By Desta Heliso · December 7, 2021
During my recent visit to Washington, my suspicion that the Biden administration wants to oust Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed from power was confirmed. This is extraordinary and would exacerbate many of the region’s challenges, including religious extremism.
Until recently, Ethiopia was the second-largest recipient of American aid in Africa, regarded as a reliable partner in the war on Islamic terror and a linchpin of peace and stability in a volatile region. All that has now changed.
Ethiopia is facing punitive economic sanctions from the U.S. Even more worryingly, America is engineering a regime change in Ethiopia through the media, aid agencies, human rights organizations, diplomatic channels and, more to the point, through supporting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had Marxist roots and ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist for 27 years between 1991 and 2018.
The U.S. government would deny this, of course, but anyone who fully understands the context and background of the Ethiopia-U.S. relations since the Biden administration came to power in January would treat such denial as simply untrue and duplicitous.
The U.S. response to Ethiopia’s conflict
Ahmed’s government is imperfect, like many other governments in the world. But of the four regimes I have lived through in Ethiopia, I can confidently say that it is the most democratic, culturally sensitive and economically liberal.
While Ahmed has made mistakes and taken some missteps during his three years of leadership, those mistakes and missteps are not comparable to the persecution, repression and suffering many Ethiopians endured under the past regimes. Nor are they comparable to all the good things he has achieved in the last three years.
And yet, Biden’s administration and its allies are seeking to have Ahmed’s government overthrown while knowing the dire consequences of such an unseating for Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.
Part of the reason for wanting to oust Ahmed is that some key figures within the Biden administration have very close links with the TPLF, whose legacy of political repression, economic corruption and divide-and-rule policies continues to trouble the country. The TPLF’s relationship with Ahmed’s government broke down following his peace agreement with Eritrea, reforms for the military and the disbanding of a political coalition led and dominated by the TPLF.
Then, forces loyal to the TPLF attacked the unsuspecting Northern Command of the Ethiopian Federal Defense Force stationed in the Tigray region in November 2020. While the Trump administration acknowledged that TPLF started the fighting in order to “depose the prime minister from power and to reassert themselves to the prominent position that they had atop the Ethiopian political spectrum for the last 27 years,” there was no acknowledgement of that motive by officials of the Biden administration.
In fact, even before assuming the position of assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Susan Rice tweeted that the Ethiopian government’s military action amounted to “war crimes.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused the Ethiopian government of “ethnic cleansing.”
On the other hand, there was no recognition of the Ethiopian government’s effort to rehabilitate Tigray’s infrastructure and provide food aid for a large segment of the Tigrayan population. The U.S. State Department took media reports — many based on misinformation or disinformation — and the manufactured #TigrayGenocide narrative at face value, repeatedly accusing the Ethiopian government of denying humanitarian access to Tigray and using hunger and rape as weapons of war.
However, a joint investigation by the U.N. and Ethiopian human rights commissions found no evidence of “deliberate or wilful denial of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population in Tigray or the use of starvation as a weapon of war.” The U.N. team found that all parties involved in fighting in Tigray committed sexual violence, but it found no evidence of use of rape as a weapon of war.
Even after the Ethiopian federal forces withdrew from Tigray in June and the TPLF forces continued to advance into the Amhara and Afar regions, the Afar humanitarian corridor to Tigray remained open, and the Ethiopian government authorized the U.N. to operate humanitarian flights to Mekelle.
Also, when the Ethiopian government declared unilateral ceasefire and withdrew federal forces from Tigray, prominent U.S. officials referred to it as a “siege.” In so doing, they emboldened the TPLF to refuse to reciprocate the unilateral ceasefire. When TPLF forces went to the Amhara and Afar regions, committing mass killings, rape, looting and destruction of properties and blocking humanitarian aid, the Biden administration’s condemnation was muted.
The U.S. officials instead pressured the Ethiopian government to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered through Sudan — knowing that Sudan is a hostile nation to Ethiopia, as it harbors and trains TPLF and allied forces, and that Port Sudan is over 1,300 kilometers (808 miles) away from Mekelle, whereas Djibouti is 750 kilometers (466 miles) away.
Furthermore, the U.S. declared probably the first free and fair — albeit imperfect — election in the history of Ethiopia as “flawed.” Ironically, Ethiopia is one of the countries not invited to Biden’s Democracy Summit, which is to take place this month. Even after human rights investigation established that there was no evidence the government of Ethiopia committed any act of genocide nor used rape and hunger as weapons of war in Tigray, the U.S. continues to isolate Ethiopia and maintain its punitive economic sanctions. Conversely, the U.S. authorities give little attention to TPLF’s aggression, atrocities, blockades of aid routes, looting of aid depots or theft of more than 800 aid trucks for its own war efforts.
In addition to all this, the U.S. has been using psychological warfare and fear mongering through its embassy in Addis Ababa and media outlets. For example, when the TPLF took the towns of Dessie and Kombolcha, the U.S. and its allies advised their citizens to leave Ethiopia, claiming that Addis Ababa was about to fall to the rebels.
When I arrived in Addis Ababa on Nov. 5, all international media outlets had declared that the rebels were advancing to Addis. A CNN headline even read: ‘Tigrayan Troops Just Outside Addis Ababa.” It was fake news at its worst because Kombolcha and Dessie are more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) away from Addis. The U.S. has now gone further by sending its troops to the Horn of Africa “to protect U.S. citizens.” This, like iterations of the humanitarian concern by U.S. officials, is part of concealed ploys for regime change.
Why the Biden administration wants to oust Abiy Ahmed
There are several reasons why the current U.S. government wants Ahmed to be removed or forced to step down from power.
First, Ahmed’s close relationship to Eritrea’s President Isayas Afeworki is unacceptable to the U.S. To be sure, Afeworki is a dictator. But he is not any worse than the leaders of China or Saudi Arabia. Nor is he worse than the president of Egypt, whom former President Trump referred to as his “favorite dictator.” Rather than Afeworki’s authoritarian leadership, it is his sense of independence and firm stance against Western neocolonialism — promoted through the guise of aid and loans — that led many of the developed nations to portray him as the chief devil of the Horn.
Ahmed refused to demonize Eritrea’s president, and in so doing, tacitly rejected America’s double standards and its policy towards Eritrea. He compounded America’s annoyance by establishing a trilateral alliance with Eritrea and Somalia, which would enable the three countries to promote economic and military integration.
Second, Ahmed advocates Pan-Africanism, which would enable African nations to create a united voice in terms of social and economic policies. The result of this would be African nations having greater say over their natural resources and an end to multinational corporations’ unfair exploitation of them. Ahmed also introduced the idea of “African solutions to African problems.” All this has made Western governments extremely nervous and led them to intensely dislike Ahmed.
Third, Ahmed insists that any global power should engage with Ethiopia as an equal partner and respect its sovereignty and national honor. While he recognizes the importance of America’s power and influence, he does not want his government to be a puppet to the U.S. or any power. He has openly declared that he would give his life for this principle. Biden’s interventionist government finds such an unwavering stance unacceptable and even offensive.
Fourth, Ahmed is working toward significantly reducing or even terminating the commercial import of wheat and Western food aid to Ethiopia. He seeks to achieve these by revolutionizing the agricultural sector and achieving food security. He also has a huge ambition to better manage the country’s raw materials and natural resources and make Ethiopia a manufacturing hub in Africa. This does not bode well for the American farming industry, multinational corporations and media and aid industries, which have all benefited from the misery of Ethiopia.
As Howard Nicholas, in his lecture on the role of economic policies and international institutions in the “underdevelopment” of Africa, and John Perkins, in his “The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,” have argued, the West must keep nations in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America poor, underdeveloped, unstable and eternally reliant on Western aid and loans in order to exploit their resources and ensure the wealth and high living standards of those in North America and Europe are maintained.
Ahmed seeks to fight against such brazen and evil global economic injustice. American corporations and state organizations begrudge this approach because, again, it sets a dangerous precedent and negatively affects the current global economic order.
Fifth, since November 2020, when the current war in Ethiopia started, the Biden government has insisted that Ahmed’s government should reach a negotiated settlement with the TPLF. Ahmed has refused to accept this proposal, because he sees the TPLF as a treasonous and destructive criminal enterprise. The Ethiopian Parliament has already declared the TPLF to be a terrorist organization.
When the U.S. decided to impose punitive economic sanctions on Ethiopia, Ahmed accused the U.S. of placing undue pressure on Ethiopia through an “orchestrated distortion of events and facts on the ground” relating to the conflict between the TPLF and federal forces, of failing to “openly and sternly reprimand the terrorist group in the same manner it has been chastising (his) government” and of continuously misrepresenting his government’s efforts to “stabilize the region and address humanitarian needs amidst a hostile environment created by the TPLF.” This has angered American officials.
Sixth, the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is believed to move Ethiopia a step toward economic self-reliance. This, one would think, would be applauded by the whole world, but within the current global economic order, one of the poorest nations on earth being able to build the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa without securing loans from Western corporations could set a dangerous precedent in Africa.
The Trump administration understood this. A reliable source told me that when Trump assigned his Treasury Department and the World Bank to mediate between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, it was because Trump and his team were led to believe that the dam would negatively affect Egypt’s economy. Therefore, in their view, Ethiopia should compensate Egypt with billions of dollars through loans provided by the U.S. and the World Bank.
This would obviously disappoint Ethiopia’s economic ambitions and ensure the continuation of Egypt’s regional dominance. Ahmed withdrew from the U.S.-led mediation process, accusing America of bias, and then insisted that the African Union should preside over any future negotiations. He also successfully argued that powers such as the U.S. and European Union should be observers in the negotiation process. This was humiliating to the global superpower and could set another dangerous precedent in terms of Africa’s relations with the West.
Finally, the U.S. is worried about China’s influence on Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. China has invested heavily in the infrastructure, technology and industry sectors in Ethiopia. China also appears to be interested in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which forms a vital strategic link in the maritime trade route stretching from Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula to Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa.
The U.S. sees controlling the strait as a means through which its dominance can be ensured in the Horn. However, this is becoming increasingly difficult due to competing powers, including China, the Persian Gulf countries, Russia and Turkey. Unless the Ethiopian government is friendly and obedient to the U.S. government, America’s dominance of the Horn will become a distant dream. So the current war in Ethiopia is a proxy war between the U.S. and its competing or rival powers with huge implications.
America’s position on Ethiopia will fuel religious extremism
Bringing down Ahmed’s government would exacerbate the already difficult situation, potentially fracture Ethiopia into smaller nations and further destabilize the Horn of Africa, fueling Muslim extremism. As is well known, Ethiopia’s religious and political history is very rich but extremely complex. Islam and Christianity have coexisted in Ethiopia for over 1,400 years. This coexistence has largely been peaceful, but the two religions have also faced some very serious relational challenges over the centuries.
In addition, modern Ethiopia is a melting pot of more than 80 groups, each with its own language and, in many cases, unique cultural expressions. This has left the country with internal ethnic and political challenges. Currently, for example, the country is torn between at least two irreconcilable political formulas and many in between.
On the one hand, the TPLF and some Oromo and other ethno-nationalist forces seek to maintain ethnic federalism, the vision of which is founded on ethnic-based and polarizing political formulas. On the other hand, Ahmed pursues a political vision that looks like democratic federalism and is founded on the principles of collective narrative and national identity while maintaining respect for ethnic identity and distinct cultural and linguistic expressions. These irreconcilable visions are at the heart of the current armed conflict.
Furthermore, Ethiopia’s geopolitical context is extremely complex. Egypt and Sudan have remained the most difficult neighbors for Ethiopia. They want a politically and economically weak Ethiopia that cannot harness its water and other resources, which would particularly ensure Egypt’s centuries-old dominance in the Nile region. Religiously, Egypt and Sudan contribute to the growth and revival of an extremist form of Islam that greatly endangers the political and religious future of the region.
This is compounded by Saudi Arabia’s exportation of “Wahhabism” — which adopts a purist interpretation of the Quran with a political vision — through the provision of support to mosques, Quranic schools, imams, businesses and humanitarian projects.
In addition to all the above factors, the U.S.’s hostile position toward an elected government of Ethiopia and its overt and covert actions to enable the TPLF and its ethno-nationalist allies to overthrow this government will weaken Ethiopia as a nation and make the region a haven of religious extremism. A weakened or unstable Ethiopia cannot stop the ascendancy of political Islam, which is now attempting to penetrate the central parts of the country and gain a strong foothold in Ethiopia.
Proposal for renewed Ethiopia-US relations
How should the U.S. relate to Ethiopia? America, though the most powerful nation in the world, does not possess a universal panacea for all global problems. But it cannot be denied that what America does and how it relates to other nations matters for world peace, stability and development. So a good relationship between America and Ethiopia is beneficial for Ethiopia and Africa. But there is not a single principle agreed upon as to how powerful nations such as America should relate to poorer nations such as Ethiopia.
Some argue that powerful nations should intervene in the affairs of poorer nations in order to develop them, provide humanitarian support for them and protect their citizens from despotic leaders. Others argue that poorer nations are equally as sovereign as richer nations, so poorer nations should be left to their own devices to solve their own problems.
Admittedly, successive failures of the military missions of Western powers in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria have shattered the interventionist argument. Also, very few believe that Western interventionism is driven by a sense of moral responsibility, humanitarian concern or the desire to spread the gospel of democracy and freedom. In fact, many believe that Western intervention is driven by narrow self-interest that centers on global political and economic domination.
However, I still hold onto my faith in human goodness and that there are people in the West and within Western governments who firmly believe that all people of the world deserve to enjoy the kind of life and freedoms that Western democracies enjoy. Therefore, I suggest four actions:
First, the Ethiopian government should continue to insist on the principle of healthy partnership with the U.S., which is characterized by a reciprocal sharing of knowledge, expertise, experience and resources for mutual benefit. Ethiopia must resist the temptation to adopt an isolationist policy due to the current concerted attack on its sovereignty and history.
Second, the Biden administration must abandon its assumption that it should employ American devices to find solutions for Ethiopia’s problems — including regime change. Instead, it must adopt a principle of healthy partnership in which the focus is on enabling Ethiopians to find Ethiopian solutions to Ethiopian problems through Ethiopian resources in a manner that is culturally sensitive and contextually relevant.
Third, the current U.S. government must realize that Ethiopia’s problems — and indeed, the problems of the Horn of Africa — cannot be solved through political, humanitarian and economic means alone. All attempts must include religious means and strategies.
Finally, I hope Americans are aware that the Biden administration is carrying out a neocolonial assault on the only uncolonized nation in Africa, led by a person with an acute sense of human dignity, freedom and justice not only for the people of his country but the people of Africa as a whole. The last 12 months have shown us how visible and invisible forces in the West can destroy a nation and its leader. But the recent #NoMore movement has equally demonstrated that Ethiopians will not allow political evil to triumph, their motherland to be sacrificed on the altar of foreign interests or their destiny to be determined by evil schemers, ill-advised diplomats and foreign “Ethiopia analysts.”
Desta Heliso studied at King’s College London and London School of Theology and served as lecturer and director of the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology in Addis Ababa. He currently resides in London but continues to coordinate the Center for Ancient Christianity and Ethiopian Studies at EGST. He is also a fellow of the Center for Early African Christianity in New Haven and a visiting lecturer at the London School of Theology.