US policy on the Horn of Africa under Obama administration

The sweltering African issue during the Bush lame duck session and the Obama transition period has been the DR Congo crisis. The two Sudanese problems, i.e the Southern Sudan referendum and the Darfur issue have also been in the front burner. Until the November election results, some optimist neo-con hawks in the Bush and McCain camp, along with the Christian Right and oil companies had a grand scheme of seceding the Southern Sudan as a separate country toying with the upcoming referendum by using covert operatives in the area posing as NGOs and referendum observers. The Somalia problem however had been lost in the shuffle. The wish of the current Pentagon policy makers to recognize the self declared independent Somaliland as a country has been moot as it was forsaken by State Department last year. The recent hijacking of a major oil tanker may have put the spot light back on Somalia. Anyhow, both Sudanese and Somali problems shall directly affect US-Ethiopian relations.

Under the new Obama administration the Horn of Africa will be a foreign policy archetype and test case for various interest groups. Unlike Bush, under the Obama administration, it seems that foreigner policy making shall go from the Pentagon and NSA back to its original home, the State Department. Most of the African policy issues in the new administration will depend on the characters and attitudes of people that will join Camp Obama.

It is now highly likely that Senator Hilary Clinton is going to be the top diplomat for President Obama. If Senator Hilary Clinton takes the helm at the State Department, she will definitely bring in her own people from the old Clinton era. Some foreign policy watchers perceive some activities by John Podesta, Susan Rice, Russ Feingold and Donald Payne marketing several people for posts in African affairs, regardless of who is at the helm of the State Department.

By some odd condition related to her husband’s global activity, if Senator Hillary Clinton does not take the State Department post, the position might go to Senator John Kerry who is said to be actively lobbying for it. If John Kerry takes the State Department job he will be out of the senate. His chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will have to go a senator second in line. The first in line on seniority is Senator Chris Dodd. But Senator Dodd is the chair for the Banking Committee which, these days, is a hot post that he may not let go. Thus Senator Feingold is second runner up. Senator Feingold is an arch foe of the Ethiopian government’s NGO law. He has been sponsoring NGOs to run abortion clinics in Ethiopia, among other things he has been working with various NGOs and opposition elements in Ethiopia.

Ms. Susan Rice was initially the focal point for the State Department job but Obama’s close advisors did not think of her as the top diplomat. Sources say that Susan Rice was then assumed for the post as a UN Ambassador. It now appears that it is going to be from the Kennedy family. Thus some observers say that she may end up at the NSA.

With direct impact on US-Ethiopian relations, one personality to keep watching is a former congressional librarian and a Donald Payne assistant named Ted Dange, an Ethiopian-American married to a Somali-American, with a special affinity towards ONLF, an Ogaden Somali Separatist armed insurgent. Ted Dange is being sponsored by his close friends Donald Payne and Susan Rice for some post in the Obama’s State Department African Affairs camp. Ted Dange’s handlers are working hard to make sure that he is on a list of not only for a job at the State Department but also at several other agencies dealing with African policy. Some sources close to him say that he is no more interested in the African politics but rather in the trade and commerce aspect of Africa.

On another front, Obama’s transition co-chair John Podesta, a former Clinton chief of staff, is also pushing two intriguing figures to the African affairs arena. One is Colin Thomas-Jensen, a former peace corps in Ethiopia from 1996 to 1998. Mr. Thomas-Jenson had been working hard to put Omar Al Bashir behind bars for a long time for the Darfur disaster. He was recently in Addis for a field research on Sudan and Somalia as part of the recent article for the “ENOUGH” project run by John Morris who is also another potential runner for some positions on African affairs. The other is Ruben Brigety, a former state Department official who was also the head of Human Rights Watch for Arms Proliferation Division on Africa. Mr. Brigety is one of the personalities who authors the Annual State Department Human Rights Reports.

Some personalities that were active proposing polices on Africa during the campaign may not make it to any post due to allegation by Senator Feingold and Congressman Payne as sympathetic to the Ethiopian government. One is former Congressman Howard Wople who chaired the African Committee for ten years. The other is Gail Smith who is still advising the Obama Camp on Africa. Observers say that Ms Smith is not even interested in African political affairs anymore, but seems to be interested more in global warming and security issues.

On the other side of the coin, Whitney Damron, a lobbyist/consultant was campaign adviser for Obama about African Diaspora. Whitney D became close to US based Ethiopian opposition groups during the election and he was the contact person for their campaign fundraising. His relationship with the Obama transition team has been officially severed. This is because of a new Obama rule against lobbyists not to be on his transition and his cabinet posts. Nonetheless the Washington DC revolving door is hard to monitor as to who goes in and out.

Whether or not the Obama Administration will heed the aggressive and antagonistic way of Congressman Payne and Senator Feingold is yet to be seen. Be that as it may, some in congress strongly believe that Obama will govern from the center and his foreign policy shall be moderate and accommodative towards underdeveloped countries.

US policy on the turbulent situations in Sudan and Somalia will directly affect Ethiopia, for it is sandwiched between these two major crisis points with dreadful regional and global impacts. Eritrea, Ethiopian northern neighbor and arch foe, may not be on the radar screen of US African policy right now but it remains a wild card in the stability of the region.

Due to the explosive and chaotic conditions in Somalia and Sudan, one would assume US relations with Ethiopia would at best be lukewarm, if not congenial. On the Ethiopian side, the government is working on pressing on to pass the new NGO law and working on getting out of Somalia as soon as possible. These Ethiopian moves may not bode well with the United States and may adversely impact US monetary and food aid that have always come along with some strings attached. With all these variables, whether or not US-Ethiopian relations will chill or warm up is yet to be seen.

Source: Sudan Tribune




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