USG diplomatic priorities: Ethiopia and Eritrea – A cursory look

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Ethiopia and Eritrea have very different relationships with the United States government. The Ethiopian government is a valued ally while relations with Eritrea have been adversarial for the last decade. One would therefore expect somewhat different priorities between the concerns of US diplomats in the two countries. Looking at the tags that describe each cable available through Wikileaks, however, the diplomats concerns in the two countries appear quite similar (see below for details). It is especially interesting how Human Rights concerns rank 3rd in importance among the cables from both capitals. The narrative that emphasizes Human Rights in U.S. foreign policy is put in doubt when its relationship with these two governments is so different despite the similar focus on Human Rights concerns by U.S. diplomats in both places.

The following is a summary of all the tags from the Addis Ababa and Asmara cables available through Wikileaks. Each cable has a tag that indicates the country of origin as well as tags that indicate the subject matter of the cable (e.g. PGOV for Internal Government Affairs, PHUM for Human Rights). Tag frequencies provide a glimpse of the priorities of the diplomats in the two capitals. The percentages below exclude country codes for the origin country and only the top 5 are shown below.

Addis Ababa cables (6054 tags excluding country code)
PREL  External Political Relations  14.8%
PGOV  Internal Governmental Affairs 11.6%
PHUM  Human Rights                   6.2%
SO    Somalia                        4.8%
MOPS  Military Operations            4.6%
Asmara cables(2100 tags excluding country code)
TAG KEY Percent total
PGOV	Internal Governmental Affairs	17.4%
PREL	External Political Relations	15.2%
PHUM	Human Rights	        5.7%
ASEC	Security	        4.9%
ECON	Economic Conditions	4.6%

For expanded definitions of the tags, see here. Definitions for the top 3 are below.

PGOV: The form, structure, and organization of local, provincial, and national governments.

PREL: The political relations between countries, international or regional organizations both bilateral and multilateral, that assess intentions, objectives, plans, or possible courses of interaction.

PHUM: The violation of rights attributable to human beings.

Is there a way forward for the opposition?

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The Ethiopian political landscape has changed dramatically since the 2005 elections.  In the six years since, EPRDF has strengthened considerably while the opposition in Ethiopia has split and proven itself to be not well organized.   We have seen opposition leaders being co-opted when possible (as in the case of Lidetu and Hailu)  or being arrested (as in the cases of Birtukan, Debebe, and Andualem). The opposition’s lack of  strong grass roots organization coupled with its thin leadership  pool has made EPRDF’s goal of breaking it up easier.

There exists a cyclic problem where the opposition is in trouble because it doesn’t have a broad base to protect it and it can’t have a broad base since EPRDF works day and night to limit the opposition’s activities.  Given the level of internet penetration, organizing over the web is not feasible.  I don’t think there is an existential threat to the opposition – EPRDF is not interested in killing it completely since it serves a PR purpose, but it is also not going to let it thrive.  For the opposition, there is little escape from the fact that  for it to be successful, it needs to build a support base despite the narrow political space it finds itself in. While one should not trivialize the attempts of the opposition to expand its foothold so far, there are some areas of improvement that can benefit it.

A good place to start, I think, is for the opposition to take a hard look at how it has defined itself so far. Rather than any policy position, the opposition is characterized by a fervent dislike of  EPRDF.  Though some had attempted to temper this attitude (e.g. Birtukan, Dr. Birhanu – pre Ginbot 7), the average supporter, harbored feelings of emotional dislike*.  This feeling often overshadows differences among the various opposition groups and comes at the expense of articulating well thought out positions on many national issues.

Second, while calls for democratic elections are important, these alone can not be enough. Seeing how the Kinijit leadership fractured post election 2005 despite the leaderships belief in a democratic path should be illustrative enough. The rapid fracture was the result of an opposition leadership who were united by little more than a call for open elections and their loath for EPRDF. Clearer definitions of values and goals, a clear political program, and clear positions on issues of national interest that go beyond the superficial (e.g. “privatize land!” kind of arguments**) are needed.

There is of course little doubt that the anti-EPRDF rhetoric has been useful for the opposition.  It works well for election times where people are faced with a choice between something they don’t like and something they don’t know very well. But this sentiment does not create believers in the organization’s goals.  When goals are not broadly shared, EPRDF’s strategy of imprisoning individual leaders works.  It leaves the organizations shaken and without a clear direction on where to go next.

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*I should also state that EPRDF also harbors no love for anyone – its comments and actions are of contempt and hatred for anyone who doesn’t agree with it.

** Meles is now essentially privatizing land to foreign investors and arguing that this was what the opposition had for so long wished for.