A high-level US delegation just returned from Ethiopia, which is arguably America’s closest ally on the continent of Africa. How did these two countries become so close? Journalist James Jeffrey explains.
It’s noticeable soon after you land in Washington – the city is full of Ethiopians.
Their ubiquitous presence – behind the counter at Starbucks or the wheels of taxis – in the bastion of American government symbolises the two pillars of this alliance.
The Ethiopian diaspora across America – the second largest community after Nigerians – has played an enormous role in influencing ongoing political reforms that have rocked Ethiopia since the beginning of 2018.
These have included the opening of borders, the freeing of political prisoners, the lifting of restrictions on media, and the opening of political space to previously banned groups, as well as a significant redistribution of power within the ruling coalition government.
Expatriate Ethiopians run numerous TV stations and online media which are beamed into Ethiopian homes or to smartphones more than 11,000 kilometres away in the motherland – often, in the past, with a message critical of the government.
At the same time, US foreign policy significantly influenced last year’s seismic events and is helping the Ethiopian government prepare the country for crucial national elections in 2020.
A US House of Representative Congressional Delegation (Codel) has recently returned from a visit to Ethiopia and Eritrea.
During that visit, US Ambassador to Ethiopia Michael Raynor announced the US will be “embedding senior US government officials at key Ethiopian economic ministries and operations for a sustained period of time”.
Last month, the ambassador also visited the site of the Ethiopian Airlines crash to pay respect to the lives lost and offer messages of condolence and support to those working on the investigation.
A unique relationship
“No other African country has this sort of relationship with the US,” says Tewodrose Tirfe, chair of the Amhara Association of America, a US-based advocacy group for the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group.
“Because Ethiopia was not colonised, it was able to have a formal direct relationship with the US that goes back to 1903 when the US representative handed his papers to Emperor Menelik.”
US influence in Ethiopia includes a sizeable financial component. Not including funding for security – the size of which isn’t known – Ethiopia has received about $4bn (£3bn) from the US government over the last five years towards humanitarian issues and development.
Meanwhile, remittances from Ethiopia’s global diaspora was estimated in 2017 at $4.6bn, according to a report commissioned by the European Union. The largest portion originates from the US because of the number of people and the fact they are more wealthy than diaspora elsewhere, says Mr Tewodrose.
Flowing through informal channels, much of that money moves between relatives but some goes towards supporting political opposition in Ethiopia – including armed resistance – all in the name of freedom.
“Living in the US has a tremendous influence on how I perceive democracy and freedom of speech,” says Gennet Negussie with the Ethiopian Advocacy Network, a grassroots collection of organisations promoting democracy, human rights and justice in Ethiopia, who has lived in the US since 1988.
“My experience in the US has opened my eyes and created a desire to get involved in changing the authoritarian government in Ethiopia and helping with the democratisation of Ethiopia so people have a say in the political system.”
Successive waves of emigration during decades of tumult in Ethiopia have formed a worldwide Ethiopian diaspora of around two million people. Though there is no census data, a million are estimated to live in the US, of whom about 250,000 are concentrated across Washington DC, Virginia and Maryland.
“Ethiopians came to the US for the same reasons as others, because it symbolises the ideals of freedom, respect for human rights, better opportunities for their children and that notion that if you work hard enough, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish,” says Mr Tewodrose.
“And the stories of those who are successful, becoming engineers, professors, doctors, go back to Ethiopia and encourage others to try for the same experiences.”
Ethiopians entered the US through various means ranging from the granting of political asylum and student visas to sponsorship from US organisations. While some entered through undocumented channels or on travel visas and stayed afterwards, official immigrant applications from Ethiopians have done well historically.