The United States and Ethiopia: Foreign Policy Objectives over Human Rights in the Horn of Africa
by David Barouski
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the United States has pursued a more aggressive foreign policy in Africa. The United States, the world’s lone remaining superpower, began a new "scramble for Africa" to procure the continent’s abundant natural resources. The United States also sought to promote globalization by opening up the markets in Africa’s former communist and socialist states. The United States was eager to expand its influence in Africa because of a lack of broad political influence on the continent, with the exceptions of Zaire, South Africa, and Liberia. As noted by Hook, another important element of post-Cold War United States foreign policy was the spread of democracy (2008, 53). According to political scientist Michael Sodaro, a democracy is founded on core democratic values that include equality, security, welfare, trust, tolerance, and freedom from authoritarianism (2008, 173-176). These foreign policy goals were the foundation for what former United States President George Herbert Walker Bush termed the "New World Order," which is defined as, "…the emerging post-Cold War international system, emphasizing democratization, economic globalization, and multilateral cooperation" (Hook 2008, 415).
After September 11, 2001, African foreign policy acquired a national security dimension for the Bush Administration as part of the War on Terror, which led to a proliferation of counterterrorism initiatives with allied African states. In some cases, military aid to undemocratic states with a dodgy human rights record was initiated, sustained, and increased. Ethiopia is an allied African state that fits this description well. Why then, does the United States, who publicly professes to value democracy and its ideals, provide an increasing level of military aid to the undemocratic state of Ethiopia? The realist foreign policy goals of the Bush Administration are well-served by their partnership with Ethiopia and the United States is willing to overlook Ethiopia’s well-documented human rights abuses in order to maintain Ethiopia’s continued cooperation in order to achieve United States foreign policy goals in the Horn of Africa.
At the end of the 1980s, Ethiopia was under the oppressive rule of Mengistu Halie Mariam’s Marxist-Leninist government. When the Eastern Bloc collapsed, Mengistu was instantly affected because Ethiopia’s chief sources of military aid were cut off. Capitalizing on the opportunity, the Marxist Tigray People’s Liberation Front [TPLF] and several other local Amharic and Oromo opposition groups banded together as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front [EPRDF]. The TPLF was composed of ethnic Tigray, a relatively small minority group that hails from Northern Ethiopia. In 1991, the EPRDF joined forces with the more militarily powerful Eritrean People’s Liberation Front [EPLF] and drove Mengistu’s government out of the country. The EPRDF, led politically by TPLF Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, quickly formed a transitional government.
In 1991, while the EPRDF was overthrowing Mengistu, the United States was engaged in activities elsewhere on the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia’s development aid had been cut off in mid-1979 under Jimmy Carter’s administration and formal ties had not been re-established since then (Kissi 2005). The United States was preoccupied with supporting Said Barre, the de facto president of Somalia, until Barre was forced into exile in 1991 by a rival clan. The United States intervened in Somalia to try and retain possession of oil concessions granted by Barre to United States-based oil companies. The United States also wanted to find a way to keep Somalia as a geostrategic ally in the Horn of Africa. As peace negotiations in Somalia deteriorated and factional fighting increased, the country became increasingly unstable. Eventually, when the situation became untenable, the United States pulled out of Somalia and was forced to look elsewhere in the Horn of Africa for a place to establish influence (Madsen 1999, 31).
Initially, the United States sought to gain influence in the Horn of Africa in order to establish a naval base and obtain easy access to the geostrategic strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, which connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and is an important trade and transportation route. The establishment of a military presence along this key trade and shipping route was an important priority in order to protect United States assets and aid the globalization process. In Somalia, the resurgence of violence eliminated the possibility of building a military base in one of their port cities.
When the EPRDF took power, Ethiopia could fulfill the need for port access because it possessed the coastal cities of Massawa and Assab. However, when Eritrea declared its independence in 1993 and seceded from Ethiopia, both of the port cities were integrated within Eritrea’s border and Ethiopia became landlocked. The United States countered this setback by establishing a military base at Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, a country located immediately to the east of Ethiopia. By 2002, Camp Lemonier housed 2,000 United States military personnel and employees of Kellogg, Brown, and Root, which was a subsidiary of Halliburton at the time (Barnes 2005, 7).
The 1990s witnessed an increased presence of fundamentalist Islam in North Africa. In 1992, Osama Bin Laden moved to Sudan after being expelled from his home state of Saudi Arabia. While in Sudan, Bin Laden befriended Dr. Hassan al-Turabi, an influential Islamic cleric and member of the National Islamic Front [NIF], which had taken power by a coup in 1989. While in Sudan, Bin Laden’s network known as Al-Qaida was accused of committing a terrorist bombing in Yemen, the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, a failed assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 1995, and aiding attacks on American soldiers in Somalia during 1993 (Barutha and Watson 2002). Though Bin Laden departed Sudan for Afghanistan in 1996, the devastating 1998 twin-bombing of the American embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, signaled the emergence of an international terrorist threat to Americans in Africa and establishing robust counterterrorism operations on the continent became a more pressing national security issue. Bin Laden and Al-Qaida were also blamed for these attacks.
Counterterrorism efforts took on an even greater focus after September 11th. The events of that fateful day ignited what the Bush Administration termed the "War on Terror," which can be generically described as a unilateral war against anyone or anything identified as a terrorist anywhere it is harbored. This policy of unilateralism eventually came to be known as the "Bush Doctrine" (Hook 2008, 2-3). The United States committed its military resources to the war in Afghanistan beginning in late 2001 and then shifted focus to Iraq beginning in early 2003.
By fighting a prolonged ground war on two fronts, the United States military became stretched thin and in comparison to the Middle East, Africa was certainly not a high a priority in the War on Terror. However, the United States could not ignore the region either because of Sudan’s past ties to Osama Bin Laden. There was also the presence of an Islamic regime that controlled the majority of Somalia. The United States Government identified the Islamic Courts Union [UIC] as a fundamentalist sect sympathetic to Bin Laden’s cause. The Department of Defense believed the problem could be solved by enabling local African armed forces to conduct their own counterterrorism operations on behalf of the United States in exchange for military, development, and financial aid.
Ethiopia provided an ideal proxy army for several reasons. First, Ethiopia has always been a predominantly Christian state and there is a lack of fundamentalist Islamic influence. Second, the country naturally borders several key states of geostrategic interest to the United States: Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan. Third, Ethiopia is a geographic neighbor of Djibouti, where the United States already had an established military base. Fourth, Ethiopia had a growing population of English speakers, making bilateral cooperation easier (United States Deptartment of State: Bureau of African Affairs 2007). Fifth, the TPLF abandoned Marxism and embraced free markets. Finally, from a military perspective, the Ethiopian National Defense Force [ENDF] had gleaned some battlefield experience from the Eritrea-Ethiopia border war [1998-2000], which accelerated the learning curve during joint military training exercises.
The United States quickly extended military aid to Ethiopia in order to enable their army to carry out effective counterterrorist operations. In 2002, the United States loaned Ethiopia $250,000 to purchase arms and the State Department’s Office of Defense Trade Control authorized $57,000 in arms sales from United States weapons manufacturers (Volman 2003). In addition, $276,847 was spent on military training for Ethiopian army officers as part of the International Education and Training Program [IMET] and the African Center for Strategic Studies [ACSS], which is part of the National Defense University (United States Department of State: Bureau of Political-Military Affairs 2003). These two programs allow foreign military officers to travel to the United States for classroom training at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, or Fort Benning, Georgia, in the case of IMET, and Fort McNair, Washington DC, in the case of the ACSS.
In 2003, the level of estimated aid for Ethiopia increased dramatically to $500,000 in loans for arms purchases, $750,000 in arms sales directly from the United States Defense Security Cooperation Agency, and $285,000 in purchases from United States weapons manufacturers (Volman 2003). Ethiopia was approved for $704,174 in IMET and ACSS training (United States Department of State: Bureau of Political-Military Affairs 2003). In addition, Ethiopia joined the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance [ACOTA] program in 2003. This program sends Special Forces units to Africa to provide hands-on military training. The United States built three military bases in Ethiopia to house American military trainers, including a base at Camp Hurso, located near the Ethiopia-Somalia border (Barnett 2007). Ethiopia also joined the Golden Spear initiative created by the United States for counterterrorism training (Addis Tribune 2003).
After 2003, budget cuts were made to the military aid programs in Africa to help pay for the war in Iraq, but the amount of money spent on military training abroad still remained relatively high. During this time, Ethiopia became one of the largest recipients of military aid from the United States. In 2005, $7,050 was given in loans to purchase weapons, $250,000 in arms and military equipment was sold to Ethiopia, and $68,000 in private arms sales was approved (Volman 2006). In addition, $572,000 was spent on IMET training (Office of the Director of United States Foreign Assistance 2006). In 2006, Ethiopia received ~$13,000 for ‘peace and security’ operations, $1,900 in loans for military supplies, and $472,000 for IMET training (Office of the Director of United States Foreign Assistance 2008).
However, the military aid to Ethiopia serves to demonstrate the cynical and realist ideology of the Bush Administration. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s regime is increasingly authoritarian and shows little regard for human rights or democracy. When the EPRDF took power in 1991, a multi-party coalition government was formed, but as time passed, the TPLF began to consolidate influence within the EPRDF and furthered their own agenda at the expense of their fellow Ethiopians. There were warning signs this would happen.
Drafted in 1976, the TPLF manifesto provides insight into their ideology. The document explicitly states that the TPLF’s ultimate goal is to eventually secede from Ethiopia and create an autonomous "Republic of Greater Tigrai" for the Tigray people after re-establishing the borders of the Tigray administrative region to their liking and acquiring coastal land located in modern-day Eritrea near Assab. Land acquisition was the initial primary focus because the Tigray administrative region was underdeveloped and territorially small during President Mengistu’s era. Shortly after the EPRDF seized power, the TPLF put its plan into action. Most of the state’s development funds were channeled into the Tigray administrative region while the rest of the country was deliberately underdeveloped. Then, the TPLF successfully annexed fertile farming land from the neighboring Wollo and Gondar regions into the Tigray administrative region (McCracken 2004, 185-186, 205-207).
In 1994, a controversial clause was included in the newly ratified Ethiopian Constitution. Article #39 states that "all nations, nationalities, and peoples" have the right to secede from the Ethiopian federal state (McCracken 2004, 184). Eritrea established the precedent by declaring independence from Ethiopia in 1993, which, as mentioned earlier, landlocked Ethiopia and was a major setback for the TPLF’s land annexation plans. However, the TPLF still had to include the article in the constitution because the Tigray people would be unable to violate the sovereignty of Ethiopia by seceding without a constitutionally given right. The TPLF would have to initiate a traditional democratic parliamentary vote and need a two-thirds majority in both houses. The TPLF’s chance of success in such a vote is quite small because the Tigray comprise only 7% of the population as the fourth largest ethnic group in the country (United States Deptartment of State: Bureau of African Affairs 2007). As the Ethiopian people became more aware of the TPLF’s centrist goals, it became virtually impossible for the TPLF to forge a majority coalition to pass the vote. In a truly democratic process, the TPLF would lose the vote because the majority of Ethiopians opposed their policies. Article #39 abolished the constitutional need for such a vote and gives the Tigray administrative region the constitutional right to secede, no matter how small a minority the Tigray is or how unpopular TPLF’s policies are.
However, the new constitution set the stage for the creation of the authoritarian regime that is currently in place because it necessitated that the TPLF had to prevent other nations from seceding first and taking the land and resources the Tigray desired, much like Eritrea did. Rather than trying to expand their political base, the TPLF chose to use force both to gain control over desired land and suppress other ethnic groups that wanted to secede. The Ethiopian Government leaders, many of them former guerilla fighters rather than seasoned diplomatic politicians, committed to military oppression. This policy was at play when Ethiopia and Eritrea went to war over a border dispute near Badme in 1998. The conflict ended in a stalemate in 2000 and the Tigray administrative region was unsuccessful in annexing any land from Eritrean territory.
That same year, the first national elections since the fall of President Mengistu were held. A total of 23 opposition parties participated (McCracken 2004, 202). The ENDF repressed, arrested, beat, and intimidated voters and opposition candidates. There were also reports of civilians murdered by police while voting. This was particularly common in the south, which is predominantly comprised of Oromo, the majority ethnic group in Ethiopia. The EPRDF won over 90% of the national and regional seats (McCracken 2004, 202). Prime Minister Zenawi, who political scientist Richard Joseph labeled as an "autocrat," was re-appointed despite nationwide protests (2003, 160). These human rights abuses and undemocratic practices took place back in 2000, before the United States established closer military ties with Ethiopia. The incoming Bush Administration was aware of the undemocratic nature of the Ethiopian Government, yet the new administration chose to support Ethiopia anyway despite the fact that several European countries, including Norway and Germany, were cutting their respective levels of aid to Ethiopia (Borchgrevink and Hansen 2006).
Following the elections, the EPRDF, driven by its realist ideology towards domestic relations, fast-tracked its policy of oppression and moved towards totalitarianism. Independent print media was harassed while the government owned the only television station in the country. The government also owned all but one radio station, which was owned by the TPLF. The southern administrative region of Oromiya, where the Oromo live, was hit the hardest. Hundreds were killed by Ethiopian police in Tepi and Awassa. Arbitrary arrests were common and prisoners were held under deplorable conditions and denied basic care. In response, an armed opposition group called the Ogaden National Liberation Front [ONLF] formed in the south, provoking a brutal counterinsurgency campaign from the government (Human Rights Watch 2003).
The situation worsened in 2003. Suspected members of the ONLF were rounded up, arrested and detained on vague charges. In some cases, people arbitrarily accused their rivals of being a member in order to have them imprisoned. The worst crimes against humanity occurred in December 2003, when the ENDF and allied "highlander" militias viciously murdered nearly 500 ethnic Anuaks in the oil-rich Gambella administrative region that borders Sudan (Human Rights Watch 2004). Various United States congressional committees were informed of the massacre in June 2004 (Metho 2004). In August 2004, 12 Congressmen wrote a letter to Prime Minister Zenawi requesting an independent investigation into the matter and called on his government to protect the rights of the Anuak people (Congress of the United States 2004). There is nothing to suggest that anything was ever done by the Ethiopian Government.
In 2005, Ethiopia held parliamentary elections and the EPRDF retained their majority. The main opposition party claimed there was widespread fraud and refused to take part in the government. Protests broke out in defiance of a government ban and over the course of the following year, nearly 100 protestors were killed and thousands more were detained without charges (Human Rights Watch 2005). Among the detainees were opposition party members, civil society activists, journalists, and Addis Ababa’s newly elected mayor (Human Rights Watch 2006). In this context, a detainee is defined as, "any person deprived of personal liberty except as a result of conviction for an offense" (Carter 2008, 422). By the end of 2005, the two largest detention camps in Ethiopia held over 58,000 detainees (Brigaldino 2006).
The reason to recount these human rights abuses is to establish several points. One, that Ethiopia’s human rights abuses were not just a temporary occurrence, but rather a chronic problem that has escalated with every passing year. Two, that the oppression and undemocratic behavior was a policy emanating from the national government, not the work of rogue elements of the ENDF, paramilitary forces, or the federal territorial governments. Three, the United States was aware of this policy of abuse, as is clearly demonstrated by the letter exchanged with the United States Congress in 2004. The level of military aid to Ethiopia continued to increase anyway. This implies the United States had foreign policy interests that meant more than the welfare of the Ethiopian people.
Those policy interests became much clearer in 2006, when the United States and Ethiopia unilaterally invaded Somalia. Officially, the joint operation was to root out terrorists. The United States claimed the ruling UIC was cooperating with well-known terrorist organizations that needed to be neutralized before Somalia became a safe haven for more terrorists. Somalia did not have a central government and was a classic failed state. Failed states often attract shady individuals looking for a sanctuary because of the absence of a rule of law. Under the Bush Doctrine of preemptive strikes on anyone deemed as a terrorist and the states that harbor them, Somalia was a prime target for United States military intervention.
The United States actively prepared the ENDF for the attack on Somalia. In April 2006, 31 Ethiopian officers were given a three-week course in border security by the United States Army (Garamone 2006). Three months after successfully lobbying the United Nations to impose strict sanctions on North Korea, the United States violated those sanctions by secretly approving a North Korean sale of military equipment and arms to Ethiopia that were used during the attack on Somalia (Gordon and Mazzetti 2007; New York Times 2007). The United States trained ENDF soldiers at Camp Hurso near the Ethiopia-Somalia border before, during, and after the initial invasion (Morin 2007).
During the initial raid, United States’ C-130s bombed sites in Southern Somalia that were allegedly harboring Al-Qaeda members (DeYoung 2007). The Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, part of Camp Lemonier, provided intelligence to ENDF forces in Somalia (Volman 2007). United States Special Forces on the ground in Somalia also gathered intelligence that was shared with ENDF troops (Goldenburg and Rice 2007). Several of the United States Special Forces soldiers were captured on the battlefield and later released by UIC fighters (Yusuf 2007).
During the attack, a number of accused terrorists were detained by the ENDF and United States Special Forces, but there was nowhere to use as a detention facility. Ethiopia realized there was an opportunity to further cement their ties with the United States by providing a solution to the problem. The Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] was allowed to set up secret detention prisons at the United States military bases in Ethiopia. Some of the detainees were Somalis caught fleeing to Kenya. Others were arrested in Somalia and Kenya while select detainees were flown on CIA rendition flights to other locations (Bengali and Landay 2007). These detainees were all stuck in the same legal limbo as the "enemy combatants" being held in Guantanamo Bay. By July 2007, hundreds had been rounded up and detained (Mitchell 2007). The CIA and Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI] interrogated detainees from 19 different countries in the prisons. Canada, Sweden, and Eritrea lobbied unsuccessfully for a release of information on the detainees (Associated Press 2007).
Ethiopia took advantage of hosting the CIA torture prisons and the ruling party began arbitrarily detaining political opponents and alleged members of the ONLF. Prime Minister Zenawi once admitted to detaining 11 innocent children in order to "trap their parents" who were in hiding (Solidarity Committee for Ethiopian Political Prisoners 2007). Over 100 people from the Oromiya administrative region were detained without charges in July 2007, including human rights activists and the elderly (Missionary Information Service News Agency 2007). Local calls for the release of the illegally detained prisoners went unheeded by the Ethiopian Government (Shewareged 2007).
Ethiopian human rights abuses and crimes against humanity continued to increase in 2006 and 2007. In Oromiya, several young women aged 15 to 18 were found hung from a tree by ENDF soldiers (Bloomfield 2007). The ENDF forcibly recruited hundreds of untrained civilians to fight against the ONLF. Anyone who refused were imprisoned or killed (Gettleman 2007; McClatchy Newspapers 2007). Oromo civilians said ENDF soldiers were burning down their villages after raping and murdering the inhabitants (Cawthorne 2007). The ENDF indiscriminately bombed several locations in the Ogaden region, killing numerous civilians and livestock (Agence France Presse 2007). The ENDF soldiers still deployed in Somalia were responsible for killing numerous Somali civilians during the course of attacking UIC fighters (Human Rights Watch 2007). Human Rights Watch even sent a letter of concern to United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates regarding the abuses (Malinowski 2007). However, the letter was never publicly addressed by Secretary Gates. Instead, the Ethiopian Government was rewarded for its loyalty after successfully driving the UIC out of Mogadishu, Somalia. After approving $843,000 in loans for arms and equipment in 2008, $4 million dollars has been requested for approval in the 2009 fiscal year (Volman 2008). $700,000 has been requested in IMET training for 2009 (Ibid).
The realist-minded Bush Administration has many reasons to continue supporting Ethiopia. In summation, not only have ENDF forces acted effectively as a proxy force by pacifying and occupying Somalia, but ENDF soldiers are also currently active in several regional counterterrorism initiatives. Ethiopia is willing to continue hosting CIA rendition prisons and the United States is willing to ignore Ethiopia’s own use of those prisons for the illegal detention of their political opponents in exchange. Additionally, Ethiopian officials announced a willingness to fully cooperate with the new United States military regional command center called AFRICOM (Tekle 2007). The United States already confirmed Ethiopia’s consideration as a possible location for AFRICOM headquarters (Berrigan 2007). Ethiopia hosts several United States military bases on its soil and is a commited partner in the War on Terror. Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, is the regional headquarters for numerous multilateral initiatives, including the African Union, and Ethiopia has donated ENDF soldiers to the United Nations Mission in Darfur [UNAMID].
However, not everyone in the United States Government agrees with the current foreign policy towards Ethiopia. There are two Congressional representatives with a more liberal-minded approach that believe Ethiopia should be held accountable for their human rights abuses before being given military aid. Representative Christopher Smith [R-New Jersey] introduced bill H.R. 2228, the Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy, and Human Rights Advancement Act of 2007, into the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Representative Donald Payne [D-New Jersey] sponsored H.R. 2003, the Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007. The latter bill passed the House of Representatives, but Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and State Department officials who support the TPLF voiced their opposition when the bill came to the Senate. As a result, the legislation was not passed (Jopson and Dombey 2007).
Congress’ initiatives will not win out while the Bush Administration is in power. However, with the upcoming presidential elections, it is possible foreign policy towards Ethiopia will shift in the next administration, particularly if more liberal-minded individuals are appointed to the National Security Council and as Secretary of State. Ultimately though, it is the core values of the foreign policy makers that will dictate what direction Ethiopian foreign policy will take. Their values are formed by the international relations theory employed to foreign policy formation. Realists will advocate continuing support for Ethiopia in exchange for their counterterrorism efforts, while liberal-minded policy makers may advocate for policy reform by holding Ethiopian officials accountable for their human rights abuses and crimes against humanity. Such a change in policy would promote the norms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Unfortunately, Somalia remains a failed state by definition, and the refugee and arms spillover across the borders would further destabilize the Eastern and Horn regions of Africa, including the United States-allied countries of Kenya, Ethiopia, and the semi-autonomous, oil-rich northern regions of Somalia [Somaliland and Puntland], which hold key port cities. Failed states like Somalia tend to attract unlawful elements seeking refuge free from government scrutiny. The United States does not want Somalia to become an oasis for anti-American militants whose activites are difficult to track. Furthermore, without the presence of seasoned ENDF soldiers to prop up the Somali Interim Government and its national army still in its infancy, the situation would tilt further out of the United States’ favor. Therefore, the United States will not support a withdrawal of the ENDF at this time. The United States relies on the Rwandan Defense Force [RDF] to train the budding Somali national Army, but 40 current and former members of the RDF were indicted in early 2008 by the Spanish National Court on charges of committing genocide and terrorism, which raises another human rights and ethics issue for United States policy in the Horn of Africa (Kabooza and Musoni 2007). There are several reasons for continuing bilateral support of the current foreign policy trends towards Ethiopia, as outlined in this article. Ultimately, only time will tell if the United States will change course or if they will at least try to seek a middle ground that protects United States interests in the region while simultaneously respecting human rights and promoting political freedom and civil liberties in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.
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