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Change — from Washington to Addis Ababa?


President Barack Obama and the late Meles Zenawi

Whenever the United Sates gets ready to elect its commander in chief, the world closely watches. Ethiopia is no exception.


Over the years Ethiopia has remained one of Washington’s close ally on the so-called “war on terror”.  It keeps its borders and air space wide open to American drones which monitor the region. Whenever deemed necessary, Addis Ababa doesn’t blink to send troops to battle al-Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia, largely on behalf of the US.


As Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told me back in September, 2011, “there is no hesitation” from the Ethiopian side when it comes to “cooperating to fight terrorists in the region.”


Considering American decisive votes on the boards of international financiers such as at the IMF and the World Bank, coupled with its generous US $1 billion annul aid money, the US is surely Ethiopia’s invaluable partner. Thus, decisions from the Oval Office clearly affect how one sleeps at night in Arat Kilo.


In recent years, America’s proclaimed foreign policy goals in Africa, particularly protections of democracy, human rights and freedom of speech, didn’t seem to be keenly pursued and that is evidently clear in Ethiopian-American ties.


As Birtukan Midekssa put it in 2008, promoting rights was put on the backburner during the presidency of George W. Bush. The US wanted one thing and the late leader Meles Zenawi knew how to deliver it as he received the title of “dependable ally” when it comes to wiping out those who stood against American interests in the region.


In 2008, Birtukan Midekssa, Bulcha Demeksa, Merara Gudina and many other Ethiopian opposition figures could do little to hide their excitement when it became apparent that Barack H. Obama would be the 44th President of United States.


For 1.3 billion black people in the world, an African-American sitting in the planet’s most powerful office was a source of pride. It was also a lesson to those who are openly racist against black people that times were changing and their attitudes would need to adjust accordingly. This is one of the reasons why Obama’s election was celebrated as an important milestone for the cause for equality of all races.


But here in Ethiopia, a nation that rightly prides itself with its own history as the only un-colonized African sovereign state, Obama’s victory was mostly welcomed with optimism that his administration could encourage the government to be more tolerant of dissidents and open up the political space for the crashed opposition.


Talking about some the measures he would like to see the Obama administration take to improve good governance in Ethiopia, opposition figure Merara Gudina said that he was hopeful that Obama wouldn’t appoint “those [US] officials who value their friendships [more] than promoting common ideals and interests of Ethiopians and Americans.”


Merara was to be disappointed.


As Meles once described them, “old friends” filled key posts in the Obama administration.


Appointed by Obama in 2009 Vicki Huddleston becomes the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Africa in the US Department of Defense.


Ambassador Huddleston had served as Acting American Ambassador to Ethiopia during the troubled Ethiopian 2005 election period. She infamously convinced Washington to keep its assistance to Meles’ government and weakened European efforts to pressure Meles not to jail opposition leaders and journalists.


Susan Rice, appointed as US Ambassador to the United Nations, too, knew Meles well since her days as US top diplomat in Africa during the Clinton administration. The two, as both said on many occasions, remained close over the years – up until the death of Mels in late 2012.


Other senior American diplomats, who were insisting that US review its partnership with Ethiopia, were allegedly taken away from posts in the region.


Rice’s senior post that came with a seat in the US cabinet, unlike her predecessor, created a favorable environment for Meles.


Ethiopia’s political landscape was in a fast changing mode as Obama took oath. A number of new laws were being made affecting how civil societies, the press and political parties would operate in the country. The new laws raised eyebrows as there were widely regarded by rights groups as efforts by the ruling party to pre-empt challenges in the 2010 polls following the opposition parties’ unprecedented gains in 2005.


Judging by Obama’s electrifying address to the whole of Africa that he personally delivered in Ghana vowing his administration’s assistance would prioritize human rights, there was a lot of optimism that Washington would shift gears under Obama.


Well….the exact opposite happened to say the least.


While Birtukan landed in prison even before Obama took office, the opposition was presented with the reality that the assessment of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government that US policies would remain consistent was vindicated.


As Birtukan “vegetated in prison”, as Meles reported to the US, the State Department’s annual human rights reports continued to write about “widespread and systematic human rights violation and abuses.”


US diplomats were barred from observing Ethiopia’s 2010 elections.


As 99.6 per cent of parliament seats went to the ruling party after the polls, Addis Ababa and Washington first appeared to be in a “rough stretch” as Meles depicted it. Later a truce was achieved as “America chose to understand the election outcomes,” as Ethiopia’s top diplomat to the US Ambassador Girma Birru put it.


US Ambassador to Ethiopia, Donald E. Booth, declared that Ethiopia could go on and repeat the likes of 2010 elections as “the outcome was accepted by the Ethiopian people” and the US doesn’t want “to challenge the wisdom.”


Other than favourable report cards that the Meles government might have received from “old friends”, political analysts say, the Obama administration’s decision to forgo US ideals in dealing with Ethiopia has more to do with an overall change in policy priorities.


“The growing relationship between China and Ethiopia and the influx of capital from Beijing meant that the West is no longer the sole source of foreign support. This reduced America’s leverage against the regime,” said Jawar Mohammed, an Ethiopian political analyst now studying at Columbia University in New York.


“Basically because of the vital US interest in the region and Ethiopia’s growing influence, there was an understanding, on both sides, that the US needed Ethiopia almost more than Ethiopia needed it. Therefore, under Obama the US phased out its previous rhetorical call of the need for democratization and human right, replacing it with emphasis on development–a tactical shift meant to match the Chinese influence.” Jawar added.


As American voters are poised to make a choice between the incumbent Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, the result from November 6, 2012 polls will entail ramifications that reaches the new PM in Addis Ababa.


Veteran American diplomats and Jawar Mohammed share the opinion that US polices would largely remain intact post November polls. But Jawar says Ethiopia has a better chance of a more concerned Washington if Obama stays in office.


Typical for a democrat, Obama was preoccupied in his first-term by domestic agenda but a second term could be used to redress his poor foreign policy records including towards Ethiopia.


And with the death of Meles, who became a master of diplomacy with the West and Asia alike, the odds are in Washington’s favour.


Hailemariam Desalegn, a soft-spoken, humble academic turned politician, is unlikely to resist reforms to open the political space if pushed to the right limit. Also, unlike Meles, Hailemariam and his aides may not have that much leverage to snub Washington.


“They [US] have been slowly shifting towards Kenya as regional proxy to deal with Somalia. This makes the US less dependent on Ethiopia, which in turn frees them up to exert more pressure on the regime to open up the political system,” says Jawar.


American drones too are not that much of a bargaining chip.


“I don’t know that any facility that we have in Africa, talking just hypothetically from looking back on our relationship, which is so important to us that if we felt we had to remove that facility we would not do it. There are other places in Africa where we could have the same kind of facility,” retired US Ambassador Vicki Huddleston told me in an interview earlier this year.


But as America nervously sees if Ethiopia could remain stable in the post Meles era, Obama’s re-election could mean that the likes of Susan Rice would seat on their hands during his presidency.


With the expected retirement of Hillary Clinton as America’s top diplomat, Rice could rise in the ranks and might even be the next Secretary of State.


But Rice has not always done right by Africa.


“If we use the word “genocide” and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?” Rice is infamously quoted as saying during her service under President Bill Clinton when the US chose to do nothing to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.


Rice has been later described as a “bystander to genocide”. Even her successful campaign to unite the divided UN Security Council to depose Libya’s late leader did not help.


With most of Ethiopian opposition hardliner activists upset with Susan Rice’s moving encomium to Meles at his funeral service, Obama’s re-election might not be good news for them as it would also mean that she would become more powerful in dictating Washington’s polices to Addis Ababa. But both are likely to happen.


| Kirubel Tadesse is a freelance journalist and Associated Press writer in Addis Ababa.