On April 23, 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken appointed Jeffrey Feltman, a former US Ambassador to Lebanon and later under-secretary-general for political affairs at the United Nations, to be his special envoy for the Horn of Africa. The reason, Blinken explained, is the growing crises in the region. “Of particular concern are the volatile situation in Ethiopia, including the conflict in Tigray; escalating tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan; and the dispute around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam,” he wrote.
All these problems are real, and both President Joe Biden and Blinken deserve praise for seeking to address them proactively. Biden’s earlier dispatch of Senator Chris Coons, a close confidant, to Ethiopia signaled real rather than symbolic interest in an unfolding crisis whose human rights abuses are reminiscent of the Darfur genocide twenty years ago. Blinken is also right to worry about the repercussions of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam whose unilateral filling after Ethiopia filibustered on diplomatic negotiations could lead to a war between two of Africa’s most populous countries. Unmentioned in Blinken’s press statement is the fact that Ethiopia’s unilateral damming on other rivers have starved southern Somalia of water and threatens ecological catastrophe at Lake Turkana, the bulk of which lies in Kenya but the northern tip of which crosses the Ethiopian border. Nor did Blinken mention the other crises now impacting the Horn of Africa: China’s inroads in Djibouti, a political crisis in Somalia exacerbated by outgoing U.S. Ambassador Donald Yamamoto’s arrogance and miscalculation, an uncertain transition in Eritrea whose longtime dictator Isaias Afwerki is in poor health, and a maritime border dispute between Kenya and Somalia.
Feltman would err, however, in focusing only on the crises in the region. Too often in American policy, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Both Congress and the State Department direct their attention on the problems while ignoring success. On some levels, this makes sense: There is little reason why the State Department need expend much effort or attention to Norway or New Zealand, wealthy countries whose democracy and economy are stable and, frankly, healthier than that of the United States. In the developing world, however, the State Department too often neglects those countries or regions that do everything right and instead reward with attention or resources those hobbled by corruption, terror, or insecurity. Within the Horn of Africa, for example, Somaliland has done everything right: Whereas Afwerki modeled himself after North Korea’s Dear Leader, Abiy responded to Tigray elections with attempted genocide, and Somali President Mohamed Farmaajo blocked elections and then refused to step down, Somaliland will hold one-man, one-vote elections on May 31, 2021, with the integrity of voting secured by biometric iris scans. Feltman should go and observe. Likewise, while much of Somalia returns to the chaos for which is was known in the 1990s, both Somaliland and much of the Somali Federal State of Puntland are stable and secure. Yamamoto not only ignored such progress but actively sought to sabotage it in order to build up and then ingratiate himself to Farmaajo; Feltman should not repeat that mistake and instead visit their respective capitals of Hargeisa and Garowe to see a model of success that he should encourage the rest of the Horn of emulate. Whereas Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia orient themselves toward Beijing, Somaliland embraces democratic Taiwan, again a move the State Department should celebrate rather than ignore.
Certainly, there is no easy solution to the region’s problems, but the success of Somaliland and increasingly Puntland reinforce the point that the first step to success is understanding that there is no substitute for a strong, healthy, and democratic system. The reason why Eritrea and Somalia have failed and Ethiopia now stands on the brink is that for too long the international community has sought to build up or work through an individual at the expense of the health of the country. An obscure Abiy would be nowhere as megalomaniacal as Abiy with a Messiah complex believing his Nobel Prize shields him from accountability.
Ambassador Feltman, mediate and negotiate but, if you want to succeed, do not substitute systems for individuals. Reward success rather than incentivize failure. Listen to the locals. Do not become captive to embassies and country team policies governed more by inertia to change than by the reality of life outside embassy walls.
Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.