The Obama administration has hit some diplomatic roadbumps in the greater Horn of Africa, and more serious jolts lie ahead. To one degree or another, US policy has produced mixed results in all the countries in the greater Horn, which for the purposes of this article I’ll say includes Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Kenya. The exception is Djibouti, with which as far as I know the US has good relations.
Here I want to focus on Ethiopia and Sudan – significantly, both hold elections next year – but I’ll refer to their neighbors’ relations with Washington briefly. In the past I’ve critiqued Washington’s paternalistic attitude toward Kenya, noting that American pressure on reforms has evoked mixed reactions in Nairobi. Both sides want to have good relations, but so far the Chinese appear to be positioning themselves in Kenya more effectively than the US. Regarding Eritrea, US-supported sanctions against Eritrea have not moved through the Security Council yet. Obviously Eritrea opposes the sanctions, but more to the point, US policymakers should demonstrate that sanctions will change behavior and not cause backlash on the ground before imposing them. Finally, US policy toward Somalia faces clear challenges, not least the inability of its ally, the Transitional Federal Government, to control the country. The White House is conducting a policy review on Somalia, so it remains to be seen whether they can exert enough influence to break the stalemate.
Now let’s turn to Ethiopia and Sudan:
For months, US-Ethiopian relations appeared to suffer as Washington named no ambassador to Addis Ababa. Despite a long-time alliance, ties seemed to weaken with the failure of Ethiopia’s occupation of Somalia to stabilize that country, and perhaps also with the change of administrations. Yesterday the White House nominated an ambassador, career diplomat Donald E. Booth. Booth (profiles available here and here) is currently ambassador to Zambia and was also ambassador to Liberia from 2005 to 2008. I see no reason why he wouldn’t be confirmed for this new position. I don’t know what the choice of this veteran diplomat says about the administration’s attitude toward Ethiopia; perhaps even the delay in choosing an ambassador holds no significance, though it did attract attention from journalists. At the minimum, we can say State is not assigning Ethiopia to political appointees looking for a vacation.
Indeed, Booth will have his hands full, given the threat of violence in next year’s parliamentary elections and the domestic and regional conflicts that pose problems for Ethiopia. The US has already expressed concern about press freedoms in Ethiopia. Booth will need to tread carefully – China’s influence could eclipse that of the US in Ethiopia as well as Kenya. On the other hand, there’s still goodwill toward the US on the ground.
Commentators and activists from across the political spectrum have attacked President Obama on his administration’s Sudan policy. With the approach of elections in April, the challenges for policymakers will mount. Recent North-South tensions have worried a lot of analysts. Secretary Clinton condemned the government’s recent suppression of a protest in Khartoum, and the oft-criticized US Special Envoy Scott Gration heads back to Sudan this weekend, where he is supposed to “help restart dialogue to help rival parties in Sudan settle their differences peacefully.”
So the US is definitely involved. The reaction is another matter. Southern leaders welcome this visit, but Gration will increasingly be judged by whether tensions go up or down. Analysts from the International Crisis Group write that Sudan stands at a “critical juncture,” and though they offer praise for US and AU strategies they say it is imperative that the international community pursues a united and engaged approach.
These two important and potentially violent elections next year will put the Obama administration’s policies toward northeast Africa to the test. A lot is at stake: Washington’s influence in Africa, the momentum in Sino-American competition, the political climate in the region, and the lives of millions of Africans. My critiques don’t necessarily mean I think the administration is failing – Booth’s appointment and Gration’s engagement are good steps – but we will of course have to judge the tree by its fruits.