The US is right to be worried about the worsening security situation in Ethiopia. In a statement, President Biden said that he is “deeply concerned by the escalating violence and the hardening of regional and ethnic divisions in multiple parts of Ethiopia”. Moreover, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently announced visa restrictions and limitations to military and economic assistance on Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country. The visa restrictions are said to target Ethiopian and Eritrean officials, civil and military.
This is unprecedented given the fact that Ethiopia has been a key ally of the US in the Horn of Africa. Of course, Ethiopia-US relations have, to put it mildly, seen its twists and turns since Robert Skinner, the first counselor of the US government's diplomatic mission to Ethiopia, arrived in Addis Ababa in 1903.
With the rise to power of the reformist Emperor Haile Selassie I, Ethiopian-American relations began to be strengthened. What followed in the country was massive Americanization from above. Ethiopia was America’s major ally in the Horn of America. When the Haile Selassie regime was overthrown in early September 1974, a military junta came to power. The new regime sought to maintain and even strengthen its relations with the US, only to be refused by the latter. As America closed its doors, the Soviet Union opened theirs. The Soviet Union warmly supported the new junta. Ethiopia, the traditional ally of Western countries, now joined the East’s camp. Americanization was replaced by Sovietization. America’s major policy towards Ethiopia was that of regime change by all means necessary.
The US tried to broker peace talks between the rebels and the Ethiopian government in the early 1990s. These peace talks failed. However, the US-backed Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) controlled Addis Ababa in late May 1991.
Since then, Ethiopian-American relations have re-emerged from the shadows. Throughout EPRDF’s period, Ethiopia remained a close ally of the US in its war on terror. It publicly supported the US in its invasion of Iraq in 2003 while Ethiopia’s 2006 military intervention in Somalia was US-blessed and directed.
Ethiopia gives the US a military base for its drone operations in the Horn of Africa. The Obama White House, in which Biden served as VP, once praised Ethiopia for its “democratic” performances. And, in July 2015, US President Barack Obama visited Ethiopia. The presidential visit marked, in a sense, the high-water mark of Ethiopian-US cooperation.
These achievements began to be rolled back under the Trump administration. Rather than changing course, the Biden administration is now piling on the pressure. This is coming at a time when a lot is happening in Ethiopia. A political transition; the second filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD); the war in Tigray, and the upcoming general election in June, among many.
All these need to be put in context. A series of youth-dominated protests in the Amhara and Oromia regions since 2014 has challenged the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)-dominated EPRDF regime. The EPRDF regime, the country’s ruling coalition until its dissolution in 2019, was made up of four constituent member parties and several satellite parties. Of all these, the TPLF enjoyed disproportionate power, economically, politically, and militarily. These protests, sometimes supported by local government authorities themselves, led in April 2018 to the resignation of the then PM, Haile-Mariam Desslaegn.
Haile-Mariam was succeeded by a relatively young novice, Abiy Ahmed. Abiy’s administration has made swift reforms. Some of them of course were initiated or were already approved by the outgoing premier. The reform and the transition process have garnered huge popular support. At a time when the western world is facing a democratic recession, this is a huge achievement for Africa in general.
The TPLF, however, looks with dismay as its hegemony being challenged. Its core members, feeling abandoned in Addis, have long retreated to Mekelle. Relations between the Tigray regional government and the central government have been deteriorating. TPLF’s attack on several bases of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces is the culmination of the worsening tensions between the two. The federal army was mobilized to repulse the attacks, as provided by Ethiopian law.
US policies and statements regarding the war in Tigray, while right in calling out the atrocities and the need for independent investigations are seen by several Ethiopians as favoring the TPLF,. The public also feel the comments serve to derail the transition process, and as bent on destructive intents against the Ethiopian state by interfering in its internal affairs.
Regarding the tripartite negotiation over the GERD, the US failed, both under Trump and Biden, to be an honest broker. The second filling of the GERD, Ethiopia’s huge hydroelectric dam, remains controversial. Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan are still at the negotiating table. The Biden administration says it is committed to helping broker “a resolution of the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that meets the needs of all parties”. But it is seen as wrongly favoring the Egyptian position. Egypt, for its part, makes no secret about its intentions: In the words of its Ambassador to the US, the United States has the “leverage needed” to pressure Ethiopia to reach a binding agreement with Egypt and Sudan.
Finally, there is Ethiopia’s upcoming sixth general election. The election, which was supposed to take place last year, was postponed due to the global coronavirus pandemic.
The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia, led by Birtukan Mideksa, is putting a lot of effort into making the founding elections as free and fair as possible under challenging circumstances. For any Ethiopia-watcher, the controversies between the NEBE and the Supreme Court, in particular, over the election of the Harari National League and the election of several top leaders of Balderas, including its president, Eskinder Nega, show how they are trying to remain independent institutions with strong checks and balances. This is in addition to the reforms that the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has introduced under the leadership of Daniel Bekele. Despite these, there seems to be a concerted effort at delegitimizing the electoral process both by the US and the EU.
Given the long history of partnership and cooperation between Ethiopia and the US, one needs to ask is why is the US suddenly losing its cool? It is curious to see that Ethiopia finds itself under increased US pressure amid a democratic transition. The US considers Ethiopia a core African partner even when it was one of the most repressive and unfree countries in Africa.
It will not be surprising, then, to see a rising anti-Americanism in Ethiopia. Ethiopians are suspicious that the US is trying to resuscitate the TPLF. Be that as it may, what the US is trying to achieve seems to resuscitate its fading empire in the Horn of Africa. The rising influence of China and the re-assertiveness of Russia seems to have created a condition of paranoia on US foreign policy decision-makers. The significance of “paranoid modes of expression” that the historian Richard Hofstadter discussed long ago still rings true when observing US foreign policy behavior and rhetoric.
Ethiopia’s prominent human rights activist, the late Mesfin Wolde-Mariam, once said that the US is a ‘truly unique state…built on the rock of LIBERTY’. Ethiopia is better off having a good relationship with the US and its core democratic principles. I’m old enough not to be naïve but still young to remain a cautious optimist. There is still hope for Ethiopia’s transition. The US can and should help to recalibrate the political and economic transition. A heavy-handed, activist and moralizing US foreign policy, however, isn’t the way to do so.