In Ethiopia, a Quiet Rivalry for Influence Pits US against China

Addis Ababa: When Barack Obama became the first sitting President of the United States to touch down in Ethiopia’s capital on Sunday evening, it was at an airport being upgraded using a $250-million Chinese loan.

His convoy then zipped along a six-lane urban expressway, also funded by the Export-Import Bank of China, to Meskel Square, where the two lines of a new Chinese-built electric railway intersect. Towering over the capital’s southwest, he may have spotted the headquarters of the African Union, a $200 million giveaway from China’s leaders.

China’s physical framing of Obama’s arrival is fitting in an emerging African nation where the US is now one of a clutch of security, development and economic partners rather than a predominant superpower.


Ethiopia’s infrastructure needs are enormous. Credit: Makis Siderakis

On the agenda for Monday’s meetings will be Ethiopia’s growth and development, US concerns about repression, and, notably, conflicts in South Sudan and Somalia, National Security Advisor Susan Rice told reporters last week.

While a wad of Chinese cash may be at work improving Addis Ababa’s international terminals, the US completed its own Ethiopian airport expansion in 2010: a $50 million job by the Air Force in the southern city of Arba Minch.  Months later, a White House spokesman revealed surveillance drones were being flown from there, presumably into Somalia.  On a cliff above the airbase at Paradise Lodge, young Americans with crew cuts and wearing fatigues lamely try to pass themselves off as tourists. Ethiopia’s government has never admitted the operation exists.

Although aspects of the partnership may be covert, US and Ethiopian security interests are openly aligned. Ethiopia’s powerful military intervened over its eastern border into Somalia in 2006 to remove the Union of Islamic Courts from power. Major operations resumed around 2010 after that movement morphed into the Al Qaeda-affiliated extremists Al Shabaab.

Ethiopian troops are now part of a Western-funded African Union force that has dislodged Shabaab from strategic positions while largely failing to stem its attacks. The mission is supported by US drone raids that killed top Shabaab commanders this year.

According to Ambassador Taye Atskeselassie, the Director-General of American Affairs at Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry, security ties are paramount. “The fight against terrorism is a common interest and that in fact defines the strategic relationship with the US,” he said.

The US and Ethiopia remain “remarkably in lockstep” on Somalia and Washington values Ethiopian intelligence on Islamists, said Harry Verhoeven, an Africa specialist at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. “The security relationship with Addis is absolutely crucial in the context of the enduring campaign against jihadist terrorism,” he said. “American influence on key foreign policy and security issues is still much greater than China’s for Ethiopia.”

The US also backs African efforts led by Ethiopia at mediating an agreement between South Sudan’s leaders to end a devastating conflict in the nation that borders Ethiopia’s southwest. Obama’s visit coincides with a renewed push by negotiators to get South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and his former deputy turned rebel leader Riek Machar to sign a power-sharing deal.

Although the prospects are remote of achieving lasting peace soon, Ethiopia played a key role in ensuring the conflict didn’t escalate to become a full-fledged proxy war between regional rivals Uganda and Sudan, according to Verhoeven. Its peacekeepers also play a vital hand by patrolling Abyei, a disputed territory seen as the most likely trigger for renewed conflict between Sudan and South Sudan.

Also Read: Addis Ababa – A Love Letter, by Aman Sethi

Despite the convergence, the US officially offers scant military support for Ethiopia, with no lethal weaponry provided due to concerns over abuses. It does, however, deliver significant development aid. The approximately $600 million a year channeled mainly into HIV/AIDS and other health programs has been integral to a successful government drive to counter the epidemic.

Ethiopia’s role battling Islamists and containing regional instability is also seen to mollify US criticism of a lack of democratisation and human rights abuses. Although the State Department details a litany of civil rights violations every year, public condemnation is rare and muted.

Government opponents have renewed criticism in recent weeks as the ruling front won a second successive electoral landslide — this time eliminating all opposition representation from parliament. In last week’s briefing, Susan Rice produced a typical response; saying Ethiopia’s electoral process may have lacked “integrity” — and then describing it as “100 percent” democratic.

Prior to departing for East Africa, President Obama suggested that his visit to Burma “solidified and validated” human-rights activism. But as with attempts to engage Kenyans on gay rights, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s government is likely to rebuff concerns.

Ambassador Taye says Ethiopia thinks the US is sympathetic to the trajectory of a political system that shook off feudalism in 1974 and military socialism in 1991.  “We have been articulating our position to say that we don’t have a difference in principles, so to say, or underpinning philosophy, but it’s a matter of emphasis and sequencing, and a matter of, if not prioritization but also creating a democratic system that fits into our level of development. So by discussing those areas we believe we can understand each other.”

An alternative take is that there is a gulf in thinking, which can be seen, for example, in the ruling front’s watertight relations with the Communist Party of China. Ethiopia’s leaders seem to view civil society pressure, media scrutiny and thrusting multi-party politics as an effect, not a cause, of development. For the government, criticism of Ethiopia’s large dams by Berkeley-based International Rivers, or of rural resettlement programs by the Oakland Institute, also from California, is part of a campaign to keep Ethiopians poor.

“Under an environment of lopsided global power configuration, it is not surprising that on all issues, including human rights, the opinion of the powerful drowns the voices of the powerless,” the information ministry said in a pamphlet published this month. “Western-based human rights advocates therefore have the ear of the hegemons of the world.”

The nature of the rebuttals suggest Obama’s message on rights will have little effect, said Tegbaru Yared, a lecturer at Addis Ababa University’s Center for Federal Studies. “The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front is already emboldened and attributes economic success to its ideology of developmentalism. For the ruling front, blunt talk by the U.S. and criticism of the human rights record is fundamentally a clash of ideologies; a conspiracy by the neo-liberal camp.”

If political arm-twisting will not result in submission, economic diplomacy may be more productive. The biggest push by the Obama administration on the continent has been the Power Africa program, which aims to facilitate investment in a historically underfunded sector. In Ethiopia, the initiative has supported negotiations on a power purchasing agreement and funded studies for a project to generate 500 megawatts of electricity from Rift Valley steam by U.S.-Icelandic firm Reykjavik Geothermal.

Ambassador Taye hopes the visit will add momentum to renewable energy projects, along with furthering the engagement of US agribusiness in a country of farmers still striving to move beyond subsistence.

Yet even in the economic focal area of energy, the US is comfortably trumped by China, which has supported Ethiopia’s dam-building program for years. Recently its lenders bankrolled the turbines for the 1,870-megawatt Gibe III hydropower plant and the Exim bank loaned $1-billion for a transmission line from the under-construction 6,000-megawatt Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – Africa’s two largest hydropower stations.

Obama, in contrast, faces a congressional battle to even get the US Export-Import Bank reauthorized. Republican opponents say the bank’s financing of exports by the likes of General Electric and Boeing is “corporate welfare”.