Daniel Berhane Interviews Mekonnen Kassa, Ethiopian Diaspora Activist
By Daniel Berhane
January 21, 2013
The Ethiopian diaspora plays a role disproportionate to its numerical size due to its better standing, compared to those at home, in terms of finance capacity and control of the online media and the supposedly independent Voice of America radio Amharic service. That, by itself, was not a problem if only the diaspora was not perceived as misusing its stronghold on the domestic opposition parties into pushing them to take hard-line positions, which barely concur with the public opinion at home.
Events in the diaspora observed since the late Meles Zenawi’s illness and passing seem to support this perception. A noteworthy instance would be the demonstration by opposition activists in New York, demanding the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegne – just 10 days after his inauguration as Prime Minister.
On the other hand, the turn out for the memorial services of Meles and comments on social network media (facebook, twitter, etc.) suggested the diaspora community can not be categorically lumped as belonging to hard-line opposition camps.
For a better grasp of the political landscape of the Ethiopian diaspora, I invited Mekonen Kassa, whom you probably heard at the Voice of America radio Amharic service debating with the journalists and opposition activists. He is a principal Manager at Microsoft and former chairperson of EPRDF supporters forum. (see his bio at the bottom).
Though our interview was supposed to be conducted via Skype and to be presented to you in audio/video format, we had to postpone that for another time due to technological and time constraints.
Read the written interview with Mekonen Kassa below. (the words in brackets [ ] are my insertions intended to clarify).
Daniel Berhane: We heard claims that Americans of Ethiopian origin didn’t vote for Obama complying to the call by some Ethiopian opposition politicians and media to that effect. Is that a credible claim?
Obviously I don’t have the data to give credibility to this claim. But I can tell you one thing; here in America there is availability of data that anyone can go get and publish. In particular, aggregated voting data is available for any researcher. So my advice to those who made this claim is to contact US Federal Election Commission or each of the fifty states and ask for a vote count of naturalized citizens of Ethiopian origin for both 2008 and 2012 and publish it for us.
Having said that, if I were to infer what I observed, however, I actually think more Ethiopian may have voted for Obama in 2012 than in 2008 for several reasons. First, more Ethiopians have become citizens making them eligible to vote within the last for years. Second, most Ethiopians are first generation immigrants, and as such, they are more likely dependent on government services, and the Democratic party [of President Obama] is considered more likely to keep funding social programs. Third, Obama is the first African-American president of USA with a father from Kenya; many Ethiopians are more inclined to vote for him because they consider him as one of their own. Let us not fool ourselves, it may not be always, but when you are in a minority, your race, gender, ethnic, etc. play major role in one identifying oneself with a candidate and deciding to cast a vote.
Daniel Berhane: The Ethiopian opposition in diaspora were angered by Ambassador Susan Rice’s speech at the funeral of Meles Zenawi, especially by her remark that:“[Meles] was tough, unsentimental and sometimes unyielding. And, of course, he had little patience for fools, or ‘idiots’, as he liked to call them.”
Do you think she was referring to them? If so, was she harsh?
I am not sure how this part of her speech could be interpreted as “she referring to them.” Ambassador Rice was simply describing the intellectual caliber and characteristics of late PM Meles. Had Ambassador Rice herself said that “fools and idiots disagreed with him and he had no patience for them” then the criticism against her would have been justified.
It is my impression that Ambassador Rice has worked with PM Meles for a long time. She has had the opportunity to discuss a variety of topics with him. And her remarks are based on her knowledge and observation of PM Meles. She is one of the highest ranking government officials of the richest and the most powerful nation in the world. She does not have to please anyone. She does not have to fly for 14 hours to attend a funeral, let alone deliver a eulogy for an African leader. But her government and herself chose to attend the funeral and deliver a eulogy because they knew and understood Meles and admired his personality and contribution and wanted to let the world know him. And by the way, all the leaders who attended the funeral and delivered and a eulogy equally admired PM Meles qualities and his contributions.
Daniel Berhane: Here at home we are struggling to understand why some members of the diaspora opposition were busy demonstrating against memorial services held in Western cities for the late PM Meles Zenawi. Can you enlighten us?
Every society has few people who do not necessarily operate within the boundaries of reality but act like they live in a different realm. Some of these few protestors do not have a complete knowledge of our past history and mistaken understanding, mostly based on politically motivated hearsay and distant observation, of the current situation in Ethiopia. They believe that all current day Ethiopians lived in harmony and peace for millennia until EPRDF came and destroyed the unity and peaceful coexistence of Ethiopians. And they held late PM Meles as the architect of this perceived destruction of Ethiopia. They tend to focus on anecdotal stories and minor but exaggerated wrongs or mistakes. I believe this erroneously exaggerated view is what drives them.
These minority opposition Ethiopian Diaspora live their own “single story” on Ethiopia and on Meles. They do not realize that they do not hold a monopoly on truth. They refuse to believe the facts of our past history show a worse situation in Ethiopia and the current state of our country is much improved. Furthermore, they do not do due diligence to understand the many major contributions late PM Meles and his party have made to help protect and grow Ethiopia, and the millions of admirers both domestic and foreigners.
Daniel Berhane: I gather the diaspora opposition and media is angered by the Ethiopian public remorse for the late PM Meles Zenawi’s passing. Wouldn’t it have been tactical for them to endorse the public’s sentiment and move forward rather than degrading the values of the population whom they want to mobilize?
The Ethiopian people are witnessing the practical results of EPRDF policy, and they are reaping the benefits. Ethiopians grieved when the embodiment of these fruitful policies and the iconic leader of the party that brought these benefits died.
A good and smart opposition would issue a condolence and share the people’s grief, and would declare it would work harder to build on the fruitful policies and contribute its share for the successful completion of major transformative projects. Unfortunately we are not blessed with smart and good opposition. That is all I can say.
Daniel Berhane: Speaking of Meles, were you surprised by how the national mourning went? Do you think the still-ongoing posthumous glorification of the late PM Meles Zenawi is “too much”?
I was not surprised at all. For those of us who have followed PM Meles’s work very closely for the last decade and have written about him, this was very much expected. When the rumors were rampant about his illness and wild speculations of his death, I have told people that if PM Meles were dead Ethiopians from North to South and from East to West would mobilize and grieve for days. And that is exactly what happened.
PM Meles and his party have transformed the lives of millions of people lives and our nation against great odds and at huge personal sacrifice. It is just a matter of time even for all who passionately oppose them to give them due recognition. Many have done that already.
PM Meles deserved to see all the recognition and glorification while he was alive. I think it is a good lesson for us Ethiopians to learn to recognize and reward people who are making positive contribution while they are still with us. I think sometimes we Ethiopian have this sense of expectation of sacrifice from others, particularly political leaders, and we often fail to give them due recognition. I think this is what is happening in PM Meles’s case.
I do not consider [the glorification of Meles] too much. We still glorify and sing songs of admiration to former warrior leaders who have been dead for over a hundred years. We are still singing songs for King Menelik who won the battle of Adwa but lost many territories of Ethiopia including Eritrea, Djibouti, and Ogaden. I believe by all measures and standards, on balance, PM Meles has done a better job for Ethiopia and Ethiopians than the past many leaders combined. If PM Meles were alive, I am sure he would have refused all this attention and admiration, but I think he deserves the entire glorification.
Daniel Berhane: Dr. Fesha Eshestu’s “National Transitional Council” was making much noise in August and September. Is it still functional?
I am not sure if it were ever functional. It enjoyed its “fifteen minute of fame” just like every other fly-by-night opposition group that gets established every now and then.
Daniel Berhane: We often hear your name on VOA Amharic service taking a position favorable to the ruling party. Are you an official? Why do you care? A diaspora is supposed to be an opposition, right?
I am not an Ethiopian government official, nor do I operate in any official capacity. I am not a member of any political party. One thing I should note, however, is that I have served as a Worldwide EPRDF Support Forum chairman for a little over three years, from 2007 – 2010.
I immigrated to US in Sep 1988 and became a naturalized US citizen in Nov 1994. As you may know Ethiopian law prohibits foreign nationals, including those with Ethiopian origin, from voting and holding any elected position. I believe there are some restrictions about non-Ethiopians from holding a government position as well. Having said that, it is my hope that someday, when situations permit, I would like to serve at some official capacity and serve my people and my country using the skills, experiences, and knowledge that I have accumulated while living and working in America for decades.
I care about my homeland and my people very much. I get involved and I pay many sacrifices because I do not want this new generation of Ethiopians to grow up like I did in Ethiopia and walk past dead bodies of their family members while going to school; because I like to see this generation of Ethiopians get ample opportunity to go to college in Ethiopia; because I like my people to have an opportunity to live in peace and not get drafted and get sent to war far away from their families; because I like to see my people manage to lead a good life for themselves in their own country.
I am very proud of our glorious history. I believe we Ethiopians can become great and prosperous people again if we can only learn how to respect each other’s rights and celebrate our differences. In this modern times we Ethiopians have to internalize that differences need not be settled through violence. We need not fall victims of hate politics, it will eventually destroy us as people and will threaten the existence of a united Ethiopia. We need to cleanse ourselves from the old style of politics that considered differing opinions as “Anti-Ethiopian” and “Anti-People.” I get involved to share my views and broadcast these fundamental democratic principles that are so vital for my people and my country as we go through accustoming ourselves with a democratic socio political system.
Daniel Berhane: A diaspora is supposed to be an opposition, right?
An Ethiopian Diaspora is not supposed to be a member or sympathizer of an opposition. This is one of the biggest misconceptions many people have. Even the Ethiopian government fails victim of this misconception. To give you an example, my home city of Seattle, WA (supposedly a place with hardcore opposition next to Washington, DC) has an estimated Ethiopian population that numbers upwards of 30,000. But whenever the oppositions hold an opposition rally or a meeting the attendants hardly number in hundreds.
As a matter of fact, the largest Ethiopian turn out in Seattle was when we called a GTP [Growth and Transformation Plan] meeting – approximately 960 attendants. Even a larger crowd – about 2000 – turned out when we held a memoriam for our late PM Meles Zenawi. The same can be said about other major metropolitan US cities.
The few, hardcore, vociferous individuals control mass media and internet websites and continuously spew negative propaganda that may give one the wrong impression that the whole Ethiopian Diaspora is against the current Ethiopian government. For a long time the conspicuous absence source of positive information that counter balances the opposition propaganda is to partly blame for this misconception. But now online streaming and satellite broadcast of ETV has changed the situation for the better.
Mekonnen Kassa was born on July 12, 1964 and raised in Gonder, Ethiopia. He left for the Sudan a year after he graduated from Fasiledes Highschool and after walking day and night for over 15 days he arrived at Amrakuba, Sudan refugee camp. Has lived in Gedarif and Khartoum Sudan for about four years working all kinds of odd jobs including working as a house maid for a large Sudanese family. He finally immigrated US in 1988. He worked as a taxi driver for five years while studying Mechanical Engineering at University of Washington. He graduated in 1995 and worked as a Senior Technology Architect for Accenture Consulting and JDA Software. He is currently a Principal Manager at Microsoft. Mekonnen is 48 years old and has two children, 15 years old Heron Kassa and 12 years old Sarah Kassa.
* This interview is part of the “Post-Meles 2012″ Special Edition of www.DanielBerhane.com