Barack Obama’s Visit to the Horn of Africa – Another Squandered Opportunity

obama's lost opportunity for lasting peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia
History will judge if Barack Obama utilized or squandered the opportunity of his recent visit to bring lasting peace, stability and security to the turbulent Horn of Africa region.

By Sophia Tesfamariam,

President Barack Obama’s recent trip to Africa, touted as his legacy tour, did not garner the attention and excitement in the mainstream media as his previous visits did. The US President’s itinerary included only two countries, Ethiopia and Kenya and analysts in the region speculated that he chose the two nations, one of them for being his father’s hometown and the other for being the headquarters of the African Union. It was also the first time a sitting U.S. President had visited Kenya or Ethiopia. Of the two, most questioned his trip to Ethiopia, a country ruled by a repressive entrenched minority regime, whose lawlessness and belligerence have been a source of embarrassment to US Administrations, which claim to support human rights and democracy in Africa, but look the other way when Ethiopia, a “staunch US ally” commits crimes against its own people and others in the region. His visit to Kenya on the other hand, was considered less controversial and regarded as being a family reunion of sorts.

Insulting the intelligence of the Ethiopian people and ignoring the regime’s gross violations of their human rights and presenting the recent rigged elections as an exercise in democracy despite the fact that the regime won 100% of the seats, Obama conferred praises on his Ethiopian hosts.

With Hassan Sheikh Mahamoud, the Somali President, conspicuously absent, Obama discussed terrorism and the threat of Al-Shabbab in Somalia with the very states that are part of the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), imposed on the Somali people without their consent. But he will be remembered most for his address to the African Union (AU), the first by a sitting US President, which many found to be condescending and patronizing in content and tone. In addition, addressing the august body in the absence of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, the African Union’s Chairman, was further evidence of his Administration’s contempt for African institutions.

Horn of Africa observers also wondered if the US President would take the opportunity to raise the issue of Ethiopia’s 15-year long occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories and if he would ask Ethiopia to abide by its international obligations and respect the final and binding delimitation and demarcation decisions of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC). Some believed he would reluctant to offend the regime in Ethiopia. Raising such thorny issues such as the regime’s violation of international law would further undermine its international standing and its eroding legitimacy.

No doubt Eritrea was omnipresent in the private discussions with the regime, but the only public mention came during a Press Conference held by President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

A journalists from the Ethiopian Broadcast Corporation (EBC) asked the following question:

“…Mr. President you mentioned earlier that combating terrorism was one of the areas in which the US and Ethiopia are partnering, however organizations based in the US and Eritrea are obstructing Ethiopia’s counterterrorism efforts, how will your government assist Ethiopia in this regard…”

No doubt the regime’s cadres were spewing similar accusations against Eritrea behind closed doors. The journalist was alluding to the many Ethiopian opposition groups that have headquarters in cities across Europe and the United States, and in neighboring states. The US Administration is cognizant of these groups as they have brought tremendous pressure on the regime with the highly effective and organized campaigns designed to highlight the suffering of their people under the repressive minority regime.

To his credit the President of the United States responded carefully, leaving the minority regime and its cadres with little to salivate about, or use as they inevitably would, as consent or agreement with their stance. Obama said:

“…Our policy is that we oppose terrorism wherever it may occur and we are opposed to any group that is promoting the violent overthrow of a government, including the government of Ethiopia that has been democratically elected…I know that there are certain groups that had been active in Ethiopia, that from the Ethiopian governments perspective pose a significant threat, our intelligence indicates that while they may oppose the government, they have not tipped into terrorism and we have some very clear standards in terms of how we evaluate that…we will look and see what evidence we have, where the real problems and where we see genuine terrorist activity…a lot of this has to do with how we define a particular group’s activities, if they are just talking about issues and are in opposition, and operating as political organizations, we tend to be protective of them even if we don’t agree with them, that is true in the United States and true everywhere, we feel that is part of what is needed in a democracy…if they tip into activities that are violent and are undermining the properly constituted government, then we have a concern…and so this will be a matter of facts…what are the facts with respect to this issue in determining how we can work together…”

President Barack Obama and his Administration know full well the extent of Ethiopia’s violations against the State of Eritrea and its people, its brazen destabilization efforts and 15-year long occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories.

Unfortunately, it is the silence of the US led international community on Ethiopia’s numerous UN Security Council Resolutions on the Eritrea-Ethiopia border issue, the violations of international law and the diplomatic, political and military shield and support that it continues to receive, that has emboldened the regime to commit even more aggressive diplomatic and political lawfare against the State of Eritrea and its people. The illegal sanctions and the shenanigans at the UN Human Rights Council were all engineered by the regime in Ethiopia and individuals within the Obama Administration, are part of the lawfare and warfare against Eritrea and its people. The Wikileak cables detail the role played by Susan Rice, Obama’s National Security Advisor and former US Ambassador to the United Nations in getting the “stand alone sanctions” against Eritrea. The cables also detail how Ethiopia’s leaders and Susan Rice used IGAD and the African Union to advance political agendas against Eritrea.

Insulting the intelligence of the Ethiopian people and their just and gallant struggles against the minority regime in Ethiopia, the minority regime has in the past accused Eritrea of supporting the various armed opposition groups that are struggling to liberate the people of Ethiopia from its brutal rule. This is a deliberate and desperate attempt to stifle the struggles of the Ethiopian people and undermine the contribution of the vast Ethiopian Diaspora which has been mobilizing and strengthening its political movements. Since September 11, to justify its crackdown on dissent, the regime in Ethiopia has been labeling all anti-government groups, journalists and opposition groups in Ethiopia as “terrorists”. But just as President Obama stated, there are no facts to support the minority regime’s allegations.

As this US Embassy cable authored by Donald Yamamoto, US Ambassador to Ethiopia shows, the US and Ethiopia do not always agree when it comes to political groups:

“…While the GoE [Government of Ethiopia] considers the ONLF a terrorist group, the USG [US Government] views them as a nationalist movement that has predominantly targeted GoE and Ethiopian military entities in response to the marginalization of the Ogadeni people…”

Despite the rhetoric on “fighting terrorism”, the 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia was for the most part, a pretext aimed at destroying opposition groups, such as the ONLF, in that neighboring state. The EBC journalist conveniently ignored the Ethiopian regime’s terrorist activities in the region and the reign of terror against its own people. In addition to its military provocations in Kenya and Somalia, the minority regime has committed terrorist acts against Eritrea through its surrogates.

A 2008 study by Professor Gérard Prunier for the Center for International Peace Operations (Berlin, Germany) provides an interesting insight into the minority regime’s activities against the State of Eritrea. According to Prunier:

“…the Ethiopians have managed to create a kind of “federation” (National Alliance of Eritrean Forces or NAEF) composed of about fourteen different opposition movements which include the Eritrean Islamic Reform Movement (EIRM) and the Eritrea Democratic Alliance (EDA). But this “federation” is of extremely dubious efficiency which is why the Ethiopians have created on the side another organization, the Eritrean Revolutionary Democratic Front (ERDF) which is in fact a big sounding name for a kind of fighting commando…”

Prunier gives further detail about the two organizations and their differences. He writes:

“… NAEF can be considered as a political movement while ERDF is a military one. NAEF is kind of “official” and its leaders are known. But they have no fighting strength. The ERDF is the opposite: it as an almost secret organization with no known leaders and it is more an Eritrean Foreign Legion of the Ethiopian Army than a real political movement. It is just supposed to give a kind of “political local cover” for the Ethiopians the day they would have to fight Eritrea, more or less the way Kabila’s Allied Democratic Forces for a Liberation of Kongo-Zaire (ADFL) gave a local Congolese cover to the Rwandese Army in 1996…”

Suffice it to mention some of the military adventures of the minority regime through its surrogates in the ERDF:

  • “…Ethiopia has hosted meetings of various factions of the Eritrean Liberation Front, trying to bring the ELF-Revolutionary Council and the ELF of Abdullah Idris together. It has offered support to three small Eritrean Marxist opposition parties, and to an opposition Kunama party, and has recently set up an Afar Red Sea Democratic Organisation to try and build up Afar resistance to the Eritrean government…”- (Patrick Gilkes, BBC News 2 March 1999)
  • “…Ethiopia has given support to the opposition Alliance of Eritrean National Forces (AENF), now based in Ethiopia. It anticipates that this will be able to mobilise former Eritrean Liberation Front supporters, and Muslim critics of the present government…”- (Patrick Gilkes, BBC News 19 May 2000)
  • In May 2003, Herui Tedla and the Eritrean National Alliance were brought to Ethiopia and provided with “material support” to set up a military wing to attack strategic targets such as television and radio centres. (BBC 2 May 2003)
  • In 2003, British geologist Timothy Nutt was slain as he worked in Eritrea, by the Eritrean Islamic Jihad, one of the groups financed, harbored and supported by the regime in Ethiopia.
  • Groups financed, harbored and supported by Ethiopia detonated a bomb in Barentu, Eritrea during the 2004 Independence Day celebrations killing 5 people and wounding 88.
  • “…Eritrean Democratic Alliance launched a six-day congress here on Thursday…EDA is Eritrea’s opposition umbrella embracing 13 sisterly political organizations…”- (15 February 2007 Ethiopian News Agency)
  • “…An Eritrean opposition group told AFP on Tuesday it was “prepared to launch attacks” on government troops after the United Nations last week imposed tough sanctions on Asmara…”This is a good opportunity for us,” Cornelios Osman, head of the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of the Eritrean Kunama (DMLEK) said in a phone interview…”We are preparing our military forces to launch more attacks”… DMLEK is a member of the Ethiopia based coalition Eritrean Democratic Alliance…” – (AFP 29 December 2009)
  • Etc. etc.

On 1 January 2010, there was another armed attack on Eritrea emanating from Ethiopia. Despite Ethiopia’s public denials, a 12 January 2010 cable, “Ethiopia Denies Involvement in Skirmish on Eritrea Border” reports on what the regime’s cadres were saying in private. According to the cable:

“…Privately, the GoE has been more candid about the likely source of the attacks. On January 8, Tesfaye Yilma, Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Director General for Europe and the Americas, suggested to A/DCM that the two Eritrean opposition groups that claimed responsibility for attacking Eritrean military installations and killing 25 Eritrean troops, the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization (RSADO) and the Eritrean National Salvation Front (ENSF), had probably done so…”

The Cable goes on to state the following:

“…In a January 8 meeting with A/DCM, opposition Oromo People’s Congress (OPC) and Forum leader Merera Gudina offered two possible explanations for the incident: 1) The GoE ordered Ethiopian National Defense Forces to attack Eritrea to test the international community’s reaction in light of recent sanctions; or 2) Eritrean opposition groups operating out of Ethiopia and funded by the GoE carried out the attacks with GoE approval…”

Ethiopia’s agenda to destabilize Eritrea are well documented.

A secret cable from the US Embassy in Ethiopia details a meeting held between the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) Head of Addis Ababa Office Joseph Stephanides and Yohannes Gebremeskel, the Ethiopian regime’s military liaison officer. According to cable, the Ethiopian cadre outlined a potential scenario for an Ethiopian overthrow of the Isaias government” [Eritrean Government]. It said:

“…the Ethiopians would conduct a swift military action within a five-phased plan. In phase 1, Ethiopia would promote instability inside Eritrea leading to phase 2 where the Eritrean people would invite the Ethiopians to help them, at which time the Ethiopian military would enter Eritrea and depose Isaias. In phases 3 and 4 the Ethiopians would free the political prisoners and bring in the Eritrean political opposition allowing them to establish a transition government, and in phase 5 the Ethiopian military would withdraw…”

Promoting instability in Eritrea was listed as its primary objective.

In addition, the leaked Ethiopian Foreign Ministry Memo which was sent to all Ethiopian Diplomatic Missions, with specific Instructions and Action Plans on how to Destabilize and Economically and Militarily weaken Eritrea disseminated by the Ethiopian State Minister for Foreign Affairs Ambassador Berhane Gebrekiristos on 20th February 2014 (13 Yekatit 2006) is further evidence of Ethiopia’s agendas vis-a-vis Eritrea.

Ethiopia’s intentions have been spelled out clearly by David Shinn, former US Ambassador to Ethiopia and an avid supporter of the minority regime. Here is what the Voice of America reported on 19 March 2012:

“…On the other side of the fence, one should point out that Ethiopia also has a record of being supportive of Eritreans who oppose the regime in Asmara…Shinn notes that Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi stated in parliament last April that his government would actively support groups trying to overthrow Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki…David Shinn recalls a similar cross-border incursion when he was U.S. envoy to Ethiopia in 1997. He says that incident was among those cited by Eritrea the following year when war broke out…”

Like his predecessor Meles Zenawi, the current Ethiopian leader. Hailemariam Desalegn has also made threats to overthrow the government of Eritrea. The Ethiopian Prime Minister told Reuters in 2011 how his regime plans to carry out its “regime change” agenda for Eritrea. Reuters reported:

“….This regime change is not by invading Eritrea but by supporting the Eritrean people and groups which want to dismantle the regime. We are fully engaged in doing so…”

In 2014, the Ethiopian Prime Minister conducted an interview and repeated his threats against Eritrea. He said that Ethiopia has shifted its policy towards Eritrea, and was determined to unseat Eritrean President by force. The interview was followed by news that the Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization (RSADO) – a terrorist group harbored and financed by Ethiopia – had vowed to “step up military attacks” to topple the Eritrean government.

So if the Prime Minister and his cadres were looking for public approval and support from the United States government for actions to be taken against the State of Eritrea, judging from President Barack Obama’s public statements, they did not get it. Obama insisted on getting the facts. The US Administration has been burnt before with false and unsubstantiated allegations made by Ethiopia against the State of Eritrea and its people. The debacle in Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen are evidence of such faulty intelligence provided by the self-serving regime.

History will judge if Barack Obama utilized or squandered this opportunity to bring lasting peace, stability and security to the turbulent region. Hopefully, his public statements are matched by those made in private…For Ethiopia, the minority regime’s actions will determine if they were.