Ethiopia is on the precipice of becoming yet another failed state in Africa. And while this may seem a predictable event for some observers of the arch of modern African history, Ethiopia’s steep and rapid downward spiral towards a spectacular collapse is owed, to a great extent, to the misunderstanding and miscalculation of its American ally.
It is puzzling why the U.S. has thrown its support behind the current Ethiopian leadership. The Prime Minister is presiding over a catastrophic downfall of a once rising success story slated to become a middle-income country by 2030. Today, as violence engulfs virtually every region except Tigray and state institutions have crumbled, the U.S. continues to hold on to its surrogate Prime Minister in the strategically important Horn of Africa.
The roots of U.S. miscalculation may be in the fundamental misunderstanding of Ethiopia’s development model—“the democratic developmental state”—based on the South Korean and Taiwanese model. The U.S. has conflated this economic approach with the TPLF’s early Marxism and has been unable separate the stridency of a guerilla movement from the practicality of a government confronting the poverty and backwardness of the post-Mengistu Ethiopian reality.
Prime Minister Meles clearly understood and took a pragmatic approach to the conditions of the Ethiopian economy and its nascent private sector. His dismissal of the neoliberal model was not a rejection of capitalism but an understanding of Ethiopia’s largely peasant agricultural system that required a robust role of the state combined with market forces. The state would provide the basic infrastructure and services while, at the same time, create a conducive environment for the private sector.
Why does this misunderstanding persist while the evidence of this miscalculation is clear and unambiguous? Three reasons might explain this: 1) ) the U.S.’s fundamental lack of understanding about Ethiopian politics and political actors; 2) the U.S. government’s new priorities in foreign policy towards Africa; and 3) the TPLF’s inability to adequately explain itself to the West.
The Mind-Blowing Confession of Four Former Ambassadors on Ethiopia
First, it would be useful to lay out the fundamental misunderstandings on the part of the U.S. government that drive their critical miscalculations in its foreign policy towards Ethiopia.
The view of the U.S. towards the EPRDF-led government seems stuck in the pre-1991 period of guerilla warfare and a Marxist ideology. This pre-1991 perception carried over and, according to the U.S., was reinforced by the adoption of the developmental state model—despite the EPRDF’s clear embrace of capitalism.
Sometimes it takes just a brief event—a few remarks from key political figures—to understand the depth of a government’s failure to grasp essential elements of another country’s history and politics.
In June of last year, the U.S. Institute of Peace help a panel discussion entitled, “A Changing Ethiopia: Lessons from U.S. Diplomatic Engagement.” A better title might have been, “What the U.S. Understood Too Late about Ethiopia.” Sitting on the panel were four former Ambassadors to Ethiopia: Mark Bass, David Shinn, Aurelia Brazeal and Donald Booth. Each Ambassador gave a brief presentation on their time at the embassy in Addis Ababa.
When asked what each diplomat wished he/she had known while serving as Ambassador, each one responded by saying “the importance of ethnicity in Ethiopian politics.”
Let that sink in.
Ethnicity is unarguably the primary feature of Ethiopian politics. The fact that the Ambassadors, all well-educated and experienced diplomats with successful careers, failed to understand the role of ethnicity in Ethiopian politics may explain, at least in part, the failures of U.S. policy towards Ethiopia.
This may also perhaps explain the U.S. government’s misunderstanding of ethnic federalism, the democratic developmental state and the current ethno-nationalism that dominates political discourse.
And while every country has its own complexities, Ethiopia is especially difficult to understand without a deep knowledge of its history and culture. Like countries in the Middle East today, Ethiopia’s past lives alongside its present.
How can you explain a country that claims Christianity for three thousand years when Christ was born a little over two thousand years ago? It’s long history, relatively untouched by foreign incursion, is a multi-layered expansion of peoples, nations and nationalities intersecting at the center in a shifting context of monarchy/Marxism/ethnic federalism.
Today, the U.S. has joined in the loud chorus of criticism against the EPRDF/TPLF despite the cooperative relationship beginning with the London Conference. The articulate, well-thought out arguments of Meles Zenawi was received by the U.S. with a mixture of respect and some discomfort.
Perhaps the U.S. was a bit taken aback by the confidence and decisiveness of this group of guerilla fighters who defeated Mengistu’s mighty army and took Addis Ababa without a shot fired—an extraordinary accomplishment on the African landscape.
It could be that the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was the opening the U.S. was waiting for to play a more command role in Ethiopia’s politics. During Prime Minister Meles’ tenure, the U.S. time and time again tried to steer the Ethiopian government on a more familiar path past the developmental state model and more firmly entrenched in free market capitalism. With Prime Minister Meles gone, Hailemariam Desalegne was seen as an entry point for U.S. involvement. Hailemariam, although assisting the U.S. in this transition, could not be America’s point man because of his close association with the EPRDF. The point man became the current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Before looking more closely at the U.S. government’s miscalculations around their support of Prime Minister Abiy, let’s first lay out the new context of U.S. foreign policy towards Ethiopia.
A Shift in Priorities: From Counterterrorism to Economic Investment
What does the U.S. want from its Ethiopian ally? The U.S. has shifted from its main objective of mutual counterterrorism support in the strategically important Horn of Africa to an economic relationship outlined in its strategy document, Prosper Africa.
In a nutshell, the goal of Prosper Africa is to partner with African governments to foster business climates that are mutually beneficial for Africa and the United States. In the words of Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs Tibor Nagy, once the U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia, U.S. foreign policy towards Africa is to work with African governments to create a level playing field for U.S. companies and encourage U.S. companies to do business in Africa.
Equally important in the goal of Prosper Africa is to counter China’s influence in Africa. According to Nagy, a pillar of Prosper Africa isto counter China’s narrative and make clear that the breadth and depth of the U.S. commitment to Africa is unmatched.
On the face of it, developing a robust trade relationship between U.S. investors and Ethiopia has the potential for serving mutual interests. In return, Ethiopia receives an infusion of critically needed foreign exchange, a bigger share in the U.S. market and much needed technical expertise. It could be a win-win proposition.
Here is where the story gets complicated.
For many years, twenty-seven to be exact, U.S.-Ethiopia relations were positive and mutually beneficial. The U.S. National Security Strategy described Ethiopia as its “anchor state” in the troubled, conflict-ridden region n of the Horn of Africa. Communication between the EPRDF-led government and the U.S. Departments of Defense and State, as well as the intelligence agencies, worked together to maintain the security of the volatile region that spread across to the strategically important Red Sea.
Although , there were periodic outbursts from Representatives Chris Smith, the late Donald Payne and disgraced Dana Rohrbacher, egged on by a well-organized and well-financed Diaspora, the U.S. enjoyed a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship.
Despite the positive relationship, however, there were people inside the State Department who were uncomfortable with the EPRDF’s developmental state approach to the economy. A critic of laissez-faire economics, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi focused on the success of the South Korean and Taiwanese development models where the state encouraged and directed investment, given the underdeveloped features of a post-feudal, post-command economy.
Meles consistently maintained that he would measure the success of his development strategy if every Ethiopian had the means to eat two meals a day.
Meles’ model of the developmental state was an extraordinary success, winning the respect of the World bank’s chief economist, Joseph Stieglitz. More importantly, the EPRDF government’s economic approach led to more than a decade of double-digit growth. Ethiopia was, at one time, the fasting growing economy in the world.
But the misunderstanding about the nature of the EPRDF-led government’s economic approach, despite its widely recognized success, persisted and the U.S. government built its strategy of regime change on a foundation of misunderstanding—leading to dire miscalculations.
But before looking more closely at the U.S. miscalculations, however, it is necessary to draw attention to the TPLF’s own role in perpetuating the misunderstanding and discomfort with its former ally.
In part 2, we look at the TPLF’s failure to counter the false narrative about their success story and how this had an impact on U.S. perceptions and the resulting miscalculations. We then look more closely at the realities of the current Ethiopian political landscape and the U.S’s failure to recognize the rapidly shifting ground, including: 1) Abiy’s increasing authoritarianism and loss of support; 2) the role of Isayas Afewerki; 3) the Renaissance Dam; and 4) Oromo nationalism. We conclude with a summary of exactly where the U.S. went wrong in its decision-tree of U.S. foreign policy towards Ethiopia.
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