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Ethiopia: Is the TPLF or Addis Ababa winning the PR war in the US?

By Loza Seleshie
Posted on Wednesday, 2 June 2021 10:48

Ethiopia Tigray Demonstration
Ethiopians protest against international pressure on the government over the conflict in Tigray, at a demonstration organised by the city mayor's office held at a stadium in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Sunday, May 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

Ethiopia's government has been facing mounting pressure amidst internal conflict in Tigray and regional tensions around its Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD). In an effort to smooth over relations with the US - a once powerful ally - Addis Ababa has hired law firm Holland & Knight to assist with lobbying actions in Washington. What strategy is Abiy Ahmed's government taking? 

Regional disagreements come first, as Ethiopia continues to inch towards completion of the dam – on the Blue Nile River – that it began filling in July 2020. GERD has been a primary source of contention with neighbouring Sudan and Egypt for more than a decade, with no lasting solution in hand.

But, because of strong continental support in its favour, Ethiopia has preferred to keep negotiations at the AU level.

Egypt, on the other hand, called for “involving an international party in the Renaissance Dam negotiations” in 2019.

Egypt internationalises its problems

American and Egyptian relations may have been strained following Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s initial rise to power, but that soon changed during the Trump era, with the former US President having famously referred to Sisi as his “favourite dictator”.

Indeed, Egypt has employed considerable PR efforts in Washington since 2017, when it hired lobbying firms Weber Shandwick and Cassidy & Associates for a total of $1.8m annually, to rehabilitate its image. That’s on top of a previous $2m per year contract, with the Glover Park Group, that lasted from 2013 to 2019. 

“It is in Egypt’s interest to internationalise the issue. It has better coercing chances within the EU or through the US,” Alex ISSA, a research Associate in International relations at Sciences Po, tells The Africa Report. Cairo thus remains an important ally to the EU, in its efforts to counter Turkish expansion in the Mediterranean, and Islamic terrorism in the region.

Following the first filling of the GERD reservoir in July last year, the US suspended between $100m and $130m in foreign assistance to Ethiopia in August 2020. It was under these circumstances that the Ethiopian embassy in the US signed a three-month contract for $130,000 with lobbying firm Barnes & Thornburg in September 2020.

Following Biden’s election in November 2020, the US State Department restored its foreign aid in February 2021.