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.