or political party. This coupled with the lack of functioning and independent institutions forces these diaspora-based organizations to forge a working friendly, often cozy, relationship with the governing party, and consequently their focus shifts to supporting the Tigray (at times Ethiopian) government. This yearning for the approval of the government, in turn, leads to these organizations falling under the spell of TPLF/EPRDF. It actually goes out of its way to support, justify, and defend government policies and strategies. However, it was not even properly consulted during the development phase of those policies.
The formation of Tigrayan diaspora-based groups dates back to the 1970s. For the purpose of distinction, I classified them by era: pre, during, and post-EPRDF. An overview of the associations and their forms is given in the appendix. Although I try to include most (of those) who left footprints on Google, this is by no means exhaustive. From what I can tell, the organizations can be divided into three groups: alumni and development associations, professional networks, and media and blogs. Interestingly, the establishment of these associations or platforms seems to follow the same trend – all emerged in response to a crisis or alienation that have occurred in the aforementioned eras. Although responding to threats, or perceived threats, in itself is commendable, the challenge is staying relevant by keeping the momentum. The implication is that they have to be dynamic and thus change forms if need be, from time to time, depending on the situation in Tigray.
In all three eras, one common denominator is the presence and ties with these organizations of TPLF. One might dismiss this as an unavoidable factor, for these associations have no option but to work with TPLF, as it is the most organized organ thus far. Here it is worth pointing out that cooperation with the government must not be mistaken for submission. Of course, it goes without saying that it is expected to work hand in hand with the government in a manner that benefits Tigray. However, when setting to implement one’s goals, the trajectories must be outlined, prioritizing the organization’s own priorities before trying to fit them into the government’s strategic plan. The latter would open the door to manipulation, control, and bullying.
Furthermore, sinister political parties and governments are experts at reaping what others sow and using that, and additional input, to forge a formidable image of themselves as saviors. Moreover, when the tough get going, they send false signals of change. They are chameleons in that regard. At present, there is a sense of belief that TPLF would miraculously change its long-held habit of holding onto power, at the last minute. As part of the community, the Tigrayan diaspora is disillusioned by this expectation; otherwise, how else can one explain the deafening silence?
While the demonstrations, advocacy, and information exchange via social media were a job well done, the reaction of the Tigrayan diaspora fell short of expectations. In hindsight, the scariest aspect of what we as a community experienced through these two years was the way we responded to it. Although the situation we are in is out of ordinary, sadly our reactions are normal. This means either we have failed to grasp the depth of the pit we are in, or we accept it as our collective fate. This means that we get used to it. Despite this, we may be handing the lead over to the same clique that not only failed to avert the catastrophe, but also miscalculated the threat, leaving us under prepared.
Now, all of these organizations must look inward and ask themselves questions such as, “Have I met the goal I set?”, “Do I deserve my name?”, “Was I independent as much as I would like to be?”, and “Have I left a footprint in Tigray?” They must recognize that change is inevitable and be ready to be part of the change.
On top of their own practices, experience drawn from other countries’ Diasporas can be a starting point for the Tigrayan diaspora in choosing a route to follow. Should they continue to be sources of remittance and limit their participation in supporting the government in its developmental endeavors, if any? Alternatively, should they start afresh and be active in the political sphere of Tigray? The Ethiopian diaspora offers a lesson about what to avoid – toxic and nation-wrecking. Another takeaway from our neighbors in the north, under the guise of a 2% tax, is to refrain from financing repression and dictatorship. Our own experience in the past two years in conjunction with the Palestinian diaspora (the largest number of refugees) shows that numbers are not the only factor. Israelis show us that the Diaspora could create a country from dust. They also have considerable experience lobbying on behalf of Israel. India’s success is in reversing migration inwards.
So to be a formidable force in Tigray, the Tigrayan diaspora must first engage in the politics of the country they now call home. They must prove that they can influence decisions related to Tigray, say by lobbying. It is in fact imperative that before they set their sights on helping and challenging the government of Tigray, they must show that they can draw support. This is both financially and politically. Thus, the diaspora should look decades into the future and encourage the young generation into entering local politics; doing so opens up a flux of attention. Without earning notice, and respect, from their host countries, it is futile to try to affect the political arena from afar. Again, to reiterate, the options of sending remittances, transferring knowledge and skills, incubating business ideas, and investing are still open.
No matter which route is chosen, losing your freedom makes it nearly impossible to affect change. Cooperating with shrewd political parties like the TPLF entails willing submission. In order for the Tigrayan diaspora to have any influence back home, or to change the political landscape in Tigray, they must first say, “enough is enough”. It will then be able to loosen its ties with TPLF, and hence the divorce.
1. Role of Tigray Diaspora Pre EPRDF
A. Union of Tigreans in North America (UTNA)
The Union of Tigrayan in North America (UTNA) was founded in 1974 by 17 young Tigrayans in response to the oppression and indifference of the Ethiopian Students Union of North America. A few months later, in 1975, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) established and joined hands with UTNA in the struggle for freedom and self-determination. Beyond joining hands, UTNA became a member of TPLF. This membership spanned from 1986 to 1995.
While UTNA officially ceased its membership in TPLF, its activities have remained consistent with TPLF’s. Undeniably, though, UTNA contributed its fair share, both during and after 17 years of struggle.
B. Tigray Development Association (TDA)
In 1989, Tigray Development Association was established by the Tigrayan diaspora, but it soon moved to Mekelle, Tigray, where its footprint, especially in education, remained visible until recently.
2. Role of the Tigray Diaspora during EPRDF
A. Various Development Associations (XDA’s).
Although for most of them, it is challenging to pinpoint when their establishment time is, several development associations began to emerge, all set to address poverty one-way or the other. To mention but a few: Adwa and surrounding development association (ASDA), Raya Development Association in Canada (RDA Canada), Atse Yohannes Alumni Association (AYAA), Agazi School Alumni Association North America (ASAA-NA), Kilte-Awlaelo Schools Development Association (KASDA), Axum Alumni Association (AAA)
B. During the Ethio-Eritrea war
In response to the disinformation and total information blackout the Tigrayans faced following the Ethio-Eritrea war, the Aiga forum appeared as an information hub where Tigrayans got updates about what was happening.
C. During the 2005 election
Following the May 2005 Ethiopian election, it appears another online platform came into play in November 2005; Tigrai Online emerged as an alternative to the Tigrayan voice.
D. Establishment of the Global Society of Tigray Scholars and Professionals (GSTS) and other sisterly organizations
Unhappy with the sluggish economic development in Tigray several professionals started to reorganize themselves to address issues in the education, science, and technology sector. Although I suspect many associations are present, the most popular one is GSTS.
3. Role of the Diaspora during Blitsigina
This is, by far, an era where the Tigrayan diaspora responded in unison. Yet, the successful movement was confined to the first phase of the war.
A. During the first phase of the war
During the first phase of the war following the communication blackout, the Tigrayan diaspora fiercely responded by storming social media. It stepped further, demonstrating on the streets of the western world. Many who consider themselves apolitical were engaged in showing solidarity with Tigrayans in Tigray and opened social media accounts (Facebook and Twitter) thereby using them to make their voices heard.
One thing worth mentioning the mobilization is that it was grassroots; there was no association, or organization, that initiated the movement. Another beautiful thing I witnessed is that young female Tigrayans, some of whom have never set foot on a Tigray, led it.
Concurrently, a few farsighted Tigrayans have stepped beyond expressing anger and established a platform to disseminate information and document the war. It is during this time that platforms such as Tghat, Omna Tigray, Stand With Tigray, Tigray Youth Network (TYN), and UMD Media come to fruition. On top of this, many other YouTube-based media such as TPM, Zara Media Network, Dedebit Media, Axumawian Media Network (AMN), Tigray Media House (TMH), etc. begin to flourish.
The intention of Abiyi-Isayas warmongers is simple; to completely seal off Tigray and do whatever they feel is necessary to crush the spirit of Tigray. Despite this, the Tigrayan diaspora understood the danger and roared on the streets, come rain or shine.
B. After Mekelle is captured
It is best described as a phase when hope and uncertainty merge. The Tigrayan diaspora fell silent as if they had lost their leader. The movement lost momentum.
C. After the peace deal is signed
The feeling of confusion, hopelessness, and the realization that a new paradigm shift is required. Yet, except for a few who kept voicing their anger, many kept silent and chose to see what came of it.
4. The way forward
For Tigray’s betterment, the Tigrayan diaspora must realize the need for its involvement. It has to change gears and shift its role from passively supporting the Tigray government (and TPLF) into actively challenging the status quo of Tigray’s political sphere.
Dawit Hiluf Hailu (PhD) is a lecturer at Howard University, USA; he is selected as one of the 2022 Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors (NASA-AAA). His research interest is in quantum optics, with a special focus on the dynamics of light-matter interaction using Lie algebra, the application of which mimics the newly emerging and exciting field of unconventional molecular computing. Some of his work can be found at https://scholar.google.com/citations?hl=en&user=oW_KNjgAAAAJ