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House hearing on Ethiopia a step in the right direction

December 17, 2023

BY MESFIN TEGENU

There was certainly a lot going on around the world as November came to an end. Yet on Nov. 30, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Africa took time for a deep dive into a major geopolitical crisis that does not get nearly enough attention here in the U.S. — growing violence and government corruption in Africa’s second most-populous nation, Ethiopia.

Chairman John James (R-Mich.) kicked off the session expressing a dim view of the current state of affairs under the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmad. Referring to the hearing’s title — “Ethiopia: Promise or Perils” — James said, “If I’m being honest, it’s increasingly difficult to see where the promise lies.”

The lawmaker made that comment after an overview that cited the ongoing violence and human rights violations by government forces in the Amhara and Oromia regions, an increasingly shaky-looking peace deal in Tigray, new tensions between Ethiopia and its neighbor Eritrea over Abiy’s desire for port access, the misappropriation of badly needed food aid and runaway inflation.

“A stable Ethiopia is good for the Horn of Africa and important to broader strategic U.S. interests in the region,” James said in launching the hearing. “However, I’m very concerned about Ethiopia’s current trajectory and the direction of our policy.”

The hearing was an important first step in restoring the historically close ties between the U.S. and Ethiopia, which have suffered somewhat in the fallout from the fighting in Tigray that led to the fragile peace deal just over a year ago.

But while words are important, the need for action is growing more and more critical, especially given the acceleration of attacks on Amharan citizens. Stepped-up U.S. engagement in Ethiopia is an opportunity not only to curb violence but also to promote stability in the critical Horn of Africa. Abiy’s narrow, nationalist approach and his tribal-based governing has been rejected by other nations moving away from the dictatorial style. American aid and lobbying could bring long overdue change.

James noted at the hearing that while the Abiy government continues to look to America for humanitarian aid, Ethiopia has been forging closer ties with U.S. competitors such as China, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

The two Biden administration officials who testified at the hearing insisted that U.S. diplomats are working to lobby their Ethiopian counterparts to honor human rights throughout the entire country and to stop tolerating corruption.

But Mike Hammer, the State Department’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, agreed under pointed questioning from James that much more needs to be done to prevent the horrors now taking place in Amhara, Oromia and elsewhere.

“We are deeply concerned about the ongoing violence in Amhara and Oromia,” Hammer said. “There have been credible reports of gross violations of human rights, significant loss of life and severe economic disruption.”

In recent weeks, government forces fighting in northern Ethiopia’s Amhara region have launched attacks that witnesses said endangered historic, rock-hewn churches that date as far back as the 12th and 13th centuries. Human-rights advocates and the UN spoke out this summer against mass arrests of thousands in the region. Eyewitnesses say that civilians, including children, have been killed by government drone strikes, while thousands have been driven from their homes or victimized by looting while troops burn badly needed food supplies.

Hammer told the hearing that his boss, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has made frequent calls to Abiy urging greater reform in Ethiopia, adding that “we are deeply concerned about the reports about extrajudicial killings, detentions, and suffering that is being inflicted on civilians in both Amhara and Oromia.”

Still, the tone of both Hammer and the other U.S. government official who testified at the hearing was cautiously optimistic about reform, in contrast with James’s pointed concerns. Indeed, the Michigan Republican called out the Abiy government for turning toward adversarial nations like China and the UAE for advanced weapons that are being used in regional conflicts, while pleading for direct aid and food shipments from Western nations. “The American taxpayer is tired of being used,” James said.

Hopefully, this hearing marks a turning point in U.S.-Ethiopian relations, which have suffered from a lack of focus and attention in recent years. The recognition from James and other members of Congress of the Ethiopian regime’s dismal human-rights record is a move in the right direction, but saying the right things is not enough.

Government security forces must stop attacking Amharan civilians with heavy weaponry and drones. The Abiy regime should be held accountable, and the Biden administration now needs to back up its words with forceful action. This is necessary to stop a looming genocide, fight corruption, restore basic liberties and reaffirm the long partnership between our two nations.

 

 

Mesfin Tegenu, the chairman and CEO of RxParadigm, is executive chairman of the American Ethiopian Public Affairs Committee.

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