ETHIOPIA : Baby Shower _selam tesfaye
ETHIOPIA : Baby Shower _selam tesfaye
Nicholas Barnett is the outgoing press officer at the US Embassy in Addis Ababa. He served in Addis Ababa for the past three years during which he met a lot of people, traveled across the country and learned much about the history, culture and people of Ethiopia. Brook Abdu of The Reporter sat with Barnett to discuss his stay in Addis where he reflects on issues ranging from the transition in Ethiopia to media freedom and the upcoming elections. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Let’s begin by discussing your expectation and your impression before and after coming to Ethiopia three years ago. Were there any disparities about what you expected to find and what you found here after arriving?
Nicholas Barnett: I decided I wanted to work in Africa after doing three assignments in former nations of the Soviet Union. So, prior to Ethiopia, I worked in Tajikistan, Russia and Azerbaijan. They were unique in their own ways, but I wanted something really different. I didn’t know a whole lot about Ethiopia, to be honest. When I was younger, my dad took me to an Ethiopian restaurant in Washington because he thought it would be different and that we would like eating with our hands; my sister and I. we did so that was my first exposure. But beyond that, I didn’t know a whole lot about it. So, when I got here, one of the main things that I learned very quickly was about Ethiopia’s diversity. And I’ve been really lucky in my time here to get to travel all over the country. I mean I’ve been to every single region, many of them multiple times. I’ve gotten to meet different people and learned about different cultures. That’s been really fascinating. Then of course the cultural heritage, the history, and the natural diversity – it’s been kind of incredible and like I said, I’ve been incredibly lucky.
I’ve got thousands of pictures literally that I have taken though my travels. I’ve got to talk to people with different perspectives. It’s really been fascinating to learn about Ethiopia’s history which you really only get a sense of it when you travel. I mean, from the pre-Christian civilization in Axum to the early Christian civilization in the north and how they spread and not to mention providing safe haven to the early Muslims who fled the Middle East and then you know, you go to Abba Jifar’s palace in Jimma and you can see the influence of Indo Pacific Trade which somehow made it all the way to Jimma. It’s no where near the ocean but still you can recognize that architecture from anywhere. Learning about the kind of Ethiopia’s tie-ins with ancient history, the trade to the north, the interaction with ancient civilizations; Ethiopia has been up in its mountains for a lot of reasons but nonetheless interacted.
I remember one of the Ethiopian runners – her name is Almaz – and I asked what does that mean? And it means Diamond. You know what, same thing is in Azerbaijan and here you have Ethiopia on one side and Azerbaijan way up by the Caspian Sea sharing a name and what that says about the kind of different trading influences.
Ethiopia definitely exceeded all of my expectations.
The time you arrived here was a trying time for Ethiopia and there were very polarized thoughts whether the country would continue as a nation itself. What did you make of these views at the time of your arrival?
When I arrived, things were difficult. We had the first state of emergency a couple of months after I arrived here. Obviously, the embassy was following them very closely. But, how do you look into something from the hindsight? How do you look at the past and interpret it? The fact is that Ethiopians raise their voices and demanded something different and that message got through finally after many years. Look at where we are now.
It’s not that there aren’t challenges now. But there are many more opportunities for success than we could see three years ago. That’s what’s really exciting. That’s hard to believe. That’s hard to believe at a time when there’s so much possibility here and it’s just getting started. In the first 14 months under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, we have seen incredible changes; things that we wanted, things that we advocated for but didn’t think they were going to happen anytime soon. So, that’s really been amazing.
And I probably, as much as I’ve been able to share with anybody from seeing this process and from talking to people. The US, we’re not interested in telling the people what policies should be or what direction it should go in. Certainly we think that our values are good values; democracy, market economics, that sort of things.
But, mostly right now what we’re trying to do is share out stories and share our experiences. And one of the main things that I want Ethiopians to understand is that having challenges doesn’t equal failure; having challenges is normal. I mean, we’re 240 years into our constitution and we still have plenty of challenges and there will be new ones. There will be challenges in the future we can’t even anticipate. The key with democracy, this is where the United states is really focused with Ethiopia, is building the capacity to address the challenges for people to be able to freely say this isn’t right, this isn’t what we want, we want something different and to have a responsive system of government institutions that can react to them.
And that’s how we did away with slavery. Yeah, we ultimately had a war but it started from people saying this isn’t right, we shouldn’t do this anymore. That’s how women got the right to vote. The women said why are we not being counted and they advocated until the change happened. It’s how we passed the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s because people had the freedom to raise their concerns and the institutions were accountable to the people to the extent that those concerns could lead to action. That’s what’s important for Ethiopia right now. It’s not that there should be no challenges but we need to build the institutions to address the challenges.
Let me take you back again to the time you arrived in Ethiopia. That was a time when the US made an administrative change with the presidency of Donald Trump. But there was no clear direction from the side of the new administration regarding its policy towards Africa. This was a center of debate in Africa at the time. How did this affect your activities in Ethiopia?
Certainly, we pay attention to the priorities whichever administration is in power in the US. That’s part of our own transitional process. But I think what you will see if you notice is that our policies will remain fairly stable and not just between the last two but even before that. American foreign policy in Ethiopia has long been about investing in democratic growth in economic prosperity to regional stability. Those things haven’t gone away.
What’s changes since I got here is the amount of opportunity we have to pursue. With the reform process, we have so much opportunity to engage, so much more ways that we can invest in the capacity of Ethiopia to succeed many of which were not available to us three years ago.
The US has been consistently the largest bilateral provider of support to Ethiopia. And when I’m saying support, I’m talking about what we consider a real investment – investment in capacity. So, over the past five years or so, that’s over four billion dollars that we put in Ethiopia and that’s in a lot of different areas. Our investments in education go back to the very beginning. The US was behind the formation of precursors like Haromaya University and Jimma University that today are among the best in the country. We’ve been helping to promote food security. Even as we step in to help people when they’re in dire need, when it is a survival issue, the United States has been there for Ethiopia.
At the same time, we’re working with pastoralists to make them be more resilient to shocks like drought. We’re working with farmers to help them improve crop yield. We just launched a new global food security strategy and Ethiopia is one of the few countries that’s going to benefit from that. So, we’re in all these areas but we can also look at how we can support electoral capacity. How do we help Ethiopia achieve elections that are credible and competitive so that Ethiopians feel confident after the elections that their voices have been heard? Remember with elections, it is not about being happy with the results. It’s about trusting that the process did what it’s supposed to do.
Now, we have the opportunity to do even more with the media. We provided training to over 500 journalists since I’ve been here. But we are looking into ways we could do it much bigger than that because we have more space.
After two years of your service in Ethiopia came the most anticipated change in the country, which the US was supportive of. To what extent did the change affect US-Ethiopia relations?
Let’s go back a bit here and look at it a step further. That’s what set all this off. The Ethiopian people have been expressing themselves and their unhappiness with the current state of things and eventually Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn did what we still consider to be a very bold move which is to say I am going to step down because that’s the best way to move these reforms forward. That’s incredible. I don’t think there has been another example of that in Ethiopia and you know at that point, we were very much watching to see what way is Ethiopia going to go. Is Ethiopia going to double down on its repression and say we’re going to squash this or is the government going to say, okay, it’s time.
And, we issued a very firm statement very shortly after the imposition of the second state of emergency because we felt that that was the wrong direction. We felt that it was time to be clear where the United States stood. So, we said we strongly disagree. What Ethiopia needs is more freedom, not less. That was our position and we said it because we felt that the decision was still being made. The second state of emergency, not withstanding, there has not been decision within the ruling party who would lead the government moving forward. So, we felt that we need to say, this is your chance Ethiopia; this is your chance to do something different and they did. It was clear from day one that the Prime Minister was a different choice and to us, that was a recognition by the EPRDF that the time was here and we agreed.