Few people outside Ethiopia have ever heard of Birtukan Mideksa. And that's just how the government wants it. Since December, Birtukan has been kept in solitary confinement, one of hundreds of political prisoners there. Her apparent crime? Organizing a democratic challenge to the increasingly iron-fisted rule of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
In the past year alone, Meles's ruling party has rigged elections, effectively banned independent human-rights groups, passed a draconian press law and shrugged off calls for an investigation into alleged atrocities in the restive Ogaden region. Yet in the same period, his country has become one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid in sub-Saharan Africa, getting a cool $1 billion in 2008. The Bush administration claimed that Ethiopia was the linch-pin of its regional counterterrorism strategy and a vital beacon of stability. But the evidence increasingly suggests Washington isn't getting what it pays for, and is supporting a brutal dictator in the process. Candidate Obama pledged to strengthen democracy in Africa; if he's serious, this is a good place to start.
America's warm relations with Ethiopia date to the days after 9/11, when the country's Christian-dominated government came to be seen as a natural U.S. ally in a region targeted by Islamic extremists. After disputed elections in 2005, however, Meles—once hailed by President Bill Clinton as part of a promising "new generation" of African leaders—began clamping down on dissent.
Yet Washington tolerated his lapses because it needed his help fighting Qaeda-linked Islamists in next-door Somalia. In December 2006, Ethiopia's U.S.-trained Army duly invaded its neighbor, ousting the radical Islamic Courts Union government there. But the adventure hasn't worked out as planned. No sooner had the ICU been toppled than an even more radical group, Al-Shabab, sprang up to fight the invaders. And although Seyoum Mesfin, Ethiopia's foreign minister, recently told NEWSWEEK that the Islamists have been militarily "shattered," they now control much of the country's south and have tightened links with Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian troops have pulled out, and the country they left behind has been thoroughly devastated. Two years of fighting forced about 3.4 million Somalis, some 40 percent of the population, from their homes. Yet only a few high-ranking terrorists were eliminated, and Russell Howard, a retired general and senior fellow at the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations University, says the occupation only "empowered" the radicals.
Such failures—and Ethiopia's growing repression—suggest Washington should rethink the relationship. Just what Ethiopia offers the United States today is unclear. Addis Ababa has contributed troops to U.N. peacekeeping forces in Darfur and Burundi and plays a large role in shaping the policies of the African Union. But this shouldn't earn it unquestioning U.S. support.
To reset ties, the United States should push Ethiopia to democratize. And it must urge it to reconcile with its archnemesis, Eritrea. Resolving the conflict between the two states is key to addressing a whole range of threats to U.S. interests. Tiny Eritrea won independence from Addis Ababa in 1993, but the two countries fought a 1998–2000 border war and relations have remained hostile ever since, in part because Ethiopia, with tacit U.S. support, has ignored an international ruling that redrew their border. Too weak to challenge Ethiopia directly, Eritrea has funneled support to its enemy's enemies—including Al-Shabab and its America-hating foreign fighters. Eritrea also recently instigated a border conflict with Djibouti, home to an important U.S. military base.
Washington should thus push Ethiopia and Eritrea to make amends; better relations would mean an end to their proxy war in Somalia, which has helped turn that state into a Qaeda haven. Should it choose to use it, the United States has plenty of leverage. Most U.S. spending on Ethiopia goes for health and food aid, which aren't easy to cut. But the Obama administration could make military aid and weapons sales contingent on Meles's improving his behavior. The House of Representatives passed a bill in 2007 to do just that, but the measure died in the Senate without White House support.
Much will now depend on the man Obama has nominated for the State Department's top Africa job, Johnnie Carson. Carson's record is promising: while ambassador to Kenya from 1999 to 2003, he helped persuade longtime President Daniel Arap Moi to step down, clearing the way for multiparty elections. Should he bring similar pressure to bear on Washington's new African ally, Birtukan, Ethiopia's other political prisoners, Africans throughout the Horn and America itself would all benefit.