Monday, April 06, 2009

Observations from the DC Candlelight Vigil

Photo by Matt Andrea
By Fikru Helebo

I went to the candlelight vigil in
Washington, DC which was held yesterday to remember Birtukan Mideksa and all the rest of the political prisoners in Ethiopia. The weather in the DC area was absolutely gorgeous and I decided to make the vigil a family affair. We got to the White House an hour ahead of the candlelight and took leisurely walk around the White House.

We arrived at the candlelight location at 6:05 PM and saw only about 30 Ethiopians, which got me concerned.
I expected Ethiopians to be tardy for such gatherings but I thought more would show up as the minutes went by. When the time said 6:30, I thought I should ask one of the organizers about their schedule. So, I approached one of the guys who seemed to be one of the organizers and I introduced myself. When I informed the well dressed gentleman that I blog on Enset, he decided to introduce me to a person
by the name of Alex who was in charge of organizing the event.

I related to Alex the concern I had about the low attendance. But he did not seem as concerned as I was. He gave me five plausible reasons why there were not as many people as I had expected there should have been at around 6:30:
  1. Ethiopians' habitual disregard for punctuality.
  2. Calendar change of the event.
  3. President Obama's absence from DC.
  4. Difficulty finding automobile parking spots close to the event's location.
  5. Division within the ranks of the opposition.
Sure enough, while I was still talking with Alex, more and more people arrived. By the time the event got started around 7 PM, there were at least 200 participants by my estimation. The event lasted for about an hour and I returned home satisfied that there are a sufficient number of concerned Ethiopians who appreciate the sacrifices that Birtukan and the other political prisoners are making on behalf of their country men and women.

One thing that struck me about the event was the absence of many of the political activists that I knew from the time I was active in DC area opposition politics from 1994 to 2001. I very seldom go to political events nowadays mainly because of the toxic atmosphere that pervades Ethiopian politics. I saw only two people that were familiar faces to me from those days. This suggests to me that the last point that Alex pointed out for the low turn out was a factor. Sad to see that the more things change in Ethiopian politics the more they stay the same. When will Ethiopian opposition politicians ever grow up and learn to compromise and see the benefits of cooperation?

Another thing which pleasantly surprised me was the presence of younger people in proportions that is much larger than the political meetings and events that I used to go to in the 90s. I estimated that about half of the participants were under 40 years of age. This is an encouraging development. This suggest to me that the younger generation folks are engaged in the affairs of their homeland more than I thought they were. I think progressive opposition groups like Andenet should give serious consideration to tapping the energy and fresh perspective that younger folks bring to the table.

I estimated that less than one in five of the participants at the vigil were women. For me, this is a very low representation considering the fact that Birtukan is now the main symbol of the struggle to bring about change to Ethiopia. Overall, I thought the vigil was a moderately successful event, but I thought it should have been attended by at least twice the size of the participants in a city that has the largest number of the Ethiopian Diaspora. Kudos to the organizers for their hard work and determination to carry on the torch of freedom in spite of the adverse conditions.

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