US Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski on situation in Ethiopia, after his latest leg into the country
“[W]e are very deeply concerned that the current crisis may inhibit Ethiopia’s ability to reach those goals and because we know, we know Ethiopian history. We know what a true crisis in this country would look like and how much harm it could potentially do, not just to the people of this country, but to the region.”
VOA: Secretary Malinowski, I want to thank you for giving VOA this opportunity.
So as your travel schedule indicates, you were to meet with high-ranking government officials and policy leaders as well as civic organization leaders. How did these discussions strike you?
A/S Malinowski: This is my fourth visit to Ethiopia in the last year and a half, and every time I come I feel as if the discussions are richer and more candid, more comprehensive in going over the extraordinarily difficult challenges that Ethiopia faces right now.
When I was here last year for the first time, the government officials with whom I met already were acknowledging that following a long period in which their primary focus was economic development, the country would need to turn its focus to democratization. I argued to them then that the country was undergoing a process that could be likened to a boiling pot. And that when you have a boiling pot the thing to do is take the lid off, because either way it’s going to be boiling, and if you keep the lid on it’s going to explode.
Now since then we all know what has happened. There have been now successive rounds of protest. There has been violence and insecurity. There have been attacks on police and on private property. There has also been excessive use of force against protesters. And I think the sense of urgency in meeting that political challenge is plainly greater today than it has been at any point in the country’s recent history, and this visit was a very good opportunity to speak with the government and with important voices outside of the government about what the next steps might be.
VOA: So have you reached any conclusion as to what the situation of human rights is like in the country now?
A/S Malinowski: It’s a very difficult situation. The country is under a state of emergency, and a state of emergency by definition means that certain rights are suspended. Due process is suspended. And however much the government may feel that the state of emergency has brought calm temporarily to the country, it also brings with it certain risks.
It risks adding a new layer of grievances to those grievances that initially led people in Oromia and Amhara to come out onto the streets. At first they were concerned about land seizures and lack of jobs and representation, all of which the government has acknowledge to be real and legitimate. But now they’re also upset about the arrests and the violence. And the longer this continues, the more those grievances are likely to build.
At the same time, it risks giving greater power to the security apparatus in a way that could delay the introduction of the reforms that the Prime Minister and the government have, to their great credit, said are necessary.
So our sense is that the longer this unnatural state continues, the harder it will be for the government to achieve some of the goals that it has acknowledged must be met for the crisis to be resolved.
VOA: Many followers of U.S.-Ethiopian relations suggest that your travel to Ethiopia at this juncture in time points to the fact that the U.S. government is clearly concerned over the democratic and human rights situation in the country. What is your evaluation of this observation?
A/S Malinowski: Ethiopia is very important to us. Ethiopia is not only a large and influential country in this region, but on the positive side of things potentially an incredibly positive model for the world if it succeeds in becoming both a middle-income country and a fully open and vibrant democracy. It’s very very important to the United States to support Ethiopia’s success in terms of meeting both of those goals.
At the same time, we do, we are very deeply concerned that the current crisis may inhibit Ethiopia’s ability to reach those goals and because we know, we know Ethiopian history. We know what a true crisis in this country would look like and how much harm it could potentially do, not just to the people of this country, but to the region.
In short, we think this is an inflexion point. It’s a moment at which very important and hard decisions need to be made. We are very heartened by statements that the Prime Minister and others in the government have made about the need for electoral reform, the need to address grievances over land and joblessness and local governance. It is our great hope that the government will follow these words with actions that truly will address the grievances that led to the crisis. And given that this process is likely to take time, it’s also our hope that the government will take steps in the short run to build the confidence of the people of the country that change is on its way.
So as your listeners know, we have urged the release of political leaders and journalists who have been detained, including under the state of emergency. And we certainly hope that the government will find some mechanism, one that is appropriate to Ethiopia’s political context, to begin a dialogue about these needed reforms that includes credible leaders outside of the ruling party framework.
VOA: [In your joint statement yesterday], I think you said that you had a frank exchange of views on these issues of human rights and democracy and good governance, and commitment from Ethiopian government side to pursue reforms. Were there reforms made?
A/S Malinowski: The government, as we know because it has spoken publicly about this, has said that it intends to pursue reforms in a number of areas. I think one of the most significant commitments that the government has made is to pursue reform to the electoral system. They’ve talked about potentially introducing a proportional representation or a mixed proportional system. These things obviously have not happened yet and it is up to the government of Ethiopia to translate commitments into actions. This cannot come from the United States or from the outside, it can only come from a process of dialogue and decision here in Ethiopia.
Because we are friends, and because we have a very close relationship with the government, we do offer advice from time to time, and in addition to welcoming the commitments that the government has made, we have also encouraged the government to consider taking some of the steps that I just mentioned in the short term to try to build public confidence that the deeper changes are in fact likely to come. And that would, again, involve releasing key prisoners, moving away from the state of emergency as quickly as possible, easing its application in the meantime, creating some mechanism for dialogue, and opening space for independent media inside Ethiopia.
The last of these I think is particularly important in light of concern that the Ethiopian government has consistently and I think legitimately expressed about hate speech that is in many cases coming from outside the country, from at least some elements of the diaspora, at least some of the broadcasting stations that come in from the outside. And our advice to the government is that if you are concerned about inaccurate news coming from these sources, if you’re concerned about hate speech that may be coming on social media, the best antidote is, as we say in American English, to flood the zone with vibrant, independent, credible, domestic media so that the people of the country are not forced to resort to Facebook on their phones and the rumors that sometimes spread, in America as much as Ethiopia, if you’re relying mostly on social media for your news.
VOA: Opposition leaders in Ethiopia have expressed their dissatisfaction and in fact anger with the U.S. government’s response to what they consider gross human rights violations, totalitarianism, the posture of authoritarian government over the years, and especially after the 2005 elections. So they in fact accuse the U.S. government of succumbing to Ethiopian government pressure in order to, you know, safeguard U.S. interests in the region. What’s your take on this?
A/S Malinowski: In this difficult situation I can’t blame anyone for being frustrated. The government is sometimes frustrated with us because we do speak out, and the opposition is sometimes frustrated with us because they would like us to speak out even more. And that’s perfectly fine. Unlike some people, we can take criticism.
But I think it should be plain, particularly over the last year in which this crisis has been building, that the United States has taken very seriously its commitment to promoting respect for universal human rights in Ethiopia. And in fact we see that work as being very closely related to all of our other interests in Ethiopia.
We do have a very close strategic partnership with Ethiopia on security, on development, on regional peace. And all of these goals are much more likely to be achieved if Ethiopia is a stable, developing and democratizing country. And I’m confident that the leadership of the government of Ethiopia would agree one hundred percent with the statement that I just made because it is consistent with the goals that they themselves have outlined.
So through our public statements, through very intensive private diplomacy, and through all the tools of our engagement here we have tried our best to both assist the government and to encourage the government to meet its commitments in the democratization and respect for human rights.
VOA: What is your assessment of the democracy and human rights situation especially in the last two years in Ethiopia? Many people suggest that the situation is deteriorating by the day, which of course the government has not agreed with this argument. So what do you think of this?
A/S Malinowski: It’s hard to say that the situation is improving in the middle of a state of emergency because by definition, as I mentioned before, a state of emergency involves suspending rights that are otherwise guaranteed by the Ethiopian constitution.
The important question is how is the country going to come out of this crisis and the state of emergency? The government has said that this is a temporary state of affairs. It has acknowledged this is not natural. It has acknowledged that this is not the optimal state for Ethiopia to be in. So the question is when will the country emerge from the crisis and how will it emerge from the crisis? Sometimes a crisis can focus everybody’s minds on the need to compromise, to achieve, to make difficult decisions that perhaps always were understood to be necessary, but which were also seen as hard.
Sometimes if you smoke too much you know you have to quit smoking. But it takes a crisis to get you to actually do it. And our hope is that the lessons of the last year will encourage everybody, both the government and the opposition and the youth who have been out there expressing these grievances, to recognize that only through dialogue and political compromise and a gradual opening of the system can this country achieve the future that it wants. That is not going to happen by maintaining the status quo forever. Nor will it happen through violence or through efforts to overturn the system by force. There is a middle ground that can help the country achieve what can be an extraordinarily positive future, and our hope is that the crisis will lead people to take that path.
US Embassy Addis Abeba