FT.com -- Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s prime minister, sat stiffly at a table as the frontman of the Black Eyed Peas strutted to the tip of the stage with the standard swagger of a Los Angeles hip-hop star.
Below the prime minister’s balcony, several hundred young Ethiopians surged towards the dreadlocked American, who told them: “Y’know, we celebrated the millennium seven years ago.”
Ethiopia did not. The country stuck with a form of the Julian calendar when the west switched to the Gregorian version four centuries ago, so its year 2000 rolled around only last month.
“Is this the real millennium?” the rapper asked, receiving an uproarious “Yes” from the crowd. “So, basically, when I go home, I can tell America to shut up?” he asked. The affirmative answer almost lifted off the roof.
The moustachioed Mr Meles did not flinch. But the exchange – a playful introduction to a song called “Shut Up” – captured something of the US’s increasingly testy relationship with Ethiopia: despite a six-year alliance with Washington, Mr Meles appears not at all inclined to move to America’s music.
Following the attacks of September 11 2001, the administration of President George W. Bush forged an anti-terror pact with Addis Ababa. It was predicated on Ethiopia’s formidable military and intelligence capabilities and its position as a Christian-led country surrounded by Muslim and Arab states.
But the relationship has begun to resemble many of Washington’s alliances with troublesome client regimes, based mostly on geopolitical interest. Ethiopia, which received $283m (£139m, €200m) of military and humanitarian aid from Washington this year, looks increasingly like Pakistan or Egypt: an awkward bedfellow that the US has to support for security goals but one that pursues its own, sometimes brutal, agenda regardless of American pressure.
When the US objects to Ethiopian policies – such as a crackdown on political opponents that killed scores of people in 2005 and a scorched-earth campaign against separatist insurgents this year – it is ignored. When America gives implicit acquiescence – as it did over the Christmas invasion of Somalia and Ethiopia’s bitter border dispute with Eritrea – the US goes through the motions of diplomatic pressure and claims to have been rebuffed.
But the wisdom of the alliance is now under scrutiny, particularly since the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would force Ethiopia to improve democracy and human rights or risk losing substantial aid.
In public, Jendayi Frazer, the US State department’s top Africa diplomat, remains staunchly pro-Ethiopian and the White House is known to be unhappy with this month’s congressional bill. But one US official says Washington has “titanic arguments” on many subjects with Mr Meles, whose star has fallen since he was hailed in the 1990s as one of a new generation of African leaders. “The Ethiopians are very proud and very independent,” the official adds. “On security, they have supported us strongly, but they also take positions which are not in line with ours.”
In consequence, Washington has become tied to Ethiopia’s local agenda and entangled in a web of mutually reinforcing conflicts, which run from Eritrea to Somalia and cut through Ethiopia’s own ethnically Somali Ogaden region.
The alliance with Ethiopia, the regional powerhouse with a population of 77m, was supposed to achieve the opposite. The US wanted to hunt terrorists, including those suspected of blowing up US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, to monitor links between al-Qaeda and local Islamists and to prevent the region disintegrating into a lawless incubator for extremism.
But the compromises Washington would have to make became evident after a disputed 2005 election, which revealed the Ethiopian regime’s authoritarian leanings. A total of 193 protesters accusing the government of rigging the election were killed in clashes with police. The violence was condemned by the US, which suspended aid temporarily, but Addis Ababa did not flinch.
The US quandary is also illustrated by Ethiopia’s invasion last year of neighbouring Somalia to oust the Islamic Courts Union, a group containing extremist elements that it saw as a threat. The US role in this invasion is still controversial, though American officials deny they encouraged the Ethiopians to act: “We specifically spoke with the government, [advising it] not to go into Somalia, because we didn’t know what the consequences would be,” says the US official.
But European diplomats dispute this account, saying the American attitude was ambiguous and was influenced heavily by those parts of the Bush administration charged with prosecuting the war on terror. The US embassy in Addis Ababa declined to comment on press reports that the US provided intelligence, military targeting and logistical support to Ethiopian forces during the invasion.
US Navy ships have since launched at least three precision air strikes inside Somalia, presumed to be targeting suspected al-Qaeda associates. But the invasion and its aftermath has done nothing to put an end to 16 years of violent chaos in Somalia.
Also going from bad to worse are Ethiopia’s relations with Eritrea. The neighbours fought a war in 1998-2000 that killed 70,000 people. Last month, Ethiopia threatened to terminate the pact that ended it, after years of intransigence over the demarcation of the two countries’ border.
The US failed – or did not try – to persuade Ethiopia to comply with the 2002 ruling of an independent boundary commission. “I think that’s when we let it slip away, when we let Ethiopia break its pledge to agree to the outcome,” says Donald Payne, a Democratic congressman who co-sponsored last week’s Ethiopia bill. “I think we could fight the war on terror and still have respectful policies from our allies if we chose to. However, taking the policy of least resistance may be easier for the Bush administration.”
An embittered Eritrea reacted by launching proxy wars to undermine the Ethiopian government inside the country, where a growing number of armed groups oppose the Meles regime. The most formidable is the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which this year escalated a campaign for self-determination.
Ethiopia responded with a crackdown, which is a source of growing concern to the US. Ethiopian armed forces have been accused of extra-judicial killings, rape, torture and the burning of villages – charges that Ethiopia denies – and a United Nations fact-finding mission to the region said last month it had heard direct accounts of “serious violations of human rights”.
Suspicions have been stoked by the expulsion of the International Committee of the Red Cross from Ogaden and a decision to exclude Médecins Sans Frontières, another aid group. Washington has refused to place the ONLF on its terrorist list or describe the crackdown in Ogaden as counter-terrorism.
This puts it increasingly at odds with Ethiopia. An alliance of convenience is becoming less convenient for both countries by the day.