Viewpoint

U.S. policy on Ethiopia’s civil war is not driven by some nefarious plot

Conspiracy theories claiming that the United States is behind a devious stratagem against Ethiopia distract from credible accusations of human rights violations levied against the federal government.

The United States is destabilizing Ethiopia. At least, that is what Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed implied in his recent open letter to US President Joe Biden.

Disinformation campaigns from all sides in the Tigray war have been documented and studied; the latest strategy by the Ethiopian government has been to reframe its war as an anti-imperialist struggle against a US foreign policy establishment supporting the terrorist Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). This framing has proven especially relevant in the face of potential US-imposed sanctions.

It has gained enough traction to shape Ethiopian political discourse and has also been a powerful justification for the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments’ ongoing campaign against Tigray, promoted by partisan commentators like Jeff Pearce, and even Eritrean celebrities such as Tiffany Haddish and the father of the late rapper Nipsey Hussle, Dawit Ashgedom.

However, proponents of this argument often struggle to explain why the US government would try to destabilize Ethiopia, a long-time strategic US ally in the Horn, whose pro-market economic reforms are supported by Washington, and whose pre-war political reforms under Abiy were lauded by the highest US officials.

Indeed, the main arguments in favor of this theory demonstrate an abysmal level of analysis.

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In the article shared by Tiffany Haddish, the only explanation offered was “dismantling the oldest independent African country” to serve as “a lesson to any and all Black countries and people who dare entertain radical ideas around controlling their own destiny”. US-based philosophy professor Messay Kebede similarly posits that the US, driven by pure racism, is “punishing” Ethiopia.

Such theories are weak as they cannot be tested and because they ask us to believe the US is willing to jeopardize its security and material interests in the Horn for an abstract, symbolic ‘victory.’

An alternative theory proposed by security analyst Ann Fitz-Gerald suggests that “the Tigray conflict with Ethiopia can be seen as a proxy battleground for external powers and a way to exert influence over Ethiopian policymakers.” In the Royal United Services Institute piece, Fitz-Gerald ambitiously attempts to unify US-China competition, neocolonialist mineral exploitation, and the Ethio-Egyptian Nile waters dispute into a cohesive theory but fails to make any meaningful connections.

Meanwhile, in an interview with Ethiopian state media, Lawrence Freeman bizarrely claimed that a small mysterious faction of the global “political-economic elite” is targeting Ethiopia for regime change.

In a viral blog article from June that received acclaim from some analysts—even being dubbed by one excitable tweep as the “most incisive article on US policy on Ethiopia”—Ethiopian-Canadian engineer Nemo Semret attempts to offer a robust explanation for why the US is “destabilizing” Ethiopia.

Nemo takes an almost Socratic approach to analyze different explanations of US imperialism, discarding each explanation that does not make sense (including the previously mentioned arguments). The final explanation he settles on to justify the theory of US imperialism is that the US is destabilizing its most important ally in the Horn to…..bump up the Egyptian president’s popularity.

Here’s an excerpt:

“The moment [President Al-Sisi] shows weakness, he’s toast.  Like the oak tree in the fable, if he bends he breaks. And nothing makes him look weaker than Ethiopia going ahead with GERD despite his intransigence. Egypt will be fine but the current Egyptian government is at risk, and the best way to minimize that risk is to destabilize Ethiopia enough that GERD is stopped or at least delayed until it can be done in a ‘pliant’ way that makes Al Sisi look ‘strong’ domestically in Egypt.”

Here, Nemo is saying that in the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi needs to appear strong as to not be overthrown (presumably by the Muslim Brotherhood). How does this reshape our understanding of the war? We are to believe that the US is supporting the TPLF —which, when in power, adopted the Asian Tiger development model and rejected Western liberalism—as a means of undermining the Abiy regime for the purpose of protecting Al-Sisi’s reputation.

Academic Meron Gebreananaye describes this argument as “the national mythos of anti-colonial patriotism, and the rather intricate conspiracy theory that there is a sinister alliance positioned against the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.”

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Upon basic questioning, the theory falls apart.

To begin, how do we know that Al-Sisi is under any significant threat? Nemo never demonstrates this, he simply insinuates it. If Al-Sisi was under threat from the Turkey-backed Muslim Brotherhood in neighboring Libya, how would the US destabilizing Ethiopia be more helpful to Egypt than simply providing security assistance?

Nemo also fails to explain how Al-Sisi will be a “toast” if he shows “weakness” by allowing Ethiopia to go ahead with GERD in light of the fact that his government hasn’t been toppled after making concessions in the Declaration of Principles in 2015, allowing a decade of GERD’s construction, and passively sitting by while Ethiopia started filling the reservoir, in explicit defiance of Egypt’s warnings.

After these past two years of filling, Egypt would surely show significant signs of instability by now. He certainly has not proved that the “best” way to stabilize the Egyptian regime is to criticize Abiy’s war efforts in Tigray. It seems a few basic questions reveal deep logical holes in Nemo’s argument.

Overall, the theory that the GERD crisis and the war are related, especially in terms of US foreign policy, rests on nothing but faith. This is evident in the differences in the Trump and Biden administrations’ responses to both.

The Republican administration responded to the outbreak of the war by immediately noting the TPLF’s attack on the Northern Command in a tweet by the then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on 4 November 2020. Additionally, in a tweet on 17 November, Pompeo, the top US diplomat, “strongly condemned” the TPLF for attacking Eritrea, and urged the Ethiopian government to handle the conflict.

By the end of November, when the Tigray leadership was summarily defeated and Mekelle was taken, Pompeo called Abiy personally to encourage him on the “path to democracy.” Contrast this with Trump’s policy on GERD, which involved forcing Ethiopia to join GERD negotiations in Washington DC, forcefully insisting on mediating the discussions, drafting an agreement that blatantly favored Egypt, punitively withholding $264 million in aid from Ethiopia, and President Trump himself tacitly endorsing Egypt to bomb the dam.

Biden’s foreign policy team has voiced opposition to the war in Tigray, going as far as formally enacting a sanctions regime for all belligerents and repeatedly calling for a ceasefire and talks. On GERD, however, the US has formally de-linked the funds withheld by the Trump administration and expressed support for the African Union to lead negotiations.

Compared to its predecessor, the Biden administration has played a more passive role in the GERD dispute and has been relatively silent on the issue, signaling that it’s a lower foreign policy priority than the Tigray war. Most importantly, the gulf between the administrations’ approaches shows that their policy on Tigray is completely unrelated to their policy towards GERD.

Further, Nemo’s theory that Egypt and Sudan are conspiring with the US to sanction Ethiopia into poverty to halt its progress on GERD is partly undermined by the fact that both countries endorsed a UN statement by China essentially condemning US sanctions against developing countries. It is also hard to believe that the US is raising human rights concerns over Tigray as a means of pleasing Egypt when they are withholding, albeit reluctantly, hundreds of millions of dollars in development assistance to Egypt over human rights abuses.

All in all, this theory makes no sense. However, it doesn’t need to. The claim that Ethiopia is being “destabilized” by the US is simply a propaganda strategy, not a robust theory of international relations that can sustain criticism. The reasoning behind it is not based on facts or experience. Rather, it subsists on outrage generated from the perception of Western interference; it is purely emotional in nature.

This conspiracy theory is intentionally overly complex—requiring a myriad of logical steps, assumptions, and tenuous relationships to make sense—in order to mimic critical thought. It does this while serving the purpose of obscuring the horrendous atrocities committed by the Ethiopian and Eritrean federal troops and ensuing humanitarian disaster.

Indeed, Nemo’s article is laden with scientific and intellectual jargon such as “evolutionary pressure”, “Gell-Mann amnesia”, “Occam’s Razor”, and “null hypothesis” to give it the veneer of authority, scientific objectivity, and sophisticated reasoning. Despite this, the actual content of his reasoning, as was just demonstrated, isn’t based on any empirical reality and displays more characteristics of superstition than scientific knowledge.

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In her essay, On the Nature of Totalitarianism, political scientist Hannah Arendt explains the purpose of this type of reasoning: to “mislead [the masses] further into the wilderness of mere abstract logical deductions and conclusions.” This “logicality” distracts people from a totalitarian regime’s wrongdoings with mental gymnastics, to “emancipate themselves from real experience and the shock of reality by luring them into a fool’s paradise”.

In Ethiopia, this anti-US campaign feeds on the fact of US power, citizens’ genuine anxiety over neocolonial interventionism, and offers a sense of empowerment in resistance to this agenda, animated by slogans such as “Hands Off Ethiopia!” and popular pro-government rallies.

Evidently, the anti-imperialist aesthetic, and the ‘logic’ underpinning it, has been effective in rallying support for the regime, not just from Ethiopians but foreign commentators like Ann Garrison of Black Agenda Report, Ben Norton of The Grayzone, Rania Khalek of Breakthrough News, among many others.

In case it wasn’t obvious how proponents of this theory create support for the government, Nemo goes out of his way to defend the integrity of the controversial Ethiopian election, which saw the incumbent Prosperity Party win 94 percent of parliamentary seats.

Among Ethiopians and the diaspora, GERD has been the perfect mobilization tool, given its nationalistic symbolism—that is, as long as you are willing to ignore the inconvenient fact that the late Prime Minister, TPLF’s Meles Zenawi was its chief architect.

Scholars observe that, historically, mega-dams have “served as highly visible, spectacular statements that new nations were literally soaring toward development, by mastering rivers and reaching for the sky. Constructions on such a scale rendered material the trope of nation-building: to erect a mega-dam was literally to concretize the postcolonial nation’s modernity, prosperity, and autonomy”.

Abiy and the Prosperity Party have masterfully manipulated Ethiopians’ patriotic support for GERD to manufacture consent for war crimes, including sexual violence and the destruction of civilian infrastructure, as well as the incarceration and extrajudicial murder of journalists. At the same time, they are trying to avoid accountability internationally and at home. This same strategy was deployed by the Derg in the 1980s.

Ultimately, as a theory, the notion of US imperial aggression against Ethiopia is a conclusion in search of evidence. In reality, it is the latest in a series of disinformation waves from the government to absolve itself of scrutiny over the humanitarian crisis it has helped create in Tigray. More than anyone else, the millions of Tigrayans on the brink of starvation in a blockaded region are most harmed by this narrative.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: Ethiopian pro federal government demonstrators at a rally in Addis Abeba protesting US pressure on Ethiopia; May 2021; Reutres.

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Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished.

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About the author

Moriah Assefa

Moriah is an independent researcher and economics professor studying the conflict in Northern Ethiopia. He has expertise in global business, economic governance, and international politics.

8 Comments

  • I think it is the other way around. TPLF obsessed and drunken by 27 yrs of power, it was impossible to it to accept the facts on ground and move in. The Abiy administration was not opposed the TPLF being the administrator of Tigray as long as the ppl of Tigray elect them freely. But tplf wants the old way remote controlling all regions at the helm. Arrogance in a silver platter

  • Ethiopia will continue to be liability to the international community as the elites chose to blame external forces instead of encouraging honest dialogue. Unfortunately the Ethiopian elites on the surface they pretend as they care for all Ethiopians but in reality they are tribals. they abet and aid the sufferings and destruction of others who don’t agree with their agenda that’s what is happening now in Ethiopia.

  • Too simplistic and linear . The issues are complex and Miti-faceted . All of the above plus many more drivers, triggers and reasons, most of which premeditated, either as a matter of US national interest or ocastrated by corrupt and greedy politicians for personal gains.

    Many more holes infilled. What the writer thinks the role of Egypt, Sudan could be ?
    How could USA justify its allegiance to TPLF, with all concrete and apparent evidences of TPLF’s war waging and damaging political history?
    The writer starts at the middle of the whole story? Who initiated the war? Who is the cause of all of their unspeakable tribulations ? Isn’t clear, TPLF is the reason albeit all the rent-less effort by the Governemt?

    There are a number of question worth asking: 1) will the US benefit out of its current policy on Ethiopia, or is it hurting itself knowingly or unknowingly ? 2) can the policy makers explain and justify their stance on Ethiopia’ what is the end game? What they want to achieve ? How they will manage the horrific consequences likely to emerge out of their meddling ?Do the politicians know or try to understand the will of the Ethiopian people? Why they chose to go against the Will of the Ethiopian people ? Why so much policy shift by Democrats from the Republican in the war issue at least from a year ago?

  • The rationale you provided to neglect US imperialism rather a hodgepodge. Ethiopia was not ally of US. It was instead an employer-employee relationship. It was TPLF and US, great Ethiopia was not there at all. Actually, i can not imagine allegiance of US with african sovereign states that is based on mutual interest when the CIA has a clear track record of successful regime change in Africa. Probably you can use the word ‘ally’ for US/UK, US/Canada ties. In addition to, economic supports or aid can not justify US’s neutrality in the ongoing quagmire as there were with both Iraq and kuat during the Iraq’s invasion of kuat. It’s not far fetched to think that now a days support/aids are instruments in between US and minion cadres in exclusion of the people.

    Regarding with Abay dam, you wrote your parochial view that time again echoing TPLF’s propaganda machine. If Abay dam would have allowed only to engineers, it would have take just 4 years for completion. Nonetheless, you choose to remain ignorant about the fact that Meles launched the project to use it as effective propaganda tool as obviously mega projects have been serving this purpose mostly in a developing countries. To verify this, we can make our scrutiny beginning from who is eligible to participate in the project, the cost it would take, and the time it takes. Otherwise, how can we give credits to concerning bodies? SMART is a tool to evaluate the performance of implementing bodies. Let us make this reasonable. You can give your own percentage value to each letter in SMART and it should score at least 90% and above to judge it as an authentic patriot driven project to alleviate the people from poverty. The higher discrepancy shows the mega project must have been used as a propaganda piece. To help you through this all, there has been many disclosings about the dam construction so far. The tribe bigot Meles was not hesitated to beset the entire project divisions with tigreans, and to loot the poor people in the name of flagship project. 82 billion was suppose to attain 100 % project completion, but 82 billion was already squandered for sons and daughters of meles and the big dogs and lift the project to only 20% completion. Abay is not a huge dam compared to aswan dam. It could have took 4 years for completion. Therefore, you can’t give credit for everyone who make effective advertisement of abay dam. You may study mega project and their political significance for better understanding and that might help you refrain from emotionally labeling protagonists without their real achievement. Or only driven by abhorrent feeling against Great Ethiopia. Finally with regards to abay dam, i will give the credit to Hailesilassie who conducted the preliminary and structural design study of abay dam, and to Abiy Ahmed who reverted back a deviously derailed project to it’s life cycle and successfully commence the filling process with all the inclusive transboundary river( Hydropoltics) discourses.

    Despite blinded as rat, try to narrate the story from the brutal 11/3 attack on northern command, and pass to Maichadra, galicoma..! Also analyze america’s adamant position to call the terrorist TPLF to the negotiation table.
    This will might be helpful to see how your article is obscuring the right portrait.

  • Valid points above but one important reason why the Ethiopians believe there is some deliberate attempt to undermine the government is the apparent carte blanche TPLF gets to do whatever they want with the worst being a cursory slap on the wrist and “we call upon all sides to ………”.

    I do not want to get into all incidents because I am sure the author of this post is more familiar with Ethiopian affairs than I am, but the average Ethiopian sees Abiy Government put to task to explain every action that has even the slightest whiff of human rights violation ( real or made up) and the TPLF literally gets away with murder, wreaking havoc across two neighboring regions, stealing UN aid and vehicles, recruiting child soldiers, etc and the response from the world’s prefects?….Nothing (except for a few half-hearted calls for both sides to respect human rights). Nothing explicitly laying the blame squarely on TPLF, even when the evidence is there.

    You cannot blame the people for seeing this as some sort of tacit support for TPLF. This then leads them to ask why. Why do the major powers “back” TPLF?

    As with many things in an environment of war and unreliable communication, conspiracy theories will take hold (usually containing some aspect of validity).

  • Over simplistic and ignores connections in foreign policy which are often complex and changing fast. Conveniently ignores human rights abuses by TPLF in Amhara and Afar as well the disinformation campaign by it.

    If only Geopolitics and Foriegn policies were this straight forward and logical

  • Edited for clarity.

    “Abiy and the Prosperity Party have masterfully manipulated Ethiopians’ patriotic support for GERD to manufacture consent for war crimes, including sexual violence and the destruction of civilian infrastructure, as well as the incarceration and extrajudicial murder of journalists. ”

    Ethiopians support bringing to justice TPLF, and all its corrupt and criminal supporters and enterprises not only because of its decades worth of crimes against humanity, but also its continued efforts to destabilize Ethiopia. Then they attack Northern Command.

    So, exactly how are you linking this wish of the Ethiopian people as support for
    “war crimes, including sexual violence and the destruction of civilian infrastructure, as well as the incarceration and extrajudicial murder of journalists” ?

    Do explain.

    Then, do write at least a paragraph about “war crimes, including sexual violence and the destruction of civilian infrastructure” the Tigray Defense Force (TDF) is wrecking (this is ongoing) on Amhara and Afar regions, and the support TDF has in Tigray.

  • It is reasonable observation and good analysis. I was asking myself for some time about this near hysteria of perceived hostility by America and other western powers against Ethiopian Government. These actors are the ones you need most to be on your side, but no to antagoize. at this juncture. Of course ,there are always some policy elements of biase,real or imagined which is not necessarily by malaise perse but mainly due to humanitarian grounds and for realpolitik and other self-interest issues at times. But that is all . By and large. I think things are overblown without serious self-examination or misplaced PR’s posture on the part of the governments plus misinformed reaction of the public. Overall, I would say Abiy’ regime has no luxury to consistently drum up words of hostility and issuing blanked accusations against anyone who disagree its position .This is even morw so when this government purports to represents the official line of the nation of 110 million citizens unlike TPLF clique who has no official/diplomatic capacity whatover or has little accountability to anyone except itsself -‘
    — at least for now. You don’t want to go down the level they went you to drag with them so that both you would end up the same predicament

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