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Ethiopia and the U.S. Geo-Politics in the Horn of Africa – Fifth of a Series.

July 29, 2018

Crossposted at Ujaama – Africa’s Encyclomedia

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. 

1. Ethiopia Needs a Face-lift. The United States needs a more stable, militarily capable ally in the Horn of Africa.

Although it is not clear that President Donald Trump even knows where Ethiopia is on a map of Africa, or that it is in Africa – as it qualifies in his vulgar language as one of the world’s “shit hole’ countries – his administration, that is the Defense Department and what is left of the State Department – have been actively engaged in the American version of geo-political social engineering there. Why should he? After all there are no Trump Towers in Addis Ababa.

The Washington Administration  is trying to reshape the Ethiopian political landscape in order to give it a new, more democratic gloss after 26 years of supporting what was one of Africa’s most repressive governments in exchange for its doing Washington’s dirty work in Ethiopia. If Ethiopia’s image is being polished up, the underlying power relations of “the new Ethiopia” will remain unchanged.

Putting make-up on the corpse that has been Ethiopia since 1991  means playing down Washington’s unflinching support for its dictatorship whose military and security forces it has financed, armed and trained. It means playing down embarrassments like the Obama Administration’s claim that the 2015 elections in which the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) won 100% of the vote was “democratic”, the U.S. creation and training of Ethiopian death squads, the Agazi units, the 2007 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, etc.

There are a number of working models of what Washington hoped to accomplish in Ethiopia, among them Algeria, where the ruling military/security clique hides behind a facade of democracy with a powerless leader, in its case the moribund toothless president, Abdulaziz Bouteflika. As a part of Algeria’s own face-lift – given the military/security cliques vicious war against its own people in the 1990s – in exchange for lending badly needed credibility to its own reputation – the United States acquired a key security asset in North Africa. Other than the fact that Algeria has oil and natural gas while Ethiopia has coffee, the parallels between Algeria and Ethiopia couldn’t be greater: murderous, repressive governments intent on maintaining power at any cost and willing to use force against their own people; sizable militaries with close ties to the United States and impoverished populations that see virtually none of the benefits from their countries’ growing wealth, much of which is squandered.

If Algeria’s image couldn’t be reshaped with a little help from its friends in Washington (and in its case, also France), why couldn’t Ethiopia’s?

The ruling coalition, which really isn’t a coalition but a dictatorship run these past 27 years by the Tigrayan-dominated EPRDF, will remain ensconced in power. But after decades of corruption, fierce repression and pervasive nepotism (placing Tigrayans in power in every key sector of the country’s government and economy) the EPRDF is badly in need a face-lift, a new image, lest Ethiopia’s opposition forces that have been coalescing into a more unified national movement for some time, sweep them from power as the Tunisians did Ben Ali in 2010-2011. And as with the Tunisian changes, the  changes undertaken will only be those necessary to maintain the status quo.

The Ethiopian government was well aware that it was in deep ca-ca, nothing less, a situation revealed by the fact that even before he was deposed, Prime Minister Hailimariam Desalegn had planned to institute the same limited reforms that his successor, Abiy Ahmed, instituted almost immediately after his April 2018 appointment. Despite the fact that over the Desalegn years Ethiopia had experienced six years of double digit economic growth – from 9 to 12% – his reputation was tarnished by the severe repression meted out to one and all in the country whose jails were filled with tens of thousands opposition figures, journalists, bloggers, anyone else who dared criticize “the iron fisted state.” The reform program might work, but Desalegn had to go.

It is not entirely clear when it was that the Trump Administration came to the conclusion that change was needed to maintain consistency, but intense pressure from Washington for change at the top began to take shape late in 2017. After nothing short of a media drought on Ethiopian government repression and human rights violations, concerned articles began to appear in U.S. and European media decrying these actions, about which, until then Washington had remained mum. The pressure was increased in early 2018 with the introduction of House Resolution 128, an extraordinary development as it was a damning indictment of the Ethiopian government’s human rights violations and this being pushed by a Republican Party dominated U.S. House of Representatives.

One of its sponsors was U.S. Representative Mike Coffman of Colorado. As Alemayehu Mariam noted in an op-ed published in “The Hill,” the bill read like “an ultimatum” to the Ethiopian government: change or else. In an effort to accomplish the near impossible task of recasting his image from Iraq invasion ardent war-monger to African human rights advocate, and to the delight and gratitude of Colorado’s sizable Ethiopian Community – some 35,000 strong – Coffman is quoted as warning:

“For too long the United States has looked the other way on the human rights abuses of Ethiopia in favor of their security cooperation while Ethiopia is terrorizing its own people; and it is time the United States acknowledges the problems of Ethiopia to respect human rights and become a pluralistic democracy.”

Coffman is a conservative Republican who can be counted on to support increases in military spending, deep social spending cuts and an overall aggressive U.S. foreign policy. He is a strong supporter of President Donald Trump in virtually all aspects. But he was taking the lead on challenging the human rights policy of this key U.S. ally – no the key U.S. ally – in the Horn of Africa? Smart move, and consistent with U.S. hegemonic interests in that part of the world.

He is part of a coordinated effort of those who understand that unless the Ethiopian government changes its tune and becomes a bit less repressive at least temporarily, it will be swept from power by popular acclaim as Ben Ali and Mubarek were in Tunisia and Egypt. Should such an event occur and the stars were lining up that it might – U.S. East African policy would suffer the kind of set back that U.S. Middle Eastern geopolitics suffered when the Shah of Iran was swept from power in 1979.

Some kind of preemptive political action was in order, a small  symbolic change, meaningless as possible, one that would capture the hearts and minds of Ethiopians at home and in the diaspora: dump one prime minister, replace him with a young Kennedy or Gorbachev. Make a few gestures to the population, heavy on symbol, light on substance. Exit Desalegn, enter Abiy Ahmed.

At least at the outset, it’s worked like a charm in Ethiopia where it appears already that the opposition has split over the new leadership and in Washington.

2. The Geo-politics of Ethiopia’s “New Normal”

The forced resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn as prime minister and his replacement by Abiy Ahmed was in large measure forced on Ethiopia’s EPRDF ruling junta by a concerted campaign in the United States. This is an integral element of a broader campaign to reorganize the Horn of Africa to strengthen the American hegemonic grip on the region that includes safeguarding the integrity of the new government, neutralizing the domestic opposition reducing tensions with Eritrea.

Washington’s goals are several-fold.

  • One is to give the US and its allies full control of the Bab El Mandeb Straits which connect the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean beyond. The maritime route that passes though Bab El Mandeb is one of the world’s key choke points through which oil and natural gas pass on their way through the Suez Canal  to the Mediterranean and Southern Europe. It is also one of the key maritime routes for the burgeoning maritime trade between Europe and East Asia, especially China.
  • Among Washington’s allies, or  partners in crime are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Consolidating control over Bab El Mandeb explains one of the main reasons that Washington – be it the Obama or Trump Administrations – has supported the Saudi-UAE-led genocidal war against Yemen, which is being fought with U.S. arms, advisers and intelligence, while feigning that the Yemeni opposition is controlled by the Iranians, which it isn’t. The U.S.-backed Saudi-UAE blockade and war against Yemen is the Arab version of the Israeli blockade of Gaza – just as heartless, vicious and cruel. If Yemen is brought to heel then Washington, through its allies, controls both sides of the Straits.
  • The United States sees the strengthening of what is essentially a U.S.-led coalition that includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Ethiopia (with Israel playing a supporting role) as a way of checking or at least managing China’s growing considerable economic and commercial influence in the Horn of Africa. China has become one of Ethiopia’s major trading partners. U.S. strategists understand  there is no way they can compete with China economically in East Africa, but instead, through proxies (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda) it hopes to manage Chinese strategic and political influence. In the same vein Washington hopes to restrict Iranian influence in the region, ie, through restricting possible oil and natural gas sales.
  • If Washington can strong-arm both Ethiopia and Eritrea into honoring the 2000 Algeria-negotiated “Algiers Agreement”, Ethiopia, Eritrea and the United States would benefit. Should such an arrangement succeed, political commentator Daniel Runde considers it “an enormous strategic win for the West.”  Such a breakthrough would lead to increased economic activity for both countries and provide Ethiopia with what it lost when Eritrea broke away from it: access to maritime ports. It could also result in the opening of a U.S. military base at the Red Sea ports of Assab and Massawa.

The Ethiopian Connection

Where does Ethiopia fit into the greater scheme of things?

It is a key player (or could be) on the African side of the Red Sea, and is a part of what has shaped up to be a U.S.-Saudi-UAE-Ethiopian joint effort already well coordinated. For example, although it is no secret, it is not generally publicized that the UAE has made an arrangement with Eritrea in which it is paying rent to Asmara to use its Red Sea port of Assab as a springboard for Saudi-UAE naval military operations against Yemen, just twenty miles across Bab el Mandeb. As with the U.S.-orchestrated failed effort to bring down the Syrian Assad government and partition the country, in which Saudi and UAE played key roles by recruiting, funding and arming mercenaries, these same two retrograde – but oil and natural gas rich Arab nations – are strategic allies in Washington’s efforts to strengthen its strategic hold over the Horn of Africa.

Ethiopia has long been integral in U.S. plans to dominate Africa politically.

Ethiopia’s strategic value can be measured in hard cash. Propping up one of the most repressive governments in Africa, the EPRDF ruling junta, the United States has proven more than generous. Ethiopia has received more U.S. aid than any other sub-Saharan African country, some $5 billion between 2010 and 2016. In 2017, at the height of the Tigrayan-led repression of its domestic popular opponents, as a reward, it received an additional $933 million. Only Egypt, as a result of the Camp David Accords, neutralizing its role as an Arab nationalist vanguard, received more. The lion’s share of this aid has been used to buy (surprise!) U.S. military equipment.

As a result of this militarily oriented foreign aid, Ethiopia today maintains a permanent military of 162,000 members; it is the largest and strongest military in East Africa. The Ethiopian armed forces includes an air force of 80 planes (of which 48 are attack or fighter jets), 33 helicopters (8 of which are attack helicopters), 800 tanks, 800 armored vehicles, 85 self-propelled artillery pieces, 700 towed artillery pieces and 183 rocket projectors. During the height of the Ethiopian-Eritrean War, the military was expanded to some 350,000, to be reduced shortly thereafter to its present strength.

The ethnic make up of the military has shifted from a largely Oromo-based officer corps (which has been largely purged and reorganized) to one in which Tigrayans dominate. An analysis done in 2011 was cited in Bronwyn Bruton’s recent article in Foreign Affairs.  He noted that while Tigrayans make up 6% of Ethiopia’s population, that 57 of 61 generals in mission critical positions” were ethnically Tigrayan.

In thedemented language of Congress and military contractors, U.S. investment in the Ethiopian military has “paid off.”

Ethiopia contributed some 4000 uniformed personnel to AMISOL, the African Union Mission to Somalia. Put another way, at U.S. beckoning, in late 2011, using Somali terrorism as a pretext, Ethiopia invaded Somalia. Between 2011-2016 a U.S. drone base was active in Ethiopia and used primarily for bombing strikes in Somalia. It is the United States primarily that has trained the Ethiopian military  and specifically what is referred to as the Agazi Special Forces, which the U.S. employed in Somali and  have been responsible for many massacres of Ethiopian political opponents.

Expect no changes, none whatsoever in these strategic relations. However, should the new government’s more liberal face prove more enduring, at least on the surface, it could result in an increased flow of foreign investment from the West that would counteract  Chinese investments that worry Washington. The new liberalism, shallow as it might be, has an even more important function. It has ignited a new spirit of hope for national unity among the peoples of Ethiopia. Already some expats are speaking of returning home, feeling safe enough in the new environment to contribute to the national well-being.

Yet as I look from afar, there is also a potentially explosive political cocktail in the making. Hope betrayed or unfulfilled can lead to dark passages. In the end, there are no messiahs, even when the intentions are honorable. Just ask Mikhael Gorbachev, the Tunisian and Egyptian protesters who brought down their tyrants … or for that matter, Barack Obama.



Part One of the Series – Ethiopians Celebrate The Collapse of the Hailimarriam Desalegn Dictatorship

Part Two of the Series – Ethiopians Celebrate The Collapse of Hailimariam Desalegn Dictatorship

Part Three of the Series – Ethiopians Celebrate Their New Prime Minister: There Are No Messiahs

Part Four of the Series – Ethiopia and the Iran Factor


18 Comments leave one →
  1. Bill conklin permalink
    July 29, 2018 4:05 pm

    If the road to hell is paved with good intentions the idiots driving the machinery are asleep at the wheel. Great article.

  2. thomas c. mountain permalink
    July 31, 2018 8:53 pm

    To bad you didn’t do some real research before exposing how little you know about what is going out here in the Horn of Africa starting with my article “Ethiopia’s Peaceful Revolution” which was published across Africa and in the USA in Counterpunch. I understand you dont know any Ethiopians and so have no access to what Ethiopian PM Dr. Abiy has been saying on Ethiopian TV so you really dont know what is going on. Start with Dr. Abiy’s statement at the unity music concert on July 15 in Addis (where he and Eritrean Pres.Issias Aferworki spoke) “Issias is leading us”. This acknowledges what many of us have been thinking due to just how remarkably similar Dr. Abiy’s statements have been to what Issias has been saying for the past 20+ years, that Dr. Abiy, 42 years old, is taking his cues from Issias, 73 years old and with a lifetime spent fighting for what is finally happening today, peace between our two peoples. You might have benefitted by Dr. Abiy’s other statements “we must learn from Eritrea”, “Eritrea is our example” and in Asmara, “I will be your unofficial FM so I can fight the lies being told about you[Eritrea]”, as well as “Eritrea never supported terrorism in Somalia”
    Dr. Abiy has sent the US Army intell operations packing and shut down all us drone bases in the country. See “Snowdens Ethiopialeaks; Reading between the Lines”.
    Don Yamamoto showed up here in Asmara back in April to literally beg Eritrean to keep Ethiopia from imploding and an end to WashDC hostility to Eritrea. Also you completely missed the role the UAE has been playing in this, convincing Trump, whose ear they have, to let Yamamoto do his job without interference.
    There is a lot of other misinformation in your article including the size of the Ethiopian military, the amount of aid funneled into the regime by the US, much larger than you say and the almost complete exclusion of Eritrea from the outbreak of peace in our region. This is really a “soft coup” by Eritrea but I dont think you will agree with this due to your almost complete lack of on the ground based research in this matter. Maybe try reading something by someone with almost 40 years background in Africa including teaching African history at the graduate level who has lived here in the Horn for 12 years with over 150 articles on matters african.
    selam and rain for the horn of africa
    Thomas C. Mountain
    Asmara, Eritrea
    2917175665 ph.

  3. July 31, 2018 9:12 pm

    Thank you for your kind words…I’ll stick with my analysis…Frankly, I hope that Ethiopia turns out to be better than I predict…but I doubt it. No use from where I’m sitting arguing with you, other than to tell you that I don’t think you see the forest through the trees. Time will tell. Cheers.

  4. November 21, 2018 12:41 am

    Good and timely analysis of American FP poker games =face lifting with out real and sustainable peace and development in Ethiopia and the greater horn of Africa. Just a quick musical chairs game of preventing,stopping and denying the Chinese “pivot” towards the horn and central Africa via the BR initiative. This is just a PR game to prevent Ethiopia from imploding from within and without. Keep the flame of truth burning.Thanx!

    • November 21, 2018 9:53 am

      Good Morning Dr. Egal. Thanks for this pithy, accurate comment. I am using it – along with citing you as the source – in my “Part Two” of the series on al Amoudi. Takes me a few days. I write slowly these days. Also I looked at the website… Looks good and will follow up in the days that come on reading the articles. Best, Rob P.

  5. December 11, 2019 2:11 am

    Yes this true


  1. Ethiopia and U.S. Geopolitics in the Horn of Africa – Viralmount
  2. Ethiopia and U.S. Geopolitics in the Horn of Africa – Counter Information
  3. Colorado Ethiopians Celebrate Collapse of Hailemariam Desalegn Dictatorship – 1 | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog
  4. Colorado Ethiopians Celebrate Collapse of Hailemariam Desalegn Dictatorship – 2 | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog
  5. Ethiopians Celebrate the Collapse of Hailimariam Desalegn Dictatorship: Unfortunately There Are No Messiahs – 3 | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog
  6. Ethiopia and the Iran Factor: Fourth in a Series. | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog
  7. Whatever Became of Mohammed al Amoudi – 2; al Amoudi’s Ethiopian Connection | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog
  8. Ethiopia and U.S. Geopolitics in the Horn of Africa - Ujamaa Live
  9. Ethiopia, The Belt and Road Initiative and the Saudi, UAE Role In Frustrating It – Horn CSIS – The Horn of Africa Center for Strategic and International Studies Center
  10. Ethiopia and the U.S. Geo-Politics in the Horn of Africa – Fifth of a Series. July 29, 2018 – Horn CSIS – The Horn of Africa Center for Strategic and International Studies Center
  11. Ethiopia And U.S. Geopolitics In The Horn Of Africa – Nile Scholars ናይል ስኮላርስ
  12. Trump’s latest gaff – more or predicting – if not encouraging – Egypt to bomb Ethiopians Great Ethiopian Renaisssance Dam | View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince's Blog

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