US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s February visit to Africa reflected a belated attempt by Washington to reaffirm its commitment to the ongoing economic and political development in the region. This comes as an effort to slow the shifting balance of power in Africa, which has gradually been moving closer to China as that country increased its economic investment across the continent.
Ethiopia, the final destination on the African leg of Pompeo’s trip, was selected as an endorsement of the rapid political and economic reforms implemented by the country’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed. Under the new PM, Ethiopia has undergone sweeping changes, such as the privatisation and liberalisation of the telecoms industry and the creation of a new ruling political party, the Prosperity Party, which promises to hold free and fair elections in August. Pompeo used this nascent democratic and capitalist movement to promote the importance of a liberal economy and political freedom, while criticising authoritarianism and communism in a thinly-veiled condemnation of Chinese growth in both Ethiopia and the African continent.
PM Ahmed has introduced sweeping political changes to combat corruption and distance Ethiopia from its history of ethnic federation, and promised free and fair democratic elections, which are scheduled to be held in August 2020. In the face of a multitude of challenges to the execution and legitimacy of the electoral process and democratisation in Ethiopia, Pompeo’s visit signified strong encouragement for the values and institutions that underly a liberal-democratic state, such as a functional rule of law, and respect for basic human and property rights. Pompeo’s meeting with Ethiopia’s Inter-Religious Council was used as an opportunity to highlight the importance of religious freedom in a democracy, and he encouraged the Council to use its power to support constructive dialogue between Ethiopia’s diverse religious and ethnic groups to facilitate the upcoming election.
Pompeo also worked to reaffirm US support for Ethiopia’s economic reforms, praising its move towards a system of free market capitalism and the opening of an economy that has historically been tightly controlled. Pompeo emphasised the importance of attracting foreign investors, particularly American businesses, commending the developments which led to Coca-Cola’s US$300 million investment and expansion into Ethiopia. Pompeo also took the opportunity to overtly criticise authoritarian regimes and communism, arguing that they breed ‘corruption’ and ‘dependency’, and that they fail to hire and train the local people. This was contrasted heavily with American businesses, which, Pompeo argued, vigorously emphasise building African prosperity from within Africa. Pompeo focused heavily on stressing the purer motives and superior practices of American companies, rather than the announcement of many substantial US financial aid initiatives or other tangible assistance programmes for Ethiopia.
Pompeo’s efforts are an attempt to prevent an Ethiopian shift towards China; Chinese investment has financed part of the expansion of the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, as well as building and paying for the entirety of the new US$200 million African Union headquarters, also located in Addis Ababa. Despite China’s oft-criticised tendency to engage African countries only to ensnare them in debt traps when those loans cannot be repaid, many countries are attracted to the limited bureaucracy and cheapness of Chinese finance. Ethiopia, like many other African states, observes Chinese investment producing visible and tangible outcomes, such as roads and buildings, in comparison to US aid, which often results in less high-profile outcomes in fields such as education and encouraging entrepreneurship. Compounding that, US assistance is often conditional upon a country’s governance in meeting human rights and corruption transparency standards, which adds an extra level of obligation and bureaucracy to the recipient countries.
The US approach towards reducing the impact of growing Chinese influence in the region has often appeared incoherent and half-hearted, increasing the uncertainty among African leaders of how important Africa truly is to the US. While US diplomats such as Pompeo have vocally reaffirmed the importance of strong bilateral relations with Ethiopia, the withdrawal of approximately 1,000 troops from the Sahel, as well as the addition of Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan and Tanzania to President Trump’s travel ban shows a disconnect between US policy and its claims. Coupled with the failure of Pompeo to commit meaningful and direct financial aid to Ethiopia during his visit, the Ethiopian Government will find it more difficult to reduce its growing reliance on Chinese investment and, consequently, closer relations with China. Where the US needed to propose a viable alternative to China through strong financial and military commitment, it instead focused too heavily on its more intangible moral superiority. As noble as that may be, it fails to dispel the uncertainty as to Washington’s future approach to Ethiopian and, more broadly, African development, and continues a trend of lukewarm commitment to the region in the face of Chinese competition.