Update on US Drone Base in Ethiopia

Last month, reports came out that the United States was building a new drone base in Ethiopia as part of a broader effort to strike targets in Somalia and Yemen. The base is already operational, and the BBC, the Washington Post, and other outlets are covering the story. As the BBC story points out, “the remotely-piloted drones [are] being used only for surveillance, and not for air strikes,” though the vehicles can be equipped with missiles and bombs if commanders choose.

Here’s an excerpt from the Post’s piece:

The Air Force has invested millions of dollars to upgrade an airfield in Arba Minch, Ethi­o­pia, where it has built a small annex to house a fleet of drones that can be equipped with Hellfire missiles and satellite-guided bombs. The Reapers began flying missions earlier this year over neighboring Somalia, where the United States and its allies in the region have been targeting al-Shabab, a militant Islamist group connected to al-Qaeda.


The Arba Minch airport expansion is still in progress but the Air Force deployed the Reapers there earlier this year, [Air Force spokesman Master Sgt. James] Fisher said. He said the drone flights “will continue as long as the government of Ethi­o­pia welcomes our cooperation on these varied security programs.”

Last month, the Ethio­pian Foreign Ministry denied the presence of U.S. drones in the country. On Thursday, a spokesman for the Ethio­pian embassy in Washington repeated that assertion.

The disconnect in rhetoric between the US military and the Ethiopian government points to the major tensions in this relationship. As I noted in my last piece, US officials said that it took years of effort to persuade Ethiopia to host the base. The lack of enthusiasm from Ethiopia’s side has persisted to the present. Ethiopia’s willingness to permit drone operations to continue may be contingent on what reactions occur in Somalia and inside Ethiopia, which is host to many ethnic Somalis and refugees from Somalia.

Nile Politics: South Sudan Plans Dam on Nile Tributary

Even before South Sudan’s independence, countries like Egypt became nervous about how the creation of the tenth Nile Basin state would affect the region’s delicate water politics. Would South Sudan side, as Sudan had (and still does), with Egypt and promote the status quo (which gives a large share of the Nile to Egypt)? Or would the new country join the upstream countries, led by Ethiopia, that are demanding a larger share of the Nile for themselves?

After independence, South Sudan struck a conciliatory tone toward both Egypt and Ethiopia, but two developments will definitely attract Egypt’s attention. First, South Sudan wants to formally join the Nile Basin Initiative, the organization that is attempting to resolve the disputes over the region’s water. This request will surprise no one and indeed it makes eminent sense, but it is a reminder to Egypt that South Sudan will soon have to develop a more detailed Nile policy, one that will inevitably tilt in one direction or another.

Second, South Sudan has announced plans to build a hydropower dam near the city of Wau. Wau sits on the Jur River, a tributary of the Bahr el Ghazal River which is itself a tributary of the White Nile. South Sudan’s dam is not intended, it seems to me, as an act of aggression, but the move will remind neighbors that this new country has pressing energy, infrastructure, and resource needs.

Egypt’s new government, judging by its outreach to Ethiopia, wants a solution to the Nile dispute. As the case of South Sudan shows, there are many moving parts in the equation, but it does seem that the status quo will have to change, and in fact may be changing already.

US Drone Base in Ethiopia

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that “the Obama administration is assembling a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen.” There are to be four bases, one each in Ethiopia, Yemen, Djibouti, and the Seychelles (we could add to this list a fifth, namely the CIA presence in Somalia, as reported by Jeremy Scahill of The Nation). Of these bases, as some readers know, two are not new at all: the base in Djibouti has been used by French and American forces for years, while drones have been operating from the Seychelles since at least 2009. The really new news for the greater Horn of Africa, then, is the base in Ethiopia.

The Washington Post gives a few more details:

One U.S. official said that there had been discussions about putting a drone base in Ethiopia for as long as four years, but that plan was delayed because “the Ethiopians were not all that jazzed.” Other officials said Ethiopia has become a valued counterterrorism partner because of threats posed by al-Shabab.


[A] former official said the United States relies on Ethiopian linguists to translate signals intercepts gathered by U.S. agencies monitoring calls and e-mails of al-Shabab members. The CIA and other agencies also employ Ethiopian informants who gather information from across the border.

The BBC adds that the base will be located in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, which borders Somalia and has a large Somali population.

The BBC emphasizes the backlash that drone strikes have caused in Yemen, but basing drones on the continent of Africa entails political risks there as well. As Wired‘s Danger Room notes, building bases in Africa undermines earlier US government assurances to African leaders that the US would not seek a larger military foothold on the continent. Other African countries looking at Ethiopia could begin to feel more uneasy about long-term US intentions in Africa. Within Somalia, drone strikes could kill major terrorists – but they could also hit civilians, inflaming anger against the US, weakening support for the US-backed Transitional Federal Government, and even driving recruits toward the Shabab rebel movement.

The new base could also negatively affect Washington’s relationship with Ethiopia. If the Ethiopians “were not all that jazzed” about drones for the past four years, they may become quite angry if drone strikes kill civilians or stir up anti-Ethiopian resentment in Somalia and in the Ogaden region. Ethiopia’s government is of course happy to receive US military assistance and to strengthen its relationship with Washington, but the negative aspects of a widening drone war may loom larger than the benefits after a while. The idea of Ethiopia playing Pakistan to Somalia’s Afghanistan, with all the tensions that relationship entails for the two countries and for the US, is a troubling scenario.

Basing drones in Ethiopia is a logical extension of current US policy in the region (and part of a larger projection of US power throughout the western Indian Ocean, as Danger Room writes). This policy continues to carry significant risks, however, not only of causing a backlash inside Somalia but also of straining relations between the US and various African governments, starting with Ethiopia.

Nile Politics: A Thaw in Egypt-Ethiopia Relations

On Saturday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf met in Cairo to discuss Ethiopia’s proposed “Grand Renaissance Dam,” which would use some water from the Blue Nile for hydroelectric power. When it was announced in March, the dam project seemed to exacerbate long-standing tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia concerning usage of the Nile. Egypt, whose future water security outlook is somewhat grim, has long taken a significant portion of the Nile – a portion that upstream countries like Ethiopia feel is too large. In 2010, Ethiopia led a number of upstream countries in signing a treaty that would reduce Egypt’s share of the Nile. Egypt and Sudan opposed the treaty, arguing for the maintenance of the status quo. As of this spring, the conflict looked like a tough nut to crack.

Yet Saturday’s meeting in Cairo appears to be hastening a thaw that began with talks late this spring. Egypt and Ethiopia are moving to work out a new arrangement:

“We have agreed to quickly establish a tripartite team of technical experts to review the impact of the dam that is being built in Ethiopia,” Zenawi told a news conference with Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. Experts from Sudan will also be part of the team.

“We have agreed to continue to work on the basis of a win-win solution for all countries in the Nile basin,” he added.


Sharaf said Cairo and Addis Ababa were discussing a “comprehensive development plan” for the two countries.

“We can make the issue of the Grand Renaissance Dam something useful,” he said. “This dam, in conjunction with the other dams, can be a path for development and construction between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.”

The change in Egypt’s stance likely owes much to the change of regime there. Former President Hosni Mubarak was fairly hawkish on Nile issues, but I imagine that the new government has neither the bandwidth nor the appetite to posture aggressively on the issue. At a time when Egypt’s domestic politics as well as regional politics are shifting (South Sudan’s independence makes the Egypt-Sudan pro-Nile status quo alliance somewhat shakier), Egypt’s new leaders are likely keen to have a workable resolution to the issue.

Ironing out details could prove tricky, and meaningful agreements on core issues hard to reach, but I see these talks and their outcome as a positive step for the region.

Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya have more.

Secretary Clinton Arrives in Africa Today

Following her attendance yesterday at a meeting on Libya in Abu Dhabi, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Lusaka, Zambia today for the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) ministerial forum (visit AGOA’s website here). After Zambia, Clinton will stop in Tanzania and Ethiopia. This is her first major tour of Africa since August 2009, and like that trip it will test the efficacy of America’s political outreach to Africa in comparison with the approaches of China and other powers.

News coverage has stressed the economic focus of Clinton’s trip. VOA writes, “Enhancing trade, development and regional security will be key priorities for U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on an Africa tour later this week.” This economic focus will extend beyond the AGOA meeting to include the visits to Tanzania and Ethiopia. Here is a sense of the agenda:

The chief US diplomat will meet with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

“In Tanzania, she will highlight our successful bilateral engagement, including a host of programs, including Feed the Future,” [deputy spokesman Mark] Toner said.

In Ethiopia, Clinton will “focus on regional issues,” visiting the African Union headquarters and meeting with AU Chairman Jean Ping in addition to holding bilateral meetings with Ethiopian officials.

She will also meet with representatives of civil society — which usually includes human rights and other society activists — to “draw attention to their innovative and enterprising work,” Toner said.

The AGOA meeting is the main event of the trip, and from the stature of its representatives there – US Trade Representative Ron Kirk spoke during the opening proceedings yesterday – it is clear that Washington takes the conference seriously. US analysts and African attendees have highlighted problems with AGOA, problems that seem even darker with China’s shadow cast over the meeting. The Wall Street Journal, in an article I recommend you read in full, puts the issue this way:

The U.S. remains the top donor to Africa, disbursing $7.6 billion in 2009, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

China isn’t a member of the OECD, and doesn’t provide detailed breakdowns of aid and investment to Africa. But in 2009, China became Africa’s largest trade partner. In the first 11 months of last year, China’s trade with Africa amounted to $114.81 billion, according to the Chinese government’s White Paper on the topic. U.S. trade with Africa for the period reached $103 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

China has tied much of its trade and investment to Africa with preferential loan deals, often aimed at securing supplies of oil, gas and minerals. Top-ranking Chinese officials regularly visit African countries to cement these agreements.

“The goal of China is mercantilist; they do what they need to do to get access to natural resources,” says Paul Ryberg, the Washington-based president for the African Coalition for Trade, which represents African companies in the U.S. The centerpiece of U.S. economic engagement, Agoa, says Mr. Ryberg “is economic development, creation of jobs and the creation of a middle class to buy our products.”

AFP also touches on the subject:

AGOA’s rules are broad enough to encompass most of the continent, but leave out countries hit by coups or major political conflicts, including Ivory Coast, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

The United States sees the offer of tariff-free access to the world’s largest economy as a carrot to encourage good governance in Africa.

But like other western countries, the United States now finds itself competing with China, which imposes no such pre-conditions.

African trade with China jumped more than 40 percent last year, compared with an 18 percent increase for the United States.

Last year AGOA exports to the United States reached $44 billion, but 91 percent of that were petroleum products, mainly from Nigeria and Angola, according to the State Department.

Washington, it seems, understands the weaknesses of AGOA. But will US diplomats and policymakers be able to increase non-petroleum trade and more effectively compete with China? Sending two high-level officials to AGOA demonstrates strong engagement, but will there be follow-through? These issues bear watching even after Clinton’s trip is over.

Ethiopian Rebels Seize the Town of Galalshe (Map)

The rebel movement in Ethiopia’s Somali Region, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), does not appear to stand much chance of taking control of substantial territory, but their activities are worth keeping an eye on. Recently the ONLF captured – or claimed to capture – a town called Galalshe. The incident has attracted attention partly because of the rebels’ assertion that they freed two captured employees of the World Food Programme.

“The Ogaden National Liberation Army of (the) ONLF has captured the town of Galalshe in Jigjiga Region near Babili,” the group said in a statement that did not disclose any dates.

The rebels said they had inflicted casualties on government troops while also capturing armaments and ammunition.

“The (ONLF) army found hundreds of civilian prisoners detained in the Galalshe jail who had been tortured and badly treated. Among the prisoners found were the two WFP workers abducted by the Ethiopian Army,” it added.

The conflict in the region has been exacerbated by drought and food shortages. As with other conflicts in this latitude, the specter of climate change lurks in the background. A rise in temperatures in the coming century could make conflicts like this one even fiercer.

This map pinpoints Babili, near where the rebels said they captured Galalshe.

Turkana-Merille Fighting: A Deadly Cycle in Kenya and Ethiopia

This week has seen fighting between the Turkana people, who live in northwest Kenya, and the Daasanach or Merille* people, who live in southern Ethiopia (map of Lake Turkana). The fighting stems from local conflicts, but it also reflects a broader pattern of inter-ethnic conflict resulting from food scarcity, persistent drought, and the lifestyle alterations that borders have forced upon nomadic groups. The frequency of such conflicts in turn puts pressure on states, and creates tensions between states, in this case Kenya and Ethiopia.

Both the Turkana (who number around 100,000) and the Merille (who number around 50,000) are traditionally nomadic. But while the Turkana remain nomadic pastoralists, the Merille

in recent years have become primarily agropastoral. Having lost the majority of their lands over the past fifty years or so, primarily as a result from being excluded from their traditional Kenyan lands, including on both sides of Lake Turkana, and the ‘Ilemi Triangle‘ of Sudan, they have suffered a massive decrease in the numbers of cattle, goats and sheep. As a result, large numbers of them have moved to areas closer to the Omo River, where they attempt to grow enough crops to survive.

Despite these changes for the Merille, the two groups compete for food, such as cattle and the fish found in and around Lake Turkana. This sets the stage for violence.

I am having trouble piecing together exactly what happened this week, but several Merille were apparently killed on Monday near Lake Turkana. Separately, according to the Nairobi Star, a group of Turkana crossed into Ethiopia and made purchases at a market. Following their return to Kenya (possibly after a fishing expedition to Lake Turkana), the Turkana were attacked on Tuesday by Merille and some 20-40 Turkana, or more, were killed. A reprisal by Turkana fighters claimed five Merille lives shortly thereafter. Further attacks reportedly claimed more Turkana lives.

According to the above-mentioned Nairobi Star account, this violence is part of a pattern that reaches back years:

The massacre is the latest in attacks that have pitted communities within the Elemi Triangle – the once disputed triangular border area between Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia – and the area has known no peace.

The region has been home to protracted and intermittent cattle rustling with many killed, maimed and much property lost. The Elemi Triangle has until recently been ‘unwanted’ and not economically developed by any regional government. Differences of perception and significance of the area between the authorities and the local herders has persisted for decades.

Apart from being the gateway to an area of Sudan rich in unexplored oil reserves, Elemi is only significant for its dry season pastures that support the Turkana, Didinga, Toposa, Inyangatom (Dong’iro) and Dassanech (Merille) communities, largely known as the Karamoja cluster groups of Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan.

Armed cattle rustling conflicts between the Turkana of Kenya and Ethiopia’s Merille have dominated headlines of the Elemi Triangle news. Between January 2002 and November 2004, at least 100 people were killed and unspecified number of livestock taken away.

The article goes on to detail attacks that occurred in 2010 and earlier this year.

Fighting between Turkana and Merille has displaced dozens of people and has stirred up local resentment against the Kenyan government. The Kenyan government, meanwhile, has complained to the Ethiopian government. Without a long-term solution to the tensions that pit the Turkana and Merille against each other, a deadly cycle will continue: government authority will corrode, local groups will turn to violence to solve conflicts, and the problem will persist.

I am including a video report from NTV Kenya below.

*I have used the name Merille because this is what Kenyan newspapers use, but I have tried to avoid a pro-Turkana bias – especially since many of the sources I used are Kenyan.

Ethiopia and Egypt Continue Nile Talks

When I last wrote about the politics of water-sharing among Nile basin countries, Ethiopia (a leading proponent of a greater share for upstream countries) had announced plans to build a dam on the river. This move potentially put them at odds with Egypt (a proponent of the status quo, which involves substantial Egyptian control over the Nile), but both countries seemed somewhat willing to work things out. The change of government in Egypt has created opportunities to rework the existing arrangement, and the two regimes are pursuing talks that may lead to a solution.


Ethiopia has agreed to postpone ratification of a treaty on sharing Nile River water until a new Egyptian government takes office to join the negotiations. The delay eases a long-running dispute between upstream countries at the source of the Nile and downstream countries that claim historic rights to the water.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has told a visiting Egyptian delegation he will freeze consideration of a treaty that would reverse colonial-era agreements giving Egypt and Sudan rights to 90 percent of the Nile’s water. Six upper riparian states have signed the deal, clearing the way for ratification. But downstream countries Egypt and Sudan have refused.

The article goes on to say that Mubarak’s regime generated considerable ill will on the issue and that Ethiopia, along with fellow upstream power Uganda, are willing to give the new regime time to get its bearings before they ask for a decision regarding the treaty. Still, the upstream countries are making sure the new Egyptian regime understands the importance of the Nile issue.

Ezega, a source I am not very familiar with, has more.

Nile Politics Continue as Ethiopia Plans Dam Construction

Egypt’s domestic situation has changed tremendously in the last few months, but long-standing regional tensions over water-sharing from the Nile River have remained. Last spring, an agreement on water-sharing pitted Egypt and Sudan (who refused to sign) against countries upstream such as Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania. This deal aims to substantially reduce Egyptian control over the river. Egypt’s new government, whoever takes charge, faces challenges on the Nile issue, especially from Ethiopia, the most outspoken of the upstream governments. The controversy will also test the new country of South Sudan, which is expected to side with the other upstream countries.

In late March, Ethiopia “said it planned to build a huge dam on the Nile despite a long-running row with Egypt over use of the river and concern the dispute may spark a war.” This dam, near the Sudan border, would generate “15,000 megawatts (MW) of power within 10 years, part of a plan to spend $12 billion over 25 years to improve the country’s power-generating capability.”

Ethiopia’s government has taken an alternately aggressive and conciliatory tone toward Egypt regarding the dam project:

Speaking to the opening session of an international hydropower conference [in late March], [Ethiopian Prime Minister] Meles [Zenawi] vowed the $4.8-billion project would go ahead, even if impoverished Ethiopia has to pay the tab itself.

“We are so convinced of the justice of our cause, so sure of the strength of our arguments, so convinced of the role of our hydropower projects in eliminating poverty in our country that we will use every ounce of our strength, every dime of money that we can save to complete our program,” Meles said.


[But] in comments to reporters after his speech, the Ethiopian leader held out hope that the post-Mubarak administration in Cairo might soften Egypt’s longstanding opposition to upstream use of Nile water.

“I am still hopeful that the current government in Egypt will recognize that this project has nothing but benefits to Egypt,” said Meles. “Nothing. I believe the Sudanese understand this has nothing but benefits to them.”

Meles said a change of heart by Cairo’s new leaders could open the way for cooperative agreements, including a deal that would give Egypt partial ownership of the dam.

“If there is a reconsideration, there will be time to consider many issues, including possibly joint ownership of the project itself. We are open to such ideas,” said Meles.

Egypt seems at least somewhat willing to negotiate:

In what seems to be a possible solution to the Nile water quotas dispute between Egypt and upstream Nile Basin countries, Water Resources Minister Hussein al-Atfy has announced an initiative by the African countries to renegotiate the Nile Basin Framework Agreement.

He said the initiative aims at allowing all people of Nile Basin countries to benefit from the water, and added that international arbitration would be Cairo’s last resort in dealing with this issue.

Reaching agreement on the future usage of the Nile will be crucial for preserving peace between the Nile countries and ensuring that millions of people have access to water and power. All of the major players have indicated their willingness to reach a solution – now it remains to be seen if there is a solution that can satisfy everyone. If no solution appears, it seems Ethiopia may force the issue.

For one Ethiopian perspective on the dam project, see this article.

African Leaders Wary of Protests

As protests continue across the Arab world, rumblings of political discontent have sounded in sub-Saharan Africa as well. These rumblings range from serious protests in Gabon and Sudan to pro-revolution newspaper columns in countries like Nigeria. Revolution will likely not spread through sub-Saharan Africa, but leaders in Ethiopia and Uganda moved this week to block even the possibility of uprisings. These moves show that the Arab protests are making some African leaders quite nervous, particularly as their countries navigate political transitions.

In Ethiopia, journalist Eskinder Nega has compared his country to Egypt and speculated about the possibility of an Egypt-style mobilization in Ethiopia. Eskinder’s remarks online and on the radio drew the attention, he says, of the Ethiopian government:

Eskinder Nega says six heavily-armed policemen jumped from a truck on a busy central Addis Ababa street last week, grabbed him and whisked him away to federal police headquarters. He says during a two-hour detention, he was brought before a deputy police commissioner who did not identify himself, but who warned him his activities were considered seditious.

“He said, ‘You’ve been trying to incite Egyptian and Tunisian-like protests in Ethiopia through writings you do on the Internet,” Eskinder recounted. “And the interviews you give to various news outlets. And he said, ‘Nothing similar is going to happen in this country.'”

Eskinder was jailed during the 2005 government crackdown in Ethiopia, which followed fiercely contested elections. Last year’s elections in Ethiopia did not produce the same levels of dissent – or violence – that 2005’s elections did, but Eskinder’s latest detention suggests that Ethiopian authorities are keen to shut down any voices who say that the government lacks legitimacy and is vulnerable to the wave of uprisings.

In Uganda, which holds presidential elections today, there seems to be little chance that President Yoweri Museveni will lose, and little chance that mass demonstrations could drive him from power. Still, Ugandan opposition leaders have talked about launching protests if Museveni wins. This threat was enough to worry the government, which “ordered phone companies to intercept text messages with words or phrases including ‘Egypt’, ‘bullet,’ and ‘people power’ ahead of [today]‘s elections that some fear may turn violent.” This preemptive maneuver seems to presage a greater crackdown to come, if the opposition does indeed take to the streets.

Government crackdowns could end up being the decisive factor in stopping sub-Saharan African protest movements before they really get off the ground. North Sudan’s repression appears to have stymied protesters there for the most part. And the words of an Ethiopian opposition member that Eskinder interviewed are revealing as to the political realities there:

Could the legal Ethiopian opposition leaders try to replicate what the legal opposition triggered in Egypt? “No,” firmly answered an opposition official I queried. “There will be a massacre, and it will also be the end of us,” he said. I could have been mistaken, but I thought I had sensed alarm in his tone.

There is another important issue also: If government repression did occur, would media outlets cover it? Given how little coverage Gabon has received in comparison with Arab countries, I think it unlikely that international media would devote substantial attention to a short – but merciless – crackdown in a country like Ethiopia. Some people paid attention in 2005, of course, but not on the scale that we’re seeing with Egypt and elsewhere.

In some places, then, African activists’ realistic fears of death and failure are already discouraging potential protesters. Nevertheless, as I said Wednesday, everyone is well aware of the events in Egypt – including governments who are taking steps to signal policies of zero tolerance for dissent.

Here’s a brief Al Jazeera report on Uganda’s elections: