By Tamrat G. Giorgis
Ethiopian Americans are torn between two less-than-ideal presidential candidates
On a foggy and showery afternoon on Wednesday, Girma Wegderes, 53, was busy at his work place at Colonial Parking, on Vermont Avenue, NW, Washington D.C., attending vehicles coming and departing almost every minute. Working alongside his co-worker, Nigus, he went down the parking lot to pick up a Chevy pickup for a client.
“It’s busy this time of the day,” Girma said, sounding apologetic for interrupting a rather animated conversation on the presidential race in the United States, which is to be determined in just a week.
Originally from Arat Kilo, the upcoming election will be Girma’s seventh vote since he arrived in America 23 years ago. A father of two, Girma lives in Arlington, Virginia. At close to five percent, Arlington is a county which hosts the third largest Ethiopian community in North America, next to Wheaton and Takoma Park, both in the nearby state of Maryland.
Girma always votes for candidates from the Democratic Party, whether it is for the White House, the Congress or the Senate. He will make no exception next week, thus vote for Hillary Clinton, a polished politician running under the Democratic ticket. She is up against Donald Trump, a business mogul known to be anti-establishment, but campaigning as the standard-bearer of the Republicans.
Both candidates are however campaigning in manners that stand out for its lack of civility, unsettling voters such as Justin, a 26-year old nurse who just returned from traveling to South Africa and Benin. This election cycle, Justin said he is terrified of the prospect that one of the two presidential candidates will be elected to the most powerful office in the world. He is displeased with the way the election campaign is conducted; many pundits in Washington D.C. characterize it as nasty, bizarre and un-American. It is marred by allegations of high level corruption, sexual assault and vote rigging.
The tone and rhetoric is what many Africans are familiar with, prompting some to open a Twitter hashtag, #Nov8AfricanEdition, and amuse themselves with political satire.
“Reports of DNC party agents sharing burgers and diet coke to voters in Clinton’s stronghold in Northern Virginia,” quipped a Nigerian by the name Amara Nwankpa, @Nwankpa_A.
Among the 1.8 million Africans believed to have immigrated to the United States, Nigerians are in fact the largest, followed by Ethiopians – the second largest – as well as Egyptians, Ghanians, and Kenyans. They are mostly concentrated in the five states of California, Texas, New York, New Jersey and Maryland.
Unlike California, Washington, New York and Texas, states whose party loyalty is already known, it is the state where Girma lives is considered as one of the two key swing states that will determine the outcome of this year’s election. Virginia and Minnesota will have decisive roles in a close election, political analysts in Washington claim.
Many here predict that Clinton will win by a comfortable margin, although she is considered to be not an “ideal candidate” even for her staunchest supporters. She has too much baggage she carries over from her spouse role as the First Lady under President Bill Clinton, and subsequently serving as Secretary of State under the incumbent president, Barack Obama.Clinton’s ordeal following the disclosure of her now infamous email correspondences leaked by Wikileaks has damaged her trustworthiness and reputation in the eyes of voters such as Girma. And just late last week, the fresh probe on her email saga by the FBI put a cloud of uncertainty over her likely victory.
This baggage is too heavy for some Ethiopian-American voters such as Araya Legesse, 55, a native of Harrer who came to the United States in 1990.
A resident of Bethesda, Maryland, Araya is part of a growing population of immigrants in the United States, which increased by 41pc in 2013. That same year, there were about 8.8 million eligible to apply for US citizenship, according to Pew Research Center. Applications for naturalization increased 13pc between October 2015 and January 2016, with 250,000 immigrants applying to become citizens.
These are people who are antagonized by the rhetoric from Trump, who is largely perceived to be anti-immigrants and anti-muslim. Add to these his remarks on women and the series of allegations of sexual assaults which have led him to be unpopular among voters from these demographic groups; and, young, educated and white Americans such as Justin.
“Trump troubles me a lot,” Girma says. “His political ignorance and flip-flap position is unparalleled.”
A Christian with deeply conservative roots under the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, neither is Girma not too happy with Clinton’s support for issues such as pro-choice – the right to terminate pregnancy – and the right to marriage between individuals of same sex. Many Ethiopians too, finding themselves in the rather middle class income group, are discontented with the rising cost of Obamacare, which was announced to have gone up by 21pc this year. But Girma feels the alternative to her is far worse.
“There is no alternative,” he told Fortune.
These are issues, nonetheless, fundamentally important enough to some long time Democratic voters such as Araya drifting them away from Clinton. An employee of Hamilton Crown Plaza Hotel on 14th Street of Washington D.C., the presidential election next week will be Araya’s seventh vote. But unlike in the past six, he will not vote for the Democratic candidate, despite being nostalgic of his vote to Bill Clinton in 1994. He is determined to cast his vote in favor of Trump, one of the very few Ethiopian-Americans planning to do so around here in Washington D.C.
“People don’t like Trump because of what he says,” Araya said.
He is disappointed though of President Obama’s policy of supporting same sex marriage. He attributed the increasing visibility of the LBGT community all around him to the rise to power of the current president.
“Gays used to have their place in San Francisco,” he said. “Obama sold his principle simply to get their votes. Look now; they are everywhere.”
He also feels let down by Obama’s promise of the Affordable Healthcare Act’s mounting cost. One Ethiopian American, working as parttime shuttle driver, told Fortune, he came out of it after staying with Obamacare for a year.
Despite this individual fury over Obama’s policy on abortion, gay marriage and health-care policy, there is hardly any data showing how many Ethiopian-Americans are registered to vote in the United States. Studies on the place and impact of voters of Ethiopian origin are hard to come by. However, the divide between Girma and Araya is a reflection of how deeply divided Ethiopians eligible to vote in the US presidential election find themselves today. Like the rest of America, they are polarized and caught between two presidential candidates both of which they detest for the policies they promote respectively.
Although immigration reform remains controversial in the United States, as it is elsewhere in the developed world, both candidates agree in rebuilding the aging American infrastructure. Despite trading of accusations on the volume, both candidates pledge to work to reduce the ballooning federal deficit, while both are against the free trade deals America signs such as in Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). But these are hardly issues raised by Ethiopian Americans as concerns.
To the frustration of exiled Ethiopian political activists, an area where an American president has perhaps the biggest leverage in foreign policy is a subject hardly discussed among Ethiopian Americans. The President of the United States enjoys considerable influence in using or refusing to use military force without explicit congressional approval. He can also change American foreign policy by an executive order; Obama’s decision to change a 50-year course in America’s relations with Cuba stands out as a demonstration of the power of a United State’s President over matters of foreign relations.
It is perhaps too early to see which direction US policy towards Ethiopia will take with the change of the resident in the White House. Many see however the most likely election of Clinton as an extension of the policies of President Obama from controversial domestic issues such as immigration and health-care to foreign policy matters. Such is a legacy Zemedeneh Negatu, a prominent businessman who is an American citizen, would like to see happen.
“As Americans, we’ll overwhelmingly (by a landslide) vote for Hillary Clinton,” Zemedeneh tweeted on October 26, 2016. “We’ll also protect President Obama’s legacy.”
Zemedeneh cited a New York Times predication taken three days earlier that Clinton had a 93pc chance of winning against Trump’s seven percent.
Clinton’s victory is thus considered among many voters here in Washington as a likely outcome. Even the Republican establishment is on the verge of conceding to the inevitability of her victory, if the kind of campaign messages they have framed to rescue their respective congregational seats are in any way telling. These include John McCain, a Republican Senator from Arizona, who had challenged Obama during his first bid for the presidency, contemplates his state needs a Republican in case Clinton wins.
“Arizona will need a senator who will act as a check, not rubber stamp, for the White House,” he says in a video his campaign runs against his challenger, the Democratic candidate Ann Kirkpatrick.
He is not alone in communicating such messages.
Lindsey Graham, another Republican Senator from South Carolina, was quoted by Politico: “If there is ever a time for check and balance argument, it is now. You have got an under-performing Democratic candidate people feel compelled to vote for, not because they want to, because they have to.”
That is also a remark which can sums up what many Ethiopian Americans compelled to vote for Clinton feel.
But Clinton’s glide path to victory is not certain. Two recent events across the world – the referendums in the UK and Colombia – showed that people such as Zemedeneh who depend on polls may end up disappointed. In the unlikely situation where Trumps gets elected, however, Africans have things to say on the lighter side of the event.
“African presidents meeting to consider the option of boots on the ground in the event of violence from Trump supporters,” quipped a prominent Nigerian satirist, Elnathan John, in the hashtag #Nov8AfricanEdition.
It is not a remark made without any reason for concern. A front page story by the USA TODAY in mid-last week had a banner headline, claiming a poll it carried out in collaboration with Suffolk University finds 51pc of Americans fear election day violence.
It could be such fear which prompts many Ethiopian Americans say they will move back to Ethiopia in case of Trump’s win.
“I swear if Donald Trump becomes president, I’m dead a** moving to Ethiopia,” tweeted Eden Lula,
Although the fear is there, Ethiopians in the US such as Girma and Araya are determined to stay on. Unlike the situation back home, they believe in the ability of the American system and the enduring capability of American institutions to withstand the possible electoral turmoil.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Girma told Fortune. “I believe Americans are law abiding citizens.”
However, political pundits fear Americans will likely emerge from this election as divided and with a divided government, regardless of who is president.
“The only genuine certainty is that the 96pc of the world’s population that does not vote in US elections will feel the effects no less than Americans will,” says Richard N. Haass, a former director of policy planning for the US State Department, and now president of the Council on Foreign Relations.