Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, a senior American diplomat who has been the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Africa in the Office of the United States Secretary of Defense since 2009, officially retired last week due to personal reasons.
As part of her posts in the State Department, Ambassador Huddleston landed into the complex Ethiopian-American ties as US Acting Ambassador to Ethiopia during the heated 2005 period; when the country staged a fiercely competitive election which later turned violent, inviting the international community to intervene. Since then, Ambassador Huddleston has remained a controversial figure; while pro-government commentators praise her as a sensible diplomat, opposition critics accuse her of turning a blind eye to oppression.
From the 2005 post election dialogue to the latest deal on placing US secret drones in Ethiopia, Huddleston reflects on the recent pressing Ethio-US ties in an interview with Capital’s Kirubel Tadesse in Washington DC.
Capital: Looking back to your service to the United States Government, how would you describe it?
Ambassador Vicki Huddleston: Long comes to mind…I have worked for over 30 years including in Latin America mainly the Caribbean and in Africa – more in Africa than the Caribbean, because since retiring I have gone back to Africa particularly in my last job which was as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Africa. What it has done for me is make me appreciate more and more the potential, diversity and variety of Africa. But also the challenges, they are immense-population explosion, climate change, conflicts, ethnic and religious difference. Africa can have a great future, the 21st century can be for Africa but Africa has to figure out how to manage these challenges and it will need the assistance of its friends outside of Africa because these are trans-national problems.
Capital: The last post you held was a political appointment and whenever there is a change in Washington and a new administration comes, you may find yourself out of a job. Was this frustrating for you and isn’t it challenging for diplomats who like to see consistent US policies towards Africa for instance, so that the continent can help itself get on its feet?
Huddleston: Yes, every administration does bring in its political appointees and that can shift the politics and raises issues of continuity towards our partners and allies around the world, although in general policies towards Africa, it has fundamentally rested on promotion of democracy, economic growth and building civil society. So Africa, I would, guess is less impacted by this.
Capital: You were a top US diplomat in Ethiopia during the 2005 elections. Is there anything you realized now you wish you would have done differently?
Huddleston: When you look at a tragic situation like 2005, basically the aftermath of 2005, you begin to regret so much of what happened because most people said the elections were at first very good. Then the opposition decided they weren’t good elections and they could not accept them and they first of all made the call not to enter parliament. Now you look back and there is only one person from the opposition in parliament. What is wrong with this picture? They could have been almost 200 MPs in the parliament from the opposition and it was a huge opportunity for them and they lost that opportunity.
On the other side I think it was also true for the government just as much, because now it made the government much more cautions and resistant to political change. You see the 2010 elections and the great concerns that the EPRDF government did not want a repeat of the last elections. As a result you have a completely unbalanced situation in which you no longer have a loyal opposition.
For me the two major things are the opposition failing to take responsibility and the government itself having this fear that the same thing can happen and thus not opening up the political process.
Capital: Critics, mainly from the opposition, say that in 2005 the United States and also you personally sided with your ally, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, so that he could stay in power when you could have persuaded and pressured his government not to put the opposition in jail which could have paved the way for a democratic political transition down the road five or ten years later. How do you take this criticism?
Huddleston: We are always perceived as a lot more powerful than we are. Or maybe I was less persuasive than I would have liked to have been because not only did I follow my instructions but I also did my very best to persuade the government first of all to work with the opposition for a peaceful resolution. If you remember we were actually successful for a while; we brought the opposition together with the PM and then we had talks moderated by Bereket [Simon] on the government side and various political leaders such as Berhanu [Nega], Bulcha [Demeksa], Merara [Gudina], Beyene [Petros] and others on the opposition side. Basically those talks broke down when Hailu Shawel returned. And then the whole problem began again, the opposition started building up its criticism and the riots happened and the crackdown by the government followed. Then the opposition leaders were put in jail.
I and the other ambassadors had numerous talks with the PM. And it was once again my initiative that started the talks at the end; this time it was between the leaders who were not in jail and the government. And I did that with Ambassador [Stéphane] Gompertz, and Ambassador [Bob] Dewar. The idea was to let us get the government talk with the opposition members who were not in jail so that it could lead to a solution that will release the opposition that was in jail. In fact in the end that was successful, thanks largely to a great mediation effort by Professor Ephrem Isaac. We, the American embassy, had encouraged and insisted for that to happen. So myself and the embassy and the other ambassadors have worked tirelessly; we used to meet two, three times a week with the opposition and less with the government [they were busy], to find a solution. All I can say is we continuously sought a resolution.
I think where the criticism comes from is that I did not agree with cutting off American assistance to Ethiopia. And if someone wants to argue that had we cut off assistance everything could have been different, I would only point out to the fact of what the Europeans did [they were providing much more assistance than we did] and nothing changed. If that government is valid the Europeans would have succeeded in changing the PM’s and the government’s mind.
Capital: But wouldn’t the US collaboration with the Europeans send a clearer message; the Europeans finally felt they were losing both the engagement with the government and their influence because the US has continued its assistance and is engaging the government while they were left aside….
Huddleston: That is a good argument. But it is wrong. First of all everything that I did, I did it with the Europeans. All the work I did with the opposition was with the Europeans and with the leadership of the EU. And Ambassador Gompertz was the head of the EU at that time and I think Austria followed in taking the lead, so France, Austria and the EU team itself were involved. So all my efforts were done in consultation with the EU and many of the meetings with the PM were with the EU. So in that respect I would disagree. But the fundamental point I want to make is that the European aid and the US aid are very different. The EU aid goes to institutions like the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Works and such and they would use the money. Our money directly goes to the nongovernmental organization or the project itself. It is not possible for the money we give to be taken by the government for their own use.
So had we cut off aid, the bulk of our aid is in health, it would have a devastating impact on the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) HIV/AIDS, education, women and democracy programs. Frankly if we had cut off aid it would have been harmful to the people of Ethiopia. And it would have not been harmful to the government at all.
Capital: Since 2005 what has been the trend you have seen in the Ethiopian-American relationship?
Huddleston: I think the relationship is now stable. There was a period it became sort of unstable and there were some concerns on both the part of the US’ and Ethiopia’s about the relationship; there was increasing concern on our part about democracy, human rights and political opposition all following the 2010 elections on which we very much wanted to see an open process that provided the opportunity for a peaceful and legitimate opposition to rise. So we were very much disappointed with the 2010 elections and that tended to unbalance the relationship for a while. I think at this point now the 2010 elections are behind us, it is 2012, and we are trying closely to work with Ethiopia not only to encourage more democracy, more room for civil society, more openness in the economy [we commend the government for the, 6-7% percent economic growth which is very impressive, one of the best and top ten in Africa] but I think more can be done. What we also appreciate from Ethiopia is that they have been an important player in Sudan; the PM himself was very instrumental in brokering various difficulties between President Omar al-Bashir and President Salva Kiir. Also very instrumental in assisting the successful referendum in the South on independence, Ethiopia has been very forward leading and has deployed forces under the UN auspices in Abyie to stop deaths there. We recognize and appreciate Ethiopia for the role it is playing in the region and Africa as a whole. Do we say Ethiopia is doing exactly what we want to see them doing? Obviously not. Ethiopia is Ethiopia; it has to determine its way forward. There are areas we would like to see them do more, especially on opening up more space to the opposition.
Capital: Some describe Ethiopia’s role in the region such as fighting Somalia based extremist Islamist militants as too valuable for the US to sacrifice to press Ethiopia on human rights and democracy. Do you see a possibility for the US to strike the right balance; to be able to keep its strongest ally in the region while being able to demand political reform?
Huddleston: The one thing I found with Ethiopia is that you have more influence if you keep on talking. If you stop talking then you lose your influence because Ethiopia sees it as a friend turning its back. One of the lessons I took away is if you want to continue to have influence in Ethiopia is you need to be a loyal friend. But that should not diminish your honesty in pointing out where Ethiopia is lacking.
I think the second issue that is often hard is doing it publicly is not going to work. Because the Ethiopian government is very sensitive to criticism. The best thing the United States can do is to continue to be a good friend but privately make very clear where our concerns are.
We have been consistently critical of the government and its failure to provide sufficient political space; that has been the consistent theme. I don’t think the US concerns about extremists in Somalia or our appreciation for the good work of the PM on Sudan kept us from being critical of the 2010 elections and the need to support and nurture civil society. You can look at the human rights report for example; certainly I don’t think anybody has pulled any punches on that.
Capital: There is a facility; it could be a base, in Arba Minch that is currently being used by the US Government. The reports about this “facility” have been controversial; earlier reports suggested that it is a base where the US can launch attacks against Yemen or Somalia based extremists and the latest we hear from both Ethiopian and American sides is that it’s only used for reconnaissance missions. From your knowledge due to the post you held last, what is really this place for and what are its capabilities?
Huddleston: First of all it is not a base. Secondly the US Africa Command, which we refer to as Africom which except for Egypt is responsible for the continent, has various facilities around Africa the largest of which is in Djibouti Camp Lemonnier and we call our people who are there: Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa. We have various facilities throughout Africa, whether it is in Kenya, Burkina Faso or Mali or Mauritania – different types of things in different countries. We provide training and equipment to build the capacity of the local military. So in Ethiopia, in Arba Minch we use the airstrip there for reconnaissance purposes.
Capital: But the secret drones that are using the airstrip can be easily armed and launch missiles and other attacks…is this true?
Huddleston: You are getting into an area which you should really talk to current Department of Defense officials as opposed to former officials.
Capital: The Washington Post reported that the Ethiopian government was very reluctant to allow the US to use the facility. The report said there has been continuous negotiations for almost four years before the government agreed to the project; what were their concerns?
Huddleston: Any time the US Government wants to use a facility in the country, there is a lot of negotiation because there are political and economic concerns. Obviously all of these concerns have to be taken into consideration and agreements should be reached.
All I would say about any of the facilities and capacity building projects the Department of Defense or Africom does in Africa is, it is done to reinforce the African Union and individual partners so that governments are better able to defend their countries, provide stability and security so that they can send peace keeping missions like the Ugandans did to Mogadishu and alike. What we do is reinforce capacity not create something else because our efforts have to be consistent with the desires of the governments.
Capital: Some analysts argue that the very existence of this facility in Ethiopia gives the Ethiopian government leverage that it can use to threaten the US. They could for example not allow the US to use the base if they keep pushing for political reforms, they say.
Huddleston: I understand the argument but if you believe the best way to influence Ethiopia is by talking then you can continue talking always.
I don’t know that any facility that we have in Africa, talking just hypothetically, from looking back on our relationship, which is so important to us that if we felt we had to remove that facility we would not do it. There are other places in Africa where we could have the same kind of facility.
Capital: Talking about Africa in general, as involved as you have been in Africa, do you see a possibility for the continent to follow suit with the Arab Spring and topple down some of its dictators?
Huddleston: I have been thinking about this a lot; I don’t yet have my crystal ball out, so what I may say could be wrong. I don’t think the Arab Spring applies to Africa. The reason is the Arab Spring is the Arab’s; Africa for its most part is not. The Arab Spring to a great degree was based on high Internet connectivity, at least in Tunisia and Egypt, it was also a homogeneous population – most were Arab, Muslims – there was obviously clan issue in Libya that is playing out now, but not so much in Tunisia and Egypt, and also fairly high level of education. The same conditions are not present in Africa. Therefore when I look at the Arab Spring I don’t see an Arab Spring in Africa.
Could there be an African spring? I would like to see an African spring based on the fact that we have seen more democracies than we have seen before. You know there were only four peaceful changes of presidents from 1960 to 1991; from 1991 to present there have been 30. We are seeing real economic growth in Africa; six of the top ten performers are now in Africa including Ethiopia. So we see Ethiopia and the rest of Africa taking responsibility for peace keeping – 42% of the UN peace keepers are Africans. We see the African Union taking responsibility and jumping on conflicts such as in Darfur and Mogadishu even before the United Nations. So I see a spring for Africa and then I see economic growth and the development of democracy and more responsibility for settling African conflicts.
I think the issue that Africa probably has to address more than the other is the issue of conflicts. And the issue of how the one party states, which include many of Africa’s most powerful nations, begin to open space for the opposition.
Capital: President Obama promised in his Accra Africa policy speech to direct the US assistance to help the protection of human rights and democracy. There is a wildly shared assessment that he did not follow on that promise; what is your personal assessment on his policy towards Africa?
Huddleston: I am surprised you said that because I think the Obama administration, Secretary Clinton and Assistant Secretary Carson have been completely dedicated to democracy, human rights and development of civil society – that is where the aid money goes other than in the health; those are the issues they speak about; when they travel to Africa, when they talk to African leaders that is the message.
So both by their words and actions their commitment to human rights, democracy and growth of civil society have been stronger I believe than any administration. I think they have done a good job in encouraging Africa achieve considerable results; when you look at Ghana, Togo, Benin, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Niger coming back to the democratic poll… So we have seen progress but it all depends on the Africans themselves. Africa is for Africans. The degree to which Africa is democratic depends on African leadership and African people.