Obama’s US Horn Africa Policies Driven to the Ground


NOVEMBER 2, 2015 

The Obama administration’s Africa policy is driven by one principal actor, Ambassador Susan Rice. Her mean-spirited hate for President Isaias Afewerki and the people of Eritrea had clouded her judgment to the point where she could not differentiate between American national interests and her vendetta.

By Amanuel Biedemariam,

How can one measure US policy successes or failures? What are US interests in the Horn of Africa? How is it pursued, and how effective is it? What did President Obama’s visit to Kenya and Ethiopia signal? 

Furthermore, can US interest in the HOA only be seen through the lens of fighting terrorism? These are some of the questions on the minds of the region’s people and beyond.

On the surface, there are no clear answers. The reality, however, is that the US has a variety of Horn of Africa policies per se. US policies vary from country to country. However, a closer look reveals that the US does not have a government or region-specific foreign policy thus far.

There are four pillars to US foreign policy objectives in Africa and the Red Sea basin. It is Geostrategic, Economic, Counterterrorism and Security.

The process of pursuing these policies can vary and overlap, but the goal remains to dominate and achieve complete control. The US invests tremendous resources and time in ensuring the success of these objectives.

For the past 70 years since World War II, with some competition from the Soviet Union (USSR), the US has imposed its will. The fall of the USSR and the end of the cold war in 1991 gave the US unchallenged control and the opportunity to set global agendas in line with US interests.

The US asserted control by breaking Africa into four regional quadrants, with each region managed through an anchor state. With this approach, the US can manage its affairs without dealing with individual countries on a bilateral basis.

Ethiopia has been the designated regional anchor in the East and Horn of Africa through which the US funnels its agenda. Ethiopia has been and remains central to US African policies in many ways.

The African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is the center of African diplomatic activities. The US uses Addis Ababa to reach African nations from one location. A significant presence in Ethiopia gives the US unprecedented access to African leaders, regional groupings, and, most importantly, access to AU committees that set the Agendas. The US uses these channels to plan the rules that govern Africa!

Hence, most of the issues the African Union deals with are initiated and heavily influenced by the US. However, to show that these agendas are African initiatives, organizations such as The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), with member states from the Horn of Africa (HOA), are used as sponsors of the agenda. That is then sold to the international community and ultimately to the UNSC.

Regarding US-Africa economic relations, successive US administrations have focused more on achieving geopolitical agendas while doing little on the economic front. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which the US hails, is a “Tangible incentive for African countries to continue their efforts to open their economies and build free markets.” However, it does very little for the African economy. Particularly in comparison to China, which spends billions on developing Africa’s infrastructures.

Moreover, even when a country is on good terms, many political considerations and hurdles limit nations from taking advantage of AGOA. These are political considerations, human rights-related issues, and other preconditions. As a result, Africa benefits little from trade relations with the US.

Challenges to US Policies

The greatest challenge for future US-Africa relations is the lack of transparency. Individuals with interests drive the policies. It lacks flexibility. The policymakers fail to consider the opinions of the African countries that face the repercussions of these policies.

Compounded by hubris and belief that the US can impose its will unchallenged forever, lack of flexibility, and a pragmatic approach, the US policies are bound to face challenges. Moreover, there need to be precise mechanisms to evaluate the policy’s successes; hence impossible to make meaningful changes. It is complicated further by the fact that the people responsible are not held accountable.

On October 18, 2015, during a conference in Washington DC, “The present and future relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia,” former Assistant Secretary of State for African affairs Ambassador Herman Cohen said,

“Eritrea’s relation with the United States is unlikely to change during the term of office of President Barack Obama.”

Former Ethiopian diplomat Dr. Kassa Kebede echoed the same sentiment when he said,

“So long as Susan Rice advises the president, it is not likely that the US can change its policies and approach.”

The situation in the HOA of Africa is interconnected. What takes place in Somalia will influence Ethiopia. Similarly, developments in Ethiopia can influence Eritrea and vice versa.

The Obama administration fails to reflect on these realities because it has placed all its eggs in the TPLF’s basket. The Administration ignored the people and put long-term American interests on shaky grounds.

The US had the best ally, the people of Ethiopia and the region. Ethiopians have entrusted the US to be a neutral arbiter concerned about the people and democracy. After several rigged elections that the US supported and accepted as legitimate democratic practices, Ethiopians have given up on the US, particularly the Obama administration.

At the conference, Ethiopians repeatedly stated how disappointed they were with the Obama administration. They were angry that Ambassador Susan Rice burst with laughter after being asked during the White House press briefing about the legitimacy of Ethiopian authorities’ 100% claim of election results.

Rice reaffirmed the election’s legitimacy, gave support, smirked, and busted out in laughter. These happened while President Obama was en route to Ethiopia as the first sitting American president to attend the African Union Summit in Ethiopia. Unfortunately, President Obama reiterated Susan Rice’s position.

The Battle of the Hearts and Minds

On October 23, 2015, the most widely viewed and followed opposition network Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT,) reported,

“Ethiopian delegation that comprises senior officials from the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs has unsuccessfully tried to convince the Russian government that broadcasting of news and programming from ESAT was a threat to the peace and security of Ethiopia.”

The TPLF considered the satellite news provider that broadcasted various programs into Ethiopia with Russian satellites a national security threat and unsuccessfully tried to convince Russian authorities to sever ties with ESAT. Two key points: 

  1. The TPLF could no longer censor information because ESAT could now broadcast unimpeded into Ethiopia. ESAT could reach millions, give people an alternative news source, and provide accurate information to help them push for change.
  2. Russian satellites are playing a role in toppling the dying minority regime in Ethiopia. In the past, the TPLF has successfully pressured satellite providers to stop ESAT broadcasts through their satellites. 

Why did Russian take this position? Is it the changing political tides?  

Changing Geopolitical Tides

Russia’s bold moves in Syria represent a sign of a fast-changing world. The most important message of Russia handling Syria is an advertisement to nations that yearned for an alternative to US-dominated global agendas and military prowess. By brazenly standing against the west in Syria, Russia opened a new world order. Russia’s actions in Syria will grow its sphere of influence in the world. Some evidence supports these facts. On June 18, 2015, Al Arabiya News Channel stated,

“Saudi Arabia and Russia also signed six agreements about the peaceful use of nuclear technology.”

Furthermore, in September 2015, Ynetnews.Com reported,

“An oil reservoir has been discovered in the Golan Heights, Israeli Energy Company Afek officially revealed on Monday.”

Russia and Saudi Arabia are major oil producers. Additional oil, particularly oils that Israel controls, could increase competition and threaten to lower oil prices. This development would likely change the geopolitical realities of the region.

These developments hint at shifting interests in the Red Sea basin and the Mediterranean Sea. Egypt’s Stand in Syria has also moved mainly due to these developments. During the September UN gathering, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi stated that Egypt would like to see the sovereignty and integrity of the Syrian government intact.

Another development that shows new challenges to US dominance; on October 1, 2015, The Free Gatestone Institute reported,

“Mr. Guelleh has intensified his efforts to form a strategic partnership with China, which is keen to expand its military presence throughout the African continent. China, which has contracts to build a railway linking Djibouti to Ethiopia, has negotiated a $400 million deal to develop Djibouti’s port facilities, a development Pentagon officials believe will lead to China establishing its military presence just a few miles from the highly sensitive Camp Lemonnier complex.”

Failed HOA Policies

America’s foreign policy approaches heavily depend upon the US’s moral high ground, military might, economic prowess, and sophisticated political machinery dominating global agendas. At the current stage, US influence in the HoA is steadily waning.

Morally: the moral high ground that the US held for a long time is now in question based on developments of the last 17 years. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • The US consistently supported the minority clique at the expense of millions in the region. Ethiopians at one time believed in American neutrality and judiciousness. No more!
  • The US disregarded international law by siding with the minority regime that openly brazenly violated legal and binding Eritrea Ethiopia arbitration finding by the courts in The Hague.
  • The US disregarded human rights. It overlooked atrocities and genocides committed by the minority regime throughout Ethiopia.
  • The US manipulated the UN process brazenly to impose sanctions on Eritrea illegally and continued it without justification.
  • The US callously supported the TPLF minority clique’s claims of 100% election victories.

These are reasons why the Obama administration can no longer claim a moral high ground. As a result, America’s position as a neutral arbiter is diminished.

Lack of US support and unfair international diplomatic practices leads the region’s people to find solutions independent from US influences by challenging the situation. As a result, fast changes are taking place outside of US influences. Increasingly, the ability of the US to control the messages and outcomes is declining.

Politically: As China, Russia, and other competitors gain momentum, the ability of the US to dominate is fast-falling because nations are no longer interested in ensuring US interests when they have better alternatives.

Economically: compared to China, which spends billions in Africa, the US approach to economic relations with Africa has remained insignificant. It needs leadership, vision, transparency, and direction. It is safe to say that the US has no visible economic presence in the HOA.

Diplomatically: What did Obama’s visit to Ethiopia and meeting with the African leaders accomplish? The gathering of African leaders in Washington did nothing to bolster Obama’s policies and image. Susan Rice’s gaffs dominated Obama’s Ethiopia visit. Furthermore, he showed no substantive policy direction that Africans could embrace.

Militarily: US military involvement in the HOA mainly depends on troops funded by the US. Unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, US forces depend on Ethiopian and other client states for soldiers. These approaches are unsustainable. The oppressive regimes that the US supports will inevitably fall and will be replaced by the people, possibly with Russia’s influence.


Ambassador Susan Rice is one principal actor who drives the Obama administration’s African policy. From when she served as the US Ambassador to the United Nations and as the National Security Advisor, Rice remained the gatekeeper and the brain trust behind Obama’s Africa policy.

Rice has been a disaster to Africa from her days as Assistant Secretary of State that callously overlooked the Rwandan Genocides and botched Eritrea-Ethiopia mediation efforts that eventually led to the death of 20,000 Eritreans and over 120,000 Ethiopians.

It is unfortunate to see major American foreign policy initiatives controlled by one individual, essentially creating a dinosaur syndrome with a tiny brain and large body taken to task by other players such as China.

Rice’s approach to dealing with Africa (the leader’s conference or Obama’s Ethiopia trip) is nothing but gimmicks. 

Because it lacks substance, vision, and direction, it will undoubtedly damage long-term US interests. Susan Rice has been and remains a black eye for Africa. Her legacies will reverberate for decades in a negative light.

Suppose the Obama administration is willing to impact future US-Africa relations better to serve the needs of the continent and the US. The first step is replacing Rice with robust brain trust to enrich the thought process.

Changing the vision and long-term direction is the first step. Secondly, rejecting old policies and establishing bilateral relations based on a pragmatic approach will go a long way to placing the US on a favorable standing in Africa.

Otherwise, and unfortunately, the legacy of the first Black American president will be that of Ambassador Rice, dark, bloody, and failed. Worst yet, the US’s global standing will shrink.

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