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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. 

Ethiopia beefs-up regional alliances

Meanwhile, tensions between Ethiopia and the US Horn of Africa Special envoy, Jeffrey Feltman have been on the rise, as he said during an interview with FI station: “Coordination with African partners is important but insufficient to prevent a crisis in the heart of Africa. We need to look East: the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey all exercise extensive influence in the Horn”.

If such a resolve to meddle in our internal affairs threatens to undermine the century-old bilateral ties that ha[ve] remained intact, the government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia will be forced to reassess its relations with the United States, which might have implications beyond our bilateral relationship.

Fitsum Arega, Ethiopia’s Ambassador to the US, has described this position as “failure to recognise the current situations of the Horn of Africa.” He says Feltman “has disrespected leaders of sovereign states and his attempts to ridicule the people of the respective countries. His mockery on the partnership of the three neighbo[u]ring countries has […] adverse impact on the peace and stability of the region”.

In an effort to gain allies within the AU, Ethiopia has been looking to strengthen its relations across the Horn. In 2018, it signed a Joint Cooperation Agreement with Eritrea and Somalia. In 2020, the trio proposed to form the Horn of Africa Cooperation (HoAC) with shared security and trade aspirations.

“The proposal came as a surprise to the casual observer of regional politics in the HoA. Cooperation between the three states was unthinkable until very recently,” said Ingo Henneberg and Sören Stapel in a paper published by the University of Freiburg.

Tigray, sanctions and solutions

The deadly conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region since November 2020 has added an extra layer of pushback against Abiy Ahmed. His government is facing its predecessor, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), that made up the majority of the former ruling party – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, that was in power from 1991 to 2018.

In 2006, Addis Ababa successfully avoided US sanctions, over its handling of human rights, by hiring lobbying firm DLA Piper for a monthly contract of $50,000. Right before losing power in 2017, the TPLF-run government signed another contract with the SGR LLC Government Relations and Lobbying firm at a cost of $1.8m per year.

In addition, the TPLF has had close ties with successive US administrations during its 27 years in power.

Given Ethiopia’s role as an important ally in stabilising Somalia, the US administration – under President Barack Obama – was willing to look the other way on human rights abuse allegations. The then-national security advisor, Susan Rice, had saluted Ethiopia for its ‘democratic’ elections in 2015. She was seen as a controversial figure to some who believed she had shown a “surprising and unsettling sympathy for Africa’s despots” wrote Salem Solomon in The New York Times.

The TPLF has therefore been able to develop lobbying experience and networks for decades. In March, the Virginia-based Tigray Center for Information and Communication enlisted the help of the policy advisory and advocacy group Von Batten-Montague-York.

Efforts seem to have paid off as the company said on Twitter: “On behalf of @TigrayCIC, we announce the passage of Senate Resolution 97 via unanimous consent. We thank all Senators who worked with us on S.Res.97, which calls on the US to push for exit of Eritrean troops & independent investigations into atrocities against civilians in Tigray.”

But on 23 May, the US announced a variety of sanctions: restricting economic and security assistance to Ethiopia, as well as visa restrictions “for any current or former Ethiopian or Eritrean government officials, members of the security forces, or other individuals – to include Amhara regional and irregular forces and members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – responsible for, or complicit in, undermining resolution of the crisis in Tigray.”

The EU also announced that it is “floating” the idea of sanctions.

Addis Ababa’s anti-TPLF PR strategy has thus been working via its growing lobbying resources to tap international spheres. Its ministry of peace hired Holland & Knight law firm in April as part of a monthly $270,000 contract for six months.

Additionally, in February, its embassy in the US signed a $35,000 monthly contract with the law firm Venable.

Reactions

“In some cases, if civil society feels that its country should not be placed under sanctions, this can lead to a strengthening of national cohesion around power,” says Sophie Marineau, a researcher.

The recent announcement of sanctions led to protests in Addis Ababa over the weekend of 29 to 30 May. These developments could potentially boost Abiy’s internal support in the upcoming elections on 21 June.  

Ethiopians protest against international pressure on the government over the conflict in Tigray, at a stadium in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Sunday, May 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

Ethiopia’s foreign minister, Dina Mufti, echoed this position. “If such a resolve to meddle in our internal affairs threatens to undermine the century-old bilateral ties that ha[ve] remained intact, the government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia will be forced to reassess its relations with the United States, which might have implications beyond our bilateral relationship,” he said.

Indeed, the US remains an important ally. Its foreign aid to Ethiopia amounted to $1bn in the 2020 fiscal year. But how efficient will budgetary restrictions be in ending the conflict in Tigray?

“The popularity of sanctions owes more to the domestic interests of politicians than their ability to achieve geopolitical goals,” wrote Richard Hanania, a research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. In his paper, he noted that economic sanctions nearly always “cause hardship to innocent third parties” – the very people to whom those policies were meant to help in the first place.

Bottom line

The imposed sanctions could have deep economic and diplomatic ramifications. The US Development Finance Corporation (DFC) has already suspended a $500m loan aimed at facilitating private entry into Ethiopia’s telecom sector. While this could impede entry into the government’s wider liberalisation policies, it has not yet proved problematic.

From a diplomatic standpoint, if the US proves to be more of a liability than an asset, Russia and China’s growing influence in the region might represent an interesting alternative.

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