An Ethiopian politico barnstorms Minnesota


When Bulcha Demeksa, an opposition member of the Ethiopian Parliament, feels compelled to denounce the Ethiopian Prime Minister, he doesn’t bother to organize a political rally in Ethiopia or search for journalists eager to publish his rhetorical thunderbolts.

That’s because opposition rallies are banned in Ethiopia, and the press is government-controlled down to the last pixel and drop of printer’s ink.

Plus, Ethiopia’s jails are filled these days with people brave or foolhardy enough to speak out publicly against the regime of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

By some estimates, as many as 30,000 political prisoners are presently being held in Ethiopian jails. Human Rights Watch and other watchdog groups over the past decade have documented thousands of cases of arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings and torture of political dissidents.

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So instead of risking life and limb to speak at home, Demeksa travels to Minnesota. He did so last Thursday, speaking to a crowd of Ethiopian immigrants at a sometimes boisterous human rights conference at the University of Minnesota.

“We are ruled by a dictator who wants to cheat the U.S. and Europe by saying he is trying to democratize the country,” Demeska railed, pounding the air with his fists. “But he is not trying to democratize at all. He is suppressing the nation brutally, and he is suppressing difference of opinion. If you want to say something against him, somehow you will be silenced.”

Demeksa has visited Minnesota frequently over the years to build support and raise money for initiatives that he presses back home. Four years ago, following consultations in this state and elsewhere, he founded the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM), a political party representing 30 million members of the Oromo tribe, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.

Educated People

Freedom of speech is only one reason Demeksa likes to make political stump speeches in Minnesota. Even more important is that perhaps his wealthiest, most media savvy, and most politically influential constituency lives right here. Minnesota is home to around 20,000 immigrants from Ethiopia, more than live in any other state.

As a result, while he is straitjacketed and muzzled in Ethiopia, Demeksa’s political efforts here can inspire Ethiopian-born Americans to push U.S. officials to exert pressure on Ethiopia. He can get his central message — that Ethiopia today is ruled by a de facto dictator and a brutal one — into the international media. And sometimes he can raise more money in Minnesota than he could in Ethiopia.

“Our educated people are concentrated here,” Demeksa said. “If these people do not help us, who else will help us? First, by providing leadership, and secondly, with financial help. I come, and other politicians come, to allow people here to see problems developing in their country; to see if they accept our proposals; and to listen to their suggestions and proposals.”

Most Evicted

Yet things never go as smoothly in Minnesota as Demeksa would surely like. The same rancor and divisions that split Ethiopian politics are also present here in the state’s Ethiopian immigrant population.

Passions and grudges break in Minnesota along many fault lines. One of those is over whether opponents of the present Ethiopian regime should ever use more than words to fight the present regime. That topic was noisily debated at a political discussion Demeksa hosted with a group of young Oromo immigrants — mostly college and graduate school age — ahead of the conference’s academic lectures.

“The Oromo people are the most evicted, the most displaced, the most repressed and the most occupied people in Ethiopia!” one man in the audience exploded after Demeksa’s talk. “You are the advocate of an occupier! You are aiding this belligerent power! I ask you, are you defending the occupiers or standing with the Oromo people?”

Fever Pitch

Up on the dais, Demeksa blinked under the onslaught, paused for a moment and then pointedly answered his interrogator.

“Baloney!” he barked. “This is the same propaganda that has held us back and kept us down for so many years. You cannot say that I am a friend of the government. They think I am an enemy. They want to kill me.

“I don’t believe you can take power by force,” he added. “If you do, another force will take power from you, and it will go on endlessly like that.”

Whether conditions in Ethiopia are now so bad that only violent resistance will change them has been argued at fever pitch in Minnesota’s Ethiopian population in recent months.

Frustration has been fueled by one after another atrocity in Ethiopia, especially since 2005 when government troops killed more than 200 demonstrators at a rally protesting the national elections that year. Local elections earlier this year have also been widely dismissed as fraudulent by Demeksa and international monitors.

Fault Lines

Recent crackdowns by Ethiopian troops in the eastern Ogaden region and the western Gambella region of Ethiopia; total press censorship and control; and the widespread jailing and torture of political dissidents across all ethnic lines have all added urgency and credibility to the Oromo’s longstanding complaints against the regime’s brutally oppressive tactics.

By virtue of its enormous size – comprising roughly 40 percent of Ethiopia’s population – the Oromo have an especially strong claim to deserving a greater voice in Ethiopian politics and culture. Yet Demeksa’s OFDM party holds only about 2 percent of the seats in the Ethiopian parliament.

At the discussion with young Oromo immigrants, Demeksa’s insistence on non-violent resistance hardly mollified the crowd.

“Demeksa has good ideas but no way to get to his goal,” said Sena Jimjimo, an Oromo student who traveled to Minneapolis from Chicago to attend the conference. “He calls for peaceful demonstrations, but there are no such things in Ethiopia. It’s impossible. So my question to him is, ‘If I go to demonstrate, what guarantee do I have that I will come back alive?’”

Apartheid Parallel

I chatted with several of the young people during a break. None of them agreed with Demeksa’s insistence on using only non-violent means to establish democracy in the country of their birth.

Instead, they cited the American Revolutionary War and the sabotage and other violent tactics used by the African National Congress in its long struggle against South African apartheid, as possible models for Ethiopia.

“Martin Luther King needed Malcolm X to pave his way,” one Oromo woman said. “I agree with that. We have reached the point where we need change in Ethiopia by any means necessary.”

Douglas McGill has reported for the New York Times and Bloomberg News–and now the Daily Planet.

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