Monthly Archives: September 2014

Truman to Obama, Selassie to Desalegn: The US’ Longstanding Infatuation with Ethiopian Autocrats

Lost amidst all of the mainstream topics receiving attention at the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) – including, inter alia, a post-2015 agenda, climate change and the environment, conflicts involving ISIL/ISIS, Iraq and Syria, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Gaza, and the ongoing tensions between Ukraine and Russia – has been US President Obama’s meeting with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.[i] Although during the meeting Obama outlined Ethiopia as a bright spot, an example of progress, and a leader “when it comes to security and trying to resolve…longstanding conflicts,”[ii] his comments appear shortsighted, while the meeting itself was described by William Easterly, distinguished international scholar, as a continuance of US Presidents’ longstanding infatuation with Ethiopian autocrats.[iii]

Since the end of the World War 2, Ethiopia has been led by a succession of brutal, autocratic leaders:

  • Haile Selassie was a despotic tyrant who ruled oppressively, enslaved innumerable peasants via a draconian feudal system, and illegally annexed Eritrea.[iv]
  • Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam, who overthrew Selassie, oversaw a reign of terror characterized by widespread violations of international humanitarian law and war crimes. In repressing self-determination efforts in Eritrea and other areas, civilians were deliberately targeted and fell victim by the hundreds of thousands as a result of the indiscriminate violence against them. Further, his regime’s “villagization” program played a direct role in the further nearly half a million civilian deaths during the late 1980s.[v]
  • Prime Minister Meles Zenawi ruled Ethiopia for 20 years with dictatorial ruthlessness. His tenure was marked by the cracking down on civil society organizations and journalists, the illegal invasion and occupation of several neighboring countries (e.g. Somalia and Eritrea), the exclusion and marginalization of several of Ethiopia’s major ethnolinguistic and religious groups from political and economic life, the denial of humanitarian and food aid from “disloyal” segments of the country, and a counterinsurgency involving “war crimes and crimes against humanity.”[vi]
  • Prime Minister Desalegn, who came to power following Zenawi’s mysterious and abrupt death, has maintained the previous regime’s longstanding harsh policies. Ethiopia has continued to crack down on all dissent via highly-controversial anti-terrorism laws, sustained the marginalization or persecution of various ethnolinguistic groups or homosexuals, retained the criticized villagization programs, and engaged in an ongoing counter-insurgency against the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) – utilizing executions, rape, torture, arbitrary arrests, and various other abuses. [vii]

In addition to the long history of massive rights violations and oppression within Ethiopia, a constant theme has been the unyielding support of various US administrations. Specifically, each American administration – from Harry S. Truman to the current tenure of Barack Obama – has provided Ethiopia with significant sums of economic aid (in addition to various forms of political, diplomatic, and military support).

Figure 1

US Economic Aid to Ethiopia: Truman to Obama (1946-2011)*


With Ethiopia’s persistent and flagrant disregard for human rights and international norms continuing unabated, it is time for a drastic shift in approach from the US and international community. More needs to be done to change the country’s deplorable record; Obama can begin by withdrawing assistance to Ethiopia, unless it significantly improves it various domestic infractions and transgressions of international laws. Effectively, the world – the US most of all – has appeased the Ethiopian government for far too long, blandishing it with vast sums of aid, while witnessing little improvement in the country’s human rights record or the outlook of its poorest and most marginalized.







[vi] a)


[vii] a)



*Economic AID Data: USAID: US Overseas Loans and Grants Greenbook: Historical Dollars *


William Easterly: “Stop financing tyranny, like in Ethiopia”                                                                            

Eritrea: From Trenches and Caves to the United Nations General Assembly

The 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has seen national delegations from around the world convene to debate and dialogue a wide range of topics including, inter alia, a post-2015 agenda, climate change and the environment, conflicts involving ISIL/ISIS, Iraq and Syria, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Gaza, and the ongoing tensions between Ukraine and Russia. Another important, yet less heralded, meeting occurring is Eritrea’s hosting of a panel on “Innovations Driving Health Millennium Development Goals” – where the country will share the methods for its success. Such a development represents a tremendous leap; only decades ago, Eritrean “society” literally resided within underground trenches, caves in the mountains, and in the harsh, barren deserts.

To the uninitiated, Eritrea’s focus upon and commitment to health began in earnest in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during the early years of the protracted war of independence. In developing a medically sound health system, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) prioritized: “…proper nutrition; adequate and safe water supplies; basic sanitation; immunization; the prevention and control of endemic disease; health education and curative services” (Pateman 1990: 222).[i]

Although in 1970 it only possessed a single mobile health unit, the EPLF was soon able to boast: having trained 1600 barefoot doctors and forty-one barefoot midwives (by 1985); 418 village health workers and 150 birth attendants (by 1986); thirty functioning health service stations and twenty-two health centers; forty-one mobile barefoot health units; 320 village health workers; 41 radio technicians; 18 dental assistants; 151 nurses; six regional and one central hospital (Pateman 1990: 22).

Of particular note, the EPLF’s central hospital at Orotta, in Barka, and the pharmacy unit hold legendary, almost mythical auras. The Orotta hospital was often distinguished as the “longest hospital in the world” since it was built into the underground maze of trenches and tunnels,[ii] and it was the scene of thousands of operations performed by EPLF surgeons. Equally impressive, the EPLF’s pharmacy unit was made up of twenty-two members, and “…by the end of 1987 it was producing fourteen types of tablets and capsules – two million per month – and hoping to provide…for sixty percent of the population’s needs” (Pateman 1990: 222) Further, it produced 44 different types of medical supplies, including infusions, intravenous fluids, syrups and ointments.[iii]

Yet, even though these efforts were key to Eritrea’s momentous liberation and embodied the EPLF’s commitment to the health of the population, at independence the country immediately faced destruction upon a mass scale, “…everything was destroyed [and there were]…no roads, no electricity, no water.., no education…nothing was there”; for all intents and purposes, Eritrea started from well “below zero.”[iv]

Since that point however, Eritrea has remained staunchly committed to fulfilling citizens’ rights to health, and ultimately witnessed tangible, positive development outcomes – in spite of an array of socio-economic, regional, and global challenges. Such success is the fruit of a self-reliant approach, a capacity to adapt to adverse circumstances, effective coordination, multi-sectorial, cost-effective projects, community involvement enabling improved health-seeking behaviors and widespread buy-in – and the relentless efforts of innumerable men, women, and children around the country.[v] Who could have scripted how a low-income country, located within one of the world’s most volatile, fractious regions, went from surviving in underground trenches and mountain caves, to sharing the lessons of development success at the United Nations?

26 September 2014
1:15 PM
Conference Room 5, UN Headquarters Secretariat
“Innovations Driving Health MDGs in Eritrea”

[i] Pateman, R. 1990. Even The Stones Are Burning. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press.





EXTRA SOURCES (health specific)

Photo courtesy of Solomon Abraha – @solomonasmara

The Importance of September 1st

Why is September 1st such an important day for Eritrea? It represents the day that the Eritrean independence movement transitioned from non-violence and protest, to active, armed resistance – going against all odds and logic. It is a day to reflect upon and remember the contributions and heroic exploits of the thousands of freedom fighters – those mythical, legendary men and women who spent over 30 years in the barren, dusty deserts and harsh mountains of Eritrea, persevering and ultimately delivering freedom against all odds.

Of all the independence movements throughout Africa in the 1900s, only two emerged “victorious” militarily, Zimbabwe and Eritrea. And of those two, only Eritrea was able to do so via an outright military destruction of the colonial oppressor (rather than a negotiated settlement, a la the Lancaster Agreements). Furthermore, not only was Eritrea’s struggle the longest African independence war of the 1900s, the three decades long struggle targeted far more than just political emancipation. Rather, it sought to usher in a complete and radical transformation of society, destroying all outdated, harmful, traditional structures within society.

Today, although a large number of African states have been “politically” independent for decades, many are still mired in economic dependency and shackled by the oppressive chains of neocolonialism. Even with an abundance of precious natural resources, the African continent has remained poor and continues to suffer from the many blights of underdevelopment. Across the continent, resources, which could promote development, have instead fueled conflict and bred vast inequalities, while foreign exploitation has sustained debilitating poverty. In stark contrast however, Eritrea has maintained control of its considerable resource endowments, firmly grasped the reins to its national and economic development, and is navigating a pragmatic path towards true national emancipation and a tangible improvement in the lives of its people.

Some worthwhile links:

An excellent resource. Everything outlined and detailed. So inspirational.

On all aspects of Eritrea’s history, and recent updates.

Video Documentary

Hands down, one of my favorite songs and videos, particularly for the imagery. Watch until the end, “after every dark night, there’s a brighter day.”

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