Prof. Belay Seyoum
March 4, 2021
US-Ethiopian relations go back to 1903 when Emperor Menelik II and US representative Robert Skinner signed a treaty of Commerce and agreed to exchange representatives to strengthen relations between the two countries. Since that time, relations between the two countries have been strong except during the brief Italian occupation (when the consulate was closed) and during the time of the Derg due to its links with international communism and gross human rights abuses. Over the last few decades, the US has increased its economic involvement in Ethiopia and has relied on Ethiopia to support its war on terrorism and to deal with regional instability.
Since the fall of the TPLF-dominated regime, US policy on Ethiopia has not been even handed and at times hostile to the interests of the country. Most people believe that this misguided US foreign policy is a result of the influence of highly paid lobbyists of the previous regime and hostile governments that attempt to promote their national interest by weakening the country and not based on realities on the ground.
Lobbying is now a multimillion-dollar industry in which US law firms and PR companies work with foreign governments and rebel organizations to shape US foreign policy. For example, in May 2019, Hifter, commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army hired a Texas-based lobbying firm for $2 million to influence US government policy. The rebel group has been accused of war crimes for its deadly military offensive on Tripoli in which many innocent civilians were injured and killed. Other armed groups and secessionist organizations have worked with US lobbying firms. The TPLF has recently hired a Washington-based firm to distort US foreign policy on Ethiopia. The subculture of public relations and lobbying reflects a steady decline and privatization of US diplomacy. Lobbyists are distorting US foreign policy and would like the US government to see the narrow ethnic interests of TPLF as the national interest.
Here are the reasons why most Ethiopians believe that the US government is pursuing a wrong and potentially dangerous foreign policy on Ethiopia. If this policy continues, it will have an injurious impact on US-Ethiopia relations.
First, a brief background to the conflict maybe appropriate here. As TPLF members saw the impending decline in their role and influence within the new Federal government (2018-2019), they withdrew from the coalition and took active measures to destabilize the regime. There is increasing evidence (based on reports from Human rights groups) that most of the violence and displacement of people over the last three years was organized and supported by the TPLF. Their actions represented a state of de facto autonomy as they refused to abide by or enforce Federal law in the region. As their efforts to bring down the government failed to materialize, TPLF attacked and seized a major Federal military base located in Tigray province on November 04, 2020 and effectively declared war on the government. This situation led to a direct military confrontation between TPLF and the Federal government and has resulted in thousands of casualties and deaths.
US policy makers state that atrocities have been committed in the embattled state. In the prosecution of wars (which was started by the TPLF to take over the central government), innocent people die on both sides. US policymakers forget to mention the major atrocity committed by the TPLF in Mai Kadra in which hundreds of innocent Amharas were killed and buried in shallow graves. It is also disingenuous for US policymakers to request Ethiopia to end hostilities when the remnants of TPLF militia continue to create havoc by killing innocent civilians and destroying generators and attacking high voltage lines carrying electricity to the city. They have caused incalculable economic damage in the Tigray state: destroyed bridges, airports, mosques, churches and private homes. It will take years to repair this damage visited upon the state by TPLF. US policy is also based on a critical fallacy because it draws a false moral equivalence between the Federal government that is attempting to repair the damage and destruction caused by the TPLF and the TPLF (a rogue tribal outfit) that declared war on the central government and perpetrated all this damage in Tigray. This does not appear to be a well thought out foreign policy and reflects the work of hired guns for the TPLF. Furthermore, by requiring “an independent investigation into atrocities, and human rights violations in Tigray”, it is interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. The principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries is an important principle of international law that commits countries to the doctrine of sovereign equality.
Secondly, the State Department press statement requests Ethiopia to withdraw outside forces from Tigray including troops from the Amhara region and Eritrea. This also shows a poor understanding of what took place in the country during the conflict. TPLF forces attacked the neighboring Amhara region and were repelled by the Federal and Amhara forces who also took back parts of Amhara territory that was forcibly taken by the TPLG regime. These areas were part of Amhara region from times immemorial but were forcibly incorporated into the Tigray region to settle Tigray combatants. Leaving these areas under Tigray would lead to a continuation of communal violence. However, this matter has not been completely settled. About a year ago, a commission was established to investigate the historical and legal issues pertaining to the status of these areas and make recommendations to the government.
The US Department press statement also requires the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray region. There are no confirmed reports to show that Eritrean forces were involved in the war other than statements made by TPLF and its sympathizers. During the war, TPLF militia fighters fired rockets targeting the Eritrean capital and Asmara airport. Eritrea has consistently denied their involvement in the conflict and declined to respond to TPLF provocations. Furthermore, there were reports of TPLF fighters with Ethiopian and Eritrean army uniforms. Ethiopian forces also found a warehouse full of Ethiopian and Eritrean army uniforms. It makes one wonder whether TPLF fighters were impersonating Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers to commit crimes in Tigray. Regardless of the issue relating to Eritrean involvement in the war, there is a larger question of whether Ethiopia has a right to request foreign military or logistical assistance. International law allows individual states to request for military assistance in response to a particular situation that has arisen in the country. Over the last few decades, the large majority of foreign military assistance have been extended to individual states on the basis of an agreement. Examples include the French military operation in Mali (2013), the Ugandan operation in S. Sudan (2014-2015), the Russian military presence in Syria since 2015 and the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen since 2015.
After three decades of gross human rights violations and economic plunder by the TPLF regime, Ethiopia is making tentative steps at making democratic reforms and promoting national unity. US policy toward Ethiopia should support ongoing political and economic reforms. The country faces massive social, economic and political challenges. Political instability, economic decline and human flight is not in US economic and security interest. The US should also support Ethiopia in its efforts to enforce rule of law. This includes apprehension and prosecution of TPLF officials (inside and outside the country) that committed crimes, and implicated in money laundering and other financial crimes.
US policy toward Ethiopia is at a crossroads. Will the US play a constructive role in Ethiopia and become part of the solution or part of the problem? Will it stand with the Ethiopian people and support its fledgling political and economic reforms, national reconciliation efforts and strengthen respect for and protection of human rights or will it side with the TPLF-a criminal organization that caused enormous suffering to the Ethiopian people and plundered their resources. The Ethiopian people will always remember those who stood by them during these difficult times. Ethiopia will continue with or without America but it is good to be on the right side of history. It is always better to make efforts to hear from the Ethiopian people than to base foreign policy decisions on statements by TPLF, their lobbyists and sympathizers that are not credible.