The northern Ethiopia conflict, the Ukraine war, and most recently the violence in the Gaza Strip have exposed inconsistencies, if not double standards, in the West. The US and its allies lined up behind Ukraine when war broke out in 2022, poured untold billions into Zelensky’s coffers, and condemned Russia for violating Ukrainian sovereignty and human rights.
When violence erupted in Gaza two months ago, the West was conspicuously silent on matters of sovereignty and human rights, at least on the side of Palestinians.
Despite the cessation of hostilities agreement November 2022 following two years of deadly conflict in the Ethiopian north, the cards are still on the table for the West, particularly the US.
Ethiopia was the topic of US Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa discussions last week titled ‘Ethiopia: Promise or Perils, the US State of Policy’.
Looking past US representatives’ usual habit of speaking with undue authority on the matters of a sovereign nation, the session hinted at strains in US-Ethiopia relations.
Human rights violations were once again at the top of the agenda, as were certain alliances recently forged by the Ethiopian federal government. US representatives are particularly upset about Ethiopia’s invitation to join BRICS, with some expressing the view that Ethiopia is transforming into a ‘rogue’ nation with strong ties to China and Russia.
“It appears that Ethiopia is leading an increasingly rapid regional arms race. Just three months ago the government of Ethiopia accepted an invitation to the BRICS country group,” said Republican Congressman John James, Committee chairman.
“It’s hard to see where the promise lies,” said James, referring to the title of the session he was leading in Washington, D.C.
“Prime Minister Abiy’s relations are increasingly going eastward. His decisions undermine basic issues of justice and transparency,” said Congressman Thomas Kean.
US lawmakers characterized Ethiopia’s entry into BRICS as a ploy for the supply of arms from other BRICS in a bid to establish itself as the regional power in the Horn of Africa.
“Countries like China and the UAE continue to establish strong relations with Ethiopia. These ties are moving to political and security spaces. Weapons supplied by the UAE were decisive factors in the Tigray conflict,” said James.
The Congressman accused the Ethiopian government of ‘using’ the US for financial gain, while relying on partners in the East for arms.
“Economically, Ethiopia is struggling with unchecked inflation, a severe foreign currency shortage, and a sinking credit rating. Without support from the [international financial institutions], it is expected that Ethiopia risks defaulting on its nearly 30 billion dollar external debt. In this situation, Ethiopia looks west – for our money. And it is relying on an IMF staff level agreement to sustain its economy. The American taxpayers are tired of being used,” said James.
The Committee members also tied Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) recent allusions to Ethiopia’s need for sea access to perceived efforts to establish the country as a regional power.
“About Ethiopia’s desire for a seaport, obviously we do not change international borders – almost ever,” said Congressman Brad Sherman.
The Congressman also expressed concerns of potential conflict in the Horn, hinting that the US does not hold any interest in helping Ethiopia secure access to a seaport.
It was none other than Special Envoy for the Horn Mike Hammer who had to try and point the Committee to the realities on the ground.
“[Ethiopian] port access has raised concerns not only for the US but also for other countries in the region. But the Prime Minister publicly said access to a part will be through a commercial and peaceful way. Certainly, the last thing this region needs is another war,” Hammer told the congressmen.
The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to the criticism or the allegations put forward by members of the US Congress.
Constantinos Berhutesfa (PhD), political analyst and former UN and AU official, believes the West has drastically misunderstood the recent developments in Ethiopia.
“The US is perceiving Ethiopia as a belligerent state, particularly since Ethiopia’s interest in port access surfaced,” he told The Reporter. “They think we are going to use force in Eritrea, Somalia, or Djibouti to get port access but this is a big misunderstanding. The Americans should know better, there are no such plans but if the Americans believe so, it is not surprising they conclude Ethiopia is in a regional arms race.”
The expert fears the miscommunication will affect aid when humanitarian needs are at their peak, given that the US is the largest donor.
Constantinos believes the tensions in US-Ethiopia relations since the latter’s invitation to join BRICS are unnecessary.
“The US believes that [Ethiopian] diplomacy has shifted from West to East but this is wrong” he said. “Ethiopia’s relations with China are purely economic.”
Fitsum Assefa (PhD), minister of Planning and Development, also agrees with the expert. At the side of COP28 in UAE, Fitsum has offered interview for foreign media. Asked about Ethiopia joining BRICS and the west’s fear over Ethiopia joining a new world order, she said “it has no political intention alienating the west or this block. It only helps our government to deliver the promises it made to its people, to improve lives and livelihoods. BRICS established its own bank. So there is possibility for Ethiopia to access finance. Currency elated matters are there. That is a plus for us, to deliver development promises.”
But the expert observes growing Chinese influence in the UN General Assembly also worries US officials.
“It is the public relations that matter,” he said. “Ethiopia needs to explain the issues to the US decision makers. It’s that simple.”
Constantinos argues that BRICS is an economic alliance, not a political one.
“BRICS is purely an economic bloc. The West began to see it as a political bloc only following the Ukraine war. Russia and China began trading without the dollar but they made this decision after the West excluded Russia from the global SWIFT system. Ethiopia’s joining BRICS has nothing to do with the US.”
The analyst argues the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s BRICS invitations are more pertinent to the US.
“If these countries stop trading fuel in [US] dollars, it will directly affect the US. Ethiopia is a very small player in BRICS. The West sees BRICS as a company owned by China. That is wrong,” he said.
Constantinos acknowledges relations with the East are crucial for Ethiopia.
“The East is still the savior of Ethiopia. The country’s biggest debt portion is owed to China,” he said.
A little over one-third of Ethiopia’s total foreign debt of close to USD 30 billion is owed to China. Ethiopian officials recently reached an agreement with foreign creditors for a two-year debt payment suspension. The suspension is dependent on an IMF Staff Level agreement set to be signed by March next year.
“The IMF, World Bank, and Paris Club were nagging Ethiopia and only decided to suspend debt service after China took the first move,” Constantinos said.
China and Ethiopia have reached a separate debt standstill agreement.
Some US Committee members suggested cutting off financial support to Ethiopia from international lenders like the IMF until it resolves land-dispute issues in Western Tigray and forces the withdrawal of Eritrean forces.
“The US tells the IMF and World Bank what to do because the US is the biggest shareholder in these institutions,” said Constantinos.
However, Hammer responded to the Committee by saying a freeze on financial support from the IMF would push the Ethiopian economy to collapse.
“Ethiopia is also facing macroeconomic challenges. Reserves are at their lowest in two decades. Inflation is in the double digits,” said Hammer. “The collapse of the Ethiopian economy would not be in the interest of the Ethiopian people, nor the interests of America.”
Despite the intense grilling session from the Committee, Hammer kept a balanced perspective towards Ethiopia.
“Our long-term aim is to promote reforms and peace to strengthen relationships between Ethiopia and the USA. We have been supporting peaceful dialogue and negotiations in Oromia and Amhara. We prioritize US taxpayers in all our engagements in Ethiopia, he said.
Special Envoy Hammer pointed out the disarmament of armed forces in Tigray is lagging, and Eritrean forces remain in Tigray, calling the cessation of hostilities agreement a “work in progress.”
“We are clear-eyed about the challenges in Ethiopia,” said Hammer.
Constantinos foresees a lot of homework ahead for Ethiopian officials in reaching an understanding with their American counterparts about the recent developments.
“Ethiopia should not sit back and watch while the Americans are complaining. In general, Ethiopia needs to develop the capacity to communicate in the international arena. The Ethiopian diaspora also needs to act as ambassadors, influencing the US decision makers in their constituencies,” he said.
The expert pointed to the international leniency and support granted to Israel as an example of foreign influence in US policy decisions.
However, Constantinos also criticizes the Ethiopian government for failing to address mistakes in domestic politics in time. He pointed to the presence of Eritrean troops in Ethiopia as an example.
“The [Ethiopian] government was saying there were no Eritrean forces in Ethiopia but then it was disclosed that they were present,” he said. “Such inconsistencies and misinformation kindle unnecessary suspicion from the US.”
Constantinos urges Ethiopian officials to be clear in their communications with foreign partners to encourage more positive relations.
“One of the issues that need clarification is the case of Eritrea. What were the agreements when Ethiopia normalized with Eritrea? What went wrong then? Where is the relationship heading now? All these should be properly communicated,” said the expert.
Constantinos, however, argues neither the US nor any foreign partners have the prerogative to intervene in the Western Tigray land dispute.
“These lands, and both regions, belong to Ethiopia and the Ethiopian government can and should administer as it sees fit. It is none of their business. The federal government can administer any part of Ethiopia as it sees it fit,” he said.