United States Policy Towards Africa – Atlantic Council


Interesting conversation at the Atlantic Council with five former Assistant Secretaries for African Affairs. They discuss their experiences spanning the period from 1981 to 2009 covering the most important issues during their tenure. At times the conversation shows how ad-hoc and arbitrary policy making is but also highlights its biggest achievements. The entire transcript is here.

Herman Cohen, whom many Ethiopians blame for Eritrea’s eventual succession from Ethiopia, described how he alone made the decision to recognize Eritrean rights to Self Determination. At the time, the decision went contrary to what was established U.S. policy. He says the following on events that took place during the London conference in 1991:

we reached a final stage of peace agreement in Ethiopia where the – Mengistu had already pulled out, and we had the TPLF and EPLF ready to take power. So the question was how do we bring it to a soft landing without destroying Addis Ababa and that sort of thing?

And I – so Meles Zenawi and Isaias said to me, you should announce the agreement because that’ll have credibility. So this was in London and was – must have been a slow news day because every television camera in the world was there. And so I announced what the agreement was and then the question period, they – which was that Eritrea would have an referendum within three years and – to decide whether they wanted to be independent. And so I announced that, and then in the question period, they said, well, Mr. Secretary, your policy has always been very consistent: Do not allow African countries to split up – is consistent with the OAU policy, and here you are now condoning the splitting up of Ethiopia. So I said, well, you know, this is a special case. Eritrea never had – the people of Eritrea never had the right of self-determination, back – going back to the Second World War and previous. They were always forced into things. So now we approve of this. Well, OK, fine; I gave the answer.

I go back to the embassy, and five hours later Washington wakes up. (Laughter.) And they said, Secretary Cohen, the secretary of state wants to talk to you. I said, oh, my God. So I – so he calls me and he said, I see in the press this morning that you made this statement of we approve of Eritrea self-determination; did you really say that? I said, yes, Mr. Secretary. He says, well, we’re in trouble now. So, you know, I made statements without clearing it first. (Laughter.) And he – and I said, what’s the matter? He said, well, we’re fighting the Germans now about self-determination for Slovenia and Croatia – And if we say – and we’re against it! We want them to stay in Yugoslavia, and here you are splitting up Ethiopia; the press is going on us like crazy. So then he said, next time you do that, check with me first. (Makes slamming noise.) I said, my career is finished. But a week went by and nothing happened; the press didn’t get onto it, you see. So I met him [Baker] in Lisbon to sign the Angola peace treaty. He was all smiles and everything was fine.

Whether one agrees with Cohen’s decision, the amount of power that individuals can hold in regards to Africa with so limited consequence is enraging, to say the least. His position no doubt facilitated the process of Eritrea’s independence in a manner that met all the wishes of EPLF and TPLF. Though both forces had won the war, they had no mandate to make these decisions at the time. The consequence for Cohen, as he later jokes, is that he gets lectures from Ethiopian cab drivers in D.C.

Of more recent developments, Jendayi Frazer, after highlighting the successes of her tenure, said the following on Somalia:

most unfortunate, from my perspective, was of course the Horn of Africa. I went in as assistant secretary determined not to do Somalia. I absolutely had no desire to deal with Somalia at all. I didn’t see that there was any solution there. I did not think it was right for any type of, you know, conflict-resolution approach, nation-building, state-building – whatever you want to call it, I didn’t think Somalia was right for it.

Because of another agency that will go unnamed and their activities, we ended up being right in the middle of Somalia, and the decision was made that we needed to internationalize our engagement in Somalia. Essentially that other agency was narrowly focused on counterterrorism and got in the middle of the unwieldy dynamics of clan, ascendancy, and warlordism, et cetera. And so we wanted to internationalize.
So we established a Somali contact group. I think the idea there was to internationalize it and then pull out, right? And leave it to others, the Nordics and others, the Italians and now the British and others. But we were – they were smart enough to not allow us to get out – (laughter) – and so we stayed stuck. And unfortunately, you know, not to say anything disparaging about the, you know, the importance of the lives of the Somali people, because we had a very robust humanitarian response to Somalia, but from a conflict resolution perspective, then as is, you know, now, we really had to work hard to try to bring some type of, you know, peace process to the fore and obviously it’s not a success, even to this day.

But Frazer was mum on how to get out of these problems.

Interesting conversation also on Darfur and the decision to label what was going on as genocide.

Very open discussions over all and a must read for those interested in U.S. policy on Africa.


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