US risks losing its influence in the Horn of Africa

US risks losing its influence in the Horn of Africa

N Melo
by N Melo
January 15, 2022 0

US risks losing its influence in the Horn of Africa

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his freshly resigned Sudanese counterpart, Abdalla Hamdok, are arguably the most pro-US leaders in the Horn of Africa (HoA)—if not the entire continent.

But today, the evolving crises in their countries have exposed Washington’s lack of a clear and coherent policy for the region. Whether in Ethiopia’s year-old insurgency or amid Sudan’s military coup, the United States was ill-prepared to respond.

As a keen observer of the region through my regular contacts with officials in both Ethiopia and Sudan, and as a longtime colleague of Hamdok’s, I’ve seen this dynamic up close. By not being visible and sufficiently engaged, Washington could lose the capacity to influence policy and action to address the region’s many vexing problems.

As the HoA undergoes dramatic changes, including sustained economic growth, a rising middle class, and a transition to stable democracy, Washington would be wise to rethink its approach to regional cooperation and use of sanctions—among other issues—and lay out a more inclusive, values-driven, and future-oriented strategy for the region.

‘Either you’re with us or against us.’
During the Cold War, US engagement in the region centered on containing communist encroachment. In the ensuing years, US policy became static over several administrations and lacked strategy and coherence—not a good fit for a rapidly changing region. Then, shortly after the collapse of communism, the tragic fallout from the US intervention in Somalia stunted enthusiasm for engaging more actively in the region.

American attention was only refocused after a string of terrorist attacks—including the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the September 11 attacks—and incidents of maritime piracy. The superseding objective became disrupting local Islamic extremists linked to a global jihadi network, and the full might and resources of the United States and its Western allies descended on the region.

But combating terrorism and promoting trade held preeminence over all pretense of interest in addressing what Africans deemed to be more pressing priorities, such as combating drought and desertification, alleviating poverty, and promoting good governance.

The implicit US mantra of “either you’re with us or against us” coaxed countries to choose sides in a conflict which did not offer neutrality as a position. In return for prioritizing counterterrorism and trade, countries were offered ample humanitarian aid, assistance for democratic governance, and enhanced foreign direct investment (FDI). As the war on terrorism intensified, the United States established Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti in 2002 as the region’s operational centerpiece.

In the absence of an overarching framework to understand and address complex regional priorities, the United States pursued singular agendas and responded to challenges and crises when and where they arose—preferring to focus on individual countries rather than adopting a comprehensive regional strategy. This broad agenda was deficient in depth and obligation, and as a result, long-term vision and regional diplomacy declined.

Without clear direction and purpose, Washington was accused of abetting African despots bent on prolonging their power, either through election-rigging or violating term limits, in exchange for their cooperation in the war on terror. This dented US credibility and its ability to inspire popular policymaking and civic-minded diplomacy among the local populations.

For example, the United States cozied up to the Meles Zenawi regime in Ethiopia and that of his successor—fully aware of their stained human-rights records and reprehensible governance. A 2018 mass uprising that drove out the US-backed Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front caught Washington flat-footed and short on credibility to influence the turn of events. Abiy Ahmed, the charismatic new leader installed in Addis Ababa, lost no time in seeking broad international support and championing Ethiopia’s interest.

Why messaging matters
Another consequence of the lack of a clearly articulated US regional policy is the inadvertent message Washington conveys to both democratically installed governments and insurgents-in-waiting: Coming to power through free and fair elections matters—but other interests and priorities take precedence over democratic governance.

In Ethiopia, for instance, US hesitancy to vigorously condemn a rebel assault on a democratically installed government and constitutional order was the oxygen that fueled the conflict there. The muted response by Washington and Brussels to the aggression emboldened the rebels to set their eyes on Addis Ababa, and the forcible ouster of Abiy became their end game.

On a continent where political leaders and regional institutions have, at least officially, banned all forms of unconstitutional power grabs, the subdued US response to the unfolding rebel attempt was diplomatically unsettling and politically misguided.

Ethiopia: The trouble with sanctions
Today, Ethiopia is mired in internal conflict with Tigrayan forces seeking to forcibly replace a democratically elected government. Faulting the United States for overt and covert assistance to one side over the other, both warring parties are snubbing Washington’s appeals and warnings at will. Daily pleas from the Pentagon and White House to cease fire and come to the negotiating table continue to fall on deaf ears. Meanwhile, the new White House special envoy to the region, Jeffrey Feltman, learned the hard way that being the US president’s emissary no longer carries the same sway it once did—and he announced this month that he’s stepping down.

While the war has quieted down somewhat as the rebels have withdrawn to Tigray, sporadic airstrikes and artillery exchanges continue to cause collateral damage. In what is nothing less than a diplomatic mea culpa, US President Joe Biden spoke directly to Abiy by phone on Monday. Biden expressed his concern about recent civilian deaths from the conflict and Abiy briefed him on efforts to address humanitarian assistance, human rights, and reconstruction. Such a gesture, though highly welcome, is unlikely to have a significant impact on the outcome of the conflict and events in the region, given the United States’ limited leverage.

Before expending sufficient diplomatic energy to reconcile the conflict, the United States has expelled the Abiy government from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) for violating that trade pact’s prohibition on human-rights abuses—a clear case of punitive economic policy gone astray.

First, many of the allegations have since been investigated by the United Nations (UN) Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, which accuse all sides of the conflict of committing them. Investigators also accused all sides of blocking the delivery of humanitarian aid and stated that they could not verify whether starvation was used as a weapon of war, as previously alleged by the UN and the US State Department. Investigators were barred from entering certain parts of Tigray and proposed further investigation into claims of forced starvation by government forces as well as gross human-rights violations in areas under rebel control.

Second, the enforcement of AGOA violations has been selective and inconsistent. Past US administrations have been mute in the face of similar violations committed by other AGOA beneficiaries. This is why the haste to terminate Ethiopia’s eligibility before giving bilateral and multilateral diplomacy a sufficient chance to succeed has far-reaching consequences, including on US business and strategic interests in the region.

The American-Ethiopian Public Affairs Committee estimates that termination potentially means a loss of some two hundred thousand jobs, with young factory workers—mostly poor young women and the heads of households—hard-hit, along with the mostly small- and medium-sized enterprises that supply and service those factories. An AGOA termination “would deal a serious blow to the welfare of millions of low-income workers,” Mamo Mihretu, Ethiopia’s chief trade negotiator, wrote in Foreign Policy.

Moreover, the impact will disproportionately fall on the poorest of the poor, who can least survive such a punitive action and who can least influence the war. In the longer term, this will significantly set back Ethiopia’s long-term trajectory to become the region’s manufacturing hub.

Beyond Ethiopia, the termination would also disrupt countless livelihoods in Djibouti, Kenya, and Somaliland—neighbors whose ports Ethiopia uses for the import and export of raw materials and finished products.

It is not lost on US policymakers that effective economic punishments must be smart and purposely targeted. Coupling trade agreements with imprecise political conditions is counterintuitive and achieves neither objective. Coming at a period of turbulence in the HoA, the termination of the trade deal throws into question the resourcefulness of US foreign policy to resolve political disputes through mature diplomatic insight before resorting to punitive measures.

It is worth pointing out that smart sanctions and other economic tools can address specific policy goals and objectives. But sanctions should never be the first tool out of the box to resolve bilateral disputes; rather, they should be a diplomatic standby of last resort. Nor should they be applied uniformly in vastly different circumstances around the world.

In the final analysis, hastily designed and poorly targeted economic penalties attest to the failure of diplomatic endeavors and portray a global power gradually losing influence over events and actors on the ground.

N Melo
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