Ethiopia: Vulnerability And US Pressure – OpEd


Ethiopia-US relations that formally started almost 120 years ago on the basis of trust and mutual respect have now degenerated into a one-sided disrespect and abuse.

Ethiopia is vulnerable. It’s a pawn in America’s big power play in the region. The United States now routinely engages in heavy-handed bullying and provides succor to domestic proxy forces that threaten to tear the country apart. Clearly, the US provides economic aid (carrot) and routinely delivers various threats and sanctions (stick) when it does not get its way.

It’s important for Ethiopians to have a realistic, and not Pollyannaish, understanding of this dynamics and act accordingly.

What changed? I believe the power dynamics changed.

Robert Skinner arrived in Ethiopia seven years after Ethiopia’s spectacular victory at the Battle of Adwa. But Skinner started lobbying the McKinley administration (which came to power the same year as the victory of Adwa, 1896) immediately after the war. He writes, “I have hammered away at the idea for five years without success.” The lobbying took five years and he was delighted when his mission was approved and funded.

Incidentally, it was only one month after Adwa that the US Supreme Court created the legal basis, in Plessy v. Ferguson, for the creation of apartheid and segregation in the United States.

Although race was a hot button issue in the US, Robert Skinner and President Theodore Roosevelt (of the Carry the Big Stick fame), rationalized their new venture on the basis of Ethiopians not being black. Roosevelt is quoted to have remarked that “the Ethiopians were not negroes at all but of Semitic stock.”

US empire building in the 20th Century was focused on its own backyard and on Asia — specifically on Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. US was a bit too late for the Scramble for Africa. So Skinner sold his mission on the basis of trade, although there was not much trade to speak of. In reality, it was a curiosity project where the US could inject itself into Africa at low cost with the opportunity to observe what its European rivals were doing.

US-Ethiopia relations can be said to be mutually beneficial in the period immediately after World War II. American help with the establishment of Ethiopian Airlines, the Point Four Program, the establishment of various agricultural colleges and the training of Ethiopians in the US was helpful to Ethiopia. Ethiopia also returned the favor by towing the American line. Among other things, Ethiopia provided the Kagnew intelligence gathering station, fought on the side of the US in Korea and the Congo.

But things went down hill following the 1974 revolution and the fall of the emperor. The US was upset with Mengistu’s alliance with the former Soviet Union. It began covert operations to support tribal insurgents to topple Mengistu. Much of the covert operation was carried out from Sudan under the guise of humanitarian famine aid. A major beneficiary of covert US aid was the Tigrai People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

The US eventually orchestrated the TPLF to come to power following the London negotiations in 1991.

The TPLF’s twenty-seven year rule was based on fanning tribal divisions to keep a small vindictive minority in power. The hallmark of rule by Tigrian warlords was iron-fisted brutality and economic plunder. During this dark period, the US chose to look the other way as long as the TPLF did its bidding. The US was mostly silent even when the TPLF openly stole elections and massacred hundreds in open day light.

Ethiopia is a resilient country. It has survived two great famines, a revolution, a brutal seventeen-year military rule, twenty-seven years of TPLF tyranny and kleptocracy, and many, many wars in the last 50 years. The most recent war is an unfinished business. It’s remarkable that the country is still standing.

Famines, revolution, multiple wars, heavy-handed ethnic rule, and environmental degradation have made Ethiopia a vulnerable, beggar nation. Ethiopia is dependent on foreign handouts to feed its people and for much of its budget.

The US clearly understands Ethiopia’s vulnerability and acts accordingly. The vulnerability has brought much disrespect. Alms givers like Samantha Power bark orders at Ethiopian leaders. The disrespect has led to the US throwing the kitchen sink at Ethiopia, especially in the last two years.

Politically-orchestrated and unverified charges are routinely hurled at Ethiopia: genocide, mass rapes, ethnic cleansing, using famine as a weapon against Tigrian insurgents, while at the same time keeping silent about war crimes committed by the TPLF in Amhara and Afar.

The US is engaged in heavy-handed blackmail, threatening ever draconian sanctions and Ethiopia’s very survival. It is deeply meddling in Ethiopia’s internal affairs, clearly weighing in on the side of Tigrian insurgents under the guise of mediation.

Why? Imperial hubris. The US is fearful of Chinese dominance (and to a lesser extent Russian) of the strategic Red Sea and Horn of Africa. The people of Ethiopia, and indeed the entire Horn of Africa, are pawns in this heartless strategic game.

There is no easy way out of Ethiopia’s vulnerability. We are a country with many wounds, and outside powers are ready to pour salt if they don’t get their way. The US is no different.

It’s going to take a long time to change the vulnerability and power dynamics. A good place to start is feeding our people and have a strategic plan, say fifteen years, to wean the nation from international begging. It also requires producing and exporting more, and creating meaningful employment for young people. All these require internal unity and cohesion, and not fighting over crumbs coming from the ferenji.

Ethiopia will be in a better bargaining position with the US, and for that matter any other power, in proportion to its ability to reduce its strategic vulnerability. Until then, we should expect the disrespect, abuse and interference to continue.

Negash Abdurahman is an education technology professional. The writer can be reached at [email protected]

8 thoughts on “Ethiopia: Vulnerability And US Pressure – OpEd

  • November 26, 2022 at 1:33 pm

    Thank you Negash. Very well stated. That is why we need to support the vision and actual work currently being done under the leadership of our prime minister.

  • November 26, 2022 at 10:16 pm

    You are right Ato Negash. The disrespect, the betrayal is unprecedented. Even amidst more messy geopolitical fights, the US administration as well as congress are not short of time to bully and tarnish Ethiopia’s image. There was no such level of disrespect and meanness even when Ethiopia claimed to be a communist state during the 17 year brutal military rule under Mengistu. It is really incredible to comprehend the animosity but certainly it is related with the broader geopolitical and hegemonic combat that the US and its western allies are in against China and Russia and even other emerging nations. The minimum we should do to push back this brazen attack by the world superpower is to strengthen our unity, tighten our belts and work hard to be able to feed ourselves.

  • November 27, 2022 at 3:10 am

    Thank you for putting precisely what is going on in Ethiopia, the only point needs to be added, however is that the current Ethiopian administration appears created self-inflicted puzzle by opening the door for the west to meddle in the interna affairs of the country.

    • November 28, 2022 at 11:35 am

      Perfectly put. Tplf continues to matter only with US backing. The current conflict would have been over sooner with less suffering had the US stayed neutral. It is all about US and its geopolitical interests and Ethiopia will continue to be a victim. As you nicely put it in the end “…Until then, we should expect the disrespect, abuse and interference to continue.”

    • November 28, 2022 at 11:36 am

      Especially after the latest Nairobi deal, door has been opened wide.

  • November 27, 2022 at 6:53 pm

    Geopolitics might have played a role, Ethiopia’s own history of never has been colonized should have also had its part, I am afraid. Another factor, and even more so, should be the openly expressed and demonstrated nationalistic stand of the current PM, I do guess, and we all know a nationalistic leader of any “Third World” country is unwelcome in the eyes of today’s so called superpowers. If there is a geopolitics involved in the whole scheme, then it shouldn’t be a surprise if a nationalist leader is not welcome in Ethiopia.

    In that case the issue at hand may seem very much complicated but Ethiopians have also demonstrated time and again their very important asset in overcoming such challenges lied in their unity in the phase of any external adversaries. This could be the key still, I think.

  • November 28, 2022 at 10:35 am

    Good insight. We Ethiopians must abolish abject poverty before we position ourselves equally to other nations like the US. We have to Admit the facts. He who feeds you control you.

  • November 28, 2022 at 9:24 pm

    Thank you for telling it like it is Mr. Negash.
    The US is the elephant in the room; they will not stop meddling unless there is away the Ethiopian government finds ways to communicate with them. You don’t face the bully by yourself, or directly. The US policy has no mercy for the poor and the weak. Their politics were built on the genocide of American Indians, and the country’s wealth was built by Black free labor and creativity. Those groups of people are still the list benefited of the American economy and they have no say in the coiunty’s afair.
    Therefore we shouldn’t look for mercy from American policy. We need to play by ear, be smart dealing with them. As you mentioned, they are always snicky

    Thanks for reading,
    Belta Mengistu


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