Ethiopia, a long-term US partner in peace and security

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Ethiopia, a long-term US partner in peace and security

Chargé d’ Affaires of the US Embassy in Addis Ababa, Peter Vrooman, is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service.  He began his career in 1991. His most recent posting was as the Spokesperson for the US Embassy in New Delhi.  Prior to that assignment, Peter worked as a Director for Iraq on the staff of the National Security Council. He was Deputy Political Counselor in Tel Aviv and at the US Mission to the United Nations, where he also served as an Advisor on the Middle East.  Peter has also worked at the US embassies in Beirut, Baghdad, and Djibouti as well as the US Liaison Office in Mogadishu, Somalia.  In Washington, Peter was a Watch Officer in the Department of State’s Operations Center and the Desk Officer for Algeria in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. A native of New York State, Peter graduated from Harvard College with an AB in Social Studies and also spent a year on a Rotary Foundation scholarship at the Institute d’Études Politiques de Paris (“Sciences Po”).  He received an MS in National Resource Strategy from the National Defense University’s Industrial College of the Armed Forces, now known as the Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy.  Prior to joining the Foreign Service, Peter worked as the special assistant to the president of the American University in Cairo. Yonas Abiye of The Reporter sat up with CDA Voorman to discuss the current Ethio-US relations and other pertinent issues. Excerpts:

The Reporter: As historical accounts have it, Ethiopia and the US have maintained more than a century-old relationship. This partnership has been growing in political, diplomatic and economic spheres. However, there are now concerns and speculations that there might be shifts in policy with the new US administration. What shape does the relationship currently have? Will there be changes in policy from Barack Obama’s or George W. Bush’s?

Peter Vrooman:  Well, the way I look at that question is that two things happened.  You know that we have a new administration, a new president.  And Ethiopia joined the UN Security Council in January.  I think in terms of things that are new, and I worked at the US Mission to the United Nations for five years earlier, from 2000 to 2005.  This was one of the first times, I am not sure if it’s the first time ever though, when a U.S. president invited the entire Security Council membership to the White House in the spring or in the month of April.  I thought that was brilliant.  And because Ethiopia’s ambassador to the UN, Ambassador Tekeda Alemu, is one of the most senior diplomats in New York, he participated in that meeting, and also in the one at the Oval Office, where he articulated some of Africa’s interests and concerns regarding peace and security as well as development and diplomacy.  I still think that was a good opportunity for a senior Ethiopian diplomat to meet the US president.

At the same time in the month of April, Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu went to New York to attend a ministerial meeting on the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – North Korea) that Ambassador Haley held at the very end of her presidency of the Security Council in April.  At that time, Foreign Minister Workneh had an opportunity to meet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.  So these were opportunities for them to have an opportunity between senior leaders to establish relations.

Similarly, Secretary of State Tillerson has spoken with your prime minister, and the prime minister was able to participate with several other African leaders in Sicily at the G-7.

So there have been a number of interactions that, at least in the beginning days of the administration, I think are important.

As you know, not all the positions in the administration have been filled on African policy even though the Trump administration has appointed one deputy assistant secretary in the African Bureau who’s already on board and engaged in many issues.

You have been here at the embassy for a few years, and now that your tour of duty as charge d’affaires is coming to an end, would you be able to tell us a little something about the incoming ambassador?

Yes, that is one key thing I should note of course. I was talking about appointments, and that not all the positions have been filled. But significantly, President Trump has nominated a new ambassador to Ethiopia.  He’s nominated a career ambassador who’s been ambassador to Benin and deputy ambassador to Afghanistan, who’s served in six or seven African nations, including in the Horn of Africa to Djibouti, which is where I also spent two years as well.  So I think it’s important that among his first nominees includes the ambassador to Ethiopia.  So I can relinquish my chargé-ship if he is confirmed by the US Senate.  That’s a critical step for an incoming ambassador. But he has been given agrément by the government of Ethiopia as well. If his nomination is to be confirmed by the Senate, he will be one of the first of the new administration’s ambassadors to the continent.

As we know, the US is one of the largest partners of Ethiopia in terms of aid, development assistance as well as military cooperation, especially as regards regional security. Ethiopia has also been one of the top aid recipients from the US in the continent. But following the Trump administration’s announcement of cuts to foreign aid, there is some concern and speculation that African countries, including Ethiopia, would likely face reduction of aid from the US. Would you mind explaining that in some detail?

As you know in our system, our constitutional system, the president submits a budget, but the committees and the Congress have to review it and decide what they appropriate for it.

So the budget appropriation for fiscal year 2017, which continues through the end of September, is on track with what it was proposed and approved by the Congress.  So there hasn’t been any immediate change.  But the president and his Office of Management and Budget have proposed cuts to some elements of foreign affairs, including development and diplomacy.  So it remains to be seen what those cuts are and how significant they will be.

That said, he’s also, when the president was in the Vatican earlier this spring, he did recommit the US to support famine relief. That was sort of lost in the headlines. But there’s continuing bipartisan support for that type of humanitarian intervention, preventing famine.  And as you know, in South Sudan there was some reports of famine earlier this year.  The drought has affected Somalia significantly; conflict areas in northern Nigeria affected by Boko Haram face that threat too.  And across the Red Sea in Yemen, there the conflict has also resulted in potential famine.

These are some of the significant areas. The drought has also affected some of the lowland areas of Ethiopia. And we have been, so far, the largest donor into this administration for that drought relief and for resilience activities in the Somali Regional State, the Borana area and other parts, different pockets of priority in every wereda affected by drought.

So in that sense, we still remain the largest humanitarian donor, and one of the largest, if not the largest development partner for Ethiopia.  But going forward, some of that will be determined as the budget negotiations take shape at the end of this fiscal year, going into our next fiscal year which begins on October 1st.

You have been involved in humanitarian response. You are also in working in partnership with other multinational organizations engaged in relief activities. Similarly, there are also other local organizations, CSOs and NGOs whose financial resources depend on US government’s assistance mostly through USAID. Have these relief agencies and NGOs approached the embassy due to the reported budget cuts?

You know, I think, yes, to some degree.  And certainly, you know, there were reports in the month of June and even at the end of May that the food pipeline for responding to the humanitarian needs of people, places I visited such as in the Dolo zone, and those areas, the tip of the Ogaden  area where people have really been hit hard by the drought, and where NGOs like, everyone from Mercy Corps and UN organizations like WFP are critical. And where some of our Office of Disaster Assistance Support has been important.  Some of our CDC (Centers for Disease Control) support on public health issues has been critical.

There is worry that those needs across a very broad geographic expanse might not be met if the US doesn’t play a lead role.

As I said earlier, into this administration, we are still playing the lead role.  We are putting far more resources than any other partner and even in terms of government resources.

Now I’ve been reassured by statements made by Mitiku Kassa who is the government’s response coordinator who works with Demeke Mekonnen, the deputy prime minister, that the government will step up and if there are any breaks in the general food delivery, that the government will continue to fund that, supply that.  And to the extent that we can get more information about how and when and what sort of pipeline expectations they have, that will help us in our planning, and it will help the UN in their planning and other partners.

There are other major donors, too.  ECHO, the EU’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department, DFID [the UK’s Department for International Development], there are other bilateral partners, the Swedes and Norwegians and others.  So together, as we did during the 2015/16 highland drought, we all need to come together to work to help support the government and the regional governments in their efforts to promote and address the food security challenges posed by the Indian Ocean Dipole events that happened this past year.

But if we see in terms of the sectors, you have the very intervention areas and program in Ethiopia. Food aid, humanitarian development, women’s empowerment, peace and security are among others where US financial assistance is allocated. Moreover, there is also military assistance, which many people think is one of the major areas of US assistance to Ethiopia. Which area do you think is prioritized by the US government?

There’s a misperception that a lot of our assistance goes to security areas, and we do support Ethiopia’s involvement in peacekeeping missions in South Sudan, the counterterrorism and peace support operations in Somalia.  But that is fairly limited. In the past year it was only around USD 10 million to all of those efforts. Now in the UN operations in the two Sudans (Sudan and South Sudan), we as a member of the United Nations pay dues for peacekeeping.  So we do significantly support the deployments, including those of Ethiopian troops, in UN operations.  So there’s a significant contribution that remains in that area as well.  And a significant shared interest in promoting an end to conflict and end to famine in South Sudan and some sort of political reconciliation.

So we as a member of the troika, and Ethiopia as the leader [of IGAD], as a key member of the UN Security Council with us, and in the African Union, is working on that issue.

You mentioned in the other areas where development as opposed to just the humanitarian sector.  Undoubtedly, the US plays a huge role in bolstering many of those sectors that you just mentioned.  And I think we will continue to play an important role.

Now we’re going to have to do so efficiently, with cost-effectiveness and prove through our metrics that what we’re doing works, and if we’re doing things that don’t work, then we don’t do it anymore.

So there will be a burden on all of us in the embassy, among our partners and with the host government, to make sure that the things, the programs that we’re engaged in, really do deliver a bang for the buck, for the American taxpayer, and to the Ethiopian citizen and to the Ethiopian government.

In that regard, I think, for example, the things that we’re doing in global health; my sense is, from my interaction with members of the new administration, that they share part, or at least a large measure of what other administrations have gone forward with.  George Bush promoting PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and the Malaria Initiative continued by President Obama.  Officials of the new administration that I’ve spoken to when we had our annual conference on PEPFAR were supportive and amazed at how much we’re doing with the same level of budget.

Hence, the challenge for Ethiopia is that the prevalence of HIV is lower but it’s still a huge country in terms of population, right?  Different geographies.  So how do we make sure we test the right people?  We don’t waste money testing people just because they come to the clinic or the out-patient counseling service area.  We want to test the right people who are at risk and put them on treatment, as efficiently as possible.  And that’s harder to do cheaply than in a country where the prevalence of HIV may be much higher, 10 to 11 percent.  Here it is just over one percent.  But one percent of 100 million is still a lot of people, maybe a million people.  That’s the challenge here – even though the country has made great strides in public health, how do you wipe out malaria in certain areas, which was the hope of the previous minister and the current minister of health. How do you wipe out HIV – a disease that doesn’t have a cure or a vaccine? So those are still huge challenges, even though we’ve been engaged very closely for 15 years in the issue.

But what I can tell the American taxpayer is by fighting epidemics, fighting infectious diseases in countries like Ethiopia, other parts of Africa or India or anywhere in the world, these global challenges that are posed by what we saw two years ago with Ebola, are costly when they come to America too.  So if we were able to prevent Ebola where it breaks out, working with partners, as your country did, contributing epidemiologists and health workers to West Africa, just as we contributed troops and tents and things, and MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres) contributed their expertise. If we can deal with those outbreaks of disease overseas, that will make it cheaper to deal with in the US too.

There is still support for global health in particular.  Other areas, we’re going to have to demonstrate how it helps advance American interests as well as how it advances Ethiopia’s agendas.

One shared interest the US has with Ethiopia and the Horn countries is peace and security in this volatile region. How do you see the recent military confrontation between Eritrea and Djibouti? Do you expect any major escalation? Still with this security matter, how do you see the recent political deadlock in the Gulf, what many regional observers fear might have repercussions for the Horn region as well?

I don’t think so.  I have talked to a lot of officials, and I think that, obviously the withdrawal of the Qatari troops is unfortunate because they played a moderating effect or role in that tension between Djibouti and Eritrea, and were trying to promote resolution.

So, that withdrawal was concerning. I think Ethiopia and Djibouti did the responsible thing by referring the matter to the UN Security Council.  So it is on their docket.  They have had a briefing.  So that raises the focus of that challenge between those two countries, which does affect Ethiopia’s interests.  And I think by bringing it to the council, they did the responsible thing.

Now similarly, in the current Gulf state of affairs, between Gulf countries and other partners, Ethiopia supported the AU position, as did Somalia.  Not taking sides, but trying to support efforts at mediation, which include those by Kuwait.  Our own administration, the president and the secretary of state, have been calling the leaders involved, encouraging dialogue, and encouraging tamping down some of the rhetoric.  And even the president in one of his first calls said, “a united Gulf Cooperation Council and a strong US-Gulf Cooperation Council partnership are critical to defeating terrorism and promoting regional stability.”

So we are working, I think, in the same direction in that regard.  I am not as alarmed even though that is a change and any change could have that potential of provocation, but I think that the very public and measured response by the parties has been good.

But that said, Eritrea has been provocative before and often mistreats its own people and many of them leave as refugees.  So it is still a worry.  But at this point I think Ethiopia and Djibouti have done the responsible thing so far.

But what is the position of the new administration in the fight against Al-Shabaab? In fact, in the earlier days of the new administration, it was against Somalia’s Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamist group that Pentagon has ever taken the first air bombing attack under the new president’s commandment. Does it indicate that the new administration’s action is that of maintaining a similar military operation as his predecessors?

There is still value in the efforts that AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) has engaged in against Al-Shabaab in Somalia. There is also a new administration in Somalia, right? And at the AU summit, Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre was here, and he had discussions with his Ethiopian colleagues. And I think they both share the same concern about Al-Shabaab that we have. So, I am impressed by the level of dialogue that is taking place between the Ethiopian and Somali leaders. The Somali leaders are the ones that have to take the steps against Al-Shabaab by building up governance as well as challenging Al-Shabaab where it may have some authority. Challenging that and replacing it with government authority.

We have also invited Ethiopia at their request to join the anti-ISIS coalition, so Ethiopia will be participating later this month, next week, in those discussions. As you have heard probably, there are splits within Al-Shabaab, some of whom support ISIS and some that support Al-Qaeda, both of which are anathema, but that shows that there is potentially a challenge there. So I think that is a new element and the new administration in the US welcoming of Ethiopia to be part of that coalition is important.

What can Ethiopia concretely contribute to that coalition against ISIS?

I think it’s in fact a fair question. But look, with Al-Shabaab, if there are some who are flirting with ISIS and some that are remaining dedicated to Al-Qaeda, they share some similarities, which is that they oppose the traditional governments of the countries in the Horn of Africa, in Africa, and they pose similar, if slightly different, challenges.

So the fact that Ethiopia has been battling Al-Shabaab and assisting Somali governments in so doing, I think provides them, Ethiopia, some insight that the coalition would benefit from. It doesn’t mean that any country has the answer on how to defeat or at least hamper the spread of ISIS. That is why I think collaborative approaches on those security questions are important.

few years ago, Wendy Sherman, a senior State Department official, visited Ethiopia. After meeting senior government officials here in Addis Ababa, she gave an unprecedented remark regarding the US government’s position towards opposition groups like Ginbot 7, and others that are based in the US. Does the current administration reflect the same position against such groups?

Well, I can’t be hypothetical, but I do think that, she [Wendy Sherman] came here in the spring of 2015, at the request of the Ethiopian government, she was very clear that the US government does not support the armed overthrow of an existing partner government such as that of Ethiopia.  I am paraphrasing what she said.  But that is, basically picking up a rifle and trying to fight a government is not something that we support. And she said that here in Ethiopia, which was significant, I think.

I cannot imagine that the new administration would give any sort of room to that sort of organization that would argue for that type of activity.

One of the recent development strategies the US introduced in Africa is Power Africa Initiative that former President Obama is credited with. However, there is a concern that such initiatives will die in infancy as President Trump is said to have targeted anything which he considers as Obama’s legacy. What is your view on the fate of those projects in Ethiopia like the Corbetti geothermal mega project financed by the US government under the Power Africa Initiative?

Actually, I am hopeful that you mentioned geothermal, and one of my final farewell calls was with Minister Sileshi Bekele (Eng.) [minister of water, irrigation and electricity] who has a huge portfolio of water and energy, electricity.  And he has been helpful in moving ahead with the Corbetti project and I think it is a two-phased project, but up to one gigawatt of geothermal electricity.  So that would add to the mix of wind and sun or solar, and hydro being the largest here.  There are also a number of American companies that are very active in hydro as well.

So, I think that Ethiopia is uniquely placed to have a diverse set of renewable energy sources that can help protect the environment and be sustainable over the long term.  And it’s a good mix.  I went down to the Hawassa Industrial Zone, and that is not far away.  But you can’t power an industrial zone just on wind.  You might be able to do it on hydro.  But wind and solar, you cannot do it alone on that.  And hydrocarbons would be expensive there.

But if you could tie into a geothermal project, then you have a base load that’s provided, that’s regular, it’s unchanging, and it’s guaranteed.

So once that geothermal comes operational, that will be terrific for Ethiopia’s industrial development, particularly in Hawassa but other places around the country as well.

So there is a commitment to move forward between Corbetti and the government, ironing out the peculiarities of this new sector, which is not, you know, there is a new geothermal law, getting the implementing regulations in place. It came after the Corbetti project was first agreed.  So getting those issues, legal issues ironed out, the new minister has been instrumental in helping move that forward, working with the company, working with parliament, working with the administration here.

So I think that will show a real benefit for the country and show that you can have an independent power production agreement which is consistent with GTP-II and the country in bringing more megawatts into play.

Again I think showing that success will be important for Ethiopians, consumers as well as the government, and for Americans who are evaluating policies by previous administrations, and each administration will review policies undertaken by the previous one, continue some, start its own, what have you.

So we are early on to find out whether what will continue and what will change. But I think success is something that sells itself pretty well.

Maybe, did you discuss with the minister or other government officials particularly on Independent Power Purchase Agreement? As Ethiopia has not enacted the legislation yet, don’t you think it affects investments like Corbetti?

It does. But again, this is an agreement, so the “heads of terms” and things that were agreed several years ago when I first came here.  So what actually, so the broader, you are right, and I read recent articles on it. The government is considering broader terms for how these things should go forward.

So it is a pioneering effort, the Corbetti project, in showing how this can be done.  It doesn’t mean that, it has not been easy. It has taken time.  But I think one of the things that I have really appreciated in my three years here is that even when things take time, if it leads to better understanding between our countries, between companies and the country, with civil society, the more stakeholders embrace the ideas, even if it takes additional time, I think is better than a rush job.

So I do think, though it has been painful at times to see things happen slowly, ultimately if they are agreed and people are satisfied with the agreements that are reached, then they will be more sustainable in the future.

Now you have almost concluded your tour of duty to Ethiopia and about to leave for the home country. How do you summarize the ongoing US efforts regarding women, youth as well as trade and investment?

I would say there are three categories of citizen that are particularly vulnerable.  Maybe that comes across as too strong.  But I served in India before coming here, and things that I believe quite passionately in, is promoting education and equality for women and girls.  And young women and girls in particular, kids who are in the school system. And often there is discrimination.  This can be globally; it is a challenge.  Many countries are trying to support that effort – Canada, Sweden and Norway.  These are critical issues.  So we are not the unique ones to focus on those issues.

But you did ask the question about how might we, how might our investments go forward helping in that area? I would add to that, the disabled.  One of the things I think that I have felt very proud of here, is promoting the inclusion of people with disabilities into the mainstream.  From the margins to the mainstream, is sort of the mantra.  And I was enlightened by the visit of Judy [Heumann] who was our envoy for disability rights internationally. She helped disabuse me of the idea that a developing country does not need to take this on as a priority.

She played a lead role in helping shift the plans of the municipality in building the light rail here so that it could accommodate people with disabilities.

What I found from her example here, and from Ethiopia’s leadership here, is that it can be very powerful to be inclusive early on.  Even as a developing country with many priorities. People with disabilities face that much more in terms of challenges, right? If you are blind, if you are deaf, if you have got a physical disability, moving and being able to avail yourself of educational opportunities becomes a challenge.

Ethiopia has taken a lot of steps to include people from mental disabilities as well as physical disabilities and blindness into universities and into the schools and that is all good.  That’s great.

Where I think there is room for improvement is to allow civil society groups that advocate for those rights, whether they are mass associations or smaller local groups, that are seeking the empowerment of women, youth, and people with disabilities or constellations that are mixtures thereof, in different regions, different parts of the country, different cities.  I think that does so much to address and help address the needs, and bring them to light.  And then with judicious public policy such as the Addis Ababa Transport Authority being able to make escalators and elevators available, change can happen.  And it’s change that will be meaningful for so many people. I mean if you add women, youth, and people of disabilities, that is the majority of your population.

So I think it can be done and so some of the restrictions that are imposed on advocacy broadly, if those were rolled back somewhat and allow women’s groups, organizations for the disabled, to have a little bit more space and room to advocate for their rights according to the Ethiopian Constitution, I think that would be tremendously liberating and enhance Ethiopia’s civil society space to terrific ends.  I do not see any downside.

So that would be an area of improvement which I think could be done and it could really unleash a lot of the potential and talent that is here and that I see in Ethiopia.