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Implications of the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit on Ethio-US Diplomatic Ties

US President Joe Biden has invited leaders from 49 of Africa’s 54 countries to a three-day US-Africa summit slated for December 13–15, 2022, in Washington, DC. Although the US administration has stated that it will engage with its African counterparts in a mutually respectful manner, the absence of leaders from Sudan, Mali, Eritrea, Burkina Faso, and Guinea from the summit’s list of guests is the polar opposite of mutual respect.

A review of US-Africa ties since Bill Clinton’s presidency demonstrates that the US administration’s focus on the African continent is more on governance than trade.

The Clinton administration was praised for developing a trade proposal to engage African states; however, subsequent US administrations ignored the Clinton administration’s impressive proposal, and the focus switched from what was deemed an African priority to a US one (namely, governance).

The idea of “good governance” started in the 1990s, and as expected, the United States used it as a policy tool to deal with governments of the Global South, especially those in Africa and Latin America.

Although the majority of these excluded countries have recently experienced some type of coup and the US asserts that it does not recognize illegitimate governments that seized power through a coup, this does not exactly apply to countries like Eritrea.

African leaders’ biggest complaint with their US counterparts has been the latter’s inclination to meddle in African nations’ domestic affairs as a precondition for collaboration throughout the years.

Since a similar summit with African leaders was set up eight years ago under former US President Barack Obama, it’s worth looking into why the Biden administration has invited African leaders to the current meeting.

This question leads us to consider the African continent’s place in global geopolitics.

Before recently, most of Africa’s states were divided because of their colonial pasts. This meant that the continent as a whole did not have the same geopolitical weight as other regions.

But the region’s growing cooperation with countries from the Global South, especially China, has made it clear that the US’s geopolitical interest in the continent, which it has been trying to downplay for decades, is in trouble.

Even though different US heads of state have said that Africa affects the future of the whole world, these statements have all been vague and have not been put into action.

However, Africa’s strength in greater global geopolitics has begun to be apparent when the continent is compelled to vote on international political concerns as a bloc. The US administration has also recognized that Africa as a continent is the largest voting bloc in the UN, accounting for about 30 percent of the voting power on global matters of common interest.

Because Africa has been a minor player in global trade, successive US administrations have viewed the region as less relevant, to the point where former US President Donald Trump used crude language to refer to African states and their leaders.

African states are collaborating with new global powers such as China, Russia, India, and others to establish a powerful and united Global South bloc. This would assist in balancing the world’s politics, which are currently dominated by the Global North.

Thus, one can wonder about the significance of the December US-Africa summit for the African continent in terms of capitalizing on the continent’s growing geopolitical importance by reinforcing African people’s goals through US-Africa collaboration.

It is impossible to claim that the planned US-Africa meeting is truly about Africa, and the summit is unlikely to provide an opportunity to entrench African goals. One could argue that the summit’s sole purpose is to weaken the ever-increasing coming together of the Global South, in which Africa has begun to emerge as a strong block over global issues of common concern, thereby indirectly dampening the positive influence that emerging global superpowers such as China, Russia, India, and others have on the continent.

In this dangerous situation, African leaders must be careful not to hurt the legitimate interests of their people in a way that can’t be fixed and give in to the tricky neocolonial goals that the US administration brought to the table and hid behind words like “human rights,” “democracy,” “anti-corruption,” and so on.

Summits’ implications for Ethio-US diplomatic ties

Ethiopia and the United States have had diplomatic ties since 1903, even though Ethiopia has had many different kinds of governments since then.

Ethiopia’s current administration is the successor of a minority-led government that was established in May 1991, when guerrilla groups took over the capital city of Addis Ababa after 17 years of control by a military group known as the Derg.

This coalition, afterwards known as the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), was largely dominate by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF-led EPRDF built a federally constituted state along ethnic lines, which is called “ethnic federalism.”

Following violent protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions, the TPLF-led EPRDF’s 27-year iron fist power grab came to an end in April 2018. The EPRDF appointed Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister of Ethiopia.

Upon taking office, Abiy released thousands of prisoners, allowed exiled dissidents to return, unblocked hundreds of media outlets, restored relations with Eritrea, and implemented a number of other reforms that the TPLF-led EPRDF had been reticent to enact throughout its 27-year reign.

In December 2019, the Prime Minister disbanded the ethnic-based EPRDF and established the Prosperity Party to promote inclusivity, economic progress, and development.

Although the prime minister’s decision to form a new political party and end the EPRDF’s political history was applauded by the majority of Ethiopians, particularly in the Ethiopian Somali, Benishangul, Afar, and Gambella regions, it was vehemently opposed by the TPLF.

Furthermore, while Abiy was acclaimed and even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the 20-year political impasse between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the TPLF strongly disagreed with the Prime Minister’s political actions to terminate the “no peace, no war” scenario between the two nations.

Unfortunately, the TPLF was able to use this development to obtain the backing of the US government, which has historically been anti-Eritrean, and therefore the partnership of Addis Ababa and Asmara was viewed by US officials as a prescription for disaster for the US’s geopolitical interests in the Horn of Africa.

Although the TPLF is known in the West as an ethnic supremacist movement and was once considered a terrorist organization on its websites, it has also worked as a proxy for the US’s foreign policy interests in the Horn of Africa since the 1980s.

Despite this, the US supported Ethiopia’s TPLF dictatorship, regardless of its tainted human rights record and awful governance.

Ethiopia’s attitude and policy response to the US’s interventionist tactic

The question of who initiated the horrific struggle, as repeatedly stated by the Ethiopian government, independent reporters, and TPLF soldiers themselves, is a moot one that requires no further investigation.

However, it is worth mentioning that throughout the crisis, the US and its European allies have constantly put disproportionate pressure on the Federal Government while completely ignoring the reality that the TPLF is the cause of the devastation.

The Western media’s pro-TPLF propaganda and fake news about this tragic battle had effectively concealed the truth that the war exploded on November 3, 2020, due to the TPLF’s sudden attack on the Ethiopian National Defense Force’s (ENDF) unprepared Northern Command.

Western governments, particularly the US, which continued to meddle in Ethiopia’s internal affairs, blamed the federal government for the violence.

The nature of the confrontation between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF is well known to Biden’s administration officials, notably those in the US State Department.

“It seems that the TPLF leaders were doing this to depose the Prime Minister from power and to reassert themselves in the prominent position that they had in the Ethiopian political spectrum for the past 27 years,” said Tibor Nagy, the US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs and former US Ambassador to Ethiopia under the Trump administration.

Despite being well aware of the TPLF’s totalitarian background and political ambitions, the US administration has diplomatically and politically supported the TPLF.

The White House invited seasoned Ethiopian politicians, some of whom had done time in prison for corruption, to a conference to create a transitional government in Ethiopia a few months ago. The summit failed to fulfill its goal because the politicians could not agree on Ethiopia’s future direction.

Following that, the postponed election was held on June 23, and the Prime Minister’s Prosperity Party won a landslide victory, firmly cementing Abiy as Ethiopia’s democratically elected leader.

However, the effort to overthrow Abiy’s government proceeded in Washington.

On November 5, nine political groups in Washington signed an agreement with the TPLF to form a transitional government, most likely with the White House’s support, coordination, and assistance, and with much fanfare from some Western media outlets.

Furthermore, the US administration maintained pressure on Abiy’s government by imposing economic penalties and threatening to impose more until Abiy yielded to US demands.

Biden signed an executive order on September 17, 2021, enabling the Treasury Department to impose economic sanctions on chosen government leaders, claiming that Ethiopia constitutes a “national security” threat to the United States.

However, no skill is required to defend the reality that Ethiopia has neither the capability nor the will to disrupt US national security interests in the US or elsewhere on the globe. Biden’s claim that Ethiopia poses a national security danger to the United States is a complete fabrication designed to excuse his administration’s actions.

A few months later, he supported the removal of Ethiopia from AGOA’s (African Growth and Opportunity Act) special trade rights for African countries, and he introduced two measures (H.R. 6600 and S. 3199) to inflict even tougher sanctions on the Ethiopian government.

The Biden administration promises to support Ethiopian democracy, peace, and national unity. The truth is just the reverse.

By aiding the TPLF, the US administration has jeopardized Ethiopia’s territorial integrity and stability. Ethiopians have witnessed the hypocrisy of the Biden administration.

Conscious of the US and its western allies’ unwarranted influence on the Ethiopian government’s domestic affairs, the latter openly rejected and condemned the US’s one-sided policies in many forums.

Furthermore, the US’s hand-twisting approach to dealing with Ethiopia’s duly elected government has fueled fervent anti-American sentiment and a growing nationalism among Ethiopians living at home and abroad. Ethiopians have organized multiple public rallies protesting the Biden administration’s actions and asking that foreign interference, particularly that from the US, be stopped.

Despite the US government’s increasingly intrusive measures in Ethiopia, the Abiy administration never wavered. On several occasions, he reminded the nation that Ethiopia is defending itself against a planned proxy war.

In his presentation to the House of Peoples’ Representatives, Abiy categorically rejected the US’ approach to foreign policy in the Horn of Africa, saying, “And those countries that are trying to exert undue pressure on us should understand that except for a mutual give-and-take approach, hand-twisting foreign policy tactics will never work in my administration. Some of your countries that are attempting to tell us how we must deal with our internal problems did not exist when we Ethiopians established and exercised a centralized governance system.”

Furthermore, in his recent address to the UN General Assembly, Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen reiterated Ethiopia’s opposition to any form of meddling in its internal affairs under the guise of unfettered humanitarian access in Ethiopia’s war-torn territories.

He went on to say that “any interventionist approach, including the politicization of human rights and unilateral coercive actions, will deliver no positive results.”

In his presentation to UN member states, Taye Atske Selassie (Amb.), Ethiopia’s permanent representative to the UN, denounced the US and its allies for their unrelenting, unfair pressure on Ethiopia. “The West has not ceased to demonize Ethiopia and its government as we have refused to bow to their demands. What we heard from the US and the EU was a warning rather than a message of peace.”

“But, as a country that has gone through ebbs and tides of political problems and as a proud African country that has faced many challenges in the past, I would like to remind the members that we will most certainly overcome the challenges that we are facing today,” the Ambassador added.

With the ENDF’s march deep into the Tigray region, the war in the northern part of Ethiopia appears to have ended in recent weeks. In addition to signing a peace agreement with the government, TPLF commanders have agreed to silence their weapons, relinquish their heavy artillery, disarm, and withdraw their combatants.

The disaster in which the US currently finds itself, pitting a duly elected government against a hugely unpopular organization that the US has supported at all levels; best exemplifies the failure of US foreign policy.

Lawrence Freeman, a well-known political and economic analyst for Africa, and other scholars have stated that the US’ ongoing support of the TPLF has irreparably damaged its relationship with Ethiopia.

With the conclusion of the war and the signing of a peace accord that the TPLF was forced to sign due to battlefield losses, the Ethiopian government now holds the upper hand in its diplomatic relations with the US and its Western allies.

At least in Ethiopia, where the ENDF emerged victorious after two years of violent conflict, the US’s hand-twisting foreign policy strategy has proven to be ineffective.

But so-called human rights groups have kept saying that Abiy and his government have broken human rights, even after the peace deal was signed.

Some of them appear dissatisfied with the outcome of the peace agreement.

Amnesty International, for example, has criticized the South African peace treaty, saying that it “fails to provide a clear path on how to secure accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity and overlooks rampant impunity in the country, which could lead to repeat violations.”

Human rights groups should have been happy that the war ended with a peace agreement, which is the most important thing that can be done to protect human rights. Instead, they have continued to criticize the Ethiopian government and asked the Biden administration to pull the prime minister’s invitation to the US-Africa summit in December.

Human Rights Watch has recently requested that Abiy, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, and Salva Kiir of South Sudan be removed from the list of summit delegates.

According to Human Rights Watch, hosting these leaders at the White House sends the message that the US government places less priority on human rights. It urged the US administration to promote human rights, democratic governance, and people-centered diplomacy in its new engagement with African nations.

The White House stated that Ethiopia’s President, Sahlework Zewde, will represent the country at the Summit. Human rights’ being used as a political tool is a mistake that the Ethiopian government has spoken out against many times.

Although Abiy’s name appeared on the initial list of invitees, it was later revealed that the invitation was addressed to the Ethiopian Head of State but not the Head of Government.

The Ethiopian Constitution says that the prime minister and his Council of Ministers have all political power, including the power to make, manage, and carry out the country’s foreign policy.

Therefore, the President of Ethiopia has no constitutional authority to influence political decisions. In light of this, the President’s presence at this summit is less significant, if not completely irrelevant.

Credible allegations indicate that Biden’s administration has been influenced by the unwarranted lobbying of human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch. By inviting the Ethiopian Head of State, the Biden administration intends to demonstrate its goodwill toward the Ethiopian people (since the Constitution of Ethiopia states that the President of Ethiopia is the Head of State), but not their government.

Even if the Biden administration does not enjoy the unpleasant reality, the current government of Ethiopia, led by Abiy, was formed by a public vote, which the Biden administration itself properly acknowledged.

Therefore, tacitly delegitimizing a lawful government is a display of total contempt for the people it serves.

Contributed by Yebalneh D

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