Rice: Hitting ‘reset’ on Africa talks

By Salem Solomon
December 12, 2012

Michael O’Hanlon, in his Reuters Opinion piece, “In defense of Susan Rice” (Reuters, December 10, 2012), took issue with my New York Times op-ed article, “Susan Rice and Africa’s Despots” (December 9, 2012).

Mine were not ad hominem attacks. It is fair to hold a public official accountable for her career and for the roles she played and continues to play in attempting to resolve African conflicts. I was not questioning U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice’s desire for a more peaceful continent.

My point was to call attention to Rice’s relationships with Africa’s strongmen, most notably Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Paul Kagame of Rwanda, developed over the decades. I think these relationships have affected U.S. credibility in the region and limited its ability to serve as an unbiased arbiter in conflicts.

In response to my criticism, Michael E. O’Hanlon, the director of research and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has challenged me to offer a constructive solution. Challenge accepted.

Many Eritreans have criticized Rice for a perceived bias against the country both in the months leading up to the 1998 border war with Ethiopia and more recently in the U.N. as the Security Council adopted sanctions against Eritrea in 2009 and 2011. Fair-minded Eritreans ‑and I consider myself one ‑ believe Rice’s judgment was clouded by her close relationship with Ethiopia’s Meles, dating back a decade and a half.

For example, Rice announced in 1998 that a deal had been struck between Eritrea and Ethiopia to avoid war. Unfortunately, she seems not to have run the plan by Eritrea. The deal fell apart, war ensued and more than 70,000 people died. In subsequent years, Rice and others had only muted criticism for Ethiopia as it thumbed its nose at international law and refused to allow the U.N. to demarcate the border between the two nations. WikiLeaks documents revealed that in 2009 Rice collaborated with Ethiopian officials to impose sanctions on Eritrea.

These facts, limited and incomplete though they are, are cited by many Eritreans.

Now, it is true that Eritrea’s actions and influence on the Horn of Africa over the past two decades have been toxic. It has rarely been a good neighbor.

Fortunately, Eritreans and Ethiopians may have a rare opportunity to hit the “reset button,” and Rice might be able to play a role. Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, recently told Al Jazeera that he is open to holding talks with the president of Eritrea. I would call on Rice to use her unique position to advance these talks. She could see that the “final and binding” ruling of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission be the starting point and the framework for all border discussions.

Perhaps Rice’s credibility with the Ethiopian side could allow her to nudge the hardliners in that camp forward. Conversely, the promise of renewed cross-border trade, activity though Eritrea’s Red Sea ports and bilateral relations might be enough to extract significant concessions from the Eritrean side so both countries leave the talks feeling like victors.

With a firm push –– from someone of Rice’s stature –– this could finally be the year of peace in this troubled region.

PHOTO: U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice speaking after Security Council consultations at the United Nations in New York April 13, 2012. REUTERS/Allison Joyce

8 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Americans will join Eritreans in feelings of being let down by Rice; she made a mess of the Benghazi terrorist attack.

Posted by js2012 | Report as abusive

There is no debate anymore – other than why Reuters keep pumping a dead issue.

This ambitious person (Susan Rice) has mishandled and created too much baggage with her career to advance any further.

What kind of ties does Reuters have to the White House that they would be pumping this dead issue? Are you looking to create a positive impression she could even be considered to a more senior post under Obama? I doubt Obama is that stupid.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive

As an Eritrean American, I find Rice to be credible regardless of her good relations with Ethiopia. I don’t believe demarcating the border will end the suffering of the Eritrean people in the hands of the most oppresive regime in Africa, if not the world. How Ms. Solomon would think that a “toxic” regime would transform into humane regime just because the border is demarcated is beyond me. A regime that instigated the border war, according to the EEBC ruling, and continues to hold the entire Eritrean people hostage over its demarcation does not deserve appeasement but, rather, sanctions. One cannot emasculate its own people and, at the same time, expect sympathy from the international community on comparatively insignificant matter as the border. In many Eritreans eyes, the suffering of their people under a cruel regime takes precedent over 150 Sq. miles. Therefore, Rice’s position on this matter is fair, just, and consistent with American ideal: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness….”

Posted by Yonas | Report as abusive

Though having Rice as Secretary of State is something about America, it might be prudent for American long term interest to see if she really will represent America well …

Eritreans who followed the evolution of problems in the Horn, especially in relation to the Eri-Ethio conflict know very well that Eritrea was forced to act like it did unless they want to tell us it has no right to assert itself within its rights … now those rights have been undermined just because some countries didn’t want things to be and one such messenger of those forces is Susan Rice – even though it could be a matter of USG policy she could have done better if she was not arrogant and abused her authority … failing to stop the war and of recent give us two sanctions is unacceptable and has caused the deaths of tens of thousands and continuous suffering of whole populations.

even an Eritrean-American who thinks that “Eritrea’s actions and influence on the Horn of Africa over the past two decades have been toxic. It has rarely been a good neighbor”… is telling you those sanctions are unfair … you can imagine how unacceptable the imposed sanctions are in the eyes of the majority of Eritreans…
this as it seems insignificant will have serious implications to American image in the region.

Thank you Salem for bringing this to light though i disagree with the quoted statement …

Posted by Dawit1 | Report as abusive

I am not sure if you, Salem Solomon, are trying to (partly) blame Susan Rice for the 1998 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea – by not running the deal through Eritrea!! For those who don’t have the entire picture, it would be wise to point out that Eritrea has gone to war with 100% of its neighbors in the last 20 years, and mostly in the first 10 years of its independence!!! Susan Rice has nothing to with most of those. A dictator, Dictator Issayas Afeworki, that shoots first before he sits to talk to its neighbors is to blame for the 70,000 or any number of people dead; please don’t try to get Susan Rice to share the blame. Thanks.

Posted by Asmarino2012 | Report as abusive

Salem: Nice try and good use of “soft” power politics. So now you want to get talks going between Eritrea and Ethiopia “calling on Rice to use her unique position to advance” them? Just because power in Ethiopia appears to have lined up in favor of Eritrea may not mean it will happen. Hailemariam is Meles talking from the dead. It is all a trick to swindle money from a US that has not learned any lesson since the Vietnam war. Rice was given the UN job because she is in Obama’s inner circle, is African-American, and did a dissertation on 1979-80 Zimbabwe/Rhodesia. She sees the rest of Africa through the prism of colonialism [as did Meles and Isaias] never caring to listen to or understand the cultures.

Posted by Abel2 | Report as abusive

I have nothing personal against Susan Rice. But she has been a staunch friend of the late Meles Zenawi, one of the most brutal dictators in Africa. Facts: He had killed innocent civilians in the streets of the capital, and had been accussed of genocides in Ogaden and Gambella regions to mention a few. However, mrs. Rice went to Addis for his eulogy and glorified the filthy dead dictator, while insulting the Ethiopian people. Mrs Rice and her boss, President Obama showed once again to be on the wrong side of history. For the above reasons, she should not represent the U.S.

Posted by Hanan | Report as abusive

Terrorist sponsoring Eritreans and Somalians need to blame themselves for the failed States they created…Rather than blaming Ethiopia, or Susan Rice for a favorable eulogy of Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi.

According to Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics and former World Bank Chief Economist, “Meles Zenawi showed that, with the right policies in place, even a poor African country could experience sustained economic growth. No one doubted his honesty and there were few accusations of corruption within his government.”

Posted by Ras-Mitat | Report as abusive