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U.S.-Ethiopia: A Double-Edged Partnership

Prepared by: Stephanie Hanson
Updated: August 28, 2007

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After Ethiopia’s December invasion of Somalia to vanquish Islamic militants, many observers labeled Addis Ababa a proxy of the United States, and a few even called it a “puppet” (Guardian). Both labels implied the United States was an unseemly ally. Now, after the Ethiopian government’s recent attempt to put dozens of opposition politicians to death and reports of military abuse of civilians (HRW), Washington may be starting to question its close relationship with Addis Ababa (AP).

Ethiopia receives nearly half a billion dollars in U.S. aid each year as well as military assistance. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer calls Addis Ababa a “reliable partner” with which Washington has a “sustained, common, vital national security interest.” At the same time, the State Department's annual human rights report, issued in March, cited a litany of rights abuses by the Ethiopian government in recent years. When Ethiopian prosecutors jailed over one hundred opposition politicians and journalists after 2005 parliamentary elections, international donors—including the United States—put $375 million in aid on hold. The Ethiopian government initially showed little inclination to respond to the concerns and strategic ties the United States advanced. “U.S. concerns about terrorism in Somalia led diplomats to accept a status quo they concluded would not change and to get on with business,” writes Terrence Lyons in a Council Special Report on the Horn of Africa. The Ethiopian government did pardon and release (AP) thirty-eight opposition politicians on July 20, but Prime Minister Meles Zenawi denied their release was in response to pressure from the United States. Thirty-one additional opposition activists were released in mid-August (Jurist).

Ethiopian authorities have been accused of further harsh measures. Last month, Meles announced a crackdown on the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a separatist movement in the country’s eastern Ogaden region. Western diplomats claimed (NYT) the government was blocking emergency food aid to the region, but the World Food Programme says this assertion is false (Reuters).* Ethiopia’s military—one of the largest and best-trained in Africa—has been accused of widespread domestic abuses (NYT) in villages in the Ogaden, including civilian executions and gang rape. Government officials deny this and accuse ONLF fighters of similar abuses and acts of terrorism.

Ethiopia is an “important partner for the United States,” writes Horn of Africa expert John W. Harbeson, but “joint counter-terrorism initiatives must be kept separate from Ethiopia’s struggles with democracy and its continuing pursuit of a post-imperial political identity.” The U.S. Congress clearly agrees—it recently passed an amendment** cutting $3 million in assistance, and pending legislation would put strict conditions on remaining aid. Yet the Pentagon is “dead keen to boost [Meles’s] armed forces,” writes the Economist.

Some in the U.S. government may have qualms about Ethiopia’s behavior, but it has been a reliable ally in the tumultuous Horn of Africa, shown in this CFR.org Interactive Map. While tensions simmer between Ethiopia and Eritrea over a disputed border, rebels wage regular attacks in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital. The Ethiopian military had hoped to withdraw months ago, but it remains mired (WashPost) in the city battling insurgents on behalf of Somalia’s weak transitional government. In an Online Debate, Sadia Ali Aden of the Somalia Diaspora Network and Terrence Lyons agree that Ethiopia should withdraw from Somalia. Lyons argues that the U.S. relationship with Ethiopia could help promote peace in the region, but Aden calls it “a grave impediment to lasting peace in Somalia,” arguing that Washington’s partnership choice “may further radicalize the region.”

* Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly represented reports of a food aid blockade in the Ogaden region.

** A previous link to a congressional amendment tying some aid to Ethiopia with human rights progress gave the wrong source. It is HR.AMDT.377, as now referenced.

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