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Democratization, sovereignty and U.S. intervention in Ethiopia

January 10, 2008

The initial source of my reflections is Lahra Smith’s article titled “U.S. Engagement in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa” (see: Ethiomedia, January 8, 2008). Even before I finished reading the article, I could not suppress my perplexity as to its utility. U.S. engagement in the Horn of Africa and especially in Ethiopia in the name of countering terrorism is a well-known fact. The presence of political regimes little inclined to democratization is also an established fact. What does the article tell us about the region that we did not know before?

Smith talks about the dilemma of U.S. engagement in the region. The U.S. wants to fight terrorist organizations, but to do so it must ally with undemocratic regimes. The latter use American support to consolidate the state and suppress the democratic aspirations of their people. As a result, the U.S. government finds itself in the uncomfortable situation of closing its eyes to extensive abuse of human rights for fear of losing allies in the war against terrorism.

The dilemma is not new; it recalls U.S. Cold War policy of containment of Soviet expansion by supporting anticommunist but undemocratic regimes abroad. The outcome was then the proliferation of leftist organizations denouncing American imperialism. Is a different outcome likely if the war against terrorism overrides the concern for the spread of democratic ideas and institutions?

Smith fails to clearly portray the defense of democracy as the best weapon to prevent the proliferation of terrorist organizations. Instead, she opts for a policy of appeasement of brutal regimes with the hope that the alliance will give the U.S. enough leverage to put pressure on them and bring about their gradual democratization. To quote her, “the United States must remain engaged, but in ways that signal its concern for democracy and human rights.”

Unfortunately, the experience of the Cold War advises against the belief that regimes democratize under the pressure of a friendly ally. So long as the U.S. does not give primacy to human rights violation over other concerns, it does no more than ascribe debilitating limits to its own pressure. Moreover, to the extent that repressive policy encourages terrorism, the appeasement policy turns the U.S. into a hostage of undemocratic regimes.

The new thing is that the U.S. House of Representatives has initiated a fresh and bold policy by voting unanimously in favor of the Ethiopia Democracy Act of 2007 (H.R. 2003). Clearly, the bill is meant to resolve the dilemma of American involvement in Ethiopia, since it ties U.S. support to the progress of human rights and democratization. It even stipulates punitive measures for officials violating human rights. It replaces the practice of putting pressure in the framework of an already established alliance with the more promising method of making the alliance itself conditional on democratic behaviors on the part of the Ethiopian government.

Smith notes that the Senate is unlikely to ratify the bill, but refrains from expressing her disappointment, thereby suggesting that the current policy of the Bush administration is the best approach, provided the democratic pressure is strengthening. For instance, the American government should insist that coming elections should be free; if nevertheless interventions occur, it should “strenuously object.” This position of making the American government unable to do nothing more than object derives from the primacy accorded to the war against terrorism. The longer the American government opts for such a policy and considers Meles as a necessary ally in the fight against terrorism, the more it sets limits to its pressure and hence hatches its own inefficiency.

I hear the objection that this policy is ultimately in the best interest of Ethiopians, for the ratification and application of the bill will only force Meles to reject the conditions and even retaliate by restricting U.S. involvement in Ethiopia. In addition to hurting the fight against terrorism, “partial or complete disengagement would likely reduce the prospects for democratization and stability in Ethiopia.” Democratization has a better chance to proceed if the U.S. has some influence, however small, than no influence at all.

The irony is that Meles uses the fear of retaliatory reactions from him to cripple American pressure. In thus thinking that he can behave undemocratically with impunity, he shows his confidence that the American commitment to democracy never overrides concerns of national interests. This blackmail has worked so far and there is no reason to assume that it will not continue to work so long as the defense of democracy remains a secondary concern.

The additional pressure that Smith’s article advocates thus does nothing more than endorse the continuation of the status quo. Only in urging the Senate to pass the bill could Smith contribute to the resolution of the deadlock of the U.S. involvement in Ethiopia. The overriding concern should have been whether the bill helps or thwarts the democratization of the Ethiopian society, and not whether it jeopardizes an alliance, which everybody agrees is unnatural.

Let us assume that the bill is passed and that Meles reacts by restricting the American presence in Ethiopia. The question is: will his regime survive without Western supporters? Of course, he will resort to intensified methods of repression to stay in power. But can he suppress for long seeing that, in the words of Smith herself, “the Ethiopian government has a number of enemies, both internally and in the region?” Whatever the U.S. government can do to curtail the repressive power of Meles regime––and it can do a lot of things––contributes to the untenability of the repressive policy. In thus siding with and concretely supporting democratic forces, the U.S. weakens the regime, thereby forcing it to become more receptive to external pressure. The leverage that the U.S. needs to resolve its dilemma thus originates, not from the support it gives to dictatorial regimes, but from its ability to hurt them. Dictators do not listen to friends; they listen to those who can hurt them.

Gone is the time when dictators could play superpowers against each other. The end of the Cold War no longer allows them to obtain their way by threatening to give their allegiance to the competing superpower. What remains true, however, is that third world dictators need external patronage, all the more profusely when, as in the case of Ethiopia, they are subject to increasing internal opposition and threatened by hostile neighbors. In such a situation, the withholding of external support can only heighten the fragility of dictatorship and precipitates its downfall.

This raises the question of knowing whether the U.S. government has the ethical and legal right to intervene in the Ethiopian politics with the intent of instigating political change. In effect, the TPLF regime has argued that the passage of the bill is nothing less than an open and direct violation of Ethiopia’s sovereignty. Many of the supporters of the regime have alluded to a second Treaty of Wuchale and have accused top CUD leaders of treason when they supported the bill before members of the House of Representatives.

At first look, the accusation appears to have some justification. The bill does open the path of an external power impacting on the internal affairs of a sovereign country. It can even be argued that the support that the Ethiopian diaspora and opposition forces give to the bill simply illustrates their powerlessness to remove the regime without an external intervention. Such is the demeaning impact of dictatorship that it goes to the extent of talking people into silencing their nationalism for the prospect of getting rid of an internal foe.

Even so, I support the bill because the argument of external meddling is not cogent. What the bill supports is the very wish of the Ethiopian people, as unmistakably expressed in the 2005 election. As such, I see it as a helpful factor in a process initiated and controlled by the Ethiopian people. That is why the comparison with the Treaty of Wuchale is quite infantile. Ethiopians did not agree to become an Italian protectorate; it was a forceful and imperialistic imposition of an external power. Not so with H.R. 2003, since the bill only supports the wish and determination of the Ethiopian people to bring about a democratic political system. It is not an imperialist intervention; it is a helping hand in the struggle of a people in bondage. When Western powers pressured the South African apartheid regime to reform itself, nobody accused them of violating the sovereignty of the country. On the contrary, they were asked to intensify their pressure under pain of being accomplices of the regime.

According to modern understanding, the source of sovereignty and hence of legitimacy of all political power is the will of the people. In view of the fact that the people cannot govern themselves directly, the state becomes the expression of the general will. The state is thus not the source but the exercise of sovereignty, which belongs to the people. When an external power assists in the democratization process, it does not violate sovereignty; it helps the people regain their original right as the sole source of political legitimacy. And indeed, democratization is how governments become accountable to their people.

A word of caution: the preservation of the status of the foreign power as a helper is crucial. Sovereignty would be violated if the foreign power acting as a substitute for the people initiated or implemented democratization. The involvement must not go beyond the act of assisting a people to recover its rights; it must never reach the point where the foreign power directly installs a political regime or intervenes in ways that curtail the sovereignty of the people.

When a person is drowning, he/she has the right to call for assistance and passers-by have the duty to rescue the person. In the same way, a people drowning in the abyss of state terrorism can call for help and foreign nations have the obligation to provide the assistance. When British troops helped in the liberation of Ethiopia from Italian occupation, neither Ethiopians nor foreign democratic nations considered the assistance as a violation of Ethiopia’s sovereignty. Though there was foreign intervention, to the extent that the intervention only restored a power that was already legitimate, it was rightly called assistance. If the intervention had instituted an illegitimate power, it would have been nothing short of a colonial design.

To sum up, the prospect of peaceful change in Ethiopia rests on an international situation strongly favoring democratization. People and political leaders believed in peaceful change because they thought that the international pressure would guarantee the holding of free elections and the handing of power to the winning party. Without an international context favorable to democratization, it would be utterly naïve to assume that dictators could be removed by peaceful competition. If the international pressure does not live up to expectations, then people have no other choice than to appeal to violent methods of political struggle with all the dangerous implications that such methods often carry.

Since the project of a peaceful change of dictatorial regimes is viable only when strong external pressure combines with internal democratic movements, the ratification and implementation of H.R. 2003 constitute the indispensable component for Ethiopia’s entrance into the path of democratization. Herein lies the crucial role of the Ethiopian diaspora: more than its financial support, its effectiveness depends on its ability to channel the international impulse for democratization since the end of the Cold War toward the plight of the Ethiopian people in such a way that it manifests itself with concrete political acts of the type exemplified by H.R. 2003.


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