Drone Base in Ethiopia and Ethiopia-U.S. relations

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A few days ago the Washington Post reported that the U.S. now has a drone base in Arba Minch, Ethiopia. This development is at odds with the position the Ethiopian government was taking just a few years ago. As many recall, in 2007 and 2008 the Ethiopian government was reversing its policy of allowing bases in the country. Previously at least two locations, Bilate and Hurso, hosted members of the U.S. military. One embassy cable released by Wikileaks had Samora Yunus, the head of the Ethiopian military, saying “just as Ethiopians cannot occupy a camp within a U.S. base, the U.S. should not expect to have a camp within an Ethiopian base.”

As it turns out, despite Samora’s statement, the government was not making its case on ideological grounds. It was rather jockeying for position as its relations with the U.S. became increasingly strained due to its own repressive actions internally and the lobbying efforts of Ethiopians in the U.S. which led the U.S. House to consider HR-2003. The Ethiopian government also expected relations with the U.S. to worsen thinking that human rights and democracy would trump counterterrorism in U.S. foreign policy once Obama takes office. Several cables discuss the nervousness the Meles circle felt about the new U.S. administration (example here). In 2009, after Obama took office, Meles continued to complain about U.S. policies toward Ethiopia. The EPRDF leadership was signaling that a worsening of relations would not be consequence free for U.S. interests.

Thankfully for Meles, the Obama administration proved to be much more hawkish than anticipated.  Meles’s strategy seems to also have payed off by blunting U.S. criticism on human rights, killing HR-2003, while his government continued the very same repressive internal policies. The opening of this drone facility signals that the U.S. and Ethiopian governments have settled on a new arrangement in line with what the Ethiopian government wanted.

Interestingly, one of the cables from Wikileaks was dismissive of the Ethiopian government’s concerns of shifting U.S. policy. It said that these concerns arose because members of the Meles government (members of the TPLF central committee) “do not fully understand American issues or the world around them.”  Of course it wasn’t just TPLF insiders that assumed the new administration would give human rights and good governance a priority. Many Ethiopians in the U.S. who lobbied the U.S. government and worked hard for the election of the current president shared the same sentiment. Apparently, the hard liners in the TPLF trust the American system to reflect the wishes of those who elect it than do U.S. diplomats. Of course, what is even more disappointing is that the diplomats were right.

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