Imperfections in U.S. foreign policy toward Oromia and Ethiopia: will the Obama administration introduce change?

Author:Jalata, Asafa


Global strategic interests and geopolitics rather than the mutual benefits of the American and African peoples have mainly shaped U.S. foreign policy objectives and priorities on the African continent. As the U.S. emerged as the global hegemonic power by replacing Great Britain after the World War II, it used Africa as "a strategic stepping stone" to the Middle East, and during the Cold War as "a pawn in East-West struggles" (Carter, 2009: 1). Since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the U.S. has been using Africa for its objective of the so-called war on global terrorism by allying with some dictatorial and terrorist African regimes, such as that of Ethiopia, that engage in state terrorism and gross human rights violations while giving lip service to the issues of democracy, human rights, and economic and social development. Consequently, the U.S. government has been building relations with the parasitic African ruling classes and their repressive and exploitative governments at the cost of the ordinary African peoples.

The tragedy in the U.S. foreign policy toward Africa is that there is no a single standard in dealing with African countries, governments, and peoples. For example when the U.S. criticizes Sudan, Zimbabwe, and other countries for not promoting democracy and protecting human rights, it glosses over the criminal policies of certain governments such as that of Ethiopia that "are falling into line to act as puppets of U.S. imperialism" (Talbot, 2006: 3). Currently, the U.S. government supports the Tigrayan-led minority regime of Ethiopia morally, financially, diplomatically, and militarily by disregarding its authoritarian-terrorist characteristics and its massive human rights violations (Jalata, 2005). How did the U.S. start to support the Tigrayan-led minority government of Ethiopia instead of its Amhara-based client state?

Paul Henze (1985: 74), one of the architects of the American-Tigrayan alliance, argued in the mid-1980s that the Tigrayans "as much as the Amhara, are an imperial people who, despite their loyalty to tradition, think of themselves as having a right--and perhaps even a duty--to play a role in the larger political entity of which they are a part." While promoting the Tigrayan ethnonational interest, the same American ideologue dismissed the political significance of the Oromo people, the largest ethnonational group, by arguing that Oromo grievance "is both territorially and politically diffuse and unlikely to coalesce into a coherent ethnic resistance movement" (Henze, 1985: 65). In a multinational empire like Ethiopia, to identify and support one ethnonation to dominate and exploit other ethnonations claiming that it has the right to rule or it is culturally superior is racist (Jalata, 2001: 89-132). In justifying this racist action, Henze (1985: 74) asserted that the Tigrayans recognize "the need to reconstitute Ethiopia and establish a just government recognizing regional rights and ethnic distinctions" as "a natural outgrowth of...[their] view of Ethiopian history."

Just as the Tigrayans are justified to rule and dominate other peoples by their sense of "fairness," they are also seen as pro-West because "they do not try to claim they are Arabs and they do not seek the support of Arab governments," according to Henze (1985: 74). Implicit in these arguments is that other peoples in the Ethiopian Empire, such as the Oromo, are pro-Arab and anti-West and lack a sense of fairness to deal with other peoples. Henze (1985: 65) dismisses the Oromo struggle for national self-determination as the following: "The claims of the Oromo Liberation Front of widespread organization and effectiveness inside Ethiopia cannot be substantiated by firm evidence. Oromia as a territorial entity has no meaning inside Ethiopia. It is an exile construct." Based on such false assumptions, U.S. foreign policy experts like Henze advised the American government to invest in the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and dismissed the relevance of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and other liberation fronts in the Ethiopian Empire.

Because of its perceived strategic national interest and the wrong advice it received from experts and racist assumptions about the Oromo (Jalata, 2001), the U.S. government has allied with the Tigrayan minority elites to form a colonial government and to suppress the Oromo national movement. As Douglas Hellinger (1992: 80) notes, "What is missing from U.S. policy toward Africa is a basic respect for the people, their knowledge and their right to collectively determine their own future." Will the Obama administration respect the rights of African peoples in general and that of the Oromo in particular? Will President Obama (2009) respect his inaugural promise and make African dictators in general and Meles Zenawi in particular accountable because they silence dissent and "cling to power through corruption and deceit?" For sake of clarity and critical understanding of the essence of the U.S. foreign policy in Oromia and Ethiopia, let us historically explore the relationship between the U.S. and the Ethiopian state.

U.S. Hegemonism and the Haile Selassie Government

Since the mid-twentieth century, the U.S. government as the hegemonic power of the capitalist world system has supported the Amhara-Tigray governments of Haile Selassie and Meles Zenawi at the cost the colonized national groups, such as the Oromo. Between the early 1950s and the 1970s, the U.S. introduced its "modernization" programs to the Ethiopian Empire and supported the Haile Selassie government (Jalata, 1993: 88-99). Several scholars demonstrated that the U.S. foreign policy toward Oromia and Ethiopia consolidated the racial/ethnonational hierarchy that was formed by the alliance of Ethiopian colonialism and European imperialism (Jalata, 1993; Holcomb and Ibssa, 1990). When the Haile Selassie government was overthrown by the popular revolt of 1974, a military dictatorship emerged and allied with the former Soviet Union until 1991, when it was overthrown. With the support of the former Soviet Union, the military regime protected and extended the interests of Amhara-Tigrayan colonial settlers in Oromia and other colonized regions.

At the end of the 1980s, a structural crisis that manifested itself in national movements, famine, poverty, and internal contradictions within the ruling elite factions eventually weakened the Amhara-dominated military regime and led to its demise in 1991. Using this opportunity, the U.S. government reestablished its relations with the Ethiopian Empire by allying this time with the emerging Tigrayan ethnocratic elites, which emerged from about 7 million Tigrayans. Opposing the Soviet influence in Ethiopia and recognizing that the Amhara-based Ethiopian government had lost credibility, the U.S. started to support the TPLF in the 1980s and prepared it financially, ideologically, diplomatically, and militarily to replace the Amhara-led military regime by creating the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

With the use of Western relief aid and financial support, the TPLF/EPRDF leaders converted the famine-stricken Tigrayan peasants and those militias who were captured at war fronts into guerrilla fighters in the 1980s. The Eritrean People's Liberation Front also played a central role in building the TPLF/EPRDF army.

One of the major reasons why the U.S. government chose the TPLF, as we have mentioned above, was that the Tigrayan ethnocratic elites were perceived as a legitimate successor to an Amhara-led government because of the racist assumptions of the West. Ethiopia, which was created as an informal colony of Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century, maintained its status in the global order with the help of British global hegemonism until the U.S. inherited this role. Despite the fact that the U.S., as the emerging hegemonic power after the World War II, encouraged decolonization and self-determination in the less-developed world in order to gain spheres of influence, it did not care for these issues in the Ethiopian Empire. Since Ethiopia was the first informal colony of Europe and America, there was no need to address these issues. As we shall see below, in fact the U.S. rather helped Ethiopia to colonize Eritrea, former Italian and British colony, and to incorporate it into Ethiopia. Of course, this happened after the Italian fascist occupation of Ethiopia ended with the assistance of Great Britain.

The U.S. government started its direct communication in 1943 with the de facto Haile Selassie regime, which was under British indirect control; from then on, the regime requested U.S. economic and military assistance. Because of its interest in the Horn of Africa, the U.S. was receptive to the Ethiopian request and sent a Technical Mission in 1944 to help build the Ethiopian economy. Understanding the nature of the Ethiopian client state under the aegis of British hegemonism and realizing that its interests would be best served by associating with such a government, the U.S. wanted to establish strong relation with this empire. After it obtained Radio Marina, a former Italian facility in Asmara, in 1942, with the help of the British government in Eritrea (where British imperialism replaced that of Italy in the early 1940s), the U.S. interest in the Horn of Africa increased (Marcus, 1983: 83).

With a base in Asmara, the U.S. wanted Eritrea to be incorporated into Ethiopia when the British evacuated Eritrea, believing that its interest would be best served by this conjunction (Marcus, 1983: 39). This position brought together U.S. and Ethiopian interests to determine the future of Eritrea. The provision of the American Technical Mission and support for the Ethiopian position on Eritrea was beneficial for the Ethiopian ruling class (Marcus, 1983: 42-43). Furthermore, in alliance with Anglo-American corporations, the...

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