Ethiopia: The American Confusion

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Aug 13th, 2013

Addis Fortune (Addis Ababa)

Anyone who wants to enter into the vicinity of the American Embassy in Ethiopia, for any purpose, is expected to pass through a weird passage of security checks. The disorganised, unconfident, disrespectful and grossly judgmental security officers have one similar trait – indecisiveness. They are often seen waiting for a nod from their colleagues before letting anyone enter into the compound, even after finding the person’s name on their list of guests.


They seem to represent the state of fear and suspicion that the superpower of the world lives in, day in and day out. It seems that the doomsday of 9/11 always comes to their mind, affecting their judgment of what a clean person is all about.


My latest experience of their extraordinary disorganisation happened last week. I was invited to attend a briefing by the outgoing ambassador, Donald Booth. The security officer who was supposed to let me in took 40 minutes to simply check my name on his list of guests.


He even had to call the inviting office to check my name. After he found it, however, he told me that it took him so long because he could not identify what the ‘T’ in the middle of my name – Getachew T. Alemu – stood for. I wonder how the officer would read the name of his high-level bosses, such as Barack H. Obama and John F. Kerry.


He seems to have forgotten that the easiest way to do things is simply to ask. But, for an American embassy security officer, asking seems to not be an option.


My time with the outgoing ambassador has even left me with even more puzzlement. I come to understand that it is not only the security desk of the embassy that is bewildering, but also the whole relationship of Ethiopia and the United States.


At a policy level, the relationship seems to have three important pillars. These involve regional peace and security, values and economic growth and development.


However, the implementation of the policies seems to be confusing. The security concern of the US in the Horn of Africa relates to the fragile Somalia, the unsettled Sudan and South Sudan, the closed Eritrea and the rather unpredictable Ethiopia.


Since September 2001, the entire policy matrix has shifted in the direction of fighting terrorism. Hence, whatever deal is made between the US and the nations of the region ought to take into account its benefit for the agenda of fighting terrorism.


Amazingly, by default, the matrix gives authoritarian governments in the region the leverage to stay in power, assisted by aid from the US. This is even if their rule grossly abuses human rights and fails to deliver public services to fit in line with international standards. After all, what the superpower cares about is fighting terrorism at any cost. It cares little about everything else.


The role of Ethiopia in the matrix, seems to be pacifying Somalia, mediating the Sudans, containing Eritrea and stabilising itself. This effort, ultimately, is assisted by the US through a confusing scheme of defence exchange.


But, how much of the engagement of Ethiopia in these dealings is made for its own benefit is still open to contemplation. No doubt, however, that there exists sufficient space for a biased relationship.


For centuries, the values that used to be associated with the US were freedom, prosperity through hard work, democracy, creativity and, of course, grandiosity. But, it all seems to be waning fast as the security agenda becomes the prime concern of the nation.


Hence, it is no more possible to expect the US standing upfront against suppression of freedom, violation of rights, gross dehumanisation and dictatorship. It rather seems to have found comfort in abiding to these values on a selective, self-motivated basis. The nation, by virtue of its latest fear, has reduced itself to a passive force with no determination to live for its values in the global political sphere, and no less in the Horn of Africa.


It would all be very different had the economic relationship been balanced. But, it seems that a larger proportion of the economic and developmental relationship is founded on aid, rather than trade. Development aid that has reached one billion dollars is what seems to put a smile of success on the face of the outgoing ambassador.


The diplomats living near Entoto, however, seem to give no attention to the magnitude of shame that each unit of aid brings to Ethiopians. The story would have been different had the increment been on the trade aspect of the relationship, since Ethiopians would feel that they had earned it, instead of having it bestowed upon them. But, eventually, there is little in the form of US foreign direct investment happening in Ethiopia.


I see no justification to be proud over having a development aid agency that puts all its eggs in one basket – value chain development – in a way that gives no attention to the essential misses within the recipient system, including poor market information infrastructures. No amount of increment in aid under such an institution, not to mention its overly parochial human resource management structure and costly monitoring and evaluation systems, could bring equivalent benefits to Ethiopians.


If there is anything that is typical of the Ethio-American relationship, therefore, it is the divergence between talks and deeds. Confusion is exactly what I felt in my latest exposure to the American system here in Ethiopia.


I felt sad that all the excitement I used to feel about the US has diminished so rapidly.

Getachew T. Alemu

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