U.S. Engagement in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa

By Lahra Smith / Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) / Jan 07, 2008

A reassessment of U.S. policy toward Ethiopia is very much in order. A year has passed since Ethiopia intervened in Somalia, and its troops are bogged down there in an ongoing low-intensity conflict that has created a grave humanitarian crisis. The invasion appears deeply unpopular with the Somali people, and the tide of battle could yet turn decisively against the Ethiopians. Meanwhile, the December 1, 2007 deadline set by the Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission (EEBC) for demarcation of the border between the two countries has passed without implementation by either party. Troops are massing on both sides of the border, and a renewal of the 1998-2000 border war is entirely possible. Finally, the human rights situation within Ethiopia remains poor, and the country’s long-term political stability is uncertain – prompting the U.S. House of Representatives to pass legislation intended to strengthen U.S. democracy programs in Ethiopia and ban “nonessential assistance” to the Ethiopian government.

The United States must remain engaged with Ethiopia, and with all the countries of the Horn of Africa region not only for humanitarian reasons, but also because of the well-grounded concern that the region will be a breeding ground for terrorism unless it is stabilized. But the United States should be intentional and strategic in its interventions, and should not let short term counter-terrorism objectives blind it to the need for a broader vision of regional development and democratization. The United States should be careful not to narrow its alliances in the region to those who claim to be friends, to the neglect of other strategic relationships – however challenging they may be. And the United States must seek regional solutions to the Horn of Africa’s conflicts as the best means of protecting local communities from violence.

U.S. policy in the Horn necessarily focuses on Ethiopia, which is clearly the regional hegemon. It has a powerful and disciplined military, and after the suppression of dissent following the disputed 2005 parliamentary elections, a tightly-controlled and consolidated regime in the capital at Addis Ababa. At the same time, the Ethiopian government has a number of enemies, both internally and in the region. Many of these enemies pose no particular threat to U.S. interests, at least at present. Ethiopia’s regional rivals, however, have sheltered rebel movements opposed to the regime of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) political party. The Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which controlled Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia from June until December 2006, hosted insurgent groups such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). (See Terrence Lyons, “Ethiopia and the Search for Regional Peace in the Horn of Africa,” CSIS Online Africa Policy Forum, January 22, 2007). All three of these groups now find sanctuary in Ethiopia’s arch rival, Eritrea.

In Ethiopia itself, high-level leaders of the main opposition were imprisoned for nearly two years after the 2005 election, before being released in July 2007 by a presidential pardon. Thousands of ordinary Ethiopian citizens also spent considerable time in jails across the country, many only to be released with no charges ever filed. Untold numbers remain imprisoned throughout the country, as documented by Human Rights Watch, including prominent civil society activists and ordinary citizens. Members of marginalized ethnic communities, particularly the Oromo and increasingly the Ethiopian-Somali communities, face political repression and harassment by security forces. Opposition political parties have been restricted from establishing and staffing regional party offices and preparing for upcoming local elections.

The October passage of the Ethiopia Democracy Act of 2007 (H.R. 2003) by the U.S. House of Representatives is a signal that pressure for a change in U.S. policy toward Ethiopia is rising. The bill is unlikely to obtain the votes it needs for passage in the Senate, but the new Senate taking office in 2009 may well be more willing to criticize Ethiopia and could agree to a similar bill. The focus of the legislation is on financial and technical support for fostering human rights and democratization in Ethiopia – and programs such as these should be the backbone of U.S. policy in that country and in the region. Other sections of the legislation would limit security assistance to Ethiopia, impose travel restrictions on officials of the Ethiopian government found to have violated human rights, and require certification by the President to the Congress that Ethiopia is moving forward on eleven domestic democracy measures. These include the release of political prisoners, ensuring freedom of the judiciary, and allowing human rights organizations to work freely. The legislation would not prevent peacekeeping assistance, counter-terrorism assistance, or international military training assistance to Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government, through its ambassador in Washington, has condemned the bill as a violation of Ethiopia’s sovereignty, but this is a shortsighted view. Over the long term, a solid U.S.-Ethiopia relationship will depend on Ethiopian progress in building democracy, strengthening the rule of law, ensuring human rights, and promoting economic development.

Recent developments in the Horn of Africa indicate that Ethiopia is flexing its military muscle to the detriment of regional stability and local communities. This is a threat to U.S. security interests. In April 2007, members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), attacked a Chinese-run oil site in eastern Ethiopia, killing 77. The attack required a response, but the ruthless campaign of repression launched by the Ethiopian military in Somali Regional State of Ethiopia seems likely only to make the situation worse. (See “Ethiopia: Crackdown in the East punishes Civilians,” Human Rights Watch, July 2007). There are reports of targeted violence against the Somali inhabitants in the area, including civilian communities (also called the Ogaden). Despite promises by the regime in Addis, access to the region has been denied, making it difficult for aid agencies to reach needy recipients and nearly impossible for media outlets and human rights organizations to investigate the serious allegations of human rights violations.

Ethiopia’s December 2006 intervention in Somalia provided the necessary military force to allow the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFG) to drive out the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) and other related militias that had controlled Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia for at least six months before. Since that time, however, the TFG has been unable to consolidate its hold militarily or politically and has suffered from in-fighting, a lack of serious efforts at reconciliation, and increasingly, insurgent violence by anti-Ethiopian and anti-TFG forces. Ethiopia’s stated intention was to defend the TFG from the forces of the UIC until such time as an African Union (AU) peacekeeping force could be deployed. Throughout the fall and winter of 2006, AU countries reluctantly pledged troops, but none were deployed until about 1,300 Ugandan troops arrived in Somalia in March 2007 as the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Nine months later the Ugandans remain the only members of AMISOM in Somalia.

While the Ethiopian government has repeatedly stated its desire to leave the country, and has said periodically that it is withdrawing its forces, no figures are given. Most accounts suggest that the numbers of Ethiopian troops inside southern Somalia are substantial, at least in the thousands. No drawdown of forces has occurred. There is little chance that they will be reduced any time soon, as AU reinforcements are slow to be promised or arrive. On her recent trip to Ethiopia, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice urged the TFG to “renew and revitalize efforts toward a lasting political solution,” including an immediate ceasefire. Meanwhile, the situation has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in Africa, with at least one million Somalis displaced by the violence. The response of the international community to the political and military causes of this humanitarian crisis has been woefully inadequate.

The situation on Ethiopia’s northern border is equally alarming, and the possibility of a return to war with Eritrea has been raised by credible sources, such as the International Crisis Group report. Even if it is not in the interests of either side to instigate the war unilaterally, the possibility of a small incident provoking a conflict are high given the number of troops and the stalemate in negotiations. The UN monitoring force (UNMEE) has faced increasing restrictions of its troop movements and aerial surveillance inside the Temporary Monitoring Zone (TMZ) by the Eritrean government, leading the Security Council to extend UNMEE’s mandate in six-month intervals, with reductions in troop levels from 3,200 to 2,000 in January of 2007. For its part, Ethiopia insists that it continues to accept the EEBC ruling “in principle” but demands further dialogue on crucial issues, such as its claim to the town of Badme, which was awarded to Eritrea by the EEBC. Tens of thousands of troops (some estimates put the numbers much closer to 100,000 on each side near the border) have been deployed to the border and military exercises are ongoing. Eritrea regards any encouragement of dialogue as a sign of a lack of international will to enforce the EEBC ruling.

Whither U.S. Policy?

Most agree that the United States should remain engaged in Ethiopia and the Horn. There is general agreement, even among critics of the Meles regime, that partial or complete disengagement would likely reduce the prospects for democratization and stability in Ethiopia. Ethiopians express an interest in more US engagement rather than less. The politically active and financially powerful Ethiopian diaspora in the United States and Europe has continued to invest in Ethiopia, despite their own frustrations with the Meles government’s backsliding on democratization. If the diaspora has hope for Ethiopia’s future, so too should the international community. The challenge for the United States is to find avenues of interaction and assistance without condoning violence and human rights violations. This will require more than diplomatic persuasion or military assistance, including long-term, practical, and targeted development interventions in rural and urban communities throughout the country as well as a willingness to criticize the Meles regime for repressive legislation and political violence by its security forces.

Regionally, U.S. engagement must involve robust support for the African Union mission in Somalia, AMISOM. The aim should be to quickly end the Ethiopian military intervention and create the conditions for security and political dialogue among Somali groups. The Ethiopian presence is an incitement to violence by various Somali nationalist groups, and a deterrent to meaningful reconciliation processes by the TFG. If AMISOM is no longer viable, the United States should support rapid and decisive action by the UN Security Council to assure the speedy deployment of an effective peacekeeping force.

At the same time, the United States must soften its rhetoric on Eritrea, particularly with regard to the border issue, while continuing to insist on unrestricted access for UNMEE peacekeepers in the TMZ. The Administration has suggested that Eritrea might be designated a state sponsor of terrorism for its support of rebel groups from Somalia. Unfortunately, threats do not work well with Asmara and are inappropriate in light of Ethiopian intransigence on the Border Commission decision and its military engagement in Somalia. A more even-handed approach is required. In her recent visit to the region, Secretary Rice urged Ethiopia to “avoid any acts that might heighten friction between Eritrea and Ethiopia and to take concrete steps to lessen tension on the border.” This was helpful, but the United States should be clear that existing agreements, including the Algiers Agreement creating the EEBC and binding the parties to accept its decision, must be honored by all.

With respect to political issues inside Ethiopia, the United States must remain engaged, but in ways that signal its concern for democracy and human rights. This means not turning a blind eye to human rights abuses by the Ethiopian military in remote areas of the country and in occupied areas of Somalia. The United States cannot afford to receive its intelligence on these areas from the Ethiopian government alone, but must insist that independent observers be given free access throughout Ethiopia. In addition, there is a need for specific humanitarian and development interventions focused on practical concerns, such as food security, education, and health care. These programs should target marginalized communities, including ethnic and religious minorities, Muslim communities, and others who have suffered at the hands of the Ethiopian state and military for decades. Such humanitarian and development work would send the right signals to these communities of America’s commitment to shared goals of peace and economic opportunity.

U.S. policymakers should pay special attention to elections expected to be held in Ethiopia in the first months of 2008. By-elections are to be conducted for all seats in the parliament now being boycotted by the opposition. In addition, the long-delayed woreda and kebelle elections are to be held. These are local elections originally slated for late 2005, but repeatedly delayed. All indications suggest that the ruling party is using the disciplinary mechanisms already in place at the community level to ensure an EPRDF victory, while harassing and intimidating members of opposition political parties, including the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM), the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF), and the Coalition for Unity and Democracy Party (CUDP). Many of the opposition parties, and particularly the CUD groupings, will struggle to field candidates owing to divisive internal power struggles. But there is little doubt that EPRDF activities in rural areas are also hindering the opposition from playing a meaningful role in the elections. The United States should insist that independent elections observers be allowed into Ethiopia to monitor the 2008 elections at an early date, and strenuously object if they are interfered with in any way or if opposition parties and local communities are prevented from participating freely and fairly in the vote.
Lahra Smith is Assistant Professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the author of several recent reports and articles on Ethiopia.