By Amanuel Biedemariam,
How can one measure US policy successes or failures? What are US interests in the Horn of Africa? How it is pursued and how effective is it? What did President Obama’s visit to Kenya and Ethiopia signal? Furthermore, can US interest in the HOA only be seen through the lenses of fighting terrorism? These are some of the questions on the minds of the people of the region and beyond.
On the surface there are no clear answers. The reality however, the US does not have a uniform Horn of Africa policy per se. US policies may appear to vary from country to country. However, a closer look reveals that the US does not have or, for that matter, need a country or region specific foreign policy thus far.
There are four pillars to US foreign policy objectives in Africa and Red Sea basin: Geo-strategic, Economic, Counter terrorism and Security. The process by which these policies are pursued can vary and at times overlap but the goal remains to dominate and achieve complete control. And the US invests tremendous resources and time to ensure that these objectives are met.
As a result, for the past 70 years post World War II, the US has managed to impose its will while competing with the former Soviet Union. However, after the end of the cold war in 1991, the fall of the Soviet Union accorded the US unchallenged control as well as opportunity to set global agendas in line with US interests.
Since, the US has managed to assert control by breaking Africa into four regional quadrants with each region having an anchor state. With this approach the US can manage its affairs without having to deal with individual countries on a bilateral basis.
In East and Horn of Africa (the region in focus), Ethiopia has been the designated regional anchor through which US funnels its agenda. Ethiopia has been and remains central for US Africa policies in many ways.
As home of the African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia is the center of African diplomatic activities. The US uses Addis Ababa to reach African leaders from one location. Significant presence in Ethiopia gives US unprecedented access to African leaders, regional groupings and most importantly accesses to AU committees that-set the Agendas. Using these channels the US controls the methodology, language and legal approaches.
As a result, most of the issues the African Union deals with are indirectly initiated and heavily influenced by the US. However, and in order to give the appearance that these agendas are African initiatives; organizations such as The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), with member states from the Horn of Africa (HOA) are used as sponsors and presenters of the desired agenda to the international community at the UN and ultimately to the UNSC.
When it comes to economic relations, successive US administrations have focused more on achieving the geopolitical agendas while doing very little on the economic front. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), that the US hails is designed to offer, “Tangible incentives for African countries to continue their efforts to open their economies and build free markets.” However it has done very little particularly in comparison to China that spends billions geared at developing Africa’s infrastructures.
Moreover, even when a country is in good terms, there are many political considerations and hurdles that limit nations from taking full advantage of AGOA. These are political considerations, human rights related issues and other preconditions. As a result, African achievements have little to do with trade relations and the US.
Challenges to US Policies
The greatest challenge for future US Africa relations is lack of transparency, policies that are driven by individuals with interests, lack of flexibility when formulating policies and lack of respect to the opinions and needs of the African countries being influenced by these policies. Compounded by hubris and belief that the US can impose its will unchallenged-forever, flexibility and pragmatic approach to evaluating policy in order to make necessary changes is not possible.
On October 18, 2015, during a conference in Washington DC, with a theme, “The present and future relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia,” one of the participants, Ambassador Herman Cohen, Former Assistant Secretary of State for African affairs revealed that Eritrea’s relation with the United States is unlikely to change during the term of office of President Barack Obama. Former Ethiopian diplomat Dr. Kassa Kebede echoed the same sentiment when he said,
“So long as Susan Rice is advising the president, it is not likely that the US can change its policies and approach.”
The situation in the HOA of Africa is interconnected. What takes place in Somalia will influence Ethiopia. Similarly, developments in Ethiopia can influence Eritrea and vise versa.
However these realities are not reflected with the Obama administration that has placed all their eggs on the ruling minority clique’s basket ignoring the people and placing American long term interests on shaky grounds. The US had the best ally that is the people of Ethiopia. In the past Ethiopians have entrusted the US to be a neutral arbiter concerned about the people and democracy. After several rigged elections that the US supported and accepted as legitimate democratic practices, Ethiopians have given up on the US and particularly the Obama administration all together.
At the conference, Ethiopians repeatedly stated how disappointed they were with the Obama administration particularly in light of the fact that Ambassador Susan Rice burst with laughter after she was asked in White House press briefing about the legitimacy of the 100% claim of election results by Ethiopian authorities. Rice reaffirmed the legitimacy and as such the Administration’s position of support while she could not contain her laughter. These happened while president Obama was en-route to Ethiopia as the first sitting American president to ever attend the African Union Summit in Ethiopia. Unfortunately, president Obama reiterated Susan Rice’s position.
The Battle of the Hearts and Minds
On October 23, 2015, Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT), the most widely viewed and followed opposition network reported,
“Ethiopian delegation, that comprises senior officials from the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs, has unsuccessfully tried to convince the Russian government that broadcasting of news and programming from ESAT were a threat to the peace and security of Ethiopia.”
Two key points: 1) that Ethiopian authorities are unable to dictate messages unchallenged due to the fact that ESAT can now broadcast into Ethiopia unimpeded. This gives the people of Ethiopia alternative thus a choice and ultimately mechanisms to enable them change governance and, 2) that Russian satellites are playing a role in the toppling of the dying minority regime in Ethiopia. In the past Ethiopian authorities have managed to pressure satellite providers to stop ESAT broadcasts through their networks successfully. Why are Russian authorities taking this position?
Changing Geopolitical Tides
Russia’s bold moves in Syria represent a sign of fast changing world. Russia moves serve as advertisement to nations that yearned for alternative to US dominated global agendas and military prowess. By brazenly standing against the west in Syria, Russia opened a new world order and as a result the sphere of its influence will grow.
There are evidences that support these facts. On June 18, 2015, Al Arabiya News Channel stated, “Saudi Arabia and Russia also signed six agreements about the peaceful use of nuclear technology.” Furthermore, on September 2015, Ynetnews.Com reported, “An oil reservoir has been discovered in the Golan Heights, Israeli Energy Company Afek officially revealed on Monday.”
Russia and Saudi Arabia are major oil producers. Additional oil particularly oils that Israel controls could further hasten competition and threaten to lower oil prices further. This development could likely change the geopolitical realities of the region.
These are some developments that hint to shifting interests in the Red Sea basin and the Mediterranean Sea. Egypt’s Stand in Syria has also shifted mainly due to these developments. During the September UN gathering Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in subsequent interviews stated that Egypt would like to see the sovereignty and integrity of the Syrian government intact.
Another development that show new challenges to US dominance; on October 1, 2015 The Free Gatestone Institute reported,
“Mr. Guelleh has intensified his efforts to form a strategic partnership with China, which is keen to expand its military presence throughout the African continent. China, which is already contracted to build a railway linking Djibouti to Ethiopia, has negotiated a $400 million deal to develop Djibouti’s port facilities, a development Pentagon officials believe will lead to China establishing its own military presence just a few miles from the highly sensitive Camp Lemonnier complex.”
Failed HOA Policies
America’s foreign policy approaches heavily depends upon US’s moral high ground, military might, economic prowess and sophisticated political machinery that dominate global agendas. At the current stage US influence in the HoA is steadily waning.
Morally: the moral high ground that the US held for a long time is now in question based on developments of the last 17 years. Here are some of the reasons why:
- Consistently supporting a minority clique at the expense of millions in the region that at one time believed on American neutrality and judiciousness.
- Disregard to international law by siding with the minority regime that openly brazenly violating legal, international and binding Eritrea Ethiopia arbitration finding by the courts in The Hague.
- Disregard to humanity by overlooking atrocities and genocides committed by the minority Ethiopian regime throughout Ethiopia.
- By manipulating International process brazenly in order to impose sanctions on Eritrea and continue it unreasonably without justification.
- By callously supporting the Ethiopian minority clique’s claims of 100% election victories
These are some of the reasons why the Obama administration can no longer claim a moral high ground and as a result America’s position as a neutral arbiter is severely diminished.
Lack of political space and unfair international diplomatic practices by the US is leading the people of the region to find solutions independent from US influences by challenging the situation in the ground. As a result, fast changes are taking place outside the sphere of US influences. Increasingly, the ability of US to control the messages and outcome is declining as witnessed in South Sudan.
Politically: as China, Russia and other competitors gain momentum, the ability of the US to dominate is fast-falling because nations are no longer interested to ensure US interests when they have better alternatives to ensure their own interests.
Economically: compared to China that spends billions in Africa, the US approach to economic relations with Africa has been and remains insignificant. It lacks leadership, vision, transparency and direction. In fact it is safe to say that the US has no visible economic presence in the HOA.
Diplomatically: What did Obama’s visit to Ethiopia and meeting with the African leaders accomplish? The gathering of African leaders in Washington did nothing to bolster Obama’s policies and image. Similarly, his visit to Ethiopia were dominated by Susan Rice’s laughter and showed no substantive policy direction that Africans can embrace.
Militarily: US military involvement in the HOA is largely dependent on troops funded by the US. Unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, US forces depend on Ethiopian and other client states for troops. These approaches are unsustainable. The tyrannical regimes that the US supports will inevitably fall and will be replaced by the people, possibly with Russia’s influence.
The Obama administration’s Africa policy is driven by one principal actor and that is Ambassador Susan Rice. From the time that she served as the US Ambassador to the United Nations and as the National Security Advisor, Rice remains the gate-keeper and the brain trust behind Obama’s Africa policy. Rice is and has been a disaster to Africa from her days as Assistant Secretary of State that callously overlooked the Rwandan Genocides and botched Eritrea Ethiopia mediation efforts that eventually lead to the death of over 200,000 African youth. It is unfortunate to see major American foreign policy initiative controlled by one individual essentially creating a dinosaur-syndrome with small brain and large body that is being taken to task by other players such as China. Rice’s approach to dealing with Africa, (whether it is the leader’s conference or Obama’s Ethiopia trip) is nothing but gimmicks. It lacks substance, vision, direction and it will certainly damage long term US interests.
Susan Rice has been and remains a black eye for Africa. Her legacies will reverberate for decades on a negative light. If the Obama administration is willing to impact future US Africa relations to better serve the needs of the continent and US, replacing Rice with robust brain trust to enrich the thought process, the vision and long term direction is the first step. Secondly, rejecting old policies and establishing bilateral relations based on a pragmatic approach will go a long way.
Otherwise, and unfortunately, the legacy of the first Black American president will be that of Ambassador Rice dark, bloody, failed and as such US’s global standing will be minimized!
Amanuel Biedemariam is an Eritrean activist and political analyst. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org