March 26, 2008

Should the US consider Ethiopia an ally despite its poor human rights record?

The United States needs to remain allied with a strong Ethiopia, nearly as much as Ethiopia needs continued support from the U.S.

Ethiopia is at the heart of Africa's Horn. A mountain fortress-nation, today, as so often in the past, it is surrounded by chaos. To the north is Eritrea, Ethiopia's break-away province, now an independent (but probably untenable) state. To the west, war-wracked Sudan. To the south, Kenya, which just exploded into ethnic violence following presidential elections. And on the eastern border is Ethiopia's long-time foe, the failed state of Somalia. The United States has provided support and aid to Ethiopia ever since the communist dictatorship of General Mengistu fell in 1991, but should the U.S. continue to ally itself with a country that has been accused of violating the human rights of some of its citizens? I believe that we should, and that we must.

To properly evaluate the question, though, it's important to weigh the gravity of the human rights violations, the strategic relevance of Ethiopia to the U.S., and the relationship between the two countries.

The Ethiopian government has been accused of harassing, arresting, and torturing members and sympathizers of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a Somali separatist group, as well as restive members of Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, the Oromo, in the south. Historically, these separatist movements arise from the foreign policy strategy of Emperor Menelik II, who ruled Ethiopia in the late nineteenth century. As colonial powers swallowed up surrounding areas and began to eye the Ethiopian highlands greedily, the Emperor went on the offensive. He conquered and annexed the lowland areas to the south and east of the heartland, incorporating them into his empire, and thus creating a buffer zone between Ethiopia proper and the encroaching British and Italian colonists. Problem solved- Ethiopia was the only part of Africa that was never truly colonized by Europeans.

The solution to Menelik's problem, though, has created a host of new problems for his successors. The newly-annexed areas were home to primarily Muslim and animist tribes of nomadic pastoralists, members of the Somali, Oromo, Sidama, and other peoples ethnically and linguistically unrelated to the Orthodox Christian Amhara and Tigrayan rulers. Now, more than 100 years after their incorporation into the Ethiopian Empire, the Oromo and Somali still want out. In today's climate, the so-called "Global War on Terror" gives the Ethiopian government a perfect excuse to label separatist movements such as the ONLF and the Oromo Liberation Front "terrorist groups," and to crack down on them hard.

Journalists and rights groups such as Human Rights Watch International report atrocities in the Somali regions such as the burning of up to a dozen villages, destruction of precious food stores, public executions and the arrest, beating and murder of dissidents and even innocent bystanders. The ethnic Somali ONLF rebels, in turn, boast of having killed hundreds of government troops in June of 2007, according to a July 4th Voice of America report by journalist Nick Wadhams. The rebels also attacked a Chinese oil exploration facility in the Ogaden, killing 74 people (including 9 Chinese nationals) in April of 2007. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi responded to that attack by vowing to wipe out the ONLF.

Complicating the picture is Ethiopia's December 2006 invasion of Somalia proper, where Ethiopian forces ousted the radical Union of Islamic Courts then in control of Mogadishu, and reinstalled the Somali Transitional Federal Government, which had fled the capital. Ethiopia's decision to go into Somalia was prompted in part by Somali warlords who attempted to foment a rebellion by their cousins in the Ogaden province; many seek to unify all Somalis into a "Greater Somalia," to the discomfort of Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti. The U.S. tacitly supported the invasion, while privately cautioning the Ethiopian government about entering the morass that is Somalia. (America was badly burned in its attempt to intervene there between 1992 and 1994; for details, see the film "Blackhawk Down.")

Why does the United States care about Ethiopia and the Horn, anyway? First, a poor and destabilized East Africa could be a perfect breeding ground for radical terror groups like al-Qaeda; in fact, the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania show that this has already happened to some extent. Ethiopia is the only stable country in the entire region; surely the U.S. has an interest in promoting it. Ethiopia also has the largest and best-trained military in the area. In addition, the Horn of Africa is only about 18 miles from Yemen, across the Red Sea on the Arabian Peninsula. It's a classic bottleneck, and it leads to the strategically key Suez Canal. If hostile forces took control of both the Yemeni and Djiboutian sides of the Bab al Mandeb Strait, international trade and military transport would be severely disrupted. Djibouti's status as a free and prosperous mini-nation depends almost entirely on income earned by serving as a port for now land-locked Ethiopia. Finally, as mentioned above, Ethiopia is currently supporting the internationally legitimized Somali provisional government the only force standing between Somalia and a descent back into complete anarchy.

What kind of relationship do the U.S. and Ethiopia have, and how would it change if America withdrew its support? The U.S. provided $1.5 million in military aid to Ethiopia for fiscal 2007-2008. A sudden withdrawal would decimate the material and training budget of the Horn of Africa's top fighting force; the stability of the whole region would be jeopardized. The U.S. also donates millions in humanitarian aid to Ethiopia each year, including $45 million in 2006 to the Ogaden region alone. Thus, if the U.S. suddenly halted these payments, both the government and the majority of Ethiopia's people would be embittered by what would be perceived as a betrayal by the country's top ally. What effect would a U.S. withdrawal have on Ethiopia's policies and behavior toward its separatist groups? Would a sudden cessation of America's aid and alliance make life any better for the Somali and Oromo? In all likelihood, no. The Ethiopian government might launch an all-out assault on the separatists before military readiness had deteriorated to the point that it would be infeasible. Outright civil war would benefit nobody, as neighboring Sudan demonstrates.

In the end, the U.S. has much more to lose from abandoning its alliance with Ethiopia than from maintaining friendly relations. It has been pointed out that the U.S.'s human rights record is rather besmirched at present, too: Abu Ghraib prison, Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, warrantless wire-tapping at home, and the suspension of habeus corpus rights leave us living in a flimsy glass house, indeed. Who are we to cast stones? If you still aren't convinced, consider this final point: Whose advice are you more likely to take, your best friend's, or that of a former friend who betrayed you? The U.S. can more easily exert whatever moral authority it has left if it continues its close relationship with the government of Ethiopia.

Learn more about this author, Kallie Szczepanski.

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