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U.S. Policy Shift Needed in the Horn of Africa

Author: Bronwyn E. Bruton
August 6, 2009

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U.S. strategic interests in the Horn of Africa center on preventing Somalia from becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda or other transnational jihadist groups. In pursuing its counterterror strategy, the United States has found common cause with Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government has long feared the renewal of Somali irredentist claims on its eastern border, or that a powerful Islamist movement may stoke unrest among its own large Muslim population, and feels beset both by a powerful indigenous separatist movement in its Ogaden region and an unresolved border dispute with its northern neighbor, Eritrea.

But the Ethiopian government's behavior in recent years, both domestically and in bordering states, poses mounting difficulties for the United States and its long-term goals in the region. Washington must be prepared to press its partner to alter its strong-handed approach to political dissent and counterterrorism or consider ending the relationship.

Ethiopia has struggled with internal reforms since the collapse of the communist Derg regime in 1991. The country's economy has grown, but attempts to institutionalize a system of multiparty democracy have stumbled.

In 2005, Ethiopia held largely free and fair democratic elections. Prior to the polls, there was an unprecedented opening of political space. Opposition political parties were able to hold rallies, the press was able to publish critical political analysis, and international and local civil society organizations assisted in election monitoring. But the government's tentative efforts to increase political space were not rewarded: After a series of irregularities in the vote closing and tallying processes were discovered, a variety of political parties contested the election results. The Ethiopian government declared a state of emergency and responded brutally to a series of apparently peaceful protests. The country was plunged into a period of violent civil disturbance, during which the Ethiopian government detained thousands of protestors and arrested hundreds of opposition figures, including arguably nonpolitical actors from civil society and the press. Many of these emergency measures have been institutionalized, resulting in legislation that has criminalized social advocacy by "foreigners" (including Ethiopian civil society organizations that receive foreign charitable funds), and imposed harsh criminal penalties on broadly defined "terrorist" acts, including disruptive public protests.

Impact on U.S. Policy Objectives

For the United States, cooperation with an authoritarian Ethiopia presents looming challenges to U.S. policy objectives. First, the Ethiopian government's attempts to minimize political competition in the run-up to the 2010 elections are likely to fan ethnic tensions in the country. The government's ruling party, the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), is perceived by many Ethiopians to be dominated by a single minority ethnic faction, the Tigre, and its consolidation of political power may be read as an assault on the majority ethnic Amharic and Oromo populations. Public dissatisfaction with the government is high in the wake of the 2005 elections and a violent explosion is not out of the question.

Second, Ethiopia's conflicts with Eritrea and Somalia, and with the powerful separatist movement in the Ogaden, have a jihadist impact. While the U.S.-Ethiopia alliance has had short-term tactical advantages, it may be undermining broader US counterterror goals.

Arguably, U.S. reliance on Ethiopian military might and intelligence has served to exacerbate instability in Somalia. Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia, and the extended presence of Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu, instead of quelling conflict, has triggered a local backlash that has served as a rallying point for local extremists. It was the development of a complex insurgency against the Ethiopian occupation that effectively catapulted a fringe jihadist youth militia, the Shabaab, to power. International jihadists have now capitalized on the local insurgency, and on U.S. support of the Ethiopian invasion, as an opportunity to globalize Somalia's conflict. The presence of foreign expertise, fighters, and funding has helped to tip the balance of power in favor of Somalia's extremist groups. Additionally, there is growing concern that the conflict in the Ogaden may give birth to indigenous jihadist movements.

While the U.S.-Ethiopia alliance has had short-term tactical advantages, it may be undermining broader U.S. counterterror goals.

Anti-American sentiment in Somalia is pervasive, and stems in large part from U.S. complicity with the Ethiopian invasion and reported Ethiopian human rights abuses in Somalia. Ethiopia has also reportedly engaged in human rights abuses within its Ogaden region, which borders Somalia, where the government is engaged in a counterinsurgency effort against an ethnic Somali separatist movement. Though Ethiopia has denied these charges, human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have documented atrocities committed by both sides in that conflict. The U.S. decision to withdraw its military personnel from the Ogaden in April 2006, and the subsequent failure of the international community to seek accountability for these atrocities, has cemented a widespread public perception in Ethiopia and Somalia that the United States is willing to turn a blind eye on human rights abuses in exchange for cooperation in the counterterror effort.

Further complicating U.S. efforts to bolster Somalia's central government is the unresolved border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Eritrea complains that Ethiopia has refused to honor the ruling of an independent border commission on the demarcation of the common boundary and has demanded intervention from the international community. Ethiopia charges that Eritrea has retaliated by funneling weapons and funding to radical groups in Somalia, some of which oppose Ethiopian forces there. Eritrea has denied these charges, and some specific accusations leveled by the United Nations and the African Union against Eritrea have been disproven. The demand for sanctions on Eritrea is nevertheless growing, and comments by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a visit to Kenya on Aug. 6, in which she linked Eritrea to Somali militants suggests efforts by the Obama administration to engage in a constructive political dialogue with Asmara may be dimming.

These factors suggest that U.S. ability to influence events in Somalia will depend in some measure on diplomatic efforts to resolve the border dispute and to address Ethiopian human rights abuses. But perhaps even more important than either is what the United States decides to do in response to the shrinking democratic space in Ethiopia.

Obstacles to U.S. Action

The United States has been unwilling to overtly pressure Ethiopia to adopt major democratic reforms for a number of reasons. Many experts and policymakers already fear that the regime is vulnerable to collapse. Some diplomats fear that aggressive--or even public--pressure on Ethiopia may inadvertently undermine or destabilize the regime. The United States cannot afford to unsettle a country that has served as a rock of stability in an otherwise troubled region.

Another major hurdle for the United States is the lack of an international consensus on one fundamental question: Is Ethiopia still a democratic country, or is the regime of President Meles Zenawi regime headed towards dictatorship? The perception that Ethiopia is a fundamentally democratic country remains strong, particularly among European nations. The lack of any consensus would require the United States to take a lead and potentially isolated role in pressuring Ethiopia for reform.

Finally, U.S. efforts to promote democratic reform in Ethiopia are impeded by a lack of willing partners on the ground. Democratic civil society groups generally fear for their safety and are not willing to mobilize in a public advocacy effort. This means that U.S. efforts to counteract repressive measures by the government will not be supported--or legitimized--by a corresponding local effort. International organizations that might have engaged with opposition political voices have already been expelled from the country.

Policy Recommendations

Change is needed to ensure the sustainability of the U.S.-Ethiopia partnership and U.S. counterterrorism goals in the region at a time when Somalia continues to flounder as a failed state. The United States should consider adopting a more assertive approach that makes use of two primary points of leverage:

First, the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) should refuse direct funding to the many known "GONGOS" (governmental nongovernmental organizations) that pose as legitimate civil society development organizations, but are in practice political and social agents of the ruling party. The recognition of GONGOs as legitimate civil society organizations abets the Ethiopian strategy of marginalizing nongovernmental actors, and allows the government to continue a "business as usual" approach to the delivery of international support.

Ethiopian certainty that U.S. aid is inviolate has allowed the Ethiopian government to effectively tune out demands for reform. Ethiopian dependence on U.S. assistance is a card that policymakers must learn to play to provoke meaningful change.

Second, the United States should publicly express its concern over the shrinking democratic space, the crisis in the Ogaden, and Ethiopia's refusal to uphold the findings of the independent border commission. Ethiopian officials are extremely sensitive to public opinion and likely to respond to threats to their country's international standing and participation in international fora such as the African Union and the United Nations.

Relations with Ethiopia are likely to become strained, and the United States can expect, at least initially, to receive very limited support from its European partner nations. These countries, including France, Germany and the United Kingdom, lack the political leverage necessary to lead a collective shift in donor policy and have been hesitant to alienate the Ethiopian government. This reluctance may require a diplomatic version of the "good cop/bad cop" approach, in which the United States agrees to take an isolated, leadership role in demanding change, while European donor nations persist in a strategy of quiet diplomacy. This has the advantage of ensuring that some constructive dialogue will continue.

In a worst-case scenario, the United States may have to threaten to suspend foreign and military aid to Ethiopia. U.S. humanitarian and development assistance to Ethiopia was upwards of $650 million in 2008, and the U.S. has contributed significant, though less transparent, financial and tactical support to Ethiopia's attempts to modernize its armed forces. Such an action has rightly been perceived as unthinkable in the past, as the cessation of aid would certainly risk destabilizing the Ethiopian government and may precipitate widespread public disorder. At the same time, Ethiopian certainty that U.S. aid is inviolate has allowed the Ethiopian government to effectively tune out demands for reform. Ethiopian dependence on U.S. assistance is a card that policymakers must learn to play to provoke meaningful change. This is another reason to consider developing a good cop/bad cop arrangement with the European donors--if the United States is forced to suspend aid, other donors may mitigate the shortfall while quietly reinforcing demands for democratic reform.

The prospect of strained relations with Ethiopia at a time of regional crisis is not desirable. If the United States ultimately wishes to sustain its partnership with Ethiopia, however, inaction is the more dangerous option. Democratic space in Ethiopia will continue to erode, while human rights abuses in the Ogaden and ongoing Ethiopian military incursions in Somalia will continue to stoke anti-American sentiment in the Horn. U.S. efforts to mitigate the conflict in Somalia, and to support Somalia's struggling Transitional Federal Government (TFG), will be fatally undermined by this dynamic. The visible reentry of Ethiopian troops into Somalia already threatens to extinguish the last embers of popular support for the TFG, and may rekindle the insurgency dynamic that brought the Shabaab to power throughout southern Somalia. At the same time, Ethiopian and Eritrean intransigence over the border dispute will ensure a continued flow of arms into the hands of various Somali factions.

The United States has recently taken positive steps to disaggregate its Somalia policy from that of Ethiopia. These steps include diplomatic outreach to Eritrea and public attempts to restrain Ethiopian military action in response to the escalating violence in Mogadishu. These constructive efforts need to be coupled with more assertive diplomacy in Addis Ababa. Until Ethiopia becomes a credible democracy, the U.S.-Ethiopia partnership will do more harm to U.S. regional standing than good.

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