U.S. Policy Shift Needed in the Horn of Africa – Bronwyn E. Bruton, International Affairs Fellow in Residence

August 7th, 2009 Print Print Email Email

U.S. strategic interests in the Horn of Africa center on preventing Somalia from becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda or other transnational jihadist groups. (more…)

U.S. strategic interests in the Horn of Africa center on preventing Somalia from becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda or other transnational jihadist groups. In pursuing its counterterror strategy, the United States has found common cause with Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government has long feared the renewal of Somali irredentist claims on its eastern border, or that a powerful Islamist movement may stoke unrest among its own large Muslim population, and feels beset both by a powerful indigenous separatist movement in its Ogaden region and an unresolved border dispute with its northern neighbor, Eritrea.

But the Ethiopian government’s behavior in recent years, both domestically and in bordering states, poses mounting difficulties for the United States and its long-term goals in the region. Washington must be prepared to press its partner to alter its strong-handed approach to political dissent and counterterrorism or consider ending the relationship.

Ethiopia has struggled with internal reforms since the collapse of the communist Derg regime in 1991. The country’s economy has grown, but attempts to institutionalize a system of multiparty democracy have stumbled.

In 2005, Ethiopia held largely free and fair democratic elections. Prior to the polls, there was an unprecedented opening of political space. Opposition political parties were able to hold rallies, the press was able to publish critical political analysis, and international and local civil society organizations assisted in election monitoring. But the government’s tentative efforts to increase political space were not rewarded: After a series of irregularities in the vote closing and tallying processes were discovered, a variety of political parties contested the election results. The Ethiopian government declared a state of emergency and responded brutally to a series of apparently peaceful protests. The country was plunged into a period of violent civil disturbance, during which the Ethiopian government detained thousands of protestors and arrested hundreds of opposition figures, including arguably nonpolitical actors from civil society and the press. Many of these emergency measures have been institutionalized, resulting in legislation that has criminalized social advocacy by “foreigners” (including Ethiopian civil society organizations that receive foreign charitable funds), and imposed harsh criminal penalties on broadly defined “terrorist” acts, including disruptive public protests.

Impact on U.S. Policy Objectives

For the United States, cooperation with an authoritarian Ethiopia presents looming challenges to U.S. policy objectives. First, the Ethiopian government’s attempts to minimize political competition in the run-up to the 2010 elections are likely to fan ethnic tensions in the country. The government’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), is perceived by many Ethiopians to be dominated by a single minority ethnic faction, the Tigre, and its consolidation of political power may be read as an assault on the majority ethnic Amharic and Oromo populations. Public dissatisfaction with the government is high in the wake of the 2005 elections and a violent explosion is not out of the question.

Second, Ethiopia’s conflicts with Eritrea and Somalia, and with the powerful separatist movement in the Ogaden, have a jihadist impact. While the U.S.-Ethiopia alliance has had short-term tactical advantages, it may be undermining broader US counterterror goals.

Arguably, U.S. reliance on Ethiopian military might and intelligence has served to exacerbate instability in Somalia. Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia, and the extended presence of Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu, instead of quelling conflict, has triggered a local backlash that has served as a rallying point for local extremists. It was the development of a complex insurgency against the Ethiopian occupation that effectively catapulted a fringe jihadist youth militia, the Shabaab, to power. International jihadists have now capitalized on the local insurgency, and on U.S. support of the Ethiopian invasion, as an opportunity to globalize Somalia’s conflict. The presence of foreign expertise, fighters, and funding has helped to tip the balance of power in favor of Somalia’s extremist groups. Additionally, there is growing concern that the conflict in the Ogaden may give birth to indigenous jihadist movements.

While the U.S.-Ethiopia alliance has had short-term tactical advantages, it may be undermining broader U.S. counterterror goals.

Anti-American sentiment in Somalia is pervasive, and stems in large part from U.S. complicity with the Ethiopian invasion and reported Ethiopian human rights abuses in Somalia. Ethiopia has also reportedly engaged in human rights abuses within its Ogaden region, which borders Somalia, where the government is engaged in a counterinsurgency effort against an ethnic Somali separatist movement. Though Ethiopia has denied these charges, human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have documented atrocities committed by both sides in that conflict. The U.S. decision to withdraw its military personnel from the Ogaden in April 2006, and the subsequent failure of the international community to seek accountability for these atrocities, has cemented a widespread public perception in Ethiopia and Somalia that the United States is willing to turn a blind eye on human rights abuses in exchange for cooperation in the counterterror effort.

Further complicating U.S. efforts to bolster Somalia’s central government is the unresolved border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Eritrea complains that Ethiopia has refused to honor the ruling of an independent border commission on the demarcation of the common boundary and has demanded intervention from the international community. Ethiopia charges that Eritrea has retaliated by funneling weapons and funding to radical groups in Somalia, some of which oppose Ethiopian forces there. Eritrea has denied these charges, and some specific accusations leveled by the United Nations and the African Union against Eritrea have been disproven. The demand for sanctions on Eritrea is nevertheless growing, and comments by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a visit to Kenya on Aug. 6, in which she linked Eritrea to Somali militants suggests efforts by the Obama administration to engage in a constructive political dialogue with Asmara may be dimming.

These factors suggest that U.S. ability to influence events in Somalia will depend in some measure on diplomatic efforts to resolve the border dispute and to address Ethiopian human rights abuses. But perhaps even more important than either is what the United States decides to do in response to the shrinking democratic space in Ethiopia.

Obstacles to U.S. Action

The United States has been unwilling to overtly pressure Ethiopia to adopt major democratic reforms for a number of reasons. Many experts and policymakers already fear that the regime is vulnerable to collapse. Some diplomats fear that aggressive–or even public–pressure on Ethiopia may inadvertently undermine or destabilize the regime. The United States cannot afford to unsettle a country that has served as a rock of stability in an otherwise troubled region.

Another major hurdle for the United States is the lack of an international consensus on one fundamental question: Is Ethiopia still a democratic country, or is the regime of President Meles Zenawi regime headed towards dictatorship? The perception that Ethiopia is a fundamentally democratic country remains strong, particularly among European nations. The lack of any consensus would require the United States to take a lead and potentially isolated role in pressuring Ethiopia for reform.

Finally, U.S. efforts to promote democratic reform in Ethiopia are impeded by a lack of willing partners on the ground. Democratic civil society groups generally fear for their safety and are not willing to mobilize in a public advocacy effort. This means that U.S. efforts to counteract repressive measures by the government will not be supported–or legitimized–by a corresponding local effort. International organizations that might have engaged with opposition political voices have already been expelled from the country.

Policy Recommendations

Change is needed to ensure the sustainability of the U.S.-Ethiopia partnership and U.S. counterterrorism goals in the region at a time when Somalia continues to flounder as a failed state. The United States should consider adopting a more assertive approach that makes use of two primary points of leverage:

First, the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) should refuse direct funding to the many known “GONGOS” (governmental nongovernmental organizations) that pose as legitimate civil society development organizations, but are in practice political and social agents of the ruling party. The recognition of GONGOs as legitimate civil society organizations abets the Ethiopian strategy of marginalizing nongovernmental actors, and allows the government to continue a “business as usual” approach to the delivery of international support.

Ethiopian certainty that U.S. aid is inviolate has allowed the Ethiopian government to effectively tune out demands for reform. Ethiopian dependence on U.S. assistance is a card that policymakers must learn to play to provoke meaningful change.

Second, the United States should publicly express its concern over the shrinking democratic space, the crisis in the Ogaden, and Ethiopia’s refusal to uphold the findings of the independent border commission. Ethiopian officials are extremely sensitive to public opinion and likely to respond to threats to their country’s international standing and participation in international fora such as the African Union and the United Nations.

Relations with Ethiopia are likely to become strained, and the United States can expect, at least initially, to receive very limited support from its European partner nations. These countries, including France, Germany and the United Kingdom, lack the political leverage necessary to lead a collective shift in donor policy and have been hesitant to alienate the Ethiopian government. This reluctance may require a diplomatic version of the “good cop/bad cop” approach, in which the United States agrees to take an isolated, leadership role in demanding change, while European donor nations persist in a strategy of quiet diplomacy. This has the advantage of ensuring that some constructive dialogue will continue.

In a worst-case scenario, the United States may have to threaten to suspend foreign and military aid to Ethiopia. U.S. humanitarian and development assistance to Ethiopia was upwards of $650 million in 2008, and the U.S. has contributed significant, though less transparent, financial and tactical support to Ethiopia’s attempts to modernize its armed forces. Such an action has rightly been perceived as unthinkable in the past, as the cessation of aid would certainly risk destabilizing the Ethiopian government and may precipitate widespread public disorder. At the same time, Ethiopian certainty that U.S. aid is inviolate has allowed the Ethiopian government to effectively tune out demands for reform. Ethiopian dependence on U.S. assistance is a card that policymakers must learn to play to provoke meaningful change. This is another reason to consider developing a good cop/bad cop arrangement with the European donors–if the United States is forced to suspend aid, other donors may mitigate the shortfall while quietly reinforcing demands for democratic reform.

The prospect of strained relations with Ethiopia at a time of regional crisis is not desirable. If the United States ultimately wishes to sustain its partnership with Ethiopia, however, inaction is the more dangerous option. Democratic space in Ethiopia will continue to erode, while human rights abuses in the Ogaden and ongoing Ethiopian military incursions in Somalia will continue to stoke anti-American sentiment in the Horn. U.S. efforts to mitigate the conflict in Somalia, and to support Somalia’s struggling Transitional Federal Government (TFG), will be fatally undermined by this dynamic. The visible reentry of Ethiopian troops into Somalia already threatens to extinguish the last embers of popular support for the TFG, and may rekindle the insurgency dynamic that brought the Shabaab to power throughout southern Somalia. At the same time, Ethiopian and Eritrean intransigence over the border dispute will ensure a continued flow of arms into the hands of various Somali factions.

The United States has recently taken positive steps to disaggregate its Somalia policy from that of Ethiopia. These steps include diplomatic outreach to Eritrea and public attempts to restrain Ethiopian military action in response to the escalating violence in Mogadishu. These constructive efforts need to be coupled with more assertive diplomacy in Addis Ababa. Until Ethiopia becomes a credible democracy, the U.S.-Ethiopia partnership will do more harm to U.S. regional standing than good.

Weigh in on this issue by emailing CFR.org.

  1. Joseph
    | #1

    Good article politically speak. The author at least is trying to balance the argument for the sake of journalistic ethics. The truth on the ground, however, is different.

    Truly, there are points that are inaccurate i.e. on the issue of political space for example, the mercenary regime of Meles has completely shut down the space with their all-out arrogance and hence no space to breath at all. Under these circumstances one can’t think of US’s effort to be supported by internal “public advocacy”.

    There are no civil institutions to protect citizens, but TPLF-party cadres. The TPL Cadres are are everywhere, are institutions and of course are above the law that can jail, kill on the spot and make people disappear. Most educated people have already left the country and continue to do so, but only Civil Service College cadre/trainees/appointees are the only once in town. The rest of the Capital are undercover operatives who own not just property, but also human beings (absolute power on individuals and their rights)

    The regime has no ears, eyes and brain but only mouth and tongue to bark at and swallow citizens alive. They don’t want to listen to anybody except to their own arrogance. They think that it is only them who can lead the country.

    Typical example: The way they have thrown Judge Birtukan Mideksa into Kality prison for life is for the simple reason that she gave speech to the Ethiopian audience in Sweden which clearly is outside the Ethiopian jurisdiction. ETV reported a fabricated story saying that “she gave an interview to a foreign media”. Dictator Meles told us that “she obtained pardon under a false pretext” and hence he sent her to prison after being roughed up by his security Agazi gangs harassed and humiliated on the street. Same thing happened to the poor old Professor-Prof Mesfin.

    Recently, the Ethiopian Women’s Association Chair has disappeared in fear of persecution. Mele’s own appointed ministers are fleeing the country -in fear of Meles’ killing. How can you build a civil society? How can you think of peaceful struggle? There is no rule of law in the land. As Meles says “poverty or World Bank to blame” for the problems he has been creating to the nation. Can the US work with such wild and dehumanised gangesters? No!!!!

    How can you operate in peace and civility under such wild and barbaric circumstances?

    However, I thank that the Author of the article has gone this far. For the rest of us (the majority of Ethiopians) there is only one scenario – By hook or crook get rid of Meles and his gang! – peace of mind unto the nation and the neighbours, hence forth peaceful development in the 21st century.

  2. peace
    | #2

    We will now see Weyane is going to rain on her by attacking her.

  3. Gabose
    | #3

    If implemented along the line suggested by the author, it would be beneficial for the whole region of the Horn.

    The idea of inviolability of US and European aid to Meles regime is largely responsible for the arrogance and lack of democratic development in Ethiopia. If this is used effectively against the Addis regime, it is very likely bear positive response from Meles.

  4. aha!
    | #4

    What the author shoud have better suggested in her recomendation is to call for the passage of HR2003/S3457 in the senate to reset foreign policy that calls for human right, democracy and accountability by the the TPLF/eprdf regime, which may attached to it witholding funding the military and security apparatus. These together with demands by AEUP (all ethiopian unity party) for the 7-point preconditions to be implemented before the 2010 election and restoration of democratic institutions and civic organization to function free of government restriction and /or interference and for the parties to organize and campaign freely.

    What is needed is changeof the current system, not reform or political space, because political space as well as individual freedom and democracy exist only for the few, which designates these entities into either /or events. You canot have a measurable quantities of these items at the free will of the current regime when urging for reform. If already ascribed to the current regime as having produced economic growth, is democratic, what is there to reform. What is needed is complete freedom of the individual to freely elect a party to govern by the consent of the governed, not the other way around and the tranfer of power at the ballot box, not hold power by the barrel of the gun.

    You are also viewing the ethnic politics from a different prism- in terms of majority and minority ethnic group, as if the tension is between the majority oromo and Amahara against the minority Tigrai ethnic group and as if there is rivalery between these groups. Neverthe less, TPLF of the Tigrai ethnic group have dominated the political, the economic sectors of the country. At the core of the rises is is ethnic fedrealism and seccessionism which is contray to unity, soverignity and territorial integrity of Ethiopia. Add to that the attributes assigned to the African Leaders: lack of good governance, corruption, transparancy and accountability to use of funds they receive for humanitarian and development funds. Those are the other reasons why change is required for peaceful transfer of power through the ballot box, and donor nations are the responsiblity to make that happen, rather than being complacent about it or turning a blind eye on the proper use of their tax payers money.

    I believe the western democracies have power and influence to facilitate that process for fair and free election to take place

  5. Globalbelai
    | #5

    dear patriotic global citizens and friends of African union And Ethiopia:

    I read with interest the opinions of for and against improved US – Ethiopia relations based in common shared value and interests if it’s people that is 360 million and 80 million respectively.

    Common shared value is defined as common good governance standards and common security and prosperity opportunities.

    Our shared history in the person i
    if what is now referred to as failed Presidency if Jimmy Carter and his hippocravy both at personal and national level led to the most disadterous us- Ethiopia relationship.

    The lesson is do not under estimate a misguided un informed and foolish us presidency that supported Said Barre who then invaded Ethiopia and ingiltated the country upto Nazareth just 200 km from Addis.

    The Carter regime broke the contract and trust built by years of diplomacy from Emperoie Menelik to HIM Haile Selassie.

    Niw the notion that Ethiopia will cow tow to misguided pontification real or perceieved that tries to empower the Somali and Eritrean terrorists and their surrogates and enabkers within Ethiopia under all sorts of perception will only crack this unique etiology – us relations.

    Remember: Ethiopia has been A sovereign state for more than 8 millennia and the US is just a babe at 233. The Europeans are teenagers at 500 it so years!

    Ethiopia will work with the other 6 billion out of 6.7 billion if the foolish Jimmi Carter type crowd are going to loose it again.

    Ethiopia is already making a huge shift tiwards Europe and China as the US is showing Jimi Carter typre insanity while dealing with it’s friends.

    Remember the Shah of Uran, Mobutu of Congo. sassan of Iraq, you cannot trust the US as The Jimmies can always occupy the white house every other 4 years!

    Niw to common shared interest! Ethiopia and the US have mire fundamental , cultural and histtorical common shared interest that can be improved, if we continue to respect each other . Imagine the town hall hooligans and political terrorists who demand Obama to be birthed in Washington DC when their own candidate us born in Panama canal. Is this the type of democracy that Ethiopia is expected to follow?

    The scriptures says first remove the trunk in your own eyes!

    Good try but go back tobthe drawing board! Both Ethiopia and the US deserve better ideas to promote win-winpartnership where the gliobal terrorists will not discriminate , ethiopiian or American in their quest to dominate the world with their evil glkibal jihad

    in conclusion , please read Gregory Prois’s master piece on African Jihad. a litlke research and patience and wisdom is breeder, unless you want to do your Jimmi on the rest of us and we will send you back to count your peanuts, or corroborate your facts

    US – Ethiopia relations deserves a better anslysis and recommendations than this one!
    Please try again

    Belai Jesus , MD, MPH
    http://www.globalbelai4u.bligspit.com
    from my Iphone, mire will come from my Mac!

  6. Anonymous
    | #6

    አራ እትዮጲያ እኮ ቅላል ንግር ማስላጝ

  7. Kidane
    | #7

    Those of you who do not know Belai Jesus who claims to be a doctor.

    He is a TPLF representative in DC metro area. He is meddling around to defend the crimes committed against our people by the minority tribal rulers.

    Abugida it is good to entertain different ideas. But ideas coming TPLF are not human ideas but ideas from ghosts.

    Thank you!

  8. aha!
    | #8

    Addendum: The Ethiopians in the Diaspora and at home owe it it to o Ethiopian tax payers to do the right thing, not to TPLF/eprdf, not to UDJP and/or Medrek, where one is the cuplrit and the other is an alterego of the culprit.

  9. John Harbeson
    | #9

    While I agree with much of Ms. Bruton’s essay, including the recommendations. However, even appropriate policy recommendations are likely to be meaningless and even counterproductive unless better grounded in political circumstances of the country to which they are addressed than this essay demonstrates. Of course, Ethiopia needs to be more democratic and be more faithful to human rights standards, but it is impotent policy to demand such adherence without coupling that demand with knowledgeable assistance to help the country overcome the obstacles it faces in meeting that standard. Ethiopia’s core problem resides not just in its leaders but more importantly in the unresolved question of what is a viable basis for a post-imperial Ethiopian state. The Meles governments ethnic confederal constitutional prescription on its face is an innovative and not implausible strategy but it has never been fashioned on the basis of a participatory inclusive democratic process. The negative dialect of insurgent thrust and EPRDF repression reflects this underlying dilemma. US policy toward Ethiopia needs to include both carrots and sticks, assistance and conditionalities to help the country out of this box. Ms. Bruton’s article reflects no appreciation of this problem.
    Another example of policy prescription grounded in apparent insufficient understanding of the country’s politics ia Ms. Bruton’s assertion that the Tigre based government “assaults majority Amhara and Oromo populations.” She fails to understand that there are no such majorities. Oromo insurgencies target Amhara dominance during the imperial era as much as the Tigre-based government. Both communities are deeply divided internally. To some degree Tigre remembrance of oppression at the hands of Amhara emperors is as deeply as that of the Oromo.
    Another example. The reference to “powerful separatist movement in the Ogaden, have a jihadist impact” is a fundamentally misleading statement, in effect whitewashing profound ambivalence in the objectives of Ogadeni populations with U.S. war on terror rhetoric. The fundamental issue is not about religion, and it isn’t about jihad. It is about whether and on what terms, if any, the peoples of that region can find a basis for living with a post-imperial state.
    The Eritrean-Ethiopian border crisis is indeed hung up on Ethiopia’s reneging on its commitment to accept the results of binding arbitration re the border. While some diplomats I think very highly of disagree with me, I think it has been very difficult for Meles to sign off on it because of fierce domestic opposition, especially in Amhara communities which have never been reconciled with Eritrean independence and equally adamantly opposed the whole ethnic confederalism constitutional dispensation. But, in any event, instead of simply castigating the Ethiopian government, U.S. policy should be directed to trying to understand just what the problem really is and finding resources to help resolve the issue. Of course, the underlying issues here go way beyond the border issue. Eritrea and Ethiopia regard each other’s constitutional dispensations as inherently oppressive and catastrophic for the region, their once integrated economies have not been reintegrated since Eritrean independence or successfully detached from one another. With the two largest armies in the region, the issue of a regional balance of power has never been recognized or addressed, yet it is very much in the mix.
    For all these reasons, and several others I could continue with, I do not think this essay has been adequately grounded in the realities of the region nor the requirements for realizing its policy objectives sufficiently appreciated.

  10. haie
    | #10

    here is what we don’t understand about americas forien policy for long time as i understand the president has no even wright to the policy he is just for go ahead signe.we are foolish enough to expect change from obama.diasporas think how to over throw those woyanes and how to build democracy and to eliminat hunger being in the state department every morning or every year dosn’t help because (if you change a pot with onother pot the spice is the same.)

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