Rough Patch Continues in US-Ethiopian Relations

We know which Horn of Africa country likes the US the least – Eritrea, no surprise – but in 2009 relations with Ethiopia also seem to be souring. Some strains appeared earlier this fall, when “Ethiopian diplomatic sources [said] Prime Minister Meles [had] rejected the Obama administration’s first choice as ambassador,” but I figured last week’s appointment of an ambassador, Donald Booth, could be a sign relations were basically untroubled. I’m not sure that’s the case, though.

Amidst controversies over the closure of a major Ethiopian newspaper and accusations that the Ethiopian government is manipulating aid for its political ends, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had some harsh words for Washington:

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi over the weekend rejected U.S. criticism of several of his government’s policies and laws, but described the country’s relationship with Washington as “solid.”  Mr. Meles took particular exception to a U.S. diplomat’s comments about Ethiopia’s ethnic policies.

The Ethiopian leader reacted sharply to comments made by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva Douglas Griffiths.

Speaking at a council meeting last week, Ambassador Griffiths questioned Ethiopia’s contention that there is a fair representation of nationalities in government institutions.  He said independent observers note that most senior government positions are represented by one ethnicity.

The dominant role of ethnic Tigrayans in the government, especially in the military, has often been a contentious political issue in Ethiopia.  Tigrayans make up about six percent of the population.

But Prime Minister Meles flatly rejected Ambassador Griffiths’ assertions. “I have not heard of such idiocy.  But if it has occurred, it proves the idiocy of the person in Geneva,” he said.


At the same time, Prime Minister Meles scoffed at reports that suggest Ethiopia’s relationship with the United States is strained.  He called bilateral ties “mature.” “It was never off track.  People assumed it was off track because of some idiot comment made by this or that particular person in this or that particular place.  But the relationship is quite solid, has always been based on things other than passing emotions,” he said.

I guess this piece now qualifies as “some idiot comment,” but it still seems to me that US-Ethiopian relations are not where they were in, say, December 2006, when the US lent its support to the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia.

Meles’ remarks deserve some real attention on the part of American policymakers. Meles does not want Western powers telling him what to do – to take another example, the Sudan Tribune quotes Meles saying he wants no outside pressure on Ethiopia’s upcoming elections. But Meles isn’t some thug Washington can just write off. He’s one of Africa’s most powerful leaders and a major partner for China on the continent. His outspoken tone in responding to American diplomats communicates more than bravado; it signals that American rhetoric on African politics is heard and, often, rejected. The true test lies in actions, of course, and perhaps flows of aid from the West still shape Meles’ behavior. But if Washington’s words are merely sowing resentment and not producing change, then US policymakers should rethink their approach and their tone. Other countries, it seems to me, want to be treated like peers. That doesn’t mean we have to give up our values, but it does mean we should think about how to express them, especially if our current style is less than effective.


10 thoughts on “Rough Patch Continues in US-Ethiopian Relations

  1. Alex,

    Dangling subsidized wheat over the head of the Ethiopian Prime Minster is not going to help US foreign policy in Ethiopia or Africa for that matter. Meles Zenawi has far better credibility in Africa than the smooth talking Obama does. Meles is respected by his pears. US bullying tactics on Meles that you advocate will backfire.

    • Hi Sambusa, thanks for stopping by. I thought pretty carefully about my wording in this piece, but apparently not carefully enough! I’m not advocating that the US put any kind of pressure on Ethiopia. I mentioned aid because it does seem like a source of potential pressure, and for analytical reasons I wanted to parse out who had what leverage over whom. But I personally am not saying the US should use aid in a particular way. The only approach that I am consciously advocating here is in fact that the US should consider talking to African heads of state more respectfully.

      Does that make sense?

  2. Alex, Solid analysis on Ethiopia and quite frankly I think it is transferable to many other parts of the world. While we pay lip-service to the fact that the Cold War dynamic has changed the global political situation we do not act it. Our partners want to be just that, partners and peers as you so rightly point out. The old ways of Big Brother US and Little Brother Country X are over. China is not the USSR, the do provide a viable and workable alternative to the US as a partner. This same dynamic resulted in the fiasco with Turkey over the invasion of Iraq. We expected them to acquiesce to our demands to transit the country while we did not even begin to consider their own political issues attached to such a request. It will be interesting to see if our hubris continues to color our relationships.

  3. Alex,
    Which east African country likes the US the least? haha who likes the US unless that country’s leader is a puppet! Mr. Meles Zenawi is theeee Most ” powerful man in Africa” you are something my man! we need a professional analysis here guys.

  4. You said [Quote]
    “That doesn’t mean we have to give up our values, but it does mean we should think about how to express them”

    Forgive me but Africans will laugh at that comment. The value you speak of was never applied in the horn of Africa since the cold war, which is part of the reason why countries like Eritrea went from staunch allies to infuriated mud in the stick.

    As long as Zenawi knows his back is covered by the likes of “VICKI HUDDLESTON ” that rotate from one administration to the other and go out of their way to hide his crimes and make excuses for him, he knows he can rule with impunity and he is untouchable.
    To add insult to injury, he is made to represent the whole of Africa.

    In the mean time the value and reputation you speak goes in tatters.

    Illegal invasion of Somalia with UN and US complicity

    Somalia Crisis worse than Darfur, says UN

    Ethiopia’s ‘own Darfur’ as villagers flee government-backed violence

    Ethiopia: Army Commits Executions, Torture, and Rape in Ogaden
    Donors Should Act to Stop Crimes Against Humanity

    • Thanks for the links Simon. I’m sorry you find my comments laughable, especially because I agree with you about the US’ poor record with regard to human rights in the Horn. All I am really trying to say is that the US should talk to Meles in a different way, more as an equal. I frankly don’t understand some of the anger and disdain in the comments – people are interpreting this piece in very different ways from how I intended, which I guess to points to a failure of communication on my part.

      My comments about “values” were directed primarily at an American audience (a lot of Americans object to any suggestion that we drop rhetoric about human rights from our foreign policy platforms), but I think I can see why you find this notion problematic and hypocritical.

  5. Alex,
    Apologies, I might have used a poor choice of words on my part, or was hasty to shoot the messenger. What I was trying to convey was, United States had absolutely no reason to punish Eritrea that was going out of its way to be a staunch ally, specially as it was acting a vanguard to containing OBL supported by Turabi of Sudan in the 90’s before 9/11.

    From then on the comedy of errors and blunders still continue for the worse, when the likes of Vicki Hudlestone decided not only to take sides but worse distort international rule of law. Still as we speak, the same officials do not seem to learn anything and are exacibating the problem.

    It is hard to point fingers at the likes of China, or blaming the Africans when one is behaving worse than both, don’t you think ?

    • Simon, I don’t know as much about US-Eritrean relations in the 1990s as I do about US-Eritrean relations in the present, so I will look at some of these links you posted. As for the present, it seems Washington has three main beefs with Eritrea: 1) allegations of support for al-Shabab and 2) the US’s close alliance with Ethiopia seems to have produced some friction with Eritrea and 3) the US perceives the Eritrean government as having a poor record on human rights and democracy. Understand that I am pointing these out for the sake of analysis, not because I am saying who is right and who is wrong. Again, I think I understand why you feel American officials are hypocritical and unhelpful.

  6. Pingback: Ethiopia, China, and the United States « Sahel Blog

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