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Diaspora engagement and the question of dual citizenship in Ethiopia

Ayenachew Aseffa Woldegiyorgis*
December 1,2018

Last summer during PM Abiy’s visit to the US one of the issues that surfaced was the question of dual citizenship. Some in the diaspora stressed that it was the right time Ethiopia reconsidered its citizenship law to make dual citizenship legal so that Ethiopian born foreign citizens and their descendants could enjoy the full rights and privileges of Ethiopian citizenship. The idea resonated with many in light of the unprecedentedly open arms approach the new PM extended towards diaspora members of all political views. However, not everyone was thrilled by this proposal. In consequent discussions on social media and elsewhere, many argued for and against dual citizenship in the context of Ethiopia.

Last week, when it was revealed that the newly appointed press secretary of the Office of the Prime Minister is a Canadian citizen (of Ethiopian origin, of course), the issue once again came to the fore. The citizenship of the press secretary raised a legal challenge, and controversies followed. The legal challenge comes from the provisions of a 2002 law (proclamation 270/2002) which not only restricts Ethiopian born foreign nationals from voting and running for any public office at any level of government, but also explicitly deprive them from being “employed on regular basis in the National Defense, Security, Foreign Affairs and other similar political establishments”. Some argued that, the press secretary being a position so high up in the political echelon and with a great deal of access to the work and person of the PM, her appointment violets the law and sets dangerous precedence. Others emphasized her qualification for the job as the most important factor while downplaying the fact that she ‘holds a different passport’. Dual citizenship was raised again as a solution to get around this challenge.

The debate:

This is not an issue unique to Ethiopia. For several decades, diaspora communities of many countries have been advocating for dual citizenship and/or voting rights – some with success. Some countries allow dual citizenship; others allow it only with specific countries (e.g. Spain with several South American countries with which it had colonial relations); and many others do not allow dual citizenship at all.

One of the most common arguments from members of the diaspora, in favor of dual citizenship, is that as major contributors to Ethiopia’s economy, they deserve to have a say in its political future. They also point out that having dual citizenship status would increase their economic participation. True that the economic contribution of the Ethiopian diaspora is unquestionably significant. But the counterargument in this regard refers to earlier sited law which stipulates that Ethiopian born foreign nationals are entitled to participate in all economic activities as Ethiopians would. One might even argue that they are entitled to privileges that are the envy of resident Ethiopian citizens. In all fairness, in the past years, these rights and privileges have been compromised by lower level directives, by the corrupt bureaucratic structure, and by political decisions. Nonetheless, if the law is effectively implemented (with the necessary reforms), the need for dual citizenship as a basis for better economic participation would be nullified.

On the other hand, in the past decades, the diaspora community has had an enormous influence on Ethiopian politics – for better or worse. Through the use of different mechanisms – from social media campaigns to armed struggle and everything in between (i.e. diplomatic influence, staging a series of demonstrations, financing the oppositions, establishing media organizations, remotely organizing and leading civic resistance, economic sanction by withholding remittance, etc.) – the Ethiopian diaspora was instrumental in shaping up the internal politics of the country.

As the country aspires to move into a more open approach to the political participation of all sectors of society, it is indeed prudent to have conversations on more formal and legally established ways for diaspora engagement in the political process. In doing so, there are some points to note, one can raise as the risk of legalizing dual citizenship. First is the age old question of loyalty. Being citizen of two countries, one is expected to pledge allegiance to each. The dilemma of divided national and patriotic loyalty becomes a serious concern in specific cases, although not in everyday life.

Second, dual citizenship gives foreign nationals to directly participate in the political process. As such they get to influence the electoral results the consequences of which they do not have to bear. This resonates with one of the most common and persistent criticisms against the political participation of diaspora members in the past years. Political hardliners in the diaspora push for heightened political resistance, they call for protests of different kind, and sometimes even instigate agitation and violence, while they are not the ones to face the repercussions which included the loss of thousands of lives.

Third, dual nationals assuming public offices and working in key positions pertinent to national security flags risks. On one hand, even if we rule out that such individuals may be more susceptible to external influence, the precedence could open a way for ill-intentioned individuals to infiltrate the political, military and security structures with agendas of their own that sway benefits to their ‘other country’. This is a more serious concern, as some argue, in relation to neighboring countries and foreign groups that have competing interests with Ethiopia on regional geo politics, as well as control over resources. On the other hand, dual citizenship provides individuals ‘a way out’ in times of difficulty. Therefore, the election of dual citizens, or the appointment foreigners in important positions of government, raises a legitimate concern on the possibility of reckless decisions the consequences of which they do not have to live. They have another country and another life elsewhere, hence it is reasonable to question if accountability in its real sense is even possible in such a case.

Fourth, in a more practical sense, besides the new power dynamics that such appointments can create in the respective work environments, corruption and illicit outflow of money could be even more difficult to trace. The registration of wealth of government officials, for instance, will be difficult to complete as well as to keep track of as it involves foreign jurisdictions.

Finally, all of this has to be seen in light of the precarious nature of our politics and the diversity of opinions among political actors that are very vulnerable to easily shift from political difference to disagreement and to conflicts. It is also important to note that the points raised here are not meant to reflect on any one, individually or collectively, but to indicate potential risks in hypotheticals.

The way forward:

It is indeed a legitimate concern that the Ethiopian diaspora needs to have a voice commensurate with its economic contributions to the country. Besides, as most diaspora members put it, they change citizenship because they are forced to do so either due to repression at home or practical necessity to them and their families. Most make a sentimental argument claiming to be Ethiopians at heart, despite what their passport says. Having family members, relatives and friends, and properties back home, it is indeed legitimate that they seek to have a voice in the [political] future of the country.

One of the ways such political participation can guaranteed is by giving representation for the diaspora community in the government. Instead of dual citizenship, or rights to directly vote in national elections, diaspora members may be represented in the executive and/or legislative branches of government. Several countries organize diaspora affairs at ministerial level, giving their concerns a representation at the highest executive level. The ministerial portfolio does not solve all the problems, of course. It has to be designed in a manner it can closely work with diaspora communities with several consultative working groups that directly involve the diaspora. Another option could be to establish a high level consultative board, perhaps at the Office of the Prime Minister, that advocates to the concerns and issues of the diaspora.

Alternately, diaspora members can also be allowed representation in the legislature. In a 2010 report, the Migration Policy Institute has documented that eleven countries around the world reserve seats in their legislatures for their diaspora. Such representations can also be cascaded to other levels of government, at regional level for example. It goes without saying that these are only major legal reforms that need to be accompanied by a number of initiatives that address different aspects of the engagement of the diaspora.

Most importantly, with some controversial cases floating in the public arena, and a national election coming up in just about a year and half, it is high time a clarity is brought on the issue. The claim that foreign citizens of Ethiopian origin should be allowed to freely participate in the political process is as problematic as the counter claim that they should ultimately and indefinitely be sanctioned from the process. It is possible to create a middle ground. If nothing else, those who choose to directly participate in politics can, according to proclamation 378/2003, easily reclaim their Ethiopian citizenship, by renouncing their foreign citizenship and relocating their domicile to Ethiopia.

* Ayenachew Aseffa Woldegiyorgis is a PhD candidate at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, and researches diaspora engagement in higher education. He can be reached at

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  1. You seem to suggest that it is not the letter of the law that is blocking the full participation of Ethiopians in the diaspora in the Ethiopian economy but the government’s inability or unwillingness to implement the law. The fact is entire sectors of the economy critical to Ethiopia’s development where the diaspora hold significant skill advantages including banking, insurance and securities markets are specifically blocked by this law to diaspora investment.

    The suggestion that dual citizenship somehow facilitates global corruption and makes stolen wealth less traceable is also not founded on fact or logic. The problem here is the unwillingness of law enforcement officials to pursue crooks in high places. There exists an effective international legal framework to chase down thieves and their ill-gotten wealth across the globe if only national authorities are committed to pursue them. There is no layer of protection which a crooks receives of account of owning multiple passports.


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