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  • A relationship blowing hot and cold 09 May 2015 | View comments

  • Emperor Haile Selassie and US President Franklin Roosevelt aboard USS Quincy (CA-71) in the Great Bitter Lake in 1945Emperor Haile Selassie and US President Franklin Roosevelt aboard USS Quincy (CA-71) in the Great Bitter Lake in 1945
    25 APRIL 2015 WRITTEN BY  

    A relationship blowing hot and cold

    Historians, researchers and everyone in between have recorded the life of the last Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile-Selassie I. Zewde Reta, Angelo Del Boca, Ryszard Kapuściński, Harold G. Marcus and Theodore M. Vestal have all chronicled stories of the emperor and his four-decade-long reign.

    Haile-Selassie was both praised and criticized by historians and commentators alike. The Emperor was credited for many things but the one that stood out prominently was his diplomatic perspicacity. For the Emperor, having good diplomatic relations with the West, and particularly the US, is what he considered to be an astute political move. That has – to a large extent – benefited Imperial Ethiopia. Ever since the commencement of the Ethio-American diplomatic relations in the wake of the 20th century, the two countries have made strides in the modification of  their relationship as they see it fit, writes Bruh Yihunbelay. The introduction of this story is taken from Theodore M. Vestal's United States Foreign Policy Towards Ethiopia As Reflected in the State Visits of Emperor Haile-Selassie to North America.

    While visiting the United States, Haile-Selassie was cheered by more than a million New Yorkers in a ticker tape parade down lower Broadway and was given honorary degrees by Howard University, Columbia University, McGill University, Laval University, and the University of Michigan (he also visited Harvard and Princeton). In addition to being welcomed by governors, mayors, and public officials, the Emperor had toured, among other places, a Michigan automobile factory, the Chicago stockyards, a US steel plant, the grand Coulee Dam, a California oil refinery, harbor installations in Long Beach, and the 20th Century Fox movie studios in Hollywood. He attended a baseball game at Yankee Stadium, where he donned a fielder's glove as Casey Stengel presented him with a souvenir baseball. The Emperor's only contact with rural American was in southern Minnesota, the home of Ambassador Joseph Simonson, who arranged a visit to a farm by the royal party, who were served home-made cookies and lemonade. Major newspapers in the cities Haile-Selassie visited lauded the Emperor in editorials and described him in such glowing terms as "a man of courage, intelligence, and great humanity." On his tour of the West Coast, the Emperor had been in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles and had spent the night in Yosemite National Park.

    Early contacts

    Emperor Haile-Selassie’s first state visit to the United States was in 1954 at the invitation of Second World War hero-turned-president Dwight D. Eisenhower. According to Theodore M. Vestal, a Professor of Political Science, the Emperor's visit was the first part of a two-month-long, 7,000-mile tour of the United States and Canada. 

    “Haile-Selassie was one of the best-known international celebrities at the time, remembered for his eloquent appeal for collective security to the League of Nations in 1936 when Mussolini's fascists invaded his nation and for his sending Ethiopian troops to join United Nations forces in the Korean War in 1950-1953. The year 1954 in many ways was the high water mark of Haile-Selassie's success and prestige (although in the 1960s he would be admired as an elder statesman and chief founder of the Organization of African Unity),” Vestal wrote.

    At that time the Emperor had to toil for years before finally negotiating agreements with the United States on military assistance and defense installations that were to make Ethiopia the prime recipient of US military and economic assistance in Africa.

    “As rapidly as America had become involved in the business of world hegemony, so had Ethiopia become part of the world economy. The process of linkage had actually commenced in the twenties and thirties, when the general incorporation of Africa into the world economy was happening swiftly because of the postwar consolidation of colonialism. Neither historic Abyssinia nor its empire were immune from this global process: during those two decades Haile-Selassie was busily modernizing and centralizing government and reforming and re-equipping his military,” Harold G. Marcus, in his book, The Politics of Empire Ethiopia, Great Britain and the United States – 1941-1974, wrote.

    According to historical records, Haile-Selassie was first invited to the US by President Franklin D. Roosevelt when the two met near Cairo after the Yalta Conference in 1945; however, the trip did not materialize because of the Second World War and the post-war developments.

    “The Emperor apparently had a standing enchantment with the United States, and he was determined to visit North America. He also harbored the belief that diplomacy was primarily to be conducted between heads of state,” Vestal wrote. 

    Eventually, on January 12, 1954, the Emperor was invited by Eisenhower [the decorated WWII general who was admired by Haile-Selassie for his role as commander of allied forces], for an official state visit.

    Ethiopia has a long diplomatic tradition with the US Ethiopian. Records reveal that it was first established in 1903, after nine days of meetings in Ethiopia between Emperor Menelik II and Robert P. Skinner, an emissary of President Theodore Roosevelt. These formal relations included a grant of “Most Favored Nation” status, and were good up to the Italian occupation in 1935.

    Workeneh Eshete, [Dr. Martin Workineh] who led the Ethiopian diplomatic mission to the US in 1927, among other thing delivered an invitation to skilled African Americans form Haile-Selassie [Ras Tafari Mekonnen then] to settle in Ethiopia. A number of African-Americans did travel to Ethiopia, where they played a number of roles in the modernization of the country before the Italian conquest in 1935. And one of the notable African-Americans was Colonel John C. Robinson, a.k.a. Father of the famous Tuskegee Airmen. 

    In his autobiography, Emperor Haile-Selassie, who is considered by some to be adept in diplomatic shenanigans, notes that the United States was one of only five countries which refused to recognize the Italian conquest of his country.

    Ideological differences

    The dandy relations between the two countries took a wrong turn after the Military Derg overthrew Haile-Selaissie and seized power. The bilateral relationship began to cool due to the Derg's linking with international communism. The ideological difference led to the prohibition all US economic assistance to Ethiopia with the exception of humanitarian disaster and emergency relief. And in July 1980 the US Ambassador to Ethiopia was recalled at the request of the Ethiopian government, and the US Embassy in Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Embassy in the United States were headed by Charges d'Affaires.

    The dawn of a new era

    After a decade, with the downfall of Mengistu Hailemariam, US-Ethiopian relations improved as legislative restrictions on non-humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia were lifted. Diplomatic relations were upgraded to the ambassadorial level in 1992.

    After the ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took power – at least at face value (considering the fact that the EPRDFs were formerly Marxists) – the relationship between the superpower and Ethiopia was lovey-dovey. For instance, according to the Department of State, total US government assistance, including food aid, between 1991 and 2003 was USD 2.3 billion. 

    However, the seemingly cozy relationship was marred by the Ethio-Eritrean War and in May 2000 the United States asked the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Ethiopia and Eritrea until fighting stops along their border.

    The New York Times, back then reported that the proposed resolution would prohibit the sale or delivery of all kinds of weapons and military equipment to either side and would also bar senior Ethiopian officials from international travel.

    A proffer that was taken by the Ethiopian government, which was led by the late Meles Zenawi, as a stab in the back since Meles and Co were considered to be the new breed of African leaders–a buzzword widely used in the mid - late 1990s to express optimism in a new generation of African leadership. 

    It was when US president Bill Clinton made his African journey in March 1998 that he helped popularize this notion when he said he placed hope in a new generation of African leaders devoted to democracy and economic reforms. Although Clinton did not identify the African leaders by name, it is generally assumed that he was referring to, among others, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, and Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea. The “new breed” warred against each other and optimism from the side of the West was lost. Furthermore, critics blamed many of these leaders for failing to deliver democracy, peace, and development, and they had an inclination to cling to power–an attribute that was common across post-colonial African leadership.

    Generally, skepticism loomed over Ethio-US relations. This eventually led the Ethiopian ruling clique to openly declare and look for other instruments other than western-style democracy while the US and other western countries constantly continued blaming the EPRDF for human rights violations.

    "Democracy is the expression of a sovereign people. To impose it from outside is inherently undemocratic." Meles said in an interview with The Guardian, revealing that he chose a different path when it comes to flirting with the ideals of western democracy.

    At times the slanders went utterly blatant. For instance, Meles responded harshly to the architect of the much-discussed HR 2003: Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007, the late Congressman Donald Payne. HR 2003: Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007, which had 85 Cosponsors, including 100 percent of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Congressman Tom Lantos and drafted by Congressman Payne, aims to “strengthen the democratic institutions of Ethiopia to protect the United States’ long-term interest in a stable Ethiopia.” The bill was not in the best interest of the Ethiopian government and it was reported that the Meles administration had hired one the most powerful lobbyist firms in Washington solely to defeat the Act. Though the Bill was endorsed by Congress, it was not met with open arms by the upper house – the US Senate.

    “While they are entitled to their own opinion, this government and this country are incapable, unwilling and unable to be run like some banana republic from Capitol Hill. It is very worrisome that some of these individuals appear to have entertained such views,” Meles said while downplaying remarks made by Congressman Payne with regard to the release of leaders of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) back in 2007.

    It did not end there. In 2010, Prime Minister Zenawi accused Voice of America of broadcasting ethnic hatred and compared the broadcaster to the hate speech from Radio Mille Collines, which had helped provoke genocide in Rwanda. The Economist pointed out that the US response to these accusations had been rather muted, probably due to the importance of the US-Ethiopia alliance.

    The flip side

    Nonetheless, putting all the showdowns aside, Ethiopia is an important country to the United States in the Global War on Terrorism. According to terrorism and counter-terrorism experts, the Pentagon needs Ethiopia and its intelligence service to counter the influence of the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab fighters in neighboring Somalia. It is considered to be a friendship with benefits. For instance, in October 2011 it was confirmed that the US Seventeenth Air Force was operating RQ-9 Reaper drones from Arba Minch Airport in southern Ethiopia for reconnaissance over Somalia. Master Sergeant James Fisher, spokesman for the 17th Air Force, said: “The drone flights will continue as long as the government of Ethiopia welcomes our cooperation on these varied security programs.” The United States military has spent close to 50 million dollars upgrading the airbase to handle the Reapers, and is being used to survey the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab.

    Similarly, in 2006 Ethiopia said that it faced a direct threat to its own borders with Somalia and invaded its eastern neighbor. Eventually, Ethiopian troops – backed by the US – entered Somalia to finally assist in setting up a Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

    The latests diplomatic move

    In the latest meeting between Ethiopian and US officials, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy R. Sherman said that her government would not support the US-based Ginbot 7, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) – organizations that have been labeled terrorist groups by the Ethiopian government some four years ago. The statement was considered by many as an unprecedented one.

    In an exclusive interview with The Reporter, Undersecretary Sherman said: “We are partners in so many things, we certainly appreciate the concern that the Ethiopian government has presented to us and we look forward to a continuing dialogue on all of those subjects and all of the other things we’ve discussed from human rights, from development of democracy, to what’s happening in the region.”

    According to a political analyst from the Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development (EIIPD), who requested anonymity, whether it is going to be the stance of the US government is something that would be seen in the future but the statements by itself is the first of its kind.

    “The Americans did not make an official statement after the ONLF killed 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese oil workers and kidnapped seven Chinese workers. However, terrorism in today's world has taken a new shape and that could have led them to make the statement,” the political analyst told The Reporter.

    The analyst believes that Ethiopia has done a commendable job in becoming the sheriff in the Horn of Africa region, which is something applauded by the US government.

    Commentators say that the Ethiopian officials had been continuously pressuring their US counterparts to see things from their point of view and that is what Sherman said.

    “We understand Ethiopia’s point of view. And it’s always important in diplomatic relationships to understand where the other person is on the other side of the table,” Sherman told The Reporter.

    However, the analyst sees things from a different perspective. “This statement in no way implies that the US has made a policy shift or has changed strategies. It is a simple tactical move and that is what the US usually does in diplomacy and they may change their mind at some point,” the analyst said.

    He added that the statement is a major blow to Ginbot 7 and the other organizations. “It will narrow down their options and they will have no room for armed struggle.”

    With terrorism being a major global concern it is in the best interest of the US government not to break the link they have with countries like Ethiopia, commentators say.

    “Ethiopia, a growing economy,  is also a strategic partner for the US and the Americans can't afford to lose a country like it,” the analyst says. 

    A wakeup call for the opposition

    Ethiopia's democracy and democratic institutions have been questioned for some time. The opposition have been blaming the EPRDF for narrowing the political space while the incumbent accuse the opposition for being weak, disorganized and lacking clear strategies. Now with only a month left till the elections the world will be closely watching the process in the second most populous country in Africa.  

    “This is a young democracy. We hope election will be free, fair and credible. We think that Ethiopia has improved its electoral process. Still it has a long way to go, as young democracies do, to make sure that everybody’s voice is heard,” Undersecretary Sehrman told The Reporter.

    It goes without saying that the emergence of democracy as a universally accepted form of government is the most important development of the 20th century. And countries have adopted this form of governance tailored in a way that they deem fit. But there are always concerns.

    “Concerns have been raised about whether opposition parties really have the space to be a real opposition party. We are glad to know there are 75 opposition parties. On the one hand, that’s a lot of voices.  On the other hand, is there a consolidated serious opposition?” Sherman asks.

    And the question is something that led opposition parties to raise their eyebrows. 

    “Whenever someone says that the Ethiopian opposition parties are not consolidated they usually miss one basic point, that is to try and figure out what made the parties weak. And the answer is simple; it is mainly because the government doesn’t want to see a strong opposition party in the country,” Yonatan Tesfaye, head of public relations of Semayawi (Blue) Party, told The Reporter. 

    He added that the problems All Ethiopian Union Party (AEUP) and Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) faced can serve as a testimony that the opposition camp has not been consolidated.

    “The ruling party is to blame and in this regard the comment by the undersecretary is a statement simply aimed at granting more legitimacy to the ruling party,” he says.

    Wasihun Tesfaye, head of research at the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP),  believes that the parties’ strength and democracy is a gradual process and that the process needs to be supported by every stakeholder.

    “The government is not doing its best to strengthen opposition parties and hence whenever someone says that opposition parties have not consolidated their strength the government is responsible for the failure,” Wasihun told The Reporter.

    He added that rather than strengthening the opposition, weakening the parties seems to be what the government is doing.

    A similar comment was made by Tilahun Endeshaw, head of public relations of the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum (Medrek).

    “I don’t think the Department of State and the US Embassy lack information on the situation. It is obvious that the parties have strong public support but this support has not made them strong. And that is because the government controls everything and has reduced the political space.

    According to Tilahun, it is not wise to say that opposition parties have  not consolidated their strength. “Those  who comment on the issue should have a clear picture about the mounting pressure from the ruling party.”

    Commenting on the statement the undersecretary made regarding Ginbot 7 and other groups, Yonatan of the Blue party says that the statement is a mockery of the politics of  the people of Ethiopia. “The organization is based in the US and the leaders of the organization are teachers at American universities, therefore. It is, somewhat  funny to come out openly and denounce this group,” Yonatan told The Reporter.

    On the other hand, EDP welcomed the undersecretary's statement on Ginbot 7. “We are attempting to as sump power through democratic means. Therefore, any group that aims to control power in a nondemocratic way should be denounced,” Wasihun told The Reporter.

    He added that the activities of Ginbot 7 and similar  other organizations from abroad also hinder the peaceful  democratic struggle in the country.

    Medrek's Tilahun said that the party does not want to make any comment on the issue.

    On the contrary, the analyst says that the statement made by the undersecretary regarding both Ginbot 7 and a consolidated oppositions shows one bigger picture.

    “I think the Americans are slowly giving up hope on the opposition and that is something that ought to be looked into. And, whether this is something good or bad is yet to be seen,” he says.

    Ed.'s Note: Neamin Ashenafi of The Reporter has contributed to this story.

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