By Ambassador David Shinn
I participated in a panel hosted by the Oromo Studies Association at Howard University in Washington on April 4 and gave a subsequent interview to the Oromo language service of the Voice of America. The theme of the conference was “U.S. Policy in the Horn of Africa: Opportunities and Prospects for Change under the Obama Administration.” Other members of the panel were Terrence Lyons, associate professor at George Mason University, and Ezekiel Gebissa, associate professor at Kettering University.
I emphasized during the panel and in the VOA interview that it is important to treat the Horn of Africa as a region as conflicts in any one country inevitably have important implications for one or more neighboring countries. It is also essential that the United States work cooperatively with traditional allies and some of the new non-African countries that have growing influence in the region. I urged the mostly Ethiopian-American audience of Oromo heritage not to accept the commonly-held view that the United States wields enormous control over the Ethiopian government through its assistance program, which consists mostly of funding to combat HIV/AIDS and humanitarian assistance. U.S. influence is important but not uniquely critical to the Ethiopian government.
Although the 2005 national elections in Ethiopia ended badly and the 2008 local elections were a missed opportunity to restart a competitive electoral process, I noted that the Eritrean-based Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) also missed an opportunity when it boycotted the 2005 elections. It is difficult to be optimistic about competitive national elections in 2010, but if discussions between the Ethiopian government and the OLF suggest the possibility of good elections on a relatively-level playing field, the OLF should engage politically. Its long-standing armed struggle against the government has not been successful and shows no sign that it will be successful.
As for the Obama Administration and the concerns of the Oromo in Ethiopia, I doubted that the new administration will focus on any particular ethnic group in Ethiopia. Although the Oromo constitute by far the largest group in the country, there are some 85 ethnic groups in Ethiopia. It is not realistic to expect the American government to single out the grievances of any particular group. On the other hand, I believe the Obama administration will give greater attention generally to the process of democratization and human rights issues in Ethiopia. This should work to the advantage of the Oromo.