Obama and the prospects for democracy in Ethiopia
By F. Hager
Barack Obama will become the next president of the United States if all goes well in the next few days. Many Ethiopian-Americans are exuberant about the changes he will bring to America. They also hope his election will end the Bush Administration’s support for tyranny in Ethiopia.
But will an Obama administration be different when it comes to democracy in Ethiopia? Will the new team reevaluate the Bush administration’s coddling of human rights abusers in the name of fighting terrorism?
As things stand now, an Obama administration may not be all that different unless supporters of democracy make their case early and forcefully.
Why? Here are two reasons: 1) Ethiopia’s regime has found protectors in the American diplomatic, intelligence and military bureaucracy using tremendous financial resources at its disposal; and 2) at least two key Obama foreign policy advisors have historically been sympathetic to Ethiopia’s ruling group.
Obama’s top foreign policy advisor, Dr. Susan Rice, has a history of sympathy for the Zenawi regime. Rice was a member of the National Security Council and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affair under President Clinton.
Another troublesome Africa advisor to the Obama team is Gail Smith. Smith is also another NSC staffer during the Clinton years. She has a long and mysterious history of involvement with Ethiopia’s ruling Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF).
When Ethiopia’s current leaders were guerilla fighters, Gail Smith entered the then-province of Tigre through the Sudan, joined the fighters and spent considerable time promoting their cause. While she was a leading cheerleader of the TPLF, her husband, Don Connell, held the Eritrean franchise, espousing the Eritrean cause.
The personal interests of former diplomats and intelligence officials who have thrown their lot with the ruling party have complicated the Bush administration’s policy in Ethiopia.
Using tremendous financial resources at its disposal, Ethiopia ruling elite has carefully cultivated personal alliances with US diplomats stationed in Addis, State and Defense Department officials as well as people in the intelligence community.
In addition to clandestine contacts, Ethiopia’s ruling group has paid official Washington lobbyists enormous amounts of money to promote its image. By and large, this has been a successful strategy as the regime has literally gotten away with murder and with crimes against humanity.
There is a disturbing pattern of American officials keeping quiet whenever Ethiopia’s rulers violated human rights. These same diplomats later enter into mutually beneficial financial and other relationships with the ruling party.
Take, for example, the case of former US Ambassador Irvin Hicks. As soon as his ambassadorship ended, Mr. Hicks took employment with Sheik Mohammed Al-Amoudi – a businessman closely allied with the ruling party. Mr. Hicks was known for his inability to speak up against human rights abuses in the early years of the Zenawi administration.
Another example is Tibor Nagy, a former US Ambassador to Ethiopia. Mr. Nagy has been among the ardent defenders of Ethiopia’s leaders. Nagy wrote a 2007 New York Times op-ed piece (co-authored with another pro-regime former US Ambassador Vicki Huddleston) calling for the defeat of a human rights bill -- H.R. 2003: Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007.
Nagy leveraged his ambassadorship to Ethiopia to become Associate Provost at Texas Tech University. Upon returning to Texas, Nagy quickly established a sister university relationship between the ruling party’s Mekelle University and Texas Tech.
Ambassador Nagy was also instrumental in making exclusive arrangements for the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences to exhibit the “Lucy” fossils. Lucy is the famous and very fragile 3.2 million-year-old skeleton that had never left Ethiopia before. Many experts, including those at the Smithsonian, considered the move reckless. But thanks to Nagy’s influence Lucy was whisked away from Ethiopia secretly in the darkness of night.
Jendayi Frazer, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, is yet another high-level official with close ties to the Zenawi regime. Frazer first became enamored with the Zenawi group when she worked as a staffer at the National Security Council from 2001 to 2004.
Those were the years during which the Zenawi regime fabricated “evidence” of terrorists hiding behind every East African bush. It was also during these years that the foundations were laid for the secret Bush-Zenawi alliance that is now known as the African Guantanamo.
A lobbying group called the National Summit for Africa sponsored a 2004 exclusive event at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington. Jendayi Frazer was the main attraction and the keynote speaker.
Frazer has spent a disproportionate amount of time defending the Zenawi government since becoming Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in 2004.
Because the Bush Administration considered Zenawi a major regional operative in the so-called war on terror, Frazer justified various criminal activities by Ethiopia’s ruling group. Frazer had, for example, refused to speak up against the stealing of the 2005 elections and the subsequent massacre of civilians by Mr. Zenawi’s troops. She has also been among the architects and cheerleaders of the 2007 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia.
Once the sun sets on the Bush Administration and following in the footsteps of previous American diplomats, one should not be surprised if Frazer parlays her relationship with Ethiopia’s rulers into a personally beneficial arrangement
Africa has been a low priority for various US administrations. African countries are held in low esteem by the American foreign policy establishment. Consequently, bureaucrats assigned to Africa are not necessarily America’s best and the brightest. An Africa assignment usually comes right before retirement, making the functionaries susceptible to compromising their integrity in exchange for a comfortable retirement.
To their credit, Ethiopia’s leaders have understood this dynamic and taken full advantage of it. Influence buying has clearly paid off for the Ethiopian regime.
Compared to Ethiopia’s Zenawi, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe looks like a boy scout. Yet, American officials bent over backwards to play down Zenawi’s human rights abuses.
The United States used its power and influence to play a constructive role in several elections throughout the world. In Kenya, Pakistan Ukraine and Zimbabwe, the US put pressure on the incumbents to play fair, to make compromises and to respect the will of the people.
Ethiopia has been the exception. The government of Prime Minister Zenawi of Ethiopia stole the 2005 elections and brazenly massacred civilians when people took to the streets to protest. Security forces “fatally shot, beat or strangled” 193 people in June and November of 2005. Forty of the dead were teenagers, including a girl and a boy aged
The Bush administration refused to condemn the killings or put pressure on Zenawi to desist from further violence. The administration was willing to overlook Zenawi’s crimes because, among other things, Ethiopian leaders were collaborating on secret projects that included the kidnapping of East Africans suspected of terrorism. The self-serving information about terrorists was frequently supplied by the Ethiopian regime.
Ethiopian leaders were emboldened by the support from the United States. Some 40,000 people were thrown into hastily constructed concentration camps. Many opposition supporters and leaders were killed or jailed.
US support for democracy in Ethiopia rarely went beyond lip service. Behind the scenes, it was even worse. The Bush administration used both overt and covert means to support Zenawi’s illegal rule and his dismantling of the opposition. Ethiopia’s opposition was practically decimated overnight. The press was muffled; human rights advocates were threatened and thrown in jail. Whatever flicker of democracy that existed leading up to the 2005 elections were quickly extinguished.
The Ethiopian government has entrenched itself in the American civil, military and intelligence bureaucracy. Even a change in administration will not easily dislodge long-established relationships disguised as US policy interests.
We are not suggesting that Obama’s advisors -- Dr. Susan Rice or Gail Smith -- have already been corrupted by Ethiopia’s lobbyists. But they have not admitted their past mistakes -- the havoc and pain US support for an unpopular group has caused for 77 million Ethiopians.
There are suggestions even now that influential Obama advisors such as Dr. Rice are inclined to give “more time” to the thugs running this much-suffering nation. A continued support for Zenawi is frequently justified in terms of US interests.
Any more support for Ethiopia’s tormentors under any pretext is unconscionable and bodes ill for pro-democracy forces.
So-called foreign aid has been among the chief instruments in the oppression of Ethiopian people. Ethiopia’s regime presents a meek and honest face to foreign alms givers. (To Ethiopians, the Zenawi folks display an arrogant, disdainful and brutal face.) In return, the foreign enablers have generously rewarded the regime to the tune of $2 billion every year for the last 17 years.
Obligations of the Diaspora
Those of us in the Diaspora have an obligation and a new opportunity to come together and educate the international community about the duplicitous nature of Ethiopia’s leaders. We must:
- ¥ create an umbrella organization to expose the anti-democratic nature of the ruling Tigray Peoples Liberation Front;
- ¥ document the economic crimes;
- ¥ document regime atrocities and human rights abuses; and
- ¥ expose the regime by gathering facts and telling the truth to its enablers.
Now is the time to present our case to an Obama administration and to request that the Bush administration’s disastrous policies be immediately reviewed. Now is the time to ask that the United States disassociate itself from the oppressors of 77 million people.
The writer can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org