Awasa, Ethiopia — “The United States is Ethiopia’s best friend in the world,” more than one Ethiopian has told me in recent days. On this point, there seems to be much agreement. However, conversations this week from Moyale, on the Southern border with Kenya, to the capital city of Addis Ababa, have revealed mixed reactions to Ethiopia’s recent invasion of neighboring Somalia. In the first days of the invasion, many expressed hesitancy, especially in the south of the country, where many people know or are related to Somalis. “My wife is Somali,” one merchant in Moyale told me. “Of course I don’t think we should be fighting them.”
Few people here believed Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi when he said this week that this war was not inspired by the US. When asked the reason for this war, Idriss, a businessman in the Southern city of Dilla smiled and said, “we were tricked by your government.” A Women’s rights activist from Addis Ababa said, “of course, we are a proxy army for the US. Do you remember when the US tried to send troops to Somalia? The US soldiers dragged through the streets?”
Others repeated the government argument that Ethiopia had been attacked by Somali fighters, and was launching this war in defense. As the Ethiopian army rapidly swept through to Mogadishu, and even to the Islamic Courts’
stronghold of Kismayo, people here lost much of their trepidation about the invasion. “Whatever we feel, it is almost over now,” a college dean in Shashemene told me. Still the question remains, what will happen when Ethiopian troops leave, and when will they be called back in?
Despite the mixed reactions, there was little outward sign of dissent. Even those expressing verbal condemnation of the war often spoke in hushed tones.
“Even here,” the college dean told me, gesturing towards the posh hotel we were speaking in, “there is certainly at least one person who works for the government security.”
Ethiopians have learned a painful lesson on the cost of dissent. In May of 2005, thousands of students here in the lakeside city of Awasa, as well as in the capital and other cities around the country, erupted in protest at what was widely condemned as a rigged national election. According to a report at the time from Amnesty International, at least 26 students and other protestors were killed, more than a hundred were wounded, and more than 1,500 were arrested, and “at risk of torture.”
According to a recent report from UNICEF, Ethiopia is one of world’s most impoverished countries, with at least 23% of the population living on less than 1 dollar a day and a countrywide average life expectancy of just 48 years old. Ethiopia has experienced decades of dictatorship, and Zenawi’s government – in power since overthrowing the nominally communist dictatorship of Colonel Mengistu in 1991, is seen by many here as a step forward from that legacy, but still far removed from a representative government, and for many people here, the hard times and poverty continue.
Along with widespread poverty, Ethiopia is seen as having one of Africa’s most powerful militaries, a military that fought a bruising war with Eritrea, and easily swept through neighboring Somalia. As a Christian-dominated government in a country â€“ and a region â€“ with a large Muslim population (Ethiopia is roughly 45% Muslim), Ethiopia has positioned itself as a key US ally in the “War On Terror.” US military aid has supported Ethiopiaâ€™s position as a country with a growing military and a starving population. As Ethiopia makes a potentially long-term commitment to a military role in Somalia, perhaps the price US friendship carries is more burden than Ethiopia can carry.