What Osama bin Laden's death means to Ethiopia

By Eskinder Nega / May 7, 2011

Obama is a voracious reader. He has read expansively and intensely. Not even his tacky detractor, The Donald, as he likes to be called, who personally and unabashedly prefers a sizzling tabloid to a weighty hardcover, would dare to question him on this count.

But The Donald could credibly claim that however impressive Obama’s reading list may have been before the late 2000s, he hardly read books on foreign policy. Ironically, Obama, whose nativity is questioned by a shockingly large number of Americans, instinctively militated to the original isolationist sentiments of the nation’s founding fathers. In fact, so strong was this isolationist predisposition that he famously declined to hypothetically consider the possibility of deploying troops in Iraq to prevent genocide. Genocides have happened elsewhere in the world without America intervening, he reasoned.

This was the Obama that attained the Presidency with a respectable plurality in 2008.But a retreat to the familiar shores of continental America, as had once happened in 1918, when the US tragically refused to join and lead the League of Nations after the First World War, is hardly a possibility in the age of nuclear armed Pakistan.

The only alternative for Obama was between realism, which is multi-literalist, strictly interest driven and ostensibly in perfect sync with the persona of no-drama-Obama , and what he had criticized as the discredited idealism of his predecessor, which was precariously and unsustainably unilateral in approach and execution.

Obama reckons that America’s future lies in the Far East, in South Asia and the Orient. Bush’s fixation with the Middle East was a strategic blunder that he intended to correct urgently. Canada, Mexico, Latin America, the Middle East, and even Europe, which has dominated the world for the past half a millennium, would have to settle for back stage. Africa, of course, comes last.

But with the menacing threat of Al-Qaeda still unabated, immediate reorientation of American foreign policy was not politically and psychologically feasible for a Democratic President. However sensible the analyses, though, they also sounded like convenient excuses by a weak President to capitulate and run away from an intractable problem. Obama was unwittingly no less entangled in the Middle East than past administrations.

A respite from the suspicions has now come Obama’s way courtesy of the death of Osama bin Laden. There will no more be the comparisons with Jimmy Carter. There will now be less pressure on him to sustain the war on terror as the central theme of America’s foreign policy. Al Qaeda is undeniably not finished yet, but the loss of its iconic leader will most probably weaken it considerably. At least this is the consensus. America could finally move on. Policy shift could begin in earnest.

This is bad news for the EPRDF.

The White House had quietly assessed the prospect of change in key US allies like Ethiopia well before the death of Osama bin Laden. Involved in the assessment was Gayle Smith, an old friend of the EPRDF and now a mid-level N.S.C staffer. Two broad conclusions emerged from the review:

1. Regimes cooperate with the US on security issues not for altruistic motives but because it is in their critical interests to do so.

2. There is no correlation between a nation’s economic wealth and democracy, the most oft cited rational for US support of autocratic regimes in the developing world.(Apparently, the US Ambassador to Ethiopia, Donald Booth, who held a press conference after the review suggesting such a link, disagrees with the White House.)

In other words, in sharp contrast to the Bush years, the Obama administration has determined that the EPRDF has no fewer stakes than the US security cooperation. Moreover, the tendency in the administration is to view Al-Shabaab, America’s primary concern in the horn, more of as a nationalist outfit, a reaction to Ethiopian invasion, than a worrisome branch of global jihad. The State Department’s 2009 report on terrorism maintains that no operational link between Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda has been established.

But of course all this does not mean that the Obama administration is firmly in favor of people power revolution in Ethiopia. It is not. What sets it apart from the Bush years is that it sees fewer stakes for the US in the status-quo. It will not fight change as the Bush administration once did in 2005.

In the event of protests, the Obama administration will most probably try to maintain a delicate balance between protesters, which it could not avoid lending political, moral and diplomatic support, and the EPRDF, which it does not want to be perceived as abandoning hastily. US allies in the region after all would be watching closely. But doubt not that its sentiment and heart will be with protesters. There is little sympathy in Washington for the EPRDF after the last elections. Its peaceful departure would most probably be welcomed rather than lamented. The death of Osama bin Laden reinforces the sentiment.

Addressing the World Economic Forum in South Africa on Thursday, May 5, 2011, former UN Secretary General, Koffi Annan, predicated that mass protests may yet spread from the Arab world to black Africa. The independence of one African country inspired others to follow suit, he recalled of events in the early 60’s. “I see no reason why people now won't want to do the same," he said. These are sober words from an experienced man. They carry considerable weight.

Annan was of course not speaking of his home country, Ghana. Democracy is irreversible there now. Nor could he have had Ghana’s giant regional neighbor, Nigeria, in mind. There is finally hope for democracy in Africa’s largest country. And democratic South Africa has transformed (by example) SADC. There is no danger of mass protests sweeping southern Africa.

It is rather Ethiopia, where an unpopular leader who has been in power for two decades is still recklessly maneuvering to stay in power indefinitely, which looms dominantly in the horizon when sub-Sahara Africa is mulled over. Annan did not need to single out countries.

The Obama administration knows this. And it sees no reason to resist change. This is good news to Ethiopians.

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The writer, prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years of tug-of-war with the 'system,' Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: serk27@gmail.com