12/30/2012 10:58 pm ET Updated Mar 01, 2013

Silently Shouting: Strengthening the Voice of the African Diaspora

After the death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in late-August, the comments sections of articles discussing his 21 years in office became a digital shouting match between Ethiopians who had different views of his legacy, and the current political situation in Ethiopia. One interesting comment was presumably from a supporter of the late Prime Minister. The writer, roughly paraphrased, said that those in the Diaspora who criticize the Ethiopian Government should continue to "eat your Cheeseburgers" while Ethiopia continues to progress economically. His point -- as unnecessarily disparaging of cheeseburgers as it was -- is an interesting question to ask of the greater African Diaspora regarding future participation in shaping foreign policy to the region.

What exactly is the right of a Diaspora community to advocate for policies in countries we don't live in? Common criticisms include that we should instead focus on domestic issues in our current home countries, are out of touch with the day-to-day reality in our countries of birth or heritage, and that we should instead focus on maintaining economic relationships internationally. These allegations are barriers to organizing a coherent voice for our community to express our views, and to influence foreign policy to the region.

I genuinely hope that these philosophical barriers do not discourage active political participation in African immigrants and their families in the U.S. Our right to advocate for issues is justified, in part, because of the influence that other groups have in African foreign policy. Multinational NGOs, corporations, evangelicals, salafis, and foreign governments exceed the power of African immigrant communities to influence US and international decision makers. The global African Diaspora contributes an estimated $40 billion in remittances, yet in the United States, which has an estimated 1.6 million African immigrants, we have no structured organization with any legitimate power that represents our interests. President Obama's second term is a realistic deadline to create these organizations or build support for existing organizations that can provide our community with this voice.

President Obama enjoys high levels of support among the African Diaspora, and many have worked or volunteered in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns. This participation reflects the growth of a knowledgeable and empowered group of first and second generation Black Americans, who have transcended apathy to become more politically engaged in domestic issues than previous generations. The question is now whether our growing demographic will fully grasp our potential and begin to collectively participate in politics.

President Obama, the first African American President, has not often focused on Sub-Saharan Africa during his first term. His early trip to Ghana was unsubstantial, and there have been a number of international and domestic crises during these four years, which have prioritized involvement in other regions. However, it is concerning that the United States' relationship with parts of Sub-Saharan Africa is increasingly being viewed in relation to the war on terrorism. The controversial drone warfare strategy was expanded to Somalia in 2011, and could possibly begin operation in Mali or Nigeria in the future.

The drone warfare program in Yemen and Pakistan is highly controversial and has a history of destabilizing societies rather than eliminating threats. Ethnic divisions are a lingering challenge to equitable development for many African countries, and drone warfare could increase the width of these divisions. The African Diaspora should spearhead efforts to promote foreign policies that do not contribute to polarizing African societies, especially the drones program, which is almost entirely controlled by the White House.

I cannot claim that I speak for Ethiopian Americans, much less the 1.6 million African immigrants who live in the U.S, and their children. Drone warfare and regional security are some of the many important issues in which our community should be represented. I am sure there are many who have a difference of opinion and I welcome that. It is important that we begin to develop our political identity outside of the Washington DC think tank arena.

One tangible goal to accomplish by the 2014 mid-term elections would be to develop a political "report card" on Africa. Numerous advocacy organizations currently publish tools that analyze congressional and executive representative's voting records on policy issues including the American Civil Liberties Union, Arab American Institute, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and the National Hispanic Leadership Association. The methodology of this Congressional scorecard should utilize the cultural knowledge we have of Africa and work to create a community-based policy agenda. Ideas do no good if they stay confined to private conversations.

The creative process will be challenging. The African Diaspora population in the U.S. comes from some of the most diverse countries in the entire world. Some think that our ideas, or our parents political baggage should be "left at the door" when organizing as a community. I propose that we can hang our coats on the coat rack, but shouldn't bring them to the dinner table. Refugees and oppressed minorities should not have to sweep important issues, like land grabs, under the rug in order to be politically active within the African community. These discussions can uncover unspoken prejudice, but the legitimacy of future efforts is just an illusion if underlying tensions are not openly addressed moving forward. We must also strive to look beyond what directly affects our families in order to support the structural changes that will provide socially equitable economic and political policies, holding accountable those who do share our vision what Africa deserves.

It would be amazing for the Diaspora to show leadership in breaking down some of these ethnic and religious barriers that are present in contemporary African politics. A diverse U.S.-based political organization with a strong political platform would be a tremendous example of our collective power when differences don't divide us. We have valuable cultural knowledge that can help shape policies that promote growth in Sub-Saharan Africa, without sacrificing our commitments to democracy, security, and economic growth -- proving that injera and cheeseburgers can fit on the same plate.