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”                                                                            


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