Date: Monday, 23 January 2023
From the Cold War to the war on terror, Washington has backed a series of Ethiopian governments while turning a blind eye to their human rights abuses. The Biden administration’s appeasement of Abiy Ahmed’s government is the latest example of this shabby record.
The relationship between the United States and Ethiopia took shape during the waning years of European colonialism in the second half of the twentieth century. In the decades that followed, that relationship underwent several transformations, marked especially by alliances formed during the Cold War and the “war on terror.”
Despite the changes, a thread of continuity runs through the entire period. Washington has consistently elevated geopolitical interests above any concern for democracy and human rights. In so doing, it has contributed significantly to the problems afflicting Ethiopia and the wider region.
A large multiethnic empire established in the Horn of Africa in 1270 CE, Ethiopia was the only African territory to successfully resist Western conquest during the “Scramble for Africa” in the late nineteenth century. Armed with the latest European weapons that were purchased with proceeds from the East African slave trade, Emperor Menelik II and his armies defeated an Italian invasion force in 1896.
However, Ethiopia’s access to the Red Sea was blocked by the Italian colony of Eritrea, which had been established by an Ethiopian–Italian treaty in 1889 and included some lands that had been part of earlier Ethiopian kingdoms. For the next century, Ethiopia would attempt to gain control of this strategic territory. Expanding its domain through the subjugation of smaller political entities, Ethiopia rapidly became the largest regional power, dominating the interior while confining European interlopers to the coast.
In an expansionist campaign that presaged World War II, Italian forces occupied Ethiopia in 1936 and merged the Somali-inhabited Ogaden and Haud regions with Italian Somaliland. The Allies expelled the Italians in 1941 and reinstated the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie. However, the UK, as the dominant power in the region, continued to administer the disputed Ogaden and Haud territories as well as the Italian colony of Eritrea.
Since France, the UK, and other European powers controlled most of Africa, the United States viewed Ethiopia as a strategic entrée to the continent. After the war, Washington initiated a mutually beneficial alliance with Ethiopia that lasted nearly four decades. It pressed the UK to return the disputed Ogaden and Haud regions to Ethiopia and supported Ethiopian claims to Eritrea.
When the UN slated the Italian colonies of Libya and Italian Somaliland for independence, the United States urged the Western-dominated institution to place Eritrea under Ethiopian control. Although many Eritreans had agitated for independence, the UN acquiesced to US wishes, and Eritrea was formally federated with Ethiopia. In the decade that followed, Ethiopia eroded the parameters of Eritrean autonomy, and in 1962 it formally annexed the territory. Although this move violated the UN agreement, Washington condoned it, and the UN took no punitive action.
In the aftermath of World War II, the United States voiced rhetorical support for self-determination and democracy in the developing world. It hoped to establish new alliances that would open the door to political and economic opportunities in territories then claimed by European powers. However, few of its new allies were democrats, and Ethiopia was no exception.
Emperor Selassie presided over a feudal system in which an aristocracy wielded enormous power over the land and the peasant class that worked it. His rule was characterized by religious, ethnic, and regional favoritism. Christian Amharas of the northern and central highlands dominated multiethnic Muslim and Christian populations in other parts of the empire.
From Washington’s perspective, however, Selassie was a dependable Cold War ally. Convinced that the strongest bulwark against communism was regional stability under Selassie’s rule, the United States became the emperor’s primary outside backer. The United States provided Ethiopia with more than $280 million in military aid between 1953 and 1977 and trained thousands of military personnel.
Although it was presented as a bastion against communist encroachment, the US-trained forty-seven-thousand-man army was primarily used to quell internal dissent, oppose the Eritrean independence struggle, and ward off Somali expansionism in the Ogaden and Haud regions. In exchange, the Ethiopian ruler allowed the United States to build a communications station and naval facilities in Eritrea, which facilitated Washington’s intelligence and military operations in Africa and the Middle East.
In 1974, a devastating famine combined with the worldwide economic crisis and mounting inflation generated massive unemployment and a balance of payments deficit in Ethiopia. Popular protests ousted the Selassie government, and junior military officers who called themselves the Derg (“committee”) seized control. Some Derg members promoted an African form of socialism, while others, including US-trained major Mengistu Haile Mariam, embraced Soviet-style Marxism-Leninism.
In 1977, a power struggle within the Derg put Mengistu in charge. Despite its Marxist egalitarian rhetoric, Mengistu’s clique concentrated power in its own hands. Widespread popular protests were met with a military response known as the Red Terror that left tens of thousands of Ethiopians imprisoned, exiled, or dead.
The Derg’s human rights abuses were well documented. However, Washington was determined to maintain its longstanding relationship with Ethiopia in order to undermine Soviet-backed Somalia. Under the Ford administration (1974–77), US military aid to Ethiopia actually increased.
The Carter administration (1977–81) then changed course, announcing that henceforth, it would link foreign aid to human rights and reduce military support to Ethiopia. In response, Ethiopia closed the communications station in Asmara along with four other US facilities and expelled three hundred US personnel, including all military advisers. Washington in turn announced that it would sell arms to Ethiopia’s regional rivals, Somalia and Sudan.
The Soviet Union stepped into the breach, supplying Ethiopia with the weapons and training that the United States would no longer provide, and ditching Somalia, its former ally in the region. The Derg relied on Soviet assistance to combat Somali encroachment as well as ethnically based opposition groups that fought for change within Ethiopia, and the movements fighting for Eritrean independence.
A decade later, the tide turned once again. The Soviet Union was in crisis and no longer able to sustain its African allies. As one Cold War superpower crumbled, the United States and its Western European allies abandoned a number of dictatorial governments that had served as bulwarks against communism in Africa, declaring their support for pro-democracy movements across the continent.
In May 1991, the Ethiopian Popular Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), an umbrella organization dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), along with strong backing from the Eritrean guerrillas, took the capital, Addis Ababa. President Mengistu fled into exile, and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which had fought for Eritrean independence since 1970, occupied Eritrea’s capital, Asmara.
The United States embraced the new government led by TPLF/EPRDF leader Meles Zenawi. Together they targeted neighboring Somalia, where the central government had collapsed and warlords were fighting with moderate Islamists for control. In 2006, the CIA initiated covert support for a warlord coalition and backed an Ethiopian invasion and occupation that sparked an insurgency against foreign intervention. This in turn opened the door to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to establish a foothold in Somalia.
The US-Ethiopian operation provoked the radicalization and internationalization of the Somali conflict, which then became an excuse for further intervention. Embracing Ethiopia as its partner in the war on terror, Washington referred to the government in Addis Ababa as “the linchpin to stability in the Horn of Africa and the Global War on Terrorism,” while Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer described Somali Islamists as “extremists to the core” who were “controlled by al-Qaeda.”
After the death of Meles in 2012, Hailemariam Desalegn was elected prime minister. He was succeeded in 2018 by Abiy Ahmed, a member of the long-marginalized Oromo and formerly dominant Amhara ethnic groups. Abiy billed himself as a reformist who would address Ethiopia’s fraught ethnic relations and push for greater democracy.
However, instead of ending Ethiopia’s ethnic conflicts, he led the country into another war, this time pitting the Oromo-dominated central government and its Amhara allies against the TPLF-led Tigray regional state. Movement toward democracy stalled as the authorities repressed dissent and silenced the media. Both sides in the conflict have been accused of grave human rights abuses against civilian populations. The Abiy government has been charged with ethnic cleansing, massacres of civilians, gang rape, and the use of starvation as a weapon of war.
While the Biden administration has voiced criticisms of Ethiopian abuses, it has taken little concrete action against the perpetrators. In May 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a new policy that would deny visas to key players in the crisis, barring their entry into the United States. The administration also imposed trade restrictions on some military exports to Ethiopia.
In September 2021, President Biden signed an executive order that further expanded the grounds for sanctions. It authorized the Treasury and State Departments to impose such sanctions on leaders in the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments and defense forces as well as the Amhara regional government who were targeting civilian populations, “prolonging the conflict, obstructing humanitarian access, or preventing a ceasefire.”
Along with other measures, the order empowered the Treasury Department to “block all property and interests in property of the sanctioned person” in the United States and to prevent US financial institutions from serving them. Although these measures granted it new authority, the Biden administration has done little to implement them.
In 2022, Tigray’s success on the battlefield turned the tide once again. Having expected an easy victory, Abiy was frustrated by the strength of the resistance his forces encountered. Determined to starve the population into submission, Addis Ababa intensified the weaponization of food supplies, depriving civilians in Tigray of this basic necessity. The prospects of mass starvation drove the TPLF to the bargaining table, where it accepted a deal widely perceived as a surrender.
In accords signed on November 2 and 12, 2022, the Tigrayan representatives agreed to dissolve the TPLF-led regional government and to disarm its defense forces within thirty days. In exchange, the federal government would end its blockade of humanitarian aid, and “foreign forces” would leave the region. Addis Ababa pledged to rebuild the infrastructure destroyed during the war and ensure the reintegration of a new regional government into the national governing structures.
Although hailed in the United States as a significant development, the peace deal in reality contains little that is new. Since January 2022, Tigray has made concessions and the Abiy government has accepted them before Eritrea has undermined those concessions and Addis Ababa has withdrawn its commitments. The United States, and the international community more broadly, have imposed no penalties.
Prospects for the future are uncertain. Tigrayan civilians, who had no role in making the deal, may reject it. Eritrea, which has been charged with the most serious human rights abuses and has subverted past deals, was not a party to this one. For decades, the government of Isaias Afwerki has been hostile to the Tigrayan leadership, with whom it waged a devastating border conflict between 1998 and 2018. It is not clear that Eritrea will willingly withdraw its forces from Tigray.
There is no clarity either about how the problems of contested land or the reintegration of millions of refugees and displaced people are to be resolved. Perhaps most importantly, the accords do not address the root causes of the conflict, including Abiy’s strengthening of central government authority at the expense of regional powers, which has angered the regional governments in Tigray and other areas. Finally, there are no provisions to ensure governmental accountability to the victims of the conflict nor discussion of reparations other than rebuilding the region’s infrastructure.
The devil, as always, is in the details. Tigray’s pledge to disarm its troops within thirty days is, according to experts, unrealistic. There is no blueprint for implementing or monitoring the accords. Nor is it clear that Amhara militias, who have fought alongside the Abiy government, will relinquish their claims to the western Tigray region. Reports indicate that the militias are continuing to execute Tigrayans.
The agreement specifies that Tigrayan disarmament will be concurrent with the removal of foreign (i.e., Eritrean) forces. However, Asmara is likely to balk at leaving, and Tigray will not disarm until Eritrean forces have withdrawn. Finally, the Ethiopian government continues to use hunger as a weapon, allowing aid only into territory that it controls.
How will the peace deal affect US relations with Ethiopia? So far, the Biden administration has appeased the Abiy government, authorizing the imposition of sanctions, but not imposing them, and failing to use its influence to convince Abiy to end his alliance with Eritrea.
Despite its threats to turn to Russia and China if the United States gets tough, Addis Ababa needs US and European cash. It is seeking aid from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, where Washington has inordinate influence. Will the United States use that influence if the Abiy government fails to implement its side of the agreement? Given the Biden administration’s track record to date, a question mark remains.
From the Cold War to the war on terror, US relations with Ethiopia went through several transformations. During the feudal rule of Emperor Haile Selassie, the United States valued the country as a Cold War ally and regional policeman. However, after Selassie was ousted by a military clique that embraced Marxism-Leninism, Ethiopia turned to the Soviet Union for support and Washington allied with Somalia, Ethiopia’s regional nemesis.
Weakened by internal strife and a failing economy, the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and both the Ethiopian and Somali governments were overthrown by pro-democracy activists and armed insurgents. Washington embraced the new government in Addis Ababa, and together the two countries supported Somali warlords in their struggle for dominance.
By the first decade of the twentieth century, Ethiopia had become the linchpin in Washington’s war on terror in the Horn of Africa. While paying lip service to democracy and human rights, Washington has overlooked its ally’s human rights abuses just as it previously did during the Cold War.
* Elizabeth Schmidt is professor emeritus of history at Loyola University Maryland and the author of six books about Africa. Her most recent book is Foreign Intervention in Africa After the Cold War: Sovereignty, Responsibility, and the War on Terror.