Why Trump’s Administration Needs to Rethink about the Horn of Africa

Trump’s Horn of Africa policy challenges.

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There is no evidence that Africa in general and the Horn of Africa in particular will be a priority for President Trump in the way it has been for his three immediate predecessors. Can this be a blessing for the US to correct past policy failures in the region or will he be indifferent?

By Temesgen Tesfamariam,

Today, two events seem to have an effect in putting US dominant existence in the Horn of Africa to an end. These are the military arrival of China in Djibouti, and the popular uprising in Ethiopia. The US’s long-term dream of having permanent military base in the region has now faced serious challenges after Djibouti chose to work with China in a more intimate manner than with US.

Needless to say that US military station in the region dates back to 1950s during which it opened naval bases in Eritrea. It left the base for Diego Garcia because the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia brought unfriendly political landscape in the region. Now, the situation looks reappearing, as the military arrival of China in Djibouti stews the United States temper.



Second, the turmoil in Ethiopia induced by ethnic federalism poses questions about the fate of US influence in the region. The United States strong ally in the region, Ethiopia, is now in seismic scale of popular unrest. This is a test to the moral and political principle of US, as the public is asking whose side US stands with: the people or the government.

Throughout the last two decades, the United States existence in the region has been very much attached to a dream that wishes a unified and powerful Ethiopia. Usually, the threat that is believed to disintegrate Ethiopia has been assumed to be coming from outside, in particular Eritrea and Somalia. To this end, US has became overprotective to Ethiopia for too long period. This resulted in a chilly relationship between Eritrea and the United States, and unmanageable crisis in Somalia.

Until 1998, the beginning of the three years devastating war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the United State had relatively happy existence in the region because Isaias Afwerki, Eritrean president, and late Meles Zenawi, Ethiopian prime minister, had the determination of working together. Back in early 1990s, the United States marked them with descriptions such as “progressive young leaders”, “future of true African democracies” etc. Tripartite relation among Eritrea, Ethiopia and the United States continued warmly.

But this relationship began to take a different course when a war broke up between Eritrea and Ethiopia in may 1998. A drift occurred because US conceived the war as a major threat to the integrity of Ethiopian state. Even though the Clinton administration made efforts to handle the matter pretending an objective broker, US could not hide its feelings to Ethiopia. During the war, Eritrea observed US’s loathness to act against Ethiopia’s explicit war drum despite it was the guarantor of the moratorium.

Furthermore, during the implementation of the commission’s “final and binding” decision, US did not only do its best to delay the process of implementation, in fact, it promoted to alter the verdict in favor of Ethiopia. Assistant Secretary of State on African Affairs of that time Dr. Jandayi Frazer brought the concept of “Parallel Track”, a threatening call on Eritrea unless it shows flexibility on the decision. Above all, Dr. Frazer advocated for “regime change” in Eritrea in several occasions, not to mention the efforts she made to put Eritrea on the list of countries that support terrorism that led to the 2009 UN Sanction.

Another grave mistake of the United States foreign policy in the region happened to be in Somalia. Two mistakes define the current unmanageable crisis in Somalia: First the 1992 military intervention that internationalized the problem and de-localized the solution; and second, the sending of Ethiopian troops to Somalia in 2006. These decisions created two antagonistic groups regarding how to iron out the crisis. One group is the pro-international solution led by US and the other group is the pro-local solution organized by Eritrea.

When the Somali civil war started as the cold war ended, the West under the leadership of the United States, thrilled by cold war victory, decided to solve the problem by sending troops into Somalia. Eritrea loudly echoed against this initiative, and warned US to get ready to bear the consequence. However, for more than a decade, no one chose to listen the warning until the coming of a group of organized and determined Islamist Warriors under the umbrella organization called Islamic Courts Union (ICU). This development charged US foreign policy in the region with a new motivation—terrorism.



After the United States branded ICU as terrorist, it searched regional allies in the war against it. While Ethiopia accepted, Eritrea did not only refuse to join the alliance but also reiterated its old position against any military intervention in Somalia. US decided to give Ethiopia the chance to play a representative role by isolating Eritrea from the game. Eritrea responded very boldly. It withdrew its consent and its membership from IGAD claiming that IGAD has gone too far against its fundamental principles. It accused IGAD of turning into an instrument of hegemonic power.

Ethiopia’s involvement in Somalia was unpopular in the Somali people because both the extremists and the moderates dislike Ethiopia, as it is a historical sworn enemy of Somalia. From regional peace point of view, the decision was historically ignorant and politically impotent. But from Ethio-centric point of view, besides to the sacrifices paid, it was partly successful in curbing the presumed threat on the integrity of Ethiopian state.

The obsession of US foreign policy that the threat for the integrity of Ethiopian state is ‘external’ has snubbed the internal factors. In other words, it disregarded the agony of Ethiopian people until the popular uprising brought it on the scene in October 2015. US undermined democracy and human right, values that represent western civilization, while the Ethiopian state was violating them in front of its very eyes.

Nevertheless, it is unrealistic to argue that the United States had no knowledge of the internal situation. To the contrary, it presciently sensed that this was coming. However, it has been docile, as this is product of the hypocrisy inside its foreign policy. In short, it is a reflection of theoretical and practical failure of US foreign policy in matching the moral values of western civilization that it claims to be representing as superpower with its national geo-political interests it strives to achieve as a state.

Practically this contradiction is not only threatening Ethiopia’s national integrity, but also pushing away US from the region. Why China has won the hearts and minds of the leader and majority of the people has a simple answer: because it is immune from the hypocrisy that the United States has suffered from for decades in the region. China has very clear understanding regarding the moral value; it let the people to exercise the values they believe in. Universalization of values is not part of its agenda. No moral value, whether western or eastern origin, is superior to any other value.

The ramification of US foreign policy failure in the region is very severe. It has let US standing on one foot in the region. Above all, its future seems to be very much uncertain more than ever.

What are the options to remedy the damage? One viable option, if not the only one, is to engage with Eritrea. Whether US likes or not, Eritrea has been a key regional player. And it will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Second it should stop siding with the government of Ethiopia. At least in this particular time of Ethiopia’s history, US needs to be loyal to its principles; let its civilizational moral values be set ahead of other interests to the people of a country lived to serve US interest in the region for almost a century.


The author is a PhD candidate at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), Makerere University, Uganda,