The US Presidential election and anti-Ethiopian lobbying

(MFA ct 31 2008):-The US presidential campaign between rival candidates’ Barrack Obama and John McCain is arguably the most fiercely contested in living memory. It is also unique as one of the contenders, and the one the polls favor to win, is an American of African origin – a fact that automatically qualifies as history in its own right no matter what happens next Tuesday. It has drawn sustained interest and curiosity throughout the world as much to the identity of and contrast between the two candidates as to the unprecedented exposure of the world to the campaign by state-of-the-art media outlets. Of course, because this campaign is about who will take over still the most powerful position in the world it is incumbent for politicians and ordinary citizens alike to follow the campaign trail closely. As a nation that has enjoyed decades of friendly ties with the United States of America, Ethiopia is no exception. The support Senator Obama has among Ethiopians both in the Diaspora and at home is palpable. 

The campaign of Senator Obama is, of course, a matter for the domestic policies of the United States and it is not for us to comment on. However, when lobbying undertaken around the campaign involves accusations against the Government of Ethiopia, and inaccurate and unfounded allegations at that, it is a matter of concern. Certain individuals and lobby groups have been working on behalf of and at the behest of the small extreme elements in the Ethiopian Diaspora and the Government of Asmara. Their campaign has little or nothing to do with the presidential campaign but is aimed at influencing potential officials of the next administration against the Government of Ethiopia. These are people attempting to push their own narrow political agenda on Ethiopia as part of Senator Obama’s political platform as Congressman Payne has demonstrated. Indeed, Congressman Donald Payne is some one who has developed a routine of Ethiopia-bashing when campaigning as he demonstrated when speaking at a gathering of Diaspora Ethiopians, purportedly to rally support for Obama in September. His most recent effort has been in a press release in the name of his position as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health. In his press release, calling the Ogaden and Somalia “forgotten tragedies”, Congressman Payne  repeats his usual series of accusations against Ethiopia,  claiming that the Ethiopian security forces “are deliberately targeting innocent civilians” in the Ogaden. As usual he offers no evidence to support his allegations. Indeed, there is none. The Ethiopian National Defense Forces have never targeted civilians in the Ogaden or anywhere else. They try hard to avoid any harm to non-combatants. They respect the democratic and human rights of the people wherever they are deployed. From its own experience the Government of Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian Defence Forces, know very well that the easiest way to lose any counter insurgency effort is to alienate the civilian population. The Ethiopian Defense Forces have, over the last decades, developed a tradition of working closely with the people. This remains a guiding principle for the armed forces of Ethiopia wherever they operate. The Ethiopian Defence Forces have demonstrated their professionalism and discipline in their peacekeeping roles in Rwanda, Burundi and Liberia. By contrast, while Congressman Payne repeats uncritically any and all allegations against Ethiopian forces and Government, he fails to mention, let alone condemn, the acts of a terrorist organization, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) which has murdered numerous innocent civilians in the area, repeatedly bombing hotels, open markets, and other public gatherings. The Congressman has never even condemned the ONLF’s brutal massacre in April 2007 when it killed over 70 innocent Ethiopian and Chinese oil workers in cold blood, as they slept. In fact, the Congressman is always remarkably careful not to disparage terrorist organizations. In his latest press release he even uses the benign term “insurgent groups” to refer to Al-Shabaab whose terrorist activities in Somalia have included the widespread slaughter of civilians, assassinations of UN representatives, members of various aid groups, and journalists as well as roadside bombs and suicide operations. Al-Shabaab, as the Congressman is well aware, has been linked to Al-Qaeda and is also listed as an international terrorist organization by his own Government.

Some academics, although their position is far from that of Donald Payne have also been making efforts which cannot be seen as helpful to Ethiopia/US relations, even though their motives may be benign.  A leading member of this group is Professor Donald Levine, who cannot be described as unfriendly to Ethiopia or even to the present government, but who has apparently been trying to influence a would-be Obama administration to take a more confrontational approach towards the Government of Ethiopia on a number of issues. Professor Levine has been a respected Ethiopianist for several decades, authoring a number of books on Ethiopia. He has earned widespread respect for his works. However, some of his more recent critiques have been less than fair and balanced. One of the clearest examples of this is his recent “Five Reasons why ‘President’ Obama is good for Ethiopians”, one of which is of particular concern, that an Obama administration should play a significant role in promoting good governance and human rights in “a more aggressive manner” than its predecessor. No matter how phrased, this is a clear call for a confrontational foreign policy, suggesting the use of arm-twisting tactics against a sovereign state. Professor Levine as an expert should know that Ethiopia and Ethiopians are not prepared to accept pressures of this kind. The person who wrote “Wax and Gold” and “Greater Ethiopia” should certainly be assumed to be knowledgeable about Ethiopia. It is a considerable and surprising disappointment to find him taking this sort of approach. Ethiopians are not submissive and remain prepared to defend their rights. Partners are friends not masters.  

Democracy is to be nurtured and developed at home: it is not a prescription to be pushed down the throats of developing states by powerful nations. A contribution to the development of democratic culture and human rights, should not involve arm-twisting. Imposing democracy from outside is nothing but a contradiction in terms, whether by the next US administration or any other. The Ethiopian government pays special attention to its friendly relations with the United States. It is a relationship that is based on a broad range of interests. It is a relationship we will pursue in the future and in a consistent manner. Ethiopia looks forward to working with the next administration, whoever wins it, in a way that promotes mutual interests.