The cadence in Mesfin Mekonen’s voice seems to deliberately take the listener on a journey to Ethiopia, guided by his thick East African accent. With arms folded, Mekonen gazes past the droves of people moving around him in downtown Washington and into a time when, as a teenager, he worked at his father”s soap and cooking oil factory in the Ethiopian town of Nazareth.
With a work force of 300, the factory supported the Mekonen family. In Mekonen’s small community, ethnic groups got along. Muslims and Christians, Indians and Italians all lived side by side. Mekonen describes the time as peaceful.
But the tranquil place Mekonen, a leader of Washington’s Ethiopian community, knew as a child has given way to an area saturated with continuous unrest and human rights violations, most recently the killings of about 200 people, mostly demonstrators, by police in 2005 after general elections in Addis Ababa and other towns.
The incident sparked Mekonen”s drive for U.S. legislation that would hold human rights violators accountable and augment American support of democracy in Ethiopia.
What Mekonen didn’t realize, however, was that efforts by a volunteer, community-based lobby group he leads in Washington would be stacked up against those of a big-time D.C. lobby firm working on behalf of the Ethiopian government.
AN UNLIKELY FOE
In 1972 a 20-year-old Mekonen arrived in the United States to get a college education. Years later, his father’s property would be taken by the Ethiopian government’s communist regime. It was so very sad, says Mekonen.
Although Ethiopia is no longer under communist rule, Mekonen says the country needs direction.
Now, there is no democracy, no freedom of speech, no freedom of the press, says Mekonen, who himself is a manager at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Everything has changed. It is now a police state where anyone can be killed.
Not wanting to stand by quietly, Mekonen, a longtime supporter of Ethiopian progress, founded the Ethiopian-American Council in Washington, a communitywide lobby and advocacy group.
Getting congressional staffers to listen to his story about Ethiopia wasn’t easy at first, but Mekonen was persistent. And that persistence eventually led to the introduction of a bill aimed at creating peace in the region and bringing the perpetrators of human rights violations to justice.
The process started when Mekonen began communicating with the staff of Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the Africa, Global Human Rights, and International Operations Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee. Smith was planning a trip to West Africa, and Mekonen jumped at the opportunity to suggest that the congressman make his way to the other side of the continent.
I told him that it would be a great service to the Ethiopian people if he would take a trip to Ethiopia and get that firsthand experience, Mekonen says.
Smith agreed. In August 2005 he visited the country and talked to community members and government officials. Ethiopia had such an impact on him that he started writing the bill H.R. 5680, the Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights Advancement Act of 2006 during his flight back to the United States.
The act calls for strengthening the U.S.-Ethiopia relationship and fostering democracy, economic development, and freedom of the press, among other things. It calls for a sanction of the Ethiopian government by cutting off non humanitarian aid if the African nation does not follow the bill’s call for democracy. It also seeks the release of political prisoners and the withholding of visas from key Ethiopian officials who are suspected of links to human rights violations.
The bill, which has 28 co-sponsors, passed the House International Relations Committee with bipartisan support in June, but it stopped there. It never reached the House floor for a vote.
Mekonen and other supporters blame Dick Armey, the Texas Republican and former House majority leader who now works for lobbying firm DLA Piper, for the bill’s demise. Armey and DLA Piper registered with the Justice Department in June as lobbyists for the government of Ethiopia, at a price tag of $50,000 a month.
A MATTER OF TERRORISM?
Opponents of the bill argue that because of Ethiopia’s strategic position in the Horn of Africa, proximity to the Middle East, and easy access to other major parts of the region, Ethiopia could be critical in the United States fight against terrorism.
In a press release, DLA Piper states, Ethiopia remains a close ally today, particularly in the global war against terrorism. As recent events in Somalia threaten to undermine security in the Horn of Africa, it is crucial for U.S. interests to have friends and allies in this strategically important region.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi sent troops to fight the Islamist militia that has assumed control over Somalia after nearly two decades of warlordism. Zenawi has also tried to show his support in the war on terrorism by working with other nations to fend off the Islamist government in Sudan.
I know there is a war on terror, but what about human rights asks Mekonen, his eyes widening. He says he and members of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, a coalition of four opposition parties in Ethiopia that combined to compete for seats in the 2005 general elections, attempted to meet with outgoing House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to discuss the bill. In November 2005, according to the Department of State, CUD members were arrested during the post-election violence in Ethiopia, along with other civil leaders and journalists, and thousands of demonstrators were detained.
Calls to Hastert’s office were not returned.
Although DLA Piper acknowledges that it is working on behalf of the Ethiopian government to strengthen bilateral relations with the United States, including increasing economic and development assistance and developing trade and investment opportunities, it would not speak about its stance on the Ethiopian human rights bill. We generally don’t talk in detail about our work on behalf of clients and specific issues, says Ted Loud, a spokesman for the lobby firm.
Last month, Armey and the Ethiopian ambassador to the United States, Samuel Assefa, met with Smith in an effort to persuade the congressman to back away from the bill, says a spokesman in Smith’s D.C. office.
They met for a couple of hours. Mr. Armey and the ambassador presented their sides, and the congressman presented his side, says spokesman Patrick Creamer. As far as I know, they [Armey and the ambassador] were arguing that the bill was not necessary.
By the end of the meeting, Rep. Smith hadn’t budged.
Mr. Smith is adamant about the need for the bill, and he doesn’t think there will be reform in Ethiopia without it. He believes that in order for democracy to grow in Ethiopia, the U.S. has to put some pressure on the Ethiopian government, Creamer says. He hopes to get the bill up for votes the week of December 4. There is a small window of opportunity then.
If the bill doesn’t reach the House floor next week, supporters are looking forward to it getting to the 110th Congress.
A FAILED ARGUMENT
Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with more than half of the population living on less than $1 per day. Ethiopians have suffered for decades due to drought, famine, disease, and regional instability, including violent unrest with neighboring Eritrea and the brutal dictatorship of the military junta under Mengistu Haile Mariam. Under that regime, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians were killed. According to the bill, some of the members of the regime are said to be living in the United States.
With the downfall of the Mengistu regime in 1991, U.S.-Ethiopia relations improved dramatically, and legislative restrictions on nonhumanitarian assistance to Ethiopia were lifted, according to the Department of State. Total U.S. government assistance to the African nation between 1991 and 2003 was $2.3 billion. During Ethiopia’s severe drought in 2003, the United States provided a record $553.1 million in assistance, of which $471.7 million was food aid, according to the State Department.
Donald Yamamoto, deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of African Affairs at the State Department, is currently visiting Ethiopia. Jennifer Schaming-Ronan of the State Department’s press office said that in Yamamoto’s absence, no one was available to comment on the State Department’s stance on the bill.
Mauro De Lorenzo, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., rejects the criticism of those who contend that the United States should not interfere with Ethiopia because of its importance in the U.S. fight against terrorism, adding that the United States should continue to play a role in Ethiopian security and military forces.
Just because Ethiopia is a very important partner in the war on terror, the United States should not remain mute when the country slides back on its responsibility to create economic freedom and democracy, says De Lorenzo.
It’s a failed argument for the Middle East and it’s a failed argument for Ethiopia. Some people think that pushing us away from Ethiopia is going to drive Ethiopia out of our arms and into China’s.
De Lorenzo says China has been gaining influence in several African countries.
Two weeks ago the Ethiopian Commission of Inquiry, an independent team of Ethiopians investigating the post-election violence, arrived on Capitol Hill to discuss its findings that 193 people had been killed during and after the elections, a stark contrast from the body count of 43 the Ethiopian government initially reported.
Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.), a co-sponsor of the human rights bill and ranking member of the Africa Subcommittee, chaired the intense meeting, along with the founder and chairman of the Congressional Ethiopia and Ethiopian American Caucus, Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.).
It was the first time members of the Ethiopian community had a chance to hear from the [Ethiopian] commissioners, who fled the country after they were being forced to change numbers in the report, says Noelle LuSane, a committee aide to Payne.
Congressman Payne has made it clear that he wants to see a vote on the bill before the 109th Congress adjourns, LuSane says. We’re hoping that that happens.
If it does, Mekonen says, it will not only help reshape his country but also set a precedent for U.S.-Ethiopian relations.
In September Congress passed a similar bill to the Ethiopian bill, the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act, which punishes those who have committed genocide during the unrest in Sudan and expands peacekeeping operations. The act’s passage is encouraging to proponents of the Ethiopia bill.
Almost every Saturday, Mekonen’s voice is heard across the airwaves on Washington, D.C.’s Radio Abisinia. Some listeners call in asking what they can do; he urges them to ask members of Congress to support the bill, which he calls a beacon of hope for Ethiopians.
We all came to this country loving freedom, Mekonen says. This legislation is the one hope for the Ethiopian people. It will at least show that the U.S. is on our side.