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U.S.-Ethiopia: A Double-Edged Partnership
July 31, 2007


U.S.-Ethiopia: A Double-Edged Partnership

Ethiopia's questionable domestic policies continue despite growing international pressure. (AP Images/Boris Heger)

After Ethiopia’s December invasion of Somalia to vanquish Islamic militants, many observers labeled Addis Ababa a proxy of the United States, and a few even called it a “puppet” (Guardian). Both labels implied the United States was an unseemly ally. Now, after the Ethiopian government’s recent attempt to put dozens of opposition politicians to death and reports of military abuse of civilians (HRW), Washington may be starting to balk at its close relationship with Addis Ababa (AP).

Ethiopia receives nearly half a billion dollars in U.S. aid each year as well as military assistance. Yet the Ethiopian government has shown little inclination to improve a dismal record on human rights, as well as a history of unresponsiveness to international pressure on its domestic policies. When Ethiopian prosecutors jailed over one hundred opposition politicians and journalists after 2005 parliamentary elections, international donors—including the United States—put $375 million in aid on hold. By mid-2006, Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi still refused to release the prisoners. “U.S. concerns about terrorism in Somalia led diplomats to accept a status quo they concluded would not change and to get on with business,” writes Terrence Lyons in a Council Special Report on the Horn of Africa.

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Since then, Ethiopian authorities have been accused of further harsh measures. Last month, Zenawi announced a crackdown on the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a separatist movement in the country’s eastern Ogaden region. Some aid officials and diplomats now claim the government is blocking emergency food aid (Reuters) to the region. Ethiopia’s military—one of the largest and best-trained in Africa—has been accused of widespread domestic abuses (NYT) in villages in the Ogaden, including civilian executions and gang rape.

Ethiopia is an “important partner for the United States,” writes Horn of Africa expert John W. Harbeson, but “joint counter-terrorism initiatives must be kept separate from Ethiopia’s struggles with democracy and its continuing pursuit of a post-imperial political identity.” The U.S. Congress clearly agrees—it recently passed an amendment cutting $3 million in assistance, and pending legislation would put strict conditions on remaining aid. Yet the Pentagon is “dead keen to boost [Zenawi’s] armed forces,” writes the Economist.

Some in the U.S. government may have qualms about Ethiopia’s undemocratic behavior, but it has been a reliable ally in the tumultuous Horn of Africa, shown in this CFR.org Interactive Map. While tensions simmer between Ethiopia and Eritrea over a disputed border, rebels wage regular attacks in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital. The Ethiopian military had hoped to withdraw months ago, but it remains mired (WashPost) in the city battling insurgents on behalf of Somalia’s weak transitional government. In an Online Debate, Sadia Ali Aden of the Somalia Diaspora Network and Terrence Lyons agree that Ethiopia must withdraw from Somalia. Lyons argues that the U.S. relationship with Ethiopia could help promote peace in the region, but Aden calls it “a grave impediment to lasting peace in Somalia,” arguing that Washington’s partnership choice “may further radicalize the region.”

Stephanie Hanson
E-mail: E-mail: [email protected]

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