Strategic Importance of Ethiopia in Africa and US-Ethiopia Relationships
Prepared for the Panel Discussion Forum Convened by Woman’s National Democratic Club
1526 New Hampshire Avenue NW, Washington, DC

By Professor Getachew Begashaw
April 5, 2014



Thank you very much for inviting me to participate in this worthy panel discussion on a topic that is very important for both Ethiopia and the US.

To address the topic of Ethiopia’s strategic importance in Africa and the US-Ethiopia relationship, it is important to consider the following three points:

  1. The past and present geopolitical, historical and socioeconomic realities of Ethiopia in particular and the region in general, and their implications for US interests in the future.

  2. The state of good governance and rule of law in the country, and the implications for the long-term stability of Ethiopia and the region.

  3. The misguided and short-sighted policy adopted by the US and western countries in general over the past two decades in engaging the ethnic-based government in Ethiopia, and its consequences on the relationship between the peoples of the two countries.

With regard to the first, Ethiopia is a strategically important country playing major roles in the Northeast African region because of its location, its size, its resources, its historical position, and its basic political orientations.

It should be noted that the Horn of Africa (or Northeast Africa) is really as much a part of the Middle East as it is of Africa. Consequently, Ethiopia has been directly or indirectly connected with the crises that have long characterized the Middle East and the Mediterranean world for most part of its history. The Ethiopian highlands catch most of the rain fall -- earning the country the label, “the Water Tower of Africa”. In fact, Ethiopia provides over 86 percent of the Nile waters. Further, it has half the population of the so-called Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) countries, consisting of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda. Before the mid-70s, Ethiopia had played a critical role in providing a base to the West for intelligence gathering, because of its location and topography, at the peak of the Cold War.

Today, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the continued collapse of state authority in Somalia (and now in South Sudan), the unresolved conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a partially-developed agenda of political Islam in the region and the threat of Al-Shabab (Al-Quida by extension), and the potential conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia because of the Mega (Renaissance) Nile Dam continue to enhance Ethiopia’s strategic importance in the region, and underscore the fact that Ethiopia should be at the center of any stabilization project of the Horn.

There is a general consensus that many of the problems, including the problems of building viable states in Somalia and South Sudan, cannot be tackled effectively without a strong and stable Ethiopia. However, Ethiopia can be a strategically important and relevant country only if it has a national government that works for the national interest of the country, abides by rule of law, and is based on good governance.

On my second point, the state of good governance and rule of law in the country, and the implications for the long-term stability of Ethiopia and the region, it is very regrettable to note that the situation is less promising. Today’s Ethiopia is ruled by an authoritarian and ethnic-based minority group, that has no respect for the rule of law, has no track record of good governance, and is disposed to compromise the long-term interest of the nation for short-term political and economic gains.

As documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and even the US State Department Country Reports over the last 15 years, Ethiopia ranks very low in terms freedom and respect for human rights of the people. Furthermore, Ethiopia under this ethnic-based minority government is characterized as one of the wretched poorest and the lowest in any meaningful measure of economic and human development. Few examples:

  1. Ethiopia ranks 44th in Africa and 177th in the World with a rating of 82 as ‘Not Free’ in Press Freedom (Freedom House, 2013)
  2. It scores 47.6% on Good Governance Index ( Mo Ibrahim, 2013)
  3. The regime is perceived as the most corrupt government with a very low Corruption Perception Index of 33% (Transparency International, 2013)
  4. The Economic Freedom rating for Ethiopia is 49.4% (Global Financial, 2013)
  5. The country has one of the lowest Human Development Index (0.396) ranking 173rd in the world (UNDP, 2013)
  6. 88.6% of the population lives in poverty with the highest multidimensional poverty index (MPI) of 0.562 (Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative, 2011). The current ruling party has not only established a single party oligarchical dictatorship, but also has monopolized the economy. The much touted and distorted economic growth it is advertising to the donor world is benefiting only a small sector of the ruling elite and its cronies while impoverishing millions of Ethiopians. According to the 2012 report of the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET), Ethiopia is in the rank of the last four countries in Africa (Rwanda, Burundi, Burkina Faso, and Niger) with the lowest production diversification, export competitiveness, productivity improvement, and human economic well-being.

The government’s land ownership and attending policies have created unparalleled rural destitution and environmental catastrophe. Ethiopia has remained one of the poorest countries on the globe. It is a cruel joke, but sadly true, that Ethiopia has to pay the amount of more than four US dollars ($4.00) a day for every inhabitant of Djibouti for port use, while the majority of the close to one hundred million Ethiopians live on less than one dollar ($1.00) a day!

The fertile farm lands around the western border of Ethiopia are being ceded to Sudan in exchange for cooperation between the two dictatorial regimes not to allow Ethiopian opposition forces to operate in and thru Sudan. Large swath of farm lands in South and Southwestern parts of Ethiopia are leased at dirt cheap fee to foreign agricultural conglomerates such as Saudi Star of Saudi Arabia and Karturi from India. This is done with forceful and inhumane removal and displacement of local people who have lived on their ancestral lands for generations.

As economic hardship become intolerable in the country, food riots and other forms of spontaneous urban resistance are also likely to emerge. As Terry Lyons warns, unexpected, impromptu uprisings are possible if grievances mount; and high rates of inflation that have made it difficult for the urban middle class to feed their families may provide this kind of a spark.

Despite being one of the oldest nations in the world that withstood many external threats, Ethiopia is threatened now by many latent challenges to survive as a nation and a country. These challenges are both internal and external, and they often reinforce each other. Today, Ethiopia is unable to establish a state that safeguards the rights of its people and the sovereignty of the country, as well as a political system that the majority of the population considers legitimate, and hence supports and is willing to defend.

Presently, world renowned journalists, including Eskinder Nega, Woubshet Taye, and Reeyot Alemu (a female journalist with serious ailment and denied proper care) are languishing in prison on fictitious cases of terrorism. Human rights activists and political leaders like Andualem Aragie, Bekele Garba, and many more are harshly treated and locked up in prison. As recently as March 8, 2014, several young girls, mostly teenagers, were arrested on for a simple crime of peacefully expressing their disenchantment about the detention of journalists and human rights activists.

Political space for electoral competition, parliamentary democracy, and peaceful transfer of power do not exist in Ethiopia. Free exchange of ideas and independent civil society organizations are virtually nonexistent. The ruling party responded to the challenge mounted by the opposition in the 2005 elections with a series of repressive measures and indiscriminate massacre of unarmed and peaceful people. Currently, it outrageously, but unabashedly, purports to control 99.6% of the seats in parliament.

The TPLF government has gained and maintained political power by force and has continued to carry out gross abuses of human rights. These abuses not only enrage the Ethiopian people, but also create the perfect conditions for other external forces bent on destabilizing and weakening Ethiopia. As a result, Ethiopia today is a weakened country more than ever before in its recent history. By the design of its own government, Ethiopia has become landlocked -- by far the largest and most populous such country in the world. Predictably, this has negatively impacted its economic development, compromised its security, and diminished its stabilizing capacity.

Given its proximity to Somalia, one would assume that Ethiopia could play a prominent role in stabilizing Somalia. However, because of its own internal uncertainties and the prevailing economic and political situations in the country, Ethiopia’s role, under the current regime of the TPLF, has only been insignificant at best, or counterproductive, at its worst. The latter was evident when the TPLF regime hastily invaded Somalia twice to appear as a true partner in the fight against terrorism. Although the adventurous act has momentarily helped it to divert the attention of the West from the atrocious human rights violations it has committed at home, the sinister action has marked it as a deadly enemy of the Somali Islamists. Therefore, at this point, any tangible role that Ethiopia can play is only through a multilateral strategy within a multilateral framework, including IGAD and the African Union.

It is now all too well obvious that the situation of Eritrea after Isayas Afeworki is uncertain and the territorial disintegration of Eritrea is probable. Even in this case, a constructive role by the TPLF regime is either unthinkable or farfetched. If there is anything that can be gleaned from the last 23 years of TPLF rule, it is the fact that the only agenda promoted by the regime is to keep Eritrea separated from Ethiopia and to ensure that Ethiopia remains landlocked. The underlying cause for the adventurous and costly war that the two countries waged has not been resolved, and the nations are still in a state of no-war and no-peace.

Both North and South Sudan should be viewed as equally important as Somalia and Eritrea for a regional peace and stability project. If past experiences and observations are any guide for the future, the relationship between Addis Ababa and Khartoum (and also now Juba) is what will make or break peace and stability in the Horn. Historically, successive Sudanese governments in the north had never been able to achieve domestic stability or to play stabilizing roles in the region. To make matters worse, the government of the newly formed state in the south is tittering.

No matter how hard the regime in Addis Ababa is trying to appear as a major peace broker in the crises of South Sudan, it is in no appreciable position to influence the situation. In fact countries like Uganda appear to be playing more active roles in the civil war and shaping events, compared to Ethiopia. It is no accident that Ethiopia is now forced to accept a limited role as one of the five East African Peacekeeping Forces, including Djibouti, Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi, to be deployed soon with a specific modest and neutral mission of acting as a deterrent force that will secure vital installations including the oil fields of South Sudan. Thus, Ethiopia is reduced to the position of a junior partner along with Djibouti and Burundi, again demonstrating the fact that the country that was once influential could no more command the respect of even smaller countries of the Horn to play its historic role.

This takes me to my last and third point pertaining to the shortsighted policy of the US government toward the TPLF dictators. According to Paul Henzie, America’s interest in the Horn of Africa, and particularly in Ethiopia, historically stemmed from events of World War II. In many ways, it was a continuation of British interest and policy in the region. The US position in Ethiopia was formalized in 1953 with treaties that gave the US base rights in Ethiopia, viz, the Kagnew Station in Asmara. That treaty permitted the US to have rights that included the use of air, communications, and naval facilities. In return, the US gave substantial military aid to Ethiopia until its fall out with Mengistu Hailemariam’s regime in the mid-70s. In the mid-80s, the US found the ethnocentric TPLF as an effective weapon against the pro-soviet military junta in Ethiopia, as part of the Iran-Contra Doctrine of the Reagan Administration. The US lavishly supported and financed the TPLF/EPLF wars against Ethiopia. As a result, the TPLF succeeded to come to power in Ethiopia in 1991 and, concurrently, the EPLF managed to dismember Eritrea from the motherland.

The unconditional support that the US gives to the TPLF regime has continued to this day. This support has often been based on short term security considerations without regard to the welfare of the people of Ethiopia and the long term interest of the US. Thus, the US support has emboldened the TPLF government to continue on the path of abuse of power, human rights violations, and repression. The TPLF has become unwilling to open the political space and establish a more inclusive and stable political order, and has continued plundering the meager resources of that poor nation.

As a result, dissatisfaction with the ethnic-based rule of the TPLF has grown and often led to some sporadic violent rebellions by aggrieved sectors of the population. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the oppressed people have inevitably put the blame on the support given by the US government.

Ethiopia has faced regional isolation many times throughout its history, and external powers have often exploited internal dissentions for subversion. Sudan and Somalia have hosted rebellions against the Ethiopian state and have repeatedly and directly intervened to weaken the country. However, the country was able to withstand external subversions and aggressions because of the unity of its people who stood with their nationalist governments of the past that have never compromised on the territorial integrity of their country and its national sovereignty. Regrettably, the TPLF regime has lost the faith of the Ethiopian people, and as a result, has lacked any potential to stabilize Ethiopia and play a meaningful role as a stabilizing force in the region.

Abdul Mohamed, in his article titled, Crisis in the Horn of Africa, February, 2007, wrote: “Ethiopia needs regional stability for its own domestic reasons. Unless the Ethiopian state is secure from destabilization and the threat of violence, the project of regional peace and stability cannot progress. Only when there is a strong Ethiopian state that commands consensus and allegiance across all sectors of its population, and commands the respect of its neighbors, can there be a successful transition and a viable regional peace and security order” .

Today, the TPLF regime may give the impression of strength and stability by controlling the country’s resources and effectively using them to reward its supporters and punish the democratic opposition. However, in words of Terry Lyons, “what appears to be a strong authoritarian regime may in fact be fragile and collapse quickly, with considerable potential for violence and uncertainty”. The possible outcome of the continued TPLF autocratic rule and the inevitable people’s uprising for freedom is dreadful to think about. Undoubtedly, the region will collapse into a complete chaos and the bloody inter/intra-ethnic wars that would necessarily follow will be a historic blunder by those who have directly or indirectly enabled the TPLF to commit such a hideous crime.

It is therefore incumbent upon the United States to encourage and support political reforms in Ethiopia, and champion an inclusive, equitable and sustainable development agenda in Ethiopia, which can also serve its long-term interests. Otherwise, an irresponsible and short-sighted policy that is grounded in short-term interest is destined to harm the long-term interest of this nation and damage the democratic values upon which it is founded.

Thank you.


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