Are super powers behind the Current Ethiopian Crisis? [By Houriso Gemechu, Ph.d[1]

39159736-symbolic-us-superpower-outline-with-countries-flag-symbolic-image-super-power-usa-outline-and-flag-stock-photoThere is a lot going on behind the scenes than what is being discussed publicly about the crisis in Ethiopia. There are several curious events that need to be brought out in public for all to clearly understand the development of the Ethiopian crisis. We need to ask and answer fundamental questions such as what prompted the events of the crisis? Or for those who are familiar with Marxist socialist principles, we need to outline the objective conditions. Who are the parties and individuals involved in the crisis? Or who are the subjective determinants? We may also have to focus on what does the crisis implies for the near and long term future of the country?
 
Although I do not claim to have all the necessary information to answer the above questions, I will try to present the underlying issues and the key protagonists below. That said, I boldly venture to state that I find it improbable that the crisis in Ethiopia is driven exclusively by events in Ethiopia and Ethiopians alone. I say this because it has been nearly a quarter century since the Ethiopian government implemented principles and policies that appear to be the underlying causes of the crisis. So what changed, why now? Who, besides the ordinary people subjected to the brutal treatments of the Ethiopian government, had had enough?  Could it be powers that hitherto tolerated the brutal treatments by the Ethiopian government turned on the government?

The answer to these complicated questions, in part, is that geopolitical circumstances have changed and that the Ethiopian administration may now be perceived as a risk instead of an asset for the certain super powers. Specifically, is the United Stated government or an agency thereof such as the CIA destabilizing the TPLF government? What factors prompt for such an act to be even considered? The answer, as difficult as it could be and as speculative as it nearly always appears,  is that almost nothing ever happens in US-dependent countries, such as Ethiopia, without the implicit or explicit compliance of the United States.

To that end, I state that it appears that some in the US administration were not comfortable in tolerating the Ethiopian administration continue its practices. They may have come to believe that such practices were counter to the long term US political and strategic interests. Furthermore, any contemplated changes may have anticipated the upcoming changes in US administration to give support to Obama’s dubious legacy of democratization in Africa?

One critical factor leading to my speculation is that since early June, there has been a concerted effort by US agencies such as the USAID, Dept. of State and others to obtain scholarly and popular views on a wide variety of issues concerning Ethiopia in general and in particular the process of democratization and participation in a democratic transformation of one sort or another.  Key Ethiopian leaders as recognized by the US and even the EU have been on occasion invited to appear and discuss what is to be done. This effort may have been mingled with the usual cover of summer travels of intellectuals coming to the US to present their academic views at open and public venues. But, in some cases these appearances were not public and the presentations were classified.

However, going over the many so-called Ethiopian intelligentsia or leaders, I can name some prominent persons such as Prof. Birhanu Nega of GINBOT 7, Prof. Merera Gudina of the Oromo People’s Congress (OPC), Prof. Getachew Begashaw– Vision Ethiopia and Former EPRP Leader, Eng Yilkal Getnet –Semayawi  (Blue) party chairman, Dr. Aregawi berehe—Former TPLF and author of “A Political History of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front”, Mr. David H. Shinn– former  Ambassador to Ethiopia, Mr. Herman Jay Cohen– Former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Mr. Iyasu Alemayehu– Leader EPRP have appeared at meetings where US officials had been present, even the late former Eritrean ambassador Girma Asmerom had his views on Ethiopia heard. I am sure there are several others that I have missed. What precisely prompted these gatherings is not known to me. Nevertheless, I suspect a US administration endeavor to focus on Ethiopia’s leadership and governmental apparatus was underway. Moreover, in other previous circumstances these kinds of gatherings often reflected recognizable US Policy shifts.

Speculation aside, there have been significant issues on which the direction taken by the TPLF government did not match that of the United States.  Chief among them was the growing dependence on china instead of the US in philosophy and investments. Furthermore, TPLF leaderships’ unabashed exuberance for Chinese policies and practices did not go unnoticed. China’s influence in Africa appears to ascend just as US outlook towards Africa’s profitability was also growing. The competition for African resources is becoming intense and china appears to win it even when governments like that of Ethiopia are enamored by China’s potential while collecting US economic assistance.

Before, I move on and discuss the role of China and the US in Ethiopian economic and politics; I would like the reader to know that China and Africa enjoy a history of traditional friendship. However, the relationship has not lasted as long as that of the Africa’s relationship with the west, particularly the United States.  Similarly, Ethiopia has had diplomatic relationship with China since the 1970’s. Needless to say, until recently the China-Ethiopia relation has not been as long or as deep as that with the United States.

 

The Chinese and Ethiopia

After the ascent of the TPLF to power in Ethiopia, the government of Ethiopia has been copying most political and economic transformations that China has experienced in its heyday as a growing global economic and political power.  The affinity shown by the TPLF to China’s approach in economic transformation and governance has been such that a leading international magazine has called Ethiopia as “Africa’s China”. The web site of the Chinese embassy in Ethiopia unabashedly brags that Ethiopia is indeed “China’s successful little brother”. The embassy further notes that China has often expressed its appreciation and admiration for Ethiopia, just as an elder brother would for a younger brother who has become a success. According to the embassy this is so because Ethiopia has presented a lot of opportunities for China, which has openly stated that Ethiopia is its best bet because of its low-cost labor and stability.

Meanwhile TPLF has had an alluring love affair with Chinese-style political and economic organization and administration.  Any success being experienced by Ethiopia in economics and infrastructure development was unabashedly attributed and fancied by TPLF to its policies and its similarities to China’s, especially in governance. As evidence, both Chinese and Ethiopians appear to have been fairly closed societies that opened up to foreign investment and strict political order in order to have faster economic achievements. Each has been hailed internationally for its unprecedented economic growth. The milestones Ethiopia has passed clearly show the political will toward ensuring that the country benefit from a booming economy – through infrastructure, an open market, investment opportunities. Early on, Ethiopia’s only investors were India, China and Turkey.

 

To add to this curious love affair, From Dec 1 to 5, 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a state visit to Zimbabwe and South Africa and chaired the Johannesburg Summit of the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FACOC), which supports new international relations between China and Africa based on mutual benefits. The Chinese and African leaders agreed to lift the Sino-African relationship to a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership featuring political equality and mutual trust, win-win economic cooperation and civilization exchanges, close ranks and help each other in security, and cement unity on international affairs with the entire Africa.

 

In short, China wants to be the model and power of Africa’s next transformations. This also means that the strategic alliance and influence over African nations by nations like the US, Germany, France and the west is seriously being challenged. China thus presents itself to many African governments as an alternative to the benefits of their association with the traditional west. To sweeten the pot, The Chinese leader Xi had recently announced the “10 major plans” in cooperation with Africa in the coming three years, covering the areas of industrialization, agricultural modernization, infrastructure, financial services, green development, trade and investment facilitation, poverty reduction and public welfare, public health, people-to-people exchanges, as well as peace and security. The three year budget covered some $60 billion of funding to guarantee implementation of the plans, which injected more impetus for vital Sino-African relations.

 

China has been particularly focused on Ethiopia, which for a brief while was the fastest growing economy in sub-Saharan Africa. Much of this growth has been driven by China, whose total investment in the country has reached almost $17 billion. In fact, Ethiopia is one of China’s six special economic zones in Africa. In addition, China is wielding soft power as in for instance, a Confucius Institute, a Chinese government-affiliated language and culture center established in Addis Ababa. China has also expanded the number of scholarships for Ethiopian students studying in China as well as volunteers from the Chinese mainland, in a program similar to America’s Peace Corps.

 

After the demise of the ideological leader of TPLF’s Ethiopia– Meles Zenawi–, his followers have become even more enamored by his link with China. During his latest visit to China, Prime Minister Haile mariam Desalegn met and held discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, whereby they deliberated on ways of an even closer association. The Chinese ambassador to Ethiopia asserted that “In the area of business-to-business cooperation, even though our relation dates back 45 years ago, and the Chinese business community is the late comer, over the last 20 years; one can see the full spread of Chinese businesses everywhere; not only in the capital city but also in the country sides.” The ambassador also noted that the people-to-people exchanges between the two countries have also grown in the areas of culture and education underscoring the very active grooming and training of TPLF cadres by China.

 

The west (United States) and Ethiopia

 

Just as the growing importance of the Chinese in Ethiopian affairs is becoming more and more apparent, the relationship between the ruling Ethiopian regime and Western countries has been deteriorating particularly due to the role played by the Ethiopian diaspora in exposing the undemocratic measures employed by the TPLF in administering the country, the threat posed by ethnic fractionalization on regional and national peace.  This was recently highlighted by the explosive and destructive protests across the nation. The primary interest of western countries had been Ethiopia’s cooperation in securing neighboring states in Africa as well as combating terrorism and piracy that risked an even bigger de-stabilization across Africa.

 

In effect, the west used Ethiopian military capabilities to prevent or lessen its own involvement across the many unstable frontiers of Africa such as Somalia, Central African Republic, South Sudan, the red sea, etc.  In exchange Ethiopia received economic and military assistance that prevented hitherto well known calamities such as famines, coups, and wars among neighboring countries.

 

Until the end of the Cold War in the late-1980s, U.S. policy in East Africa and the Horn tried to balance regional security concerns with support for economic development and mitigating food shortages and famines. The primary goal of U.S. policy in the region was to minimize Soviet influence and that of China, Eastern Europe and Cuba. As the Cold War came to an end, the United States added to its policy agenda the objectives of encouraging democratic governance and improving human rights practices.

 

In the post-Cold War era, the primary U.S. human rights and governance concerns in the region have been the lack of transparent elections that allow meaningful participation by the opposition; the arrest of prominent opposition political leaders and journalists; corruption and discrimination against marginalized groups.

 

However, the United States demonstrated relatively little interest in the region until the 1998 al-Qaida attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Since then, and especially after the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks on the U.S., counterterrorism has dominated the U.S. policy agenda in the region, though not to the exclusion of other priorities.

The United States has been the single largest source of emergency food aid in times of need, for instance, and has done more to combat HIV and AIDS than any other country. It has also maintained significant development aid programs in most countries in East Africa and the Horn. All of these programs have, however, been implemented with an eye on the impact of both international terrorism and political instability to U.S. interests in the region and even the homeland. The United States Leans on Ethiopia for Security obligations while the government of Ethiopia wants US Money but is ever cozier with Chinese type control over its people and Chinese influence.

 

In conclusion, what this analysis is asserting is that it is not the people of Ethiopia who after so many years of subjugation that all of a sudden decided to go against a proven merciless power like the TPLF but that US tolerance of Chinese influence on TPLF had reached its limits. To that end, several so-called opposition groups were gathered and disbursed to accomplish the goal of teaching TPLF a lesson and accommodate a government perhaps more democratic while maintaining closer ties with US and performing its obligatory service in support of US policy.

 

[1] The name of the Author is fictitious to protect his privacy

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