Trump’s tweets are felt in Ethiopia. Washington should use its power wisely

Mekonnen Firew Ayano

Anti-democratic attitudes in America helped to scrub our election, while US-Nile geopolitics could become a powder keg

When US presidents comment on events in other countries, their remarks have impact.

When, for example, President Barack Obama congratulated the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) on an apparent landslide election victory in 2015, it signalled to some Ethiopians that the world’s most powerful country would not favour a legal challenge to the election results.

The EPRDF became even more aggressive in jailing opponents. Less than a year after the election, people took to the streets to protest. Many died in the protests and the economy neared collapse, leading to leadership change in 2018 and a wave of promising democratic reforms.

Statements by US officials on their internal affairs can likewise have international impact. After Donald Trump tweeted that November’s presidential election should be postponed on account of the pandemic, an Ethiopian government-affiliated media conglomerate ran it as its main story.

It mattered in Ethiopia because it could be used to justify the decision by the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, to postpone the country’s elections which were to have taken place on 29 August, citing Covid-19 as the reason. Trump’s words hold significance for both government supporters and critics because many Ethiopians once looked to the US as a champion of democracy and the rule of law.

The numerically small, but politically powerful urban middle class supported the postponement, but critics pointed out that the government’s lack of an electoral mandate could be as perilous as the pandemic. This concern was well-founded. After the killing in June of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, a famous singer and leader of anti-government protests, more than 160 people died in violent clashes along ethnic and religious lines. The government has also jailed a large number of people, including Jawar Mohammed, a Stanford University graduate and de facto leader of the mass protests against the EPRDF between 2015 and 2018.

On top of that, on 31 July, Ethiopia’s federal parliament, essentially controlled by the prime minister’s party, issued an ultimatum against the Tigray regional government, which has decided to hold local and regional elections in defiance of Addis Ababa. The regional government is controlled by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which lost its dominant position in the federal government and within EPRDF in 2018. The TPLF government in Tigray commands paramilitary forces with considerable capability. It is now defying the federal government with military parades and counter-threats.

The current lack of effort by the US and other western governments to promote robust democratic and legal institutions in Ethiopia is conspicuous
The current lack of effort by the US and other western governments to promote robust democratic and legal institutions in Ethiopia and east Africa generally is conspicuous. From the Ethiopian perspective, the apparent weakening of political institutions in the US and its ramifications are matters for alarm.

Not only are Trump’s tweets and actions bolstering anti-democratic values, but fears are growing that the US government is attacking the management of Ethiopia’s water resources to bolster its geopolitical interests. In the past, US Department of State officials played an important and often constructive role in Ethiopia’s domestic political development. Today, the US secretary of the treasury is understood to be bypassing the state deparment and flouting diplomatic protocols in supporting Egypt in the dispute between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan over the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam.

A US-mediated “deal” on the sharing of the Nile might achieve temporary goals that Egypt and the US can showcase. But easing political and economic tensions in a region of wide security concern requires paying serious attention to simmering but grave domestic issues, which, if left unchecked, could lead to new authoritarianism or even civil war.

Youth unemployment is extremely high, and likely to get worse with the pandemic. Food insecurity is on the rise
An imminent danger facing Ethiopia is the violence against ethnic and religious minorities as dominant groups assert radical, nativist claims to land. Youth unemployment is extremely high, and likely to get worse with the pandemic and intensifying tensions. Food insecurity is on the rise.

While the US and European countries have provided substantial financial support over the past few years for economic reforms, the Ethiopian government’s reform efforts today are focused on renovating the prime minister’s Addis Ababa palace.

Lenders directly and indirectly financing such vanity projects, and propping up authoritarian governments, have a moral duty to citizens and should insist leaders have a legitimate electoral mandate. Otherwise, they will have to answer to the generations who will inherit these debts and may raise legal questions when the loans must be repaid.

More informed signalling from Washington at this precarious time for Ethiopia could help to reduce tensions within Ethiopia and between its neighbours. But whether that happens now depends on who wins office in the US in November.

• Mekonnen Firew Ayano is visiting assistant professor of law at University of Missouri School of Law

Democracy is in peril …
… ahead of this year’s US election. Donald Trump is busy running the largest misinformation campaign in history as he questions the legitimacy of voting by mail, a method that will be crucial to Americans casting their vote in a pandemic. Meanwhile, the president has also appointed a new head of the US Postal Service who has stripped it of resources, undermining its ability to fulfill a crucial role in processing votes.

This is one of a number of attempts to suppress the votes of Americans – something that has been a stain on US democracy for decades. The Voting Rights Act was passed 55 years ago to undo a web of restrictions designed to block Black Americans from the ballot box. Now, seven years after that law was gutted by the supreme court, the president is actively threatening a free and fair election.

5 Comments

  1. Abiy Ahmed should fire Gedu Andargachew . Gedu Andargachew single handedly is costing Ethiopia too much .
    – US is withholding aid money.
    – Egypt is beating the war drum.
    -UN is considering sanctions.
    -China decided to collect debts with full interest.
    -Ethiopian currency Birr and the Ethiopian passport lost value worldwide.
    -Algiers agreement is not respected by Ethiopia……..

  2. Trump is the dumbest person on the planet. That’s why we will say good bye to him in November and restore relation with America’s oldest diplomatic partner in Africa in short order. Vote Biden! We shall win!!!!

  3. Why is it that people have this illusion that the American government cares about democracy outside of US borders. They don’t. Wether it’s Trump or war monger Biden the US empire only cares to extend its control over the world. Trump or Biden or Obama don’t control foreign policy. Foreign policy is controlled by the military industrial intelligence complex. The presidents are temporary occupiers of the office. They don’t give a rats ass about this concept called democracy especially outside their country so don’t fool yourselves. They don’t care about us as long as their interests in the region are handled. If we had leaders worth a damn Our relationship with them should be strategic the same as Israel. Let’s not fool ourselves For now we are their lackies we are their servants because our dependence on them is too great. What do you think will happen if IMF or World Bank or EU decide not to subsidize our government. And I think we all know who controls or has large influence on these institutions. We have to find ways to be self sufficient.

  4. C’mon Professor Ayano….Wether it is Trump or Biden the war monger they are temporary occupants. I prefer Trump he will at least tell you close to the truth like when he said that the US is in Iraq and Syria to take the oil. He called Africa Sh&**Hole countries I don’t agree but I guarantee that is the same type of way Biden and others think of us. Tell me what you think honestly then I will know how to deal with you. The military intelligence industrial complex runs foreign policy. The US Empire’s foreign policy is primarily a short term outlook not a long term when it comes to Africa. Look what they did to Libya and what they are doing in the Sahel. When has the US ever truly cared about democracy outside it’s own borders. It is childish to continue perpetrating this false narrative the the US empire is the beacon of anything. The empire cares about it’s self interest, natural resources and global domination. To think otherwise is silly and dangerous. We should try and make our country better not by looking to some foreign empire to give us direction and legitimacy but by fixing our internal problems. Unfortunately we have Europeanized and Westernized know nothings like Abiy who are trying to recreate Ethiopia in their own Oromized image. The west prefers Abiy who is unable to create stability and a strong Ethiopia so that they can take advantage of the situation either to take natural resources easily due to curruption and liberalize the economy so their mutli nationals can come and dominate. Look at the DR of Congo whose multi nationals and mercenaries do you think are landing in makeshift airstrips to pick up the valuable minerals for next to nothing in terms of cost. C’mon now… All of this promoting democracy overseas is a show

  5. Trump has lost control of Foreign policy, domestic policy and all policy. Rest assured Biden will take control on the day of inauguration and restore the soul of America. Vote Biden! We shall win!!!!

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