“This change happened because Ethiopians demanded it”
Nicholas Barnett is the outgoing press officer at the US Embassy in Addis Ababa. He served in Addis Ababa for the past three years during which he met a lot of people, traveled across the country and learned much about the history, culture and people of Ethiopia. Brook Abdu of The Reporter sat with Barnett to discuss his stay in Addis where he reflects on issues ranging from the transition in Ethiopia to media freedom and the upcoming elections. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Let’s begin by discussing your expectation and your impression before and after coming to Ethiopia three years ago. Were there any disparities about what you expected to find and what you found here after arriving?
Nicholas Barnett: I decided I wanted to work in Africa after doing three assignments in former nations of the Soviet Union. So, prior to Ethiopia, I worked in Tajikistan, Russia and Azerbaijan. They were unique in their own ways, but I wanted something really different. I didn’t know a whole lot about Ethiopia, to be honest. When I was younger, my dad took me to an Ethiopian restaurant in Washington because he thought it would be different and that we would like eating with our hands; my sister and I. we did so that was my first exposure. But beyond that, I didn’t know a whole lot about it. So, when I got here, one of the main things that I learned very quickly was about Ethiopia’s diversity. And I’ve been really lucky in my time here to get to travel all over the country. I mean I’ve been to every single region, many of them multiple times. I’ve gotten to meet different people and learned about different cultures. That’s been really fascinating. Then of course the cultural heritage, the history, and the natural diversity – it’s been kind of incredible and like I said, I’ve been incredibly lucky.
I’ve got thousands of pictures literally that I have taken though my travels. I’ve got to talk to people with different perspectives. It’s really been fascinating to learn about Ethiopia’s history which you really only get a sense of it when you travel. I mean, from the pre-Christian civilization in Axum to the early Christian civilization in the north and how they spread and not to mention providing safe haven to the early Muslims who fled the Middle East and then you know, you go to Abba Jifar’s palace in Jimma and you can see the influence of Indo Pacific Trade which somehow made it all the way to Jimma. It’s no where near the ocean but still you can recognize that architecture from anywhere. Learning about the kind of Ethiopia’s tie-ins with ancient history, the trade to the north, the interaction with ancient civilizations; Ethiopia has been up in its mountains for a lot of reasons but nonetheless interacted.
I remember one of the Ethiopian runners – her name is Almaz – and I asked what does that mean? And it means Diamond. You know what, same thing is in Azerbaijan and here you have Ethiopia on one side and Azerbaijan way up by the Caspian Sea sharing a name and what that says about the kind of different trading influences.
Ethiopia definitely exceeded all of my expectations.
The time you arrived here was a trying time for Ethiopia and there were very polarized thoughts whether the country would continue as a nation itself. What did you make of these views at the time of your arrival?
When I arrived, things were difficult. We had the first state of emergency a couple of months after I arrived here. Obviously, the embassy was following them very closely. But, how do you look into something from the hindsight? How do you look at the past and interpret it? The fact is that Ethiopians raise their voices and demanded something different and that message got through finally after many years. Look at where we are now.
It’s not that there aren’t challenges now. But there are many more opportunities for success than we could see three years ago. That’s what’s really exciting. That’s hard to believe. That’s hard to believe at a time when there’s so much possibility here and it’s just getting started. In the first 14 months under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, we have seen incredible changes; things that we wanted, things that we advocated for but didn’t think they were going to happen anytime soon. So, that’s really been amazing.
And I probably, as much as I’ve been able to share with anybody from seeing this process and from talking to people. The US, we’re not interested in telling the people what policies should be or what direction it should go in. Certainly we think that our values are good values; democracy, market economics, that sort of things.
But, mostly right now what we’re trying to do is share out stories and share our experiences. And one of the main things that I want Ethiopians to understand is that having challenges doesn’t equal failure; having challenges is normal. I mean, we’re 240 years into our constitution and we still have plenty of challenges and there will be new ones. There will be challenges in the future we can’t even anticipate. The key with democracy, this is where the United states is really focused with Ethiopia, is building the capacity to address the challenges for people to be able to freely say this isn’t right, this isn’t what we want, we want something different and to have a responsive system of government institutions that can react to them.
And that’s how we did away with slavery. Yeah, we ultimately had a war but it started from people saying this isn’t right, we shouldn’t do this anymore. That’s how women got the right to vote. The women said why are we not being counted and they advocated until the change happened. It’s how we passed the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s because people had the freedom to raise their concerns and the institutions were accountable to the people to the extent that those concerns could lead to action. That’s what’s important for Ethiopia right now. It’s not that there should be no challenges but we need to build the institutions to address the challenges.
Let me take you back again to the time you arrived in Ethiopia. That was a time when the US made an administrative change with the presidency of Donald Trump. But there was no clear direction from the side of the new administration regarding its policy towards Africa. This was a center of debate in Africa at the time. How did this affect your activities in Ethiopia?
Certainly, we pay attention to the priorities whichever administration is in power in the US. That’s part of our own transitional process. But I think what you will see if you notice is that our policies will remain fairly stable and not just between the last two but even before that. American foreign policy in Ethiopia has long been about investing in democratic growth in economic prosperity to regional stability. Those things haven’t gone away.
What’s changes since I got here is the amount of opportunity we have to pursue. With the reform process, we have so much opportunity to engage, so much more ways that we can invest in the capacity of Ethiopia to succeed many of which were not available to us three years ago.
The US has been consistently the largest bilateral provider of support to Ethiopia. And when I’m saying support, I’m talking about what we consider a real investment – investment in capacity. So, over the past five years or so, that’s over four billion dollars that we put in Ethiopia and that’s in a lot of different areas. Our investments in education go back to the very beginning. The US was behind the formation of precursors like Haromaya University and Jimma University that today are among the best in the country. We’ve been helping to promote food security. Even as we step in to help people when they’re in dire need, when it is a survival issue, the United States has been there for Ethiopia.
At the same time, we’re working with pastoralists to make them be more resilient to shocks like drought. We’re working with farmers to help them improve crop yield. We just launched a new global food security strategy and Ethiopia is one of the few countries that’s going to benefit from that. So, we’re in all these areas but we can also look at how we can support electoral capacity. How do we help Ethiopia achieve elections that are credible and competitive so that Ethiopians feel confident after the elections that their voices have been heard? Remember with elections, it is not about being happy with the results. It’s about trusting that the process did what it’s supposed to do.
Now, we have the opportunity to do even more with the media. We provided training to over 500 journalists since I’ve been here. But we are looking into ways we could do it much bigger than that because we have more space.
After two years of your service in Ethiopia came the most anticipated change in the country, which the US was supportive of. To what extent did the change affect US-Ethiopia relations?
Let’s go back a bit here and look at it a step further. That’s what set all this off. The Ethiopian people have been expressing themselves and their unhappiness with the current state of things and eventually Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn did what we still consider to be a very bold move which is to say I am going to step down because that’s the best way to move these reforms forward. That’s incredible. I don’t think there has been another example of that in Ethiopia and you know at that point, we were very much watching to see what way is Ethiopia going to go. Is Ethiopia going to double down on its repression and say we’re going to squash this or is the government going to say, okay, it’s time.
And, we issued a very firm statement very shortly after the imposition of the second state of emergency because we felt that that was the wrong direction. We felt that it was time to be clear where the United States stood. So, we said we strongly disagree. What Ethiopia needs is more freedom, not less. That was our position and we said it because we felt that the decision was still being made. The second state of emergency, not withstanding, there has not been decision within the ruling party who would lead the government moving forward. So, we felt that we need to say, this is your chance Ethiopia; this is your chance to do something different and they did. It was clear from day one that the Prime Minister was a different choice and to us, that was a recognition by the EPRDF that the time was here and we agreed.
The rapid changes that that came in after that, I mean the release of political prisoners, including journalists, the welcoming back of the exiled political parties, was kind of head spinning; just breathtaking. You can think of all sorts of words to describe how tremendous it is. The announcements about increasing private investment in sectors previously controlled by the government, the rapprochement with Eritrea. [These are] really consequential changes.
As we get past the first year and start looking at the path a head, it’s important to remember how much has already been done. That is important because the first thing that had to happen was to create the space for discussion about where Ethiopia should go. That’s is what has opened these opportunities, by making those first steps. That’s what’s given in the United States and other partners – the change to rethink the way that we engage and invest in Ethiopia. And we’re doing that.
At the same time, any transition is going to have its challenges, any transition is going to have concerns - true to the US as well. The point here is that Ethiopia has the opportunity, the chance to do things differently. So, as these challenges come up, we need the space, we need Ethiopians using the space to speak constructively with each other and with their government about where they want to go. It is not about universal agreement. It does not mean that everyone has to be on the same page. It is about finding common ground where you can and talking about how you get there. The US isn’t perfect. We’ve never claimed to be. But the reason that we continue to grow and succeed is because we have the ability to talk about our challenges and to address them.
You mentioned about the statement you issued during the second state of emergency. But that wasn’t welcomed by the Ethiopian government. You were even called for an explanation of it. What happened then?
I can’t speak for the Ethiopian government and how they felt about it. What I can say is we did what we felt we needed to do. And we stood by that and if you remember, Secretary Rex Tillerson came to Ethiopia not too long after that and he said the same thing. That was US policy and we stood by it. I think, in the hindsight, it was the right move. We’re not going to take credit for what Ethiopians did for themselves in terms of advocating for the change and making the ultimate decision but, I do think, it was important that we sent a message publicly where we stood.
We made out views very clear and we’re very pleased that Ethiopia is on a path that offers the opportunity for really meaningful lasting change.
The US has been supportive of the change process and the transition in Ethiopia that happened a year ago. But the US is also said to have played significant roles in the transition and there are even some that say it even engineered the change process. To what extent was US’s engagement in the change itself and its process?
That’s very ridiculous. I will be very blunt about it because bluntness is the best answer. What we did is what you saw. We have engaged for so many years both publicly and privately encouraging these kinds of reforms trying to explain why we think it’s in Ethiopia’s best interest - for the country to be more inclusive politically to work on broad-based prosperity, not just core economic growth and how those things are important for lasting stability.
None of that’s new. But, frankly, since those have always been our policies, if it was in our power to make the decision, why wait? The fact is it’s not, it’s not how it works. It’s never that simple. So, what’s important to know is, this change happened because Ethiopians demanded it. That’s the point. We supported where we could, we shared our experiences, we shared our values both with the government and with the public. And we’re very excited about the opportunities of the current moment. But any idea that there was more to it than that is ridiculous.
One of the reasons for this claim is the unusual very frequent visit from US diplomats, including Secretary Tillerson which you mentioned. So, doesn’t this ring any bell?
No, I don’t think so at all. I mean, certainly. For one thing, when the head of the Department of State comes to a country, that usually is planned fairly far in advance. So, trying to link it to current events is not the right thing. Certainly, Ethiopia is an important partner. Remember that Secretary Tillerson was still relatively new in his job at that time. So, he was making his first trip to Africa. And, of course, Ethiopia is going to be on the list for that. So, you know I don’t think there’s a need to read much into it. Again, Secretary Tillerson was clear in public where the US stood on the transition for Ethiopia; more freedom not less. But, no, that’s not how it works.
Let’s move to another issue and very soon since the leadership change in Ethiopia, there happened one major event on the Horn of Africa region – that is the rapprochement with Eritrea. While Ethiopia was romantic about it, the US was very cautious of the process, especially when it comes to the lifting of the sanction on Eritrea. Why was the US so much reserved when it came to lifting the sanction?
I think at the time, we said we were very pleased with the opportunity that the rapprochement offered and we still feel that way. I think, the main concern is that, there are other concerns involving Eritrea and as a spokesperson of the Embassy in Ethiopia, I’m not going to go beyond that. But the idea is that we have to look at the whole picture. So, again, we welcomed Prime Minister Abiy’s outreach and the rapprochement and the opportunities it offered for the broader region. We continue to be hopeful that this will continue to lead to offer benefits for both countries and the region more broadly. But again, yeah, there’re still concerns there.
Let’s talk a little about the US presence in Ethiopia. Your programs range from education to agriculture, governance and women empowerment. But some say that they lack focus and are dispersed in terms of attention and financing. What do you say about this?
When you talk about a billion dollar a year, we can manage to do more than one thing at a time and still be impactful. Certainly, when you look at areas like education where our programs are providing reading materials in mother tongue languages for seven million children, that I wouldn’t call unfocused. Also, look at the progress we’ve made on healthcare through things like PEPFAR and other investments. And Ethiopia is one of the few countries on the cusp of achieving control of epidemic. That’s incredible. And, that’s partly because of our great cooperation with Ethiopia, but also, we’ve a very focused and targeted approach to dealing with the challenges there.
When it comes to governance, a lot of that’s new opportunity, but we are very strongly focused on kind of the institution building that needs to have ahead of the elections. Again, the point is for Ethiopians to walk out of the polls and wait the results feeling confident that their voices are heard.
The issue is that, I think, it’s sometimes hard to see a scope that large and nobody else is doing anything comparable to that but absolutely our work is making tremendous changes. We are changing lives in this country and in a very important and transformational way.
As you mentioned, one area of your support is for the electoral process. How is the US supporting the upcoming election in the country and what challenges do you see in holding the elections?
I don’t get too far ahead but I thing we’ll have some new announcements fairly soon and how we’re supporting the transition. Elections are important and we are already working closely with National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) to understand their needs. That’s the first thing to figure out how we can help.
Another area of your support is for the media. What are the challenges of the media in Ethiopia and how far do you think has it to go, especially the independent media?
A few things. One is we’re advocating for the state media to be more independent. That’s something that we have in the US and we are sharing this idea of saying public media instead of state media. So, we have outlets like the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the National Public Radio (NPR) and even VOA which receive funding from the government. But they have very strict regulations to prevent the government from using them as tools to promote information. We know there’re changes and we have been working with the state media to work on professionalization. It’s not wrong to provide public funding to the media. The key is to help them to be credible by making sure that they’re independent from influence. With the independent media, we’ve done a number of trainings on professionalism. We have a current project that we are working with some of the emerging media to help improve sustainability.
How do we help develop a particular great environment for media even with the freedom? It’s a challenge to be financially independent and sustainable. So, we’re looking at how we can help improve the environment for successful private media. I don’t want to criticize because we have to be honest. There’s a reason that the media has so many challenges. It’s because of decades of repression. So, asking the media to suddenly turn on the switch is not appropriate at the same time.
You served in Ethiopia for the past three years and you have travelled across the country and met a lot of people. What do you say would have helped you better during your stay had you known before coming to Addis? Any regrets?
I don’t think I would change anything. It’s always hard to figure out if you change something, what would have been the outcome. May be things would be worse if I did something differently. I think it was good. We always try to prepare for our assignments to have some knowledge of the country and I definitely had that. But I think it’s also good not to come with too many hard opinions. To be open to be challenged and to learning. I definitely learned a lot here. That’s incredibly valuable. And if I come in too convinced by what I knew, it would have made me less flexible and less able to adopt to the changing situation. So, I’m happy that I came with an open mind. I definitely have benefitted by learning.
I feel fortunate as I said at the beginning for the chance to explore this country about its history, diversity and cultures. It is time to move on. Part of the idea is that, we move regularly so that new ideas can come in and I have an excellent team here who will make sure the continuity during out transition as I said before.
I am a little sad to leave before [the elections]; it’s like having to put a book down before you finish reading it. I don’t know what the outcome is going to be. I’m optimistic I think Ethiopia can do this. I will be watching and keeping an eye out for what happens here. But, yeah, it’s a little bit sad to leave just when there’s so much hope and potential. I would be calling it a regret. Because as I said all things must come to an end, but, definitely a little sad to say I’m not going to be here for the elections.