Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia have suffered from a variety of U.S. interventions over many years. Proxy wars and unilateral coercive measures, sanctions, are the tools used to prevent these nations from finding a means of peacefully coexisting.
During Donald Trump’s four years in office, he for the most part left the Horn of Africa alone. He just didn’t seem interested, and his disengagement created enough breathing room for Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia to form a regional alliance, which the Biden Administration eventually took aim at. In fact, a longtime US client, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, commonly known as the TPLF, started a proxy civil war in Ethiopia by attacking its fellow soldiers in the Ethiopian National Defense Force on November 3, the very night Biden was elected.
The TPLF also fired rockets at Eritrea’s capital Asmara, and Eritrea then entered the war in its own defense and in alliance with Ethiopia.
It’s difficult to imagine that no one in the US foreign policy establishment knew that the TPLF attack was coming, and TPLF’s war has coincided with Biden’s election and administration. Throughout the nearly two-year war, US policymakers have portrayed the TPLF as victims and condemned Ethiopia and Eritrea.
TPLF destruction and atrocities in Amhara and Afar Regional States eventually became impossible to deny, but US sympathies remained overwhelmingly with the TPLF.
The US lost its “anchor state” before the TPLF war
The TPLF had ruled Ethiopia brutally, as a US client state, from 1991 to 2018. US foreign policymakers didn’t care how harshly it treated its own people so long as it served as an “anchor state,” lending its troops to US military agendas and securing US interests in the Horn. In 2006 the Ethiopian army, under TPLF command, invaded Somalia at US behest and overthrew the Islamic Courts. The Courts were religiously strict but not Islamist fanatics, and they had provided the Somali people with more stability than they had experienced in decades. Somalia has suffered the violent extremes of Al-Shabaab terrorists and US drone bombing ever since.
Between 1998 and 2000, TPLF waged an expansionist war with Eritrea. Despite a peace treaty signed in 2000, the border war continued off and on, hot and cold, for the next 18 years, until the TPLF were finally overthrown by a popular uprising in Ethiopia. Abiy Ahmed became the Interim Prime Minister chosen by Ethiopia’s parliament on April 2, 2018.
Three months later, in a bilateral summit on July 8-9, he negotiated peace with Eritrea. For negotiating peace that ended the conflict, Prime Minister Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which he accepted in Oslo on October 11, 2019.
Two months after making peace with Eritrea, on September 5, 2018, PM Abiy met with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and then Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, aka Farmaajo, to sign the Joint Declaration of Comprehensive Cooperation between Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea.
The Declaration brought new hope to the Horn, but it was more peace and independence than the Biden Administration could tolerate, especially because it included Eritrea, “the Cuba of Africa,” and one of two African nations, the other being Zimbabwe, who have maintained their independence from AFRICOM, the US Africa Command. The new agreement denied the US their “anchor state,” aka puppet—Ethiopia—and challenged their relentless drive for global hegemony.
US foreign policies towards nations who thwart that drive are military aggression, destabilization, and illegal sanctions, otherwise known as “unilateral coercive measures.” According to international law, only the UN Security Council has the authority to intervene militarily to stop international crimes or to impose sanctions, but the US assumes those powers as its own.
It is legal for the US, like any sovereign nation, to do what it wants with its own resources, such as food aid, military or security assistance, or trade preference. It has the right to withdraw them from another country without explanation.
However, it is illegal for the US to withdraw them or threaten to do so because another country refuses to comply with its orders. It is contrary to international law for the US to order one country not to trade with another country or do business in another country under threat of coercive economic measures. This argument is based on the fundamental principle of the United Nations Charter, which at Article 2 (1) establishes the principle of the sovereign equality of all members of the United Nations.
This is a review of the most damaging sanctions that the US is imposing or threatening to impose on Ethiopia and Eritrea, two of the three nations who dared to sign the agreement that read:
“The Governments of Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea have reached the following agreement that reflects the aspirations of their peoples:
1. The three countries shall foster comprehensive cooperation that advances the goals of their peoples.
2. The three countries shall build close political, economic, social, cultural, and security ties.
3. The three countries shall work in coordination to promote regional peace and security.
4. The three governments hereby establish a Joint High Level Committee to coordinate their efforts in the framework of this joint declaration.”
Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the TPLF
The TPLF attack on Ethiopia’s Northern Command and its eventual march toward Addis Ababa seemed to be a bid to reclaim power, which quickly proved untenable. Later the TPLF seemed vaguely inclined to secede, but Ethiopia’s constitution allows for the secession of any of its ethnically defined states by way of a referendum, not by making war on the central government.
No state on earth would sit back and tolerate an attack on its army from inside or out. However, as soon as Prime Minister Abiy sent the Ethiopian National Defense Force into Tigray Regional State to put down the TPLF attack, corporate media began reporting that he had started the war by sending troops into Tigray. Soon Western interventionist ideologues, most notably USAID Chief Samantha Power, began warning of “Tigray genocide” and accusing Abiy and the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies of atrocities. Obedient corporate media, academia, and human rights organizations followed along.
Biden invoked the National Emergencies Act, declaring the Ethiopian conflict a threat to US national security
On September 17, 2021, President Biden issued Executive Order 14046, which invoked the National Emergencies Act and other sections of US Code to say:
“I, Joseph R. Biden Jr., President of the United States of America, find that the situation in and in relation to northern Ethiopia, which has been marked by activities that threaten the peace, security, and stability of Ethiopia and the greater Horn of Africa region—in particular, widespread violence, atrocities, and serious human rights abuse, including those involving ethnic-based violence, rape and other forms of gender-based violence, and obstruction of humanitarian operations—constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States. I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.”
The average American might ask how a conflict in distant East Africa poses a threat to our national security, but in the minds of the US foreign policy establishment, national security is of course tantamount to global hegemony. By invoking the National Emergencies Act, Biden excused himself from congressional or regulatory oversight of any sanctions he might impose on Ethiopia or Eritrea—its ally in the Ethiopian conflict—to get them back under control. There’s no time for consulting Congress in an emergency.
The National Emergencies Act can be used to justify all sorts of horrifying authority beyond Ethiopia and beyond sanctions, as is detailed in the Brennan Center’s “Guide to Emergency Powers and Their Use,” which lists “136 statutory powers that may become available to the president upon declaration of a national emergency,” but we’re sticking to sanctions here.
Whether Biden eventually sanctioned any entity or not, he had, in Executive Order 14046, asserted unfettered executive authority to do so at any time. On September 9, 2022, he issued a “Notice on the Continuation of the National Emergency with Respect to Ethiopia.” This is not only notice that he’s not letting up but also that he could still impose harsher sanctions at any time.
The first entities and individuals sanctioned were all Eritrean. On November 12, 2021, the Treasury Department sanctioned:
1) the Eritrean Defense Force (EDF), Eritrea’s army,
2) the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), Eritrea’s one political party,
3) the Hidri Trust, which holds Eritrea’s assets,
4) the Red Sea Trading Corporation, which conducts trade in accordance with Eritrea’s national development strategy,
5) Abraha Kassa Nemariam, Director of the National Security Office of Eritrea, and
6) Hagos Ghebrehiwet W Kidan, CEO of the Red Sea Trading Corporation and Eritrea’s chief development strategist.
Ethiopia and Eritrea are fully within their sovereign rights to work together to defeat the TPLF, but the Treasury Department essentially said that the US foreign policy establishment is working hard to control the outcome of the conflict, and Eritrea’s in their way.
Sanctions on individuals can mean seizure of their assets abroad but neither of the sanctioned Eritrean officials have any. The only consequence to either of them seems to have been that Hagos Ghebrehiwet was denied a visa to come to the annual Eritrean Festival held in Dallas in 2022.
This has, however, meant that Eritrea can’t make transactions in the dollar, which is still the dominant currency of international trade, because those transactions have to go through US and European banks, which will block them. They have to figure out how to trade in other currencies, as Russia and other sanctioned countries have, and find suppliers outside the US and Europe, including suppliers for essentials like vaccines and medicines and spare parts for various kinds of infrastructure. Goods and transport insurance have both become more expensive, and it’s difficult to get goods they need in time.
Not being able to use the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Transactions) system, which allows banks to rapidly relay information about financial transactions to one another, Eritrea has at times had to settle accounts over longer periods of time.
It has also become difficult and more expensive for the diaspora to send money to family in Eritrea, and some even choose to send money with other Eritrean Americans or Eritrean Europeans who are traveling to the country.
The fact that Eritrea is sanctioned by the US and EU also makes major corporations and institutions fearful of trading with the country or investing there for fear of somehow falling afoul of US sanctions. No one likes to upset the big guy in the room, whether it’s because he has the biggest guns or the greatest control of the world’s financial system.
When I visited Eritrea, Hagos Ghebrehiwet told me, “We are accused of favoring China, but we do business with those who are willing to do business with us, and China is willing to do business with us.”
Eritrea has impressively high rates of vaccination and eradication of vaccine-preventable childhood diseases, but UNICEF has chartered planes to deliver vaccines when commercial carriers were afraid to deliver anything to the country.
The impact of all these sanctions is cumulative. Eritrea was already under UN sanctions from 2009 to 2018, and the pain of consequent difficulties accumulated over time.
Trade Sanctions on Ethiopia
On January 1, 2022, Biden’s US Trade Representative Katherine Tai imposed trade sanctions on Ethiopia by eliminating its eligibility for AGOA, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allowed businesses manufacturing in Ethiopia to export goods to the US tariff free. This cost thousands of Ethiopians, mostly women, their jobs, in many cases their first jobs in the money economy, which illustrates the nature of most US sanctions. They’re meant to make working people so miserable that they’ll rise up and overthrow their government. It hasn’t worked in Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, China, or Eritrea, and hopefully it won’t work in Ethiopia.
The cancellation of AGOA didn’t injure Eritreans, because they had never benefited from the trade advantages extended to nations eligible for AGOA.
Similarly, Eritrea will not be affected by any sanctions on loans from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, or other international funders, because they cut those umbilical cords a long time ago. As Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki says, “Aid is like a drug. Keep taking it and pretty soon you’ll be addicted.”
Eritrea has already demonstrated its iron will to stand up to sanctions by standing up, from 2009 to 2018, to unjustified, US-promoted UN sanctions based on an untrue and implausible assertion that it had something to do with the Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab.
Ethiopia and Eritrea, H.R. 6600 and S. 3199
Congress hadn’t passed any bills sanctioning Ethiopia or Eritrea as of the publication of this book, but several are pending. Both have been introduced but not passed on by their committees for full votes by the House and Senate. The House Bill is H.R. 6600, the Ethiopia Stabilization, Peace, and Democracy Act, and the Senate Bill is S. 3199, the Ethiopia Peace and Stabilization Act of 2022. As with most US foreign policy, both promise the exact opposite of what they would actually deliver.
The bills are almost identical, and they’re both bipartisan, sponsored by Republicans and Democrats, demonstrating that imperialism is a bipartisan project, although both were introduced by Democrats. Tom Malinowski introduced H.R. 6600, and it’s sponsored by one more Democrat and two Republicans. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, introduced S. 3199, and it’s sponsored by two more Democrats and two Republicans.
The only significance of this is that Democrats feel more obliged to support a bill introduced by a Democrat, so if the Democrats lose in November, there may be less pressure to pass the Malinowski bill. That’s not going to bring down the empire, but it could create some breathing room for those trying to stop the sanctions.
Whether the bills have passed or are still pending by the time the Sanctions Kill anthology is being read, everything said about them here will remain the same.
The bills demand that Eritrea withdraw its army from Ethiopia, but they also demand the total capitulation of the Ethiopian government. Section 7(B)(1) of H.R. 6600 says that the sanctions will be lifted only after: “(1) The Government of Ethiopia has ceased all offensive military operations associated with the civil war and other conflicts in Ethiopia.”
In other words, the Government of Ethiopia and its army are supposed to surrender to the US, and the US has made it clear since the beginning of the Ethiopian conflict that it thinks the TPLF has a right to what both the US and the TPLF call Western Tigray, but Amhara Ethiopians call Wolkayit.
In April, University of Gondar researchers announced their findings about decades of TPLF massacres and atrocities committed against Amhara people there. These stories are also told in a documentary, “Tears of Wolkayit.”
PM Abiy Ahmed no doubt knows that he cannot surrender Welkait to Amhara without a bloodbath, but it’s hard to tell how the US imagines that Welkait could be returned to the TPLF.
Another demand in H.R. 6600, SEC. 5(b)(5) is that, once imposed, the sanctions won’t be lifted until: “(5) The Government of Ethiopia has cooperated with independent investigations of credible allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other human rights abuse carried out in the course of the civil war and other conflicts in Ethiopia.” In other words, the sanctions won’t be lifted until the government has surrendered to the international criminal justice system, which is largely an instrument of imperial control.
The summary of H.R. 6600 says, “Within 90 days of this bill's enactment, the State Department must report to Congress a determination of whether actions in Ethiopia by the armed forces of Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front, and other armed actors constitute genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity.”
According to international law, only the UN Security Council can determine that war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide are taking place, or have taken place. They can then refer cases to the ICC for prosecution and/or organize a multilateral force to stop them, but US policymakers claim this right for themselves.
Ilhan Omar, on the House Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa, and several other Congresspersons and Senators, keep asking when the State Department will hand them a “determination” of genocide, something US policymakers use to justify anything, including even bombing campaigns, as in Libya and Syria. We can hope they won’t dare go that far, but we should know that it’s the worst possibility posed in these sanctions bills.
Both bills would impose arms embargoes on Ethiopia and Eritrea, which, if successfully enforced, would make it difficult for them to defend themselves. If they do pass, however, the question will be whether other nations will respect them. Russia and India are trading with one another, using ships known to transport arms, and this is just one instance in which the rest of the world is refusing to respect US sanctions.
H.R. 6600 and S. 3199 would also impose sanctions on other nations and corporations investing in Eritrea and Ethiopia. These have the potential to do serious damage because both Eritrea and Ethiopia need as much foreign investment as they can get to develop their resources.
They need investment, not exploitation, so a big question that will outlast any sanctions is what kind of a deal African nations are going to demand; Eritrea has, as with standing up to sanctions, set a stellar example for the rest of Africa by demanding and getting unprecedented deals for resource extraction contracts.
One instance of this is the Bisha Gold Mine, which Nevsun Resources, a Canadian mining company, planned to develop with financing from a German corporation. Eritrea struck a deal for a 40% ownership share, a 38% capital gains tax, and a commitment to hire and train Eritreans in the mining project. However, the US—without any sanctions passed—bullied the German corporation into backing out. A Chinese corporation then financed the deal, and Zijin Mining Group Co. Ltd, a Chinese-based multinational traded on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, ultimately purchased the majority of Nevsun’s share.
This is also an example of the world’s other major industrial and military powers collaborating with less powerful states to stand up to bullying and aggression by the US. Hopefully they will refuse to respect the sanctions bills, if they’re passed, as well.
Finally, and this may be the most worrisome pending sanction, the bills propose that the US work with social media giants to restrict speech in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Section 3(b)(6) of H.R. 6600 says, specifically:
“The strategy required by subsection (a) shall include a plan to implement the strategy, including to—combat hate speech and disinformation in Ethiopia, including efforts to coordinate with social media companies to mitigate the effects of social media content generated outside of the United States focused on perpetuating the civil war and other conflicts in Ethiopia, including through hate speech and language inciting violence.”
This attempt to restrict speech on social media in other nations is unprecedented, and particularly dangerous because citizens and journalists don’t yet have alternative platforms the size of Twitter or Facebook. Twitter and Facebook are of course huge business empires, so the US government isn’t going to shut them down, as it has some independent outlets, but we could have all the social media networks we use to communicate and organize destroyed any day or time.
Several of the US founders of the #NoMore movement, including Dr. Simon Tesfamariam and Nebiyu Asfaw have already been banned from Twitter, as have @HornOfAfricaHub and several other accounts associated with the #NoMore movement and its founders. The Atlantic Council even wrote up a statement about how dangerous Dr. Tesfamariam is.
I’m writing this as the midterm elections draw near, and with representatives and senators running for re-election, neither of these bills have much chance of being brought up for a vote. However, after the election, they may be brought up for a vote in their respective committees, and if they’re approved there, submitted to the full House and Senate.
House Resolution 7311
On April 27, the House passed H.R. 7311, the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act, along with all the rest of the House Democrats and all but nine Republicans. H.R. 7311 directs the executive branch to bully African nations with sanctions and withdrawal of foreign aid if they get too close to Russia, and encourages it to “invest in, engage, or otherwise control strategic sectors in Africa, such as mining and other forms of natural resource exploitation.”
The House passed H.R. 7311 roughly two months after 17 African nations either abstained or did not vote on a UN resolution condemning Russia for invading Ukraine, and Eritrea dared to vote “no.” The African states who did not vote “yes” comprised just over half of the 35 UN member nations that refused to support the measure.
If passed by the Senate, H.R. 7311 will be a pathetic and no doubt failed attempt to sanction all of Africa for participating in the new multipolar world that spells the end of US global hegemony.
This essay will appear in the upcoming anthology “Sanctions: A Wrecking Ball in a Global Community” produced by the Sanctions Kill Coalition. The anthology will become available in November, but it can be pre-ordered now at https://solidaritycenter.ourpowerbase.net/civicrm/contribute/transact?reset=1&id=17.
Ann Garrison is a Black Agenda Report Contributing Editor based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. She can be reached at ann(at)anngarrison.com.
John Philpot is a Canadian criminal defense attorney and expert in international criminal law. He has thirty-eight years’ experience as a lawyer, activist, and speaker in the international peace movement in Canada, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. He is a member of the Board of Just Peace Advocates, President of the Rwandan Political Prisoner Support Network, and a former judge at the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal. In 2019, he was an observer for International Trial Watch in the Catalan Referendum Case in Madrid.