US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto has just returned from a four-nation trip to east and central Africa. His visit included discussions of domestic and regional issues with leaders in Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Chad. Earlier this week, the US official wrapped up a two-day visit to Ethiopia that included what he calls “very positive” talks with the Ethiopian government focusing on border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea and political and economic reforms.
In an interview with English to Africa reporter Ashenafi Abedje, Secretary Yamamoto described the current political situation in Ethiopia: “It remains ongoing. We’ve had some successes and areas that we haven’t made enough progress on. I’ll give you an example. The Addis Ababa City Hall, technocrats have been selected to take over instead of the opposition – because of a lack of agreement between the opposition and government. We continue to work though on the positive side, which is with other countries such as UK, India, Germany, on the political reform and how the Parliament is to operate. We’re working on media law and media in general, and hopefully that these could help with the process of political reform. But we have a long way to go and many issues to tackle.”
Ethiopia’s opposition maintains that those appointed to take over the Addis Ababa administration have no popular mandate, and that the duly elected leaders remain in detention. Ambassador Yamamoto reiterated the US position on the detention of the opposition leaders. “The official position of the United States is for the release of the detainees, period. I’ve visited the detainees and had great discussions with them. In some cases, they are able to hear the Voice of America, so the Voice of America is critical, very important, to gain information in Ethiopia. As far as any progress made, the trial continues and we have not seen any movement toward the release of the detainees. Again, this is one area we’ll continue to push very hard on.”
Is reconciliation possible with virtually the entire leadership of the largest opposition party in prison? Ambassador Yamamoto addressed that issue. “That’s a very valid question. How do you resolve those issues? The Ethiopian government’s position is that they committed a crime and that they need to go through the trial process. That’s their decision but we have argued that they should be released and take up their seats in Parliament. Again, we remain hopeful that this thing can be resolved because for Ethiopia’s political future, we need to move forward.”
Regarding efforts to help resolve the border dispute, Ambassador Yamamoto says progress has been limited. “The process is very frustrating because it’s not going as fast as we would like. But for the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission to even meet with both Ethiopia and Eritrea has been a milestone because as you know, Ethiopia did not attend the meetings before March, and now they are attending. And we have agreement to set up the survey offices in Asmara and Addis and the start the survey. Again, that’s only a technical aspect of demarcation. There’s a bigger problem that needs to be resolved, and that is the normalization of relations. Because if we can’t resolve the problem that gave rise to the war, then demarcation only leads to another war. The other issue that’s important is the thirty towns and villages that will be divided. We don’t want these divided towns and villages to be the source of another war or conflict.”
Since the border conflict involved Ethiopia and Eritrea, why was Eritrea excluded from Secretary Yamamoto’s itinerary? “We went to Eritrea earlier in the month, and of course we only saw one official. The president did not see us, nor did other senior government officials. It’s very difficult to talk to a country if they’re not willing to talk with you or meet with you. We’ve made repeated requests to talk with President Issayas and he ignored us at every step. Until we can have contact of meeting, the only people who have opened their doors have been Ethiopia, and not Eritrea. We find it very frustrating but also very disappointing.”
The three other countries Secretary Yamamoto visited were Kenya, Rwanda and Chad. On Kenya, the State Department official was asked how he thinks Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki is faring – given the range of corruption and other issues his government is facing. “These corruption issues are very serious. When we arrived, the Kenyan newspapers issued articles about four more Kenyan business people who were denied American visas because of their involvement in corruption. We do have on the books visa sanctions against those individuals who are corrupt officials. That is one area that is of deep concern not only to us but to the people of Kenya because it’s an anchor on development.”
Regarding Rwanda, Secretary Yamamoto says the country continues to play a useful role in promoting stability in the region. “First of all, Rwanda plays a critical role in Darfur because it sent a peacekeeping force there in support of the African Union efforts. In the DRC, this was the 14th meeting of the Tripartite peace talks (involving Rwanda, Burundi, DRC and Uganda.) The reason for the Tripartite is to give Rwanda and Uganda particularly confidence that they don’t have to go into Congo to address rebel forces, that we’ll deal with it cooperatively. In that regard, they’ve kept to their word in supporting the reconciliation process and coordination with the DRC to go after these rebel forces.”
The State Department official’s last stop was Chad, which continues to host thousands of refugees from Darfur. More recently, President Idris Deby faced a rebel attempt to overthrow his government. Secretary Yamamoto was asked if Chad is out of the woods yet. “No. Stability is still fragile, there’re still a lot of problems. Not only from rebel groups supported by Sudan, but also internal domestic problems. As you know, there is oil in Chad. Next year, they’ll be gaining a lot of windfall profits from the oil sales, which would mean that a lot of people who are desirous of control of this oil would probably try to make the situation even more unstable. What we’ve been trying to do is to work with the Deby government to stabilize the internal political issue by reaching out to the opposition, and forming a government that reflects the will of the people of Chad.” He said the second issue involves stabilizing the external problem from Sudan by supporting the Abuja talks and forcing the other rebel groups to sign the peace agreement.
Secretary Yamamoto commended the African Union for playng an active role in helping resolve conflicts in the continent. He said to continue its efforts, the AU needs financial and other forms of support from the international community.