Seven Things the New U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Should Know About Ethiopia

by The Strathink Editorial Team

U.S. President Donald Trump has appointed career foreign service officer Michael Raynor as the new U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia. Ambassador Raynor, confirmed by the U.S. Senate, is no stranger to Africa. He served as Ambassador to Benin and executive director to the Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs. He has served in various diplomatic capacities in Brazzaville, Djibouti, Conakry, Windhoek and Harare. That being said, Strathink would like to offer him a few words of advice to help him succeed in Addis Ababa.

  1. Ethiopia is the U.S.’s partner not proxy.

The United States has critical strategic interests in the Horn of Africa. Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea and Yemen represent worse case scenarios for U.S. efforts to counter terrorism. The new Ambassador is acutely aware of the importance of Ethiopia’s friendship with the United States. What the Ambassador may underestimate is the Ethiopian government’s steely resistance to being micromanaged by Washington, D.C. One only has to read U.S. embassy cable traffic to understand the frustration of U.S. diplomats in dealing with high officials of the Ethiopian government.

Ambassador Raynor knows firsthand Africa’s political systems and the challenges of governance. However, Strathink would like to borrow the term “Ethiopian exceptionalism” to describe the EPRDF’s self-identity. The EPRDF leadership, although at times faltering, has unshakeable confidence in Ethiopia’s capacity to solve its own problems. Ethiopia’s independence is non-negotiable—a historical legacy rooted in Ethiopia’s resistance to colonialism as well as the front’s victory over the mighty army of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Diplomatic demarches don’t work in Ethiopia.

This does not mean that the leadership rejects ideas from the outside. The Ethiopian leadership is also rooted in a culture of intellectual discussion and debate. No one demonstrated this commitment to lively, and at times heated, debates over policy than the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. This culture within the party is alive and well and Ambassador Raynor’s voice will be a welcome addition to the discussion.

  1. The Voice of America’s (VOA) Horn of Africa Service is an enemy of productive U.S. diplomacy in Ethiopia.

The irony of a U.S. agency persistently undermining U.S. national interests in the Horn of Africa is not lost on the State Department. Since the early 1990s, VOA’s Horn of Africa Service, particularly the Amharic service but aided and abetted by the Tigrinya and Afaan Oromo language services, has been hell-bent on a misguided mission to overthrow the Ethiopian government. The service, always a thorn in the side of VOA management, manages to survive its blunders and machinations by standing on the principle of an independent press.

However, the VOA’s Amharic Service cannot seem to shake off its old mission of overthrowing the Ethiopian Government. Today the Amharic Service plays mainly to the Ethiopian aging diaspora as Ethiopians inside the country have access to a wide range of national and international media services. Ambassador Raynor has the unpleasant task of defending the U.S.’s government media while knowing full well the damage it does to U.S.-Ethiopia relations in the service of the Ethiopian diaspora opposition.

  1. The Ethiopian opposition is fractured and has lost its way. It is important to encourage the opposition to engage in more constructive ways to challenge government policies that contribute to the country’s development.

Since the 2005 election debacle when the opposition refused to take their seats in the parliament, Ethiopia’s opposition remains largely ineffective. Ginbot 7, led by soldier/dilettante Berhanu Nega and his 200-man army, is a relic of the past and a sad commentary on the state of Ethiopia’s political opposition. Berhanu Nega and Ginbot 7 are a product of Ethiopia’s aging diaspora in the West and their longstanding dream of returning to home as heroes rather than pensioners. Inside Ethiopia, the opposition is floundering—unable to offer concrete, evidence-based policy alternatives.

Democracy cannot thrive without a credible and viable opposition. A positive contribution by the United States would be an active engagement with the Ethiopian opposition to encourage meaningful, constitutional challenges to current policies. Strathink has written extensively about the absence of data-driven policy alternatives among the opposition. Anti-Tigrayan slogans fall short of governance and only serve to feed those who do not wish Ethiopia well.

  1. The embassy has created a great deal of goodwill among ordinary Ethiopians through initiatives such as the Fulbright Program, Humphrey Fellowships, and the Young African Leaders Initiative.

These programs represent only a small fraction of the embassy’s overall budget and have an enormous impact on how Ethiopia’s view the U.S. government. These people-to-people public diplomacy efforts not only generate goodwill but also play a significant role in building the capacity of Ethiopian professionals and future leaders. The same is true of the Peace Corps.

  1. Eritrea, Ethiopia’s dangerous and fractious neighbor to the north, should not be underestimated in it drive to destabilize Ethiopia and the region.

There are some in Washington, D.C. who are actively working re-establish diplomatic relations with Eritrea. This is a colossal mistake with irreparable repercussions. After 16 years of independence, Eritrea is a police state with a stagnant economy, undeveloped political system and a broken society. Eritrea is broken. Over 5,000 Eritreans—mostly youth—risk their lives to migrate out of the country. Eritreans dodge bullets, ride on leaky boats in treacherous waters and risk sexual violence in a single-minded quest to leave the country. Those Eritreans left behind are stuck in an indefinite national service that robs their time, their labor and their youth.

Central to Eritrea’s foreign policy is the destabilization of Ethiopia and her neighbors in the Horn of Africa. Hosting Ethiopian opposition groups and providing weapons as well training in terrorism is only part of the story. Eritrea supports al-Shabab in Somalia and Sudanese opposition groups. Eritrea has had violent conflicts with Djibouti, Ethiopia and Yemen. Eritrea provides the match to the fuel of tensions throughout the volatile Horn of Africa.

The new U.S. ambassador can play a constructive role in the region by ensuring that the U.S. continues to support sanctions against Eritrea. Eritrea needs to remain a pariah state.

  1. The country’s youth bulge as a demographic trend offers both challenges and opportunities for Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s youth bulge, mirrored in countries all over Africa, presents an array of challenges and opportunities. This new generation of Ethiopians, raised under the EPRDF their entire lives and benefiting from the revolution in communications technology, is markedly different in its worldview from previous generations of Ethiopians. If there is a powder keg in the complicated equation of ethnic federalism, it is youth. Good health care and access to higher education combined with high unemployment create conditions for unrest—as evidenced in the last few years in Oromia. What can the new U.S. ambassador do about this situation? Investment. Investment. Investment. Ambassador Raynor can have an enormous impact on Ethiopia’s peace and prosperity by promoting U.S. investment in Ethiopia. 

  1. Ethiopia is rising.

Ambassador Raynor is coming to Ethiopia at a momentous time. On the plus side, Ethiopia’s economy is booming and the government has made impressive strides in many sectors—including the health sector, education, and infrastructure. On the minus side, tensions around the country have not been abated and corruption remains a critical problem within the government. Ethiopia is at a crucial juncture in its history and the government stands poised to either fail or succeed spectacularly. The Strathink Editorial Team is putting its money on success.


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