US Congressman Mike Coffman spoke with Teshome Borago of Zehabesha newspaper & Satenaw media Group regarding recent efforts by American lawmakers to defend human rights in Ethiopia.
Satenaw/Zehabesha: After NJ Rep. Chris Smith introduced H.Res. 128, no congressman has publicly advocated for it more than you. What were your biggest challenges to get a vote on and finally get this resolution adopted?
Congressman Coffman: It was very hard because the Ethiopian government was very active in trying to make sure the bill never came up for a vote. We had some reports that they were spending $150,000 dollars a month on lobbying and PR campaign. I was getting pressure from member of Congress, even right before the vote. I remember Senator Inhofe from Oklahoma and Congressman Garamendi from California both called me and asked that we not bring it to vote. Also,the Ethiopian government was threatening cooperation in terms of the war against terrorism in the region and al Shabab if we pass the resolution. That was a big consideration. Even the US ambassador, the last time i talked to him, he did not think it was a good idea to bring it to a vote. But I just felt it was very important. One thing the US [have] been doing is what was done during the Cold War against communism. If a government was anti-communist, no matter how authoritarian and oppressive they were to their own people, the United States supported them. I think we paid for that long. I think we have been doing that with Ethiopia. Because Ethiopia has been cooperating with us against terrorism, we have been supporting this government that is oppressive to its own people. There were a lot of obstacles in the way. We did do some amendments to the bill, that I supported….they were mostly updating what was occurring in Ethiopia with the new Prime Minister.
And they also pushed back saying that this is going to reverse progress in Ethiopia, saying we are making progress in human rights…I just did not see that at the end of the day. I pushed very hard for it. I had support certainly from Ethiopian-Americans across the country and I had a working group in Colorado with Amhara and Oromo Ethiopian-Americans helping me, and advising me.
Satenaw/Zehabesha: Has the State Department shown willingness to adjust its engagements with Ethiopia to reflect the key proclamations inside the adopted resolution?
Congressman Coffman: We will see. I mean we got a strategy on what the next step is. There was no question that we had to win in this vote. It was important. Once we started, that if we failed on the vote, I was concerned that it would have been worse than not doing anything at all. Because, then the Ethiopian government would say that those Ethiopians in the United States have no power…they (diaspora Ethiopians) have no influence on the American government so it (TPLF) will just continue what its doing.
So we have got to think about the next step. It is important for the Ethiopian government have respect for Human Rights for its people…and the United States not to be complicit in giving support to the Ethiopian government, the same weapons and ammunition we are giving them to fight terrorism but they are turning it against their own people. Against peaceful protestors. I mean, they are jailing journalists and political opposition, putting dissidents in detention camps. The human rights abuses are terrible.
I had a lot of meetings with the Ethiopian government during the debate, they were obviously opposed to it, the provision they were most opposed about was having UN rapporteurs investigate. I met their ambassadors, their position was its a sovereignty issue, but my position was there is no other way to confirm that they were achieving what they said they were achieving.
Satenaw/Zehabesha: When you openly condemned the Ethiopian TPLF regime and the corrupt DC lobbyists who took $150,000 per month from a poor country, some Ethiopian media has labelled you “the amazing congressman” and “the best friend of Ethiopia.” What drives you to take up such causes for African immigrants?
Congressman Coffman: They are part of the fabric of our community in my congressional district. It was interesting, I first heard their concerns and I met with the Ethiopian government, the ambassador assured me that things will be taken care of. That was 3 Years ago or so. But of course, i found out nothing was ever being taken care of.
I am so honored to represent one of the significant Ethiopian community in America, in the state of Colorado. They have allowed me to be a part of their community, the Amhara and the Oromo. I so often spend weekends going to the Orthodox Church, the evangelical church and the Mosque. I just really appreciate the Ethiopian community in my district and this country, they are such a compliment to America. I also fully understand they are very sensitive to what is going on back in Ethiopia. The fact is, they have a lot of family back there and ties to the Ethiopian people. So it is important to address this issue that is critical for them.
Satenaw/ZeHabesha: Many Ethiopian-Americans want to give back to outspoken leaders like you for defending human rights in Ethiopia and beyond. What is the best way to get involved in Colorado?
Congressman Coffman: The Ethiopian-American community in Colorado did such an extraordinary job, in putting pressure on members of Congress. They literally mobilized across the entire country and called their members of Congress… wrote letters, made visits to members of Congress. At the end of the day, even those members of Congress who were putting pressure on me not to bring up the bill….the interesting thing is that…none of them showed up. Because they couldn’t, they had no argument to make, what, where they going to defend a government that was so oppressive to its people? Are they going to defend a government that is shooting protesters in the streets? Jailing dissidents without trial? Of course they couldn’t defend that…..it is counter to our values as Americans.
There will be other tests too (for Ethiopian community). This is not over with. And I am going to stand shoulder to shoulder with people of Ethiopia, until this government shows respect to human rights.
Satenaw/Zehabesha: After the H.Res 128 success, the Ethiopian Diaspora is now pushing for S.Res 168 version. It is slowly getting Democrat support but Republicans have majority in Senate as well. What are its chances of passing the senate and will you be able to influence your colleagues in the senate?
Congressman Coffman: I have less influence (in the Senate) than I have in the House. But I am going to talk to members of the Senate about it, to see if we can rally some support. I will try to do the same, obviously it will be difficult . Ethiopian-Americans are going to have to rally. I want to say that, from Minnesota, Keith Ellison did a wonderful job debating this issue on the floor, supporting it all the way thru. I was very impressed with his dedication and supporting the Ethiopian people.
It will be hard in the Senate, one of my greatest opponents in the Congress was from the Senate, Senator Inhofe tried to persuade members of our House to oppose this resolution. I was surprised with his unwavering support for the government (TPLF) in Ethiopia.
Satenaw/Zehabesha: According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), hundreds have been massacred in Ethiopia since 2015. But even after the new PM took office on April 2, at least a dozen Ethiopians have already been killed by the same TPLF regime, including an Oromo police and a pregnant mother shot last Sunday by federals. Despite the new PM’s best intentions, it is becoming clear that the TPLF controlled military does whatever it wants. How can the international community push accountability for state crimes in Ethiopia ?
Congressman Coffman: I have had several conversations with the UN high commissioner for human rights.
He is very aware with the extent of the problems. In fact, when i set up negotiation between the majority leader’s (Rep. Kevin McCarthy) office in the House and representatives of the Ethiopian community, he was kind enough to send a United Nations (UN) representative to that meeting, that is very helpful.
Satenaw/Zehabesha: Considering that the adopted Congressional resolution is non-binding; some notable Ethiopian scholars like CSU Professor Al Mariam have mentioned President Trump’s extension of the Magnitsky Act globally, which would impose targeted sanctions and travel ban on officials inside regimes engaged in serious human rights abuses. If the current trend gets worse, will you suggest the Trump administration to apply the Magnitsky Act on the TPLF leadership?
Congressman Coffman: Absolutely. There is no question. I would not give the new government…if you want to call it a new government…it is still the same group. It is a change in top but it is still the same ruling coalition. In a way, it is not a new government. So I don’t think we should give them much time at all, to see if they improve their human rights record. I think the Magnitsky Act, is very important to apply.
I also think we should look at the US foreign aid to Ethiopia. There is no guarantee that aid is being used against terrorism, from what i have seen, it is being used to terrorize their own people.
Satenaw/Zehabesha: Another popular Trump policy among Ethiopian-Americans is cutting the waste and misuse of US foreign aid in Ethiopia. Just like Welfare’s unintended consequences inside America, Western aid has caused a cycle of dependency in Ethiopia while financing a dictatorship. Would you support more US aid accountability?
Congressman Coffman: I think there is a better way to do aid. First is humanitarian aid. Instead of providing food shipments which disrupt the markets, we can help the Ethiopian agriculture become more productive.
So I think there are ways we can do, that i am going to look at, to help the Ethiopian economy more, help Ethiopian agriculture in a more sustainable way.
Satenaw/Zehabesha: One less reported crisis in Ethiopia is the suffering of millions of mixed-Ethiopians, born with multiple ethnic heritage. Unlike the Oromo and Amhara, mixed-Ethiopians are officially unrecognized by the EPRDF regime and face persecution because they are stateless, according to the new ethnic-federalism. Will lawmakers address this crisis where millions are persecuted, becoming refugees inside tribal enclaves, because they are Ethiopians without ethnic affiliation?
Congressman Coffman: I think this is a big part of the whole view on human rights.
Certainly, [there should be] respect for everyone within a country, that all members of society have dignity and deserve respect. So that issue is something that could be included in this.
Satenaw/Zehabesha: Lastly, on domestic policy, Ethiopian-Americans are against illegal immigration to US, but they are concerned about Trump’s plan to end the DV Lottery program which benefits Africans. Won’t closing legal avenues encourage more illegal immigration?
Congressman Coffman: I think we need a kind of balance. I think immigration is very good for America.
I certainly disagree with the President on that (policy on DV lottery). The cap should be relatively high to reflect the needs of our country, in terms of legal immigrants. We should make it much easier to come here legally and much harder to come in illegally. A balance between familial based and merit based system.
I also think there is a visa overstay problem. We have no system today of tracking those visas, we should give people opportunity to come out of the shadows and with ability to work in the country without fear of deportation. At the same time, we can put in a much tougher system, have an E-verify system…having more enforceable laws. We don’t have that [now] and we need to recognize that.
Satenaw/Zehabesha: Thank you for this interview and for your dedication to the Ethiopian-American community.
Congressman Coffman: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.