America and Ethiopia need each other, but their needs are not equal
Ethiopia and the United States
A loveless liaison
Apr 3rd 2008 | ADDIS ABABA
From The Economist print edition
THE alliance between the United States and Ethiopia was born of pragmatism. In another time, they might have been enemies. Ethiopians do not like American soldiers tramping on their soil. Americans dislike Ethiopia's bad human-rights record. Local elections due this month are a case in point. Ethiopia's opposition, emasculated by the long imprisonment of its leaders (most of whom were pardoned last year) and weakened by its own divisions, will almost certainly be crushed in an unfair contest. “It's going to be a stitch-up,” says a Western diplomat. “Control is what this government is all about.”
America jealously guards information about its more discreet military activities in Ethiopia, while advertising its soldiers' do-gooding: digging wells, vaccinating animals and so on. Officially, it contributes only a sliver of Ethiopia's $300m defence budget. Unofficially, it may have helped pay for the rising costs of Ethiopia's army, one of Africa's largest. Some say America has a secret base in eastern Ethiopia to move CIA, special forces and “friendlies” into next-door Somalia; America says not.
What is certain is that the closest military ties between the two countries involve Somalia, which America fears may have already become an incubator of Islamist terrorism. That is why America backed Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia at the end of 2006. Its own air raids on supposed terrorist targets in Somalia have relied on Ethiopian intelligence, though nearly all appear to have missed. American officials praise the Ethiopian troops who are still in Mogadishu, Somalia's battered capital, as peacekeepers; most Somalis see them as occupiers.
Leftist hardliners in Ethiopia's government think that its prime minister, Meles Zenawi, is doing the Bush administration's bidding. That is not how the Americans portray it. Regardless of Mr Zenawi, who must answer to his party's central committee and is anyway due to step down in 2010, the Pentagon wants to make Ethiopia a bulwark in a region where Somalia is a dangerously failed state, Sudan and Eritrea are pariahs and Kenya has troubles of its own. Ethiopia has other selling points. The African Union is based there. Its ancient Christian history stirs American evangelicals. Its poverty and population (at 80m, Africa's third-largest) attract development-minded foreigners.
But Ethiopia is too poor to be rated an A-list client state. Even American hawks admit that selling guns to one of the planet's hungriest countries, the “cradle of humanity” to boot, would look bad. America says the little it gives Ethiopia's forces is “non-lethal”: boots, night-vision goggles, medical kits and so forth. It would like to do more to train Ethiopian troops for peacekeeping work. A measure of America's realism is the way it has allowed Ethiopia to buy arms from North Korea.
So differences remain. Many in Ethiopia's 1.2m-strong diaspora in the United States have lobbied their congressional representatives to condemn Mr Zenawi's government as tyrannical. A bill passed by the House of Representatives last year called for curbs on aid to Ethiopia, but is unlikely to be passed by the Senate. Yet it points to a division between those in Washington (mainly Republicans) wanting to reward Ethiopia for fighting terrorism in Somalia and those (mainly Democrats) wishing to punish it for its human-rights abuses at home.
Ethiopia, for its part, had hoped for stronger support from America over its border dispute with Eritrea. It wants the administration to list two Ethiopian separatist groups, the Ogaden National Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Front, as terrorists. America is reluctant. The process is complex; it has taken a long time to complete listing the Shabab, a Somali jihadist group. The Ogaden and Oromo fronts will go on fund-raising among their supporters in America, just as the Irish Republican Army once did.
Aid from European Union countries will probably keep flowing, however patent Ethiopia's human-rights violations. China will invest more. But Ethiopia's luck may run out. After several years of good harvests, a famine may set in this year. With 8m of its people likely to depend on food aid, much of it paid for by the Americans, Ethiopia still needs America a lot more than America needs it.