Ethiopia-US relations that formally started almost 120 years ago on the basis of trust and mutual respect have now degenerated into one-sided disrespect and abuse.
Ethiopia is vulnerable. It’s a pawn in America’s big power play in the region. The United States now routinely engages in heavy-handed bullying and provides succor to domestic proxy forces that threaten to tear the country apart. Clearly, the US provides economic aid (carrot) and routinely delivers various threats and sanctions (stick) when it does not get its way.
It’s important for Ethiopians to have a realistic, and not Pollyannaish, understanding of this dynamics and act accordingly.
What changed? I believe the power dynamics changed.
Robert Skinner arrived in Ethiopia, seven years after Ethiopia’s spectacular victory at the Battle of Adwa. But Skinner started lobbying the McKinley administration (which came to power the same year as the victory of Adwa, 1896) immediately after the war. He writes, "I have hammered away at the idea for five years without success.” The lobbying took five years and he was ecstatic when his mission was approved and funded.
Incidentally, it was only one month after Adwa that the US Supreme Court created the legal basis, in Plessy v. Ferguson, for the creation of apartheid and segregation in the United States.
Although race was a hot-button issue in the US, Robert Skinner and President Theodore Roosevelt (of the Carry the Big Stick fame), rationalized their new venture on the basis of Ethiopians not being black. Roosevelt is quoted to have remarked that “the Ethiopians were not negroes at all but of Semitic stock.”
US empire building in the 20th Century was focused on its own backyard and on Asia — specifically on Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The US was a bit too late for the Scramble for Africa. So Skinner sold his mission on the basis of trade, although there was not much trade to speak of. In reality, it was a curiosity project where the US could inject itself into Africa at a low cost with the opportunity to observe what its European rivals were doing.
US-Ethiopia relations can be said to be mutually beneficial in the period immediately after World War II. American help with the establishment of Ethiopian Airlines, the Point Four Program, the establishment of various agricultural colleges, and the training of Ethiopians in the US was helpful to Ethiopia. Ethiopia also returned the favor by towing the American line. Among other things, Ethiopia provided the Kagnew Intelligence Base, and fought on the side of the US in Korea and the Congo.
But things went down the hill following the 1974 revolution and the fall of the emperor. The US was upset with Mengistu’s alliance with the former Soviet Union. It began covert operations to support tribal insurgents to topple Mengistu. Much of the covert operation was carried out from Sudan under the guise of humanitarian famine aid. A major beneficiary of covert US aid was the Tigrai People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The US eventually orchestrated the TPLF to come to power following the London negotiations in 1991.
The TPLF’s 27-year rule in Ethiopia was designed to manipulate tribal divisions to keep a small vindictive minority in power. The hallmark of TPLF rule was extreme brutality and economic plunder. During this dark period, the US chose to look the other way as long as the TPLF did its bidding. The US was mostly silent even when the TPLF openly stole elections and massacred hundreds in open daylight.
Ethiopia is a resilient country. It has survived two great famines, a revolution, a brutal 17-year military rule, 27 years of TPLF tyranny and kleptocracy, and many, many wars in the last 50 years. The most recent war is still unfinished business.
Famines, revolutions, heavy-handed ethnic rule, and environmental degradation have made Ethiopia a vulnerable, beggar nation. Ethiopia is dependent on foreign handouts to feed its people and for much of its budget.
The US clearly understands Ethiopia’s vulnerability and acts accordingly. The vulnerability has brought much disrespect. Almsgivers like Samantha Powers bark orders at Ethiopian leaders. The disrespect has led to the US throwing the chicken sink at Ethiopia, especially in the last two years.
Politically-orchestrated and unverified charges are routinely hurled at Ethiopia: genocide, mass rapes, ethnic cleansing, using famine as a weapon against Tigrian insurgents, while at the same time keeping silent about war crimes committed by the TPLF in Amhara and Afar.
The US is engaged in heavy-handed blackmail, threatening ever draconian sanctions and Ethiopia’s very survival. It is deeply meddling in Ethiopia’s internal affairs, clearly weighing in on the side of Tigrian insurgents under the guise of mediation.
Why? Imperial hubris. The US is fearful of Chinese dominance (and to a lesser extent Russian) of the strategic Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. The people of Ethiopia, and indeed the entire Horn of Africa are pawns in this heartless strategic game.
There is no easy way out of Ethiopia’s vulnerability. We are a country with many wounds, and outside powers are ready to pour salt if they don’t get their way. The US is no different.
It’s going to take a long time to change the vulnerability and power dynamics. A good place to start is feeding our people and having a strategic plan, say 15 years, to wean our people from international begging. It also requires producing and exporting more and creating meaningful employment for young people. All this requires internal unity and cohesion, and not fighting over crumbs coming from the ferenji.
Ethiopia will be in a better bargaining position with the US, and for that matter any other power, in proportion to its ability to reduce its strategic vulnerability. Until then, we should expect the disrespect, abuse, and interference to continue.
Note from the Editor: This article was originally published by the author on Medium.