Ethiopian-American group tries to raise profile on Capitol Hill

In the spare moments before the lunch rush and then later before the dinner crowd arrives, Mesfin Mekonen, manager of the Reliable Source restaurant, works a second, unpaid job: lobbyist.

Mekonen, who moved to the United States from Ethiopia in 1972 at age 20, is the Washington representative for the Ethiopian-American Council, which is trying to add the Ethiopian diaspora to the list of prominent ethnic lobbying groups.

The Council started in the late 1990s out of frustration at recurrent famine problems in Ethiopia. Determined to convince Congress to provide aid  but not sure how the process worked, Mekonen began by appealing to the sympathies of office receptionists, asking them in fluent though accented English to let him talk to a person who best could help.

That person, he found, was often out to lunch. Even when a name was forthcoming, success was not always guaranteed.

“Sometimes that person says, ‘I’ll call you back.’ But sometimes they never call you back,” says Mekonen, who spends most of his day ensuring his restaurant can serve around 200 meals at lunch and dinner.

Reflecting on his lobbying effort, he says, “It’s been a tough road, especially in this town, if you don’t know anybody, don’t have any money, and if you have another job.”

Slowly, with persistence and the advice from the journalists who eat at his restaurant, which is located in the National Press Club, and a few members of Congress and key staff, Mekonen began to build his Rolodex and understand a system that had been foreign to him even after all his years in the States.

The Council, too, has evolved, into a growing network of more than 500 immigrants across the country. Begun as an effort to relieve famine, its main focus now is to support a bill written by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the chairman of the International Relations Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations subcommittee, which criticizes the Ethiopian government’s human rights record.

More than 80 people were killed by government security personnel in violent demonstrations in June and November of 2005 that followed an open election.

“The passage of the bill is very important,” Mekonen says.

Getting it passed, though, is proving a tough test for the Council and other like-minded groups. Those other groups include the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, an opposition group in Ethiopia whose leaders were jailed there in the aftermath of a wave of violence that followed elections last year.

The measure passed the International Relations committee in June but hasn’t moved since.

The administration opposes much of the bill. The Smith measure, which the congressman crafted after traveling to Ethiopia last August, would fund human-rights monitoring groups, train political parties, and restrict the travel of Ethiopian officials involved in using lethal force against peaceful demonstrators.

The bill also calls on Ethiopia to release political prisoners.

During a March hearing in Smith’s committee, Ethiopian ambassador Fessesha Asgehdom Tessema said the country is learning to be a better democracy. But he blamed the violence on demonstrators who came “armed with clubs and grenades.”

To help repair frayed relations, Ethiopia is paying DLA Piper and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) $50,000 a month. Part of the lobbying strategy has been to stress Ethiopia’s commitment to the war on terror, congressional sources said.

Armey and the Ethiopian ambassador met with Smith for two hours last week, but reached no compromise. Smith said his bill is necessary to force the Ethiopian government to take human rights seriously.

Deputy Secretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto, nominated to become ambassador to Ethiopia, said during his Senate Foreign Relations confirmation hearing yesterday that the relationship between the two countries is “very strong and mutually supportive.”

But he also said the recent violence and the continued detention of opposition leaders is the “number-one topic” of discussion between Ethiopian and American officials.

The role Ethiopian Americans are struggling to play has a long precedence in America’s political system. Abraham Lincoln appealed, for example, to Carl Schurz and other German Americans in both of his presidential campaigns.

As groups assimilate, attachment to a separate political identity tied to ancestral homeland fades. Once powerful groups like German Americans give way to groups of newer arrivals, says David Paul, an Ohio State University professor who along with his wife, Raquel, is studying the ability of ethnic lobbying groups to influence American foreign policy.

Paul mentioned specifically Indian Americans, Korean Americans and Cuban Americans as among the most effective ethnic lobbying groups, along with the prominence American Jews play in supporting Israel.

The key to success for ethic communities is the development of an “organizational apparatus” that encourages grassroots activism, Paul said.

“Politics is about relationships,” Paul said. “Ethnic groups need to get to know members before they ask them for something.”

Ethiopian Americans are seen as being too dispersed to be among the most effective groups, Paul said.

Yamamoto says, “The amount of wealth in the community, and the business sense, [Ethiopian Americans] can be a tremendous force for positive change.”

To be effective, Yamamoto added, Ethiopians Americans should focus their energy on “development and prosperity in the future.”

The community has scored some success. A couple of weeks after a congressional hearing in 2002 on Ethiopian famine, help from the U.S. government was on its way.

“That was the best day of my life,” Mekonen says.

The Council is trying to develop the grassroots base that Paul describes. At home, Mekonen continues his work, sending out missives that stress the importance of a “free and democratic” Ethiopia to his council email list, urging members to contact their congressional representatives about Smith’s bill.

Paul said another key to success is for ethnic groups to link to American values.

Several prominent ethnic lobbying groups also operate a PAC, Paul’s research shows. Ethiopian Americans have yet to develop one, however.

“It is not in our culture, fundraising,” Mekonen says. “We are learning the process.”