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The Capital Interview: Envoy Seeks Support for Ethiopia, Aid for Somalia

Interviewee: Samuel Assefa, Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United States
Interviewer: Robert McMahon, Editor
November 20, 2007

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Ethiopia, an ally of the United States, faces U.S. congressional sanctions over moves against its domestic opponents, as well as criticism from rights monitors for its campaign to rid the Ogaden region of separatist fighters. But Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United States, Samuel Assefa, says his country is committed to democratic reforms, stressing that its survival depends on these efforts. He also urges greater international support for Somalia’s struggling peace process, saying the tens of thousands of Ethiopian forces battling al-Qaeda-linked militants in the region are essentially doing the bidding of the international community, but are getting little assistance. Assefa adds that Ethiopia continues to cope with the spillover effects of the conflict in Ogaden.

Pending U.S. congressional legislation would connect some U.S. technical aid to reforms in Ethiopia. Some members in Congress say the Ethiopian government has come down too hard on the opposition and has not acted enough to respond to reports of abuses in the post-election period of 2005. How do you respond to this criticism?

Clearly, undeniably, a huge, huge progress has been made over the past few years in respect of democracy in particular. Very dramatic events have taken place since 2005. In 2005, we had really the first competitive, fiercely competitive, elections in the history of our country. And it has been marred in its aftermath by very, very tragic incidents, tragic violence, that has cost lives and this is a deep source of sadness for all of us. But there is no doubt that it will be remembered as a watershed. There is no going back. The democracy impulse can no longer be contained and we are very proud of this achievement.

I’ll be very happy to talk about what I think happened around the 2005 elections and the aftermath. The blame has been squarely put on our government for the violence. Of course, the violence was not something the government instigated at all. What happened, essentially, was that the opposition at one point refused to accept the verdict of constitutionally enshrined bodies, [the] Ethiopian National Election Board. It refused to appeal these verdicts to the Supreme Court. It refused to recognize, if you wish, the legitimacy of all constitutionally enshrined institutions, and sought to reverse the decision by other means, by going to the streets. It was very sad because it marred a wonderful beginning, and it cost many lives.

After the House bill passed, your office issued a statement saying that the legislation could undermine regional stability by jeopardizing vital security cooperation between the United States and Ethiopia. Can you explain this further?

First of all, I think we should see what [the legislation] does internally because it is [labeled as] a bill to promote democracy and accountability. What’s inside the package is quite different. Let me just give you one example. It says the bill will require, for example, that the U.S. government provide funding for all political parties in Ethiopia and it specifies that should there be any obstacle, by any branch of the Ethiopian government, to implementation of these funding programs for Ethiopian political parties, then non-essential aid may be sanctioned—economic aid, health sector, and the like.

Now, our law rejects foreign funding of political parties. It is illegal. Our government is supposed to be accountable to its people. Representatives are supposed to be accountable to their constituents. “Accountability” here [in the U.S. legislation] means accountability to a foreign government, not to our own people.

What drives this legislation itself is not clear. This legislation comes in the wake of a very bold decision by the Ethiopian government to issue pardons to all members of the political opposition that had been charged and convicted in connection with the violence that took place after the 2005 elections. Civil and political rights were restored fully and this was meant to both encourage healing to occur in the society, and more important to put the democratic momentum back, to reclaim it, to reinvigorate it, so that political apathy would not set in.

Ethiopia is on a war footing in terms of a large deployment of troops in Somalia, border frictions with Eritrea, actions in the Ogaden region, and so forth. What kind of impact is that having on the government’s ability to push forward authentic reforms?

This country, its survival, national survival, depends upon democratization. And this is taken by many to be a very extraordinary remark because ours is very old country and because it has survived under repressive regimes for millennia, under non-democratic regimes. Why should now national survival depend on democracy?

In 2005 we had really the first competitive, fiercely competitive, elections in the history of our country, our long history. And it has been marred in its aftermath by very, very tragic incidents, tragic violence …  But there is no doubt that it will be remembered as a watershed. There is no going back.

What’s more, even Westerners will comment, in fact democracy is a very dangerous game sometimes. There are many sources of instability, especially the initial efforts to democratize. And therefore, in this region, in this most dangerous region of the world, is a vigorous program of democratization a reasonable path for you? But this is a really very firm opinion on the part of the government—to hold the country together depends fundamentally on creating democratic institutions, holding democratic competitive elections, and ensuring that we do everything to nurture the growth of a culture of tolerance, and a culture that sustains democratic institutions and a democratic way of life.

Let’s look at the Ogaden region. There are concerns about separatism and terrorism. But there have been a lot of humanitarian concerns about the population in that region.

First of all, it’s absolutely right to point attention to the Ogaden as really being the issue that is being raised nowadays. When people talk about, even the [House] legislation, it’s now not really about anything else.

Troubles there started a while back with one organization, which we deem terrorists. We are puzzled why it is not officially labeled terrorists by others. It is the ONLF, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which has been active for many years in ways that cannot be characterized other than with the label terrorism.

But something big happened months ago, if you recall, at an oil exploration installation [in Ogaden]. Eight Chinese and sixty-some Ethiopian workers, all civilians, were executed. It gave us suddenly an international dimension to the issue.

At this stage, do you consider the region stable enough that you will allow more aid into it?

There is every effort being made. More effort is also being made in collaboration with all concerned entities, responsible entities internationally, donor countries, and the like. All I’m trying to say is first of all, you have to see this against this backdrop of this organization, which has operated in that region for a very long time, and the activities of which increased in intensity with the fall of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia.

Does the government see a danger in providing access to some humanitarian groups in terms of them perhaps assisting the rebel movements there?

Primarily we will need to understand that it is a war zone of a special kind. This [conflict] is supported by Eritrea. It is now supported by the Islamic Courts Union. So it is in a way a response also to the defeat that the hardliners suffered in Somalia, that the activity of the ONLF within Ethiopia was suddenly intensified. Now, it is in this context, of course, that the issue of the humanitarian needs of the population is addressed, it has to be addressed. It is a very vulnerable population.

What are the obstacles then? Well, I think the humanitarian aid is moving well even to remoter parts of the country. There are now forty-some sites that have been selected where the UN is present and food delivery is being coordinated actively between our own Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission—the so-called DPPC—and various UN agencies and this includes WFP, OCHA, UNICEF, UNHCR to some extent might also have a role, where there are refugees. I think this work is proceeding well.

We are puzzled why it is not officially labeled terrorists by others. It is the ONLF, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which has been active for many years in ways that cannot be characterized other than with the label terrorism.

There are also issues that are often mentioned in connection with commercial traffic. A lot of people have talked about disruption of commercial traffic [to Ogaden]. To talk about commercial traffic in that part of the country is to talk about contraband. Contraband now means in this context also weapons and explosives coming—it is a very porous region,  a 2000-kilometer border [with Somalia], very porous border and [contraband] comes in through many, many different points and this is the concern with commercial traffic.

I want to expand the issue to Somalia. The battle of Mogadishu seems to be going on. What is Ethiopia’s game plan there? Is it bogged down, as some people are saying?

Ethiopian policy in Somalia is not different than African Union policy in respect to Somalia which, incidentally, is no different from U.S. policy. There is a four-point plan and there is a universal agreement I think on that four-point plan also that has been issued by the State Department here. I think there is no one who will contest that in Ethiopia, the transitional government in Somalia itself, and AU, the first point is basically the African Union force should come in, according to the Security Council resolution (PDF) that was passed in December of last year. To date, we have had too few taking up that role.

Well, it’s a peacekeeping role and there’s not much of a peace to keep right now. I guess that’s the problem.

But there’s a great deal of peace to keep. Of course there is. But we need that force to come in. Everyone supports this. Moreover, every effort should be made for the transitional government to reach out, to be more inclusive, and to ensure that there are no marginalized communities. Try to reach out to the marginalized community because the best safeguard against insurgencies and the like is inclusion, the politics of inclusion, and you want to be as inclusive as possible. And to the extent that there are barriers on inclusion, it should be very publicly justifiable reasons such as al-Qaeda-related individuals and the like.

As far as our own forces are concerned, we want them out sooner than anybody else. And we wholeheartedly agree with those who say the sooner the better. The difficulty is when we tried to, in fact, move out as quickly as we had planned to, there was a great deal of clamor, saying “no you can’t do that now. You have to stay until the AU forces come in.”

Is that ‘clamor’ coming from the U.S. as well?

It’s a clamor coming from everybody. Even the most vocal opponents of the Ethiopian presence suddenly will be very, very loud voices in favor of staying there until something else comes into the picture. And frankly we can’t shoulder the burden by ourselves. We wanted to help the transitional government, [an] internationally recognized government, when it called upon us to avert a very, very, very grave danger, which is the collapse of that government. And the international community would have had no leg to stand on.

Is there more U.S. support, logistical or otherwise, anticipated in that area?

I think the commitments are there but I think it needs to be reaffirmed in every way possible. There is a great deal more talk about humanitarian crisis than there is a readiness to assist. The amount of money that is put up for Somalia, if you think of it, is not very impressive.

The Security Council has registered its concern about the situation between Ethiopia and Eritrea developing into conflict. Your foreign ministry came out with a statement saying Ethiopia is committed to peaceful resolution of the conflict. What happens next then between Ethiopia and Eritrea?

The expectation of resumption of war on our part, we think, is wrong. We don’t expect it. Of course, we can’t rule it out completely, because it’s not something that is simply up to us. But on our part, restraint will be maximal as it has been over the past years. And we shall not be provoked into anything like that. We shall not allow ourselves to be dragged into anything like that. Of course, on the Eritrean side, anything can happen, but the major deterrent to it has been Eritrea’s own assessment of the balance of the forces, so to speak. That hasn’t changed, and to the extent that one can use the rational actor model to predict the behavior of the other party, we think the likelihood of anything flaring up around the border is low.

I don’t believe the grounds that have been given for why they expect something to flare up are really compelling. I don’t believe that. Of course, the peace has eluded us and we have to worked towards the peace, and [there is] no change in terms of Ethiopian position, no dramatic movements away from any prior commitment at all, none whatsoever.

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