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Passport politics

Passport politics:

Ethiopia’s political reform and the diaspora

On November 5, 2018, the Office of the Prime Minister’s Office (OPM) announced the appointment of Billene Seyoum as Press Secretary of the PM. Following her appointment, information regarding her Canadian citizenship came out, and it created quite the social media buzz in subsequent weeks.

One social media commentator going by the Twitter handle Gebre argued at the time that “if the Office respects the Constitution, it should either change the specific legal provision or avoid hiring foreign passport holders to fill government positions.” Similarly, the renowned Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed also tweeted saying the government has to clarify issues related to citizenship in Ethiopia; and that the specific appointment would raise many serious questions. Hence, he said: “this should be a wakeup call.”

But, on the other side, there are some commentators who argue that it is not a coincidence the law omitted the Office of the PM from the list of institutions foreign citizens of Ethiopian origin cannot be employed in.

Proclamation 270/2002 provides that any foreign citizen of Ethiopian origin, apart from not being allowed to vote or stand in local elections, “shall have no right to be employed on a regular basis in the National Defense, Security, Foreign Affairs and other similar political establishments.”

According to commentators, the OPM is clearly not part of this list of government institutions, thereby offering a clue as to how the appointment of the press secretary might have slipped through in the first place.

Nevertheless, it is not the first-time foreign nationals of Ethiopian origin got to be employed in decisive government institutions including but not limited to Khalid Bomba, an American heading the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency, and Solomon Tadesse, former head of the erstwhile Ethiopian Tourism Organization, the current Tourism Ethiopia. But these posts are more of professional than political positions hence not triggering such discussions.

Regardless, the participation of the Ethiopian diaspora in the political, economic and social life of their nation had been one of the most debatable issues in Ethiopia over the course of the past twenty years. The discussion, hence, ranges from ensuring sustained participation to permitting multiple citizenships for communities having Ethiopian origin.

The recent dynamism created in the Ethiopian diaspora and the increased participation in the local politics has further exacerbated these debates. In fact, the most recent changes being implemented by the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) is managed to encourage a number of Ethiopians in the diaspora to move back to their country in different capacities. With this, some fundamental issues are coming to the fore.       

For one, while the Ethiopian government is keen on tapping the economic potential of the Ethiopian Diaspora through increased remittance and most recently through the newly established Diaspora Trust Fund scheme, its policies still carry some inherent contradictions since members of the Ethiopian diaspora are forbidden from investing in the banking and financial sectors (even as a minority shareholder).  

In this regard, as recently as last year, the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE) has issued a directive to all the private banks in the country to see to it that all foreign passport holders divest immediately and completely from the financial institutions. The regulator ordered all shares acquired by the Ethiopian diaspora to be sold in the open markets, transfer the profit to the government’s coffers while leaving only the original par value to the owners. This has created a dispute at the time among financial institutions and diaspora returnees; in fact one case even reached the court.

Despite all these issues, the government has been calling on all foreign based political groups and individuals to come home and wage a peaceful political agenda. For most, this policy direction is basically contradictory to the measures it is taking in other areas like the financial sector. “While it evicts them from a less decisive role of owning shares in the financial sector, it is calling them to come and decide on the fate of nation and this is not morally right,” commentators say.

On of prominent diaspora politician in Ethiopia carrying a foreign passport is Andargachew Tsige, deputy chair of patriot-Ginbot 7, one of the few vocal political groups based in the US and recently decided to move back home. For all intents and purposes, Andargachew is a British citizen.

When Andargachew was released from prison, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) called him to his office and told him to come back and wage a peaceful political struggle. Along with this, he reportedly sent a message through to Andargachew to call up to Ginbot 7 to come and engage in peaceful political activism.

Similarly, many foreign passport holder politicians of Ethiopian origin are coming to the country, according to reports. A striking revelation in this story is that most of these politicians returning to their nation after years of exile are not really ready to abandon their newly acquired foreign citizenship and the passport that proofs it. This story also has another twist; this whole debate is now taken as an indication of how far these politicians are determined to the ideals and the country they say they have been fight for.

Because of the absence of compliance with the country’s laws, no party has since gone to the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) for registration. To be an eligible political part in Ethiopia, they have to be properly registered. But, one of the elementary demands to be registered as a party, a member as well as a leader is unquestionable Ethiopian citizenship. Even though most of these foreign nationals have the yellow identification cards signifying their Ethiopian Origin, they are not really allowed to vote or stand in the local elections.

Some commentators even go to the extent of claiming that a number of them entered the local political scene without even bothering to have the yellow identification as they came running, answering PM’s call for peaceful engagement. Hence, they might even not get the benefits stipulated in the proclamation for the yellow card holders.

But many in the diaspora take the debate to another level–multiple citizenship or at least double passport. According to the Ethiopian law, anyone who acquires a foreign citizenship is by default considered to have forfeited his Ethiopian citizenship.

True to form, question of dual citizenship has been an issue for the close to 3 million Ethiopian diaspora for many years, now. And this is among one of the questions directed towards PM Abiy during his US visit months after his inauguration. While asked to consider double citizenship, he said that, “even though your passports are been taken away from you, Ethiopia remains within you. Going forward, we will deal with this citizenship matter in a manner that would suits us.”

Samuel Alemu, a regular columnist for The Reporter’s Diaspora Corner, in his article entitled “The case for granting Ethiopian diaspora dual citizenship,” recounted the contributions of the diaspora, if they had the right to enjoy the privileges other citizens have.

Samuel, a diaspora himself residing in the US, argues that “Dual citizenship has been in formal and informal debate platforms in Ethiopia for many years. This is mainly due to the emerging realization that Ethiopians who are now citizens of foreign nations have the potential and motivation to promote the political, social, and economic growth of their homeland … To putting it simply; it is a strategy for reintegrating former nationals into the economy, politics, and sociocultural life in their native country. Of course, Ethiopians who hold dual citizenship may not be allowed to serve in the Army or join the country’s public service. Many of them may need to go through a lengthy process of restoring their national status and obtaining Ethiopian citizenship in addition to the citizenship of a different country. Dual citizenship may end up being a costlier alternative to the current Identification Cards. However, the privileges brought with citizenship are incomparably richer than those available to Identification Card holders. Ethiopia should understand that these privileges will eventually translate into tangible benefits for the entire Ethiopian society, from higher rates of foreign investment to increased knowledge and political resources that will reshape the country.”

A while back, when talking to The Reporter on the issue, Abraham Seyoum, the director general of the Ethiopian Diaspora Association, commented; if we need the potential of the diaspora, we need to straighten out the laws and proclamations that would allow Ethiopian-born foreign passport holders to directly participate in the political life of the country. “There needs to be a mechanism to facilitate the free participation of the Ethiopian Diaspora in the nation’s politics, including but not limited to elections, both as voters or political office contenders,” he argued.

One of the arguments the Ethiopian diaspora maintain in requiring direct political participation is their indirect role in influencing the politics of the country when they become more and more economically powerful.

On the other hand, others argue that the diaspora are emotionally attached to their country although they live abroad.

Until recently, the diaspora has not been at the center of government’s plans; this started to improve following the Ethiopian Millennium celebration in 2008. Very recently, the government has established a separate agency dedicated to the diaspora that will assume the roles of the Diaspora Affairs Directorate at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Now, addressing the numerous questions of the Ethiopian diaspora falls up on this agency, including the issue of dual citizenship. Many, however, argue that as the diaspora start to take more proactive role in the nation’s political life, the issue of dual/multiple citizenship is one matter that needs to be resolved quickly.