Escaping debt slavery: Ethiopia, Africa, and the IMF


“In 1987, at the Organization for African Unity, Thomas Sankara said, “Debt is a cleverly managed reconquest of Africa.” Ethiopia might actually be better off if the US keeps the IMF from signing off on its latest loan request.”

The US is holding up Ethiopia’s request for a $2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for postwar reconstruction and development. I spoke to Robert J. Prince, Retired Senior Lecturer at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies , about Ethiopia, Africa, and the IMF.

ANN GARRISON: A source who preferred to remain anonymous told me that the US is holding Ethiopia’s loan up, demanding accountability for wartime atrocities, but that their real goal is to force Ethiopia to distance itself from Russia and China, but most of all from Eritrea. That sounds plausible, but what do you think?

ROBERT J. PRINCE: I’m not at all surprised that the loan request is in limbo, as Washington has been putting all kinds of pressure on Ethiopia for some time. And this is just another form of pressure. Indeed, putting all the pieces together, Washington has been engaged in nothing short of hybrid warfare against Ethiopia ever since Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018. The games being played with the IMF loan are simply one element of that.

Concerning Washington’s claims of Ethiopian government atrocities, Washington is well aware that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) tried to regain power militarily and failed. The TPLF has essentially been Washington’s proxy in the region.

This was a two-year war, and in war, unfortunately, atrocities are committed, but most of the documentation that I have seen places the atrocities on the TPLF side of the fence, and they have been, quite frankly, horrific.

Having failed to overthrow the Abiy government and bring the TPLF to power, the United States tried to control the outcome diplomatically, through the Pretoria peace agreement, which Washington orchestrated from the sidelines to save the TPLF from complete defeat. The pressure that is being put on them through this IMF agreement is an example of that.

Let’s just look for a moment at the comment about Eritrea. In my mind, there’s no doubt that one of the main targets of Washington in the Horn of Africa is the Eritrean government. We need to keep a couple of things in mind, given the wall of bad press that Eritrea gets in this country. One is that Eritrea is the only country in Africa that has refused to collaborate with AFRICOM, the US Africa Command.

And the other thing, less known and less appreciated, is that Eritrea also refuses to accept IMF and World Bank loans with their structural adjustment aspects. I don’t think there’s any other country in Africa that has done that either. So these are really the main reasons for Washington’s hostility towards Eritrea.

But you have to add something else. To back up a little bit, I was recently reading a book about Ethiopia called The Lion of Judah in the New World . The author is Theodore Vestal, an Oklahoma State University professor. And in that book, he makes a comment about Henry Kissinger’s policy towards the Horn of Africa. We’re talking 1972-1973, but it really sets the stage very nicely. And what Vestal notes is that in some National Security Council secret document, Kissinger said that the best thing for Washington’s policy in the Horn of Africa was to keep the region divided and pit one side against another.

Think about what’s happening now, the carving up of Sudan over 10 years ago, the splitting up of Somalia that you’re reporting on these days, and then the ethnic conflicts that continue to hurt Ethiopia. That is classic Kissinger divide-and-rule kind of stuff.

And the opposite of that is Ethiopia, trying to make regional alliances, both for economic and political reasons. And from what I can tell, the strength, the real key to economic and social dynamism and development in the Horn of Africa is the Eritrean-Ethiopian connection. So of course that’s something that Washington wants to break up. It’s another reason Eritrea gets all the bad press it gets.

It’s very difficult for me to analyze what’s fact and what’s fiction in US reporting on Eritrea. I don’t follow much of it because I feel it’s so one-sided.

AG: Okay, the same source, who prefers to remain anonymous, said that China is Ethiopia’s largest bilateral creditor. So therefore, the US thinks that China should take on more responsibility in terms of the bailout package. However, the Chinese want the IMF to foot the bill. Could you interpret?

RJP: We need to remember certain things about the IMF and the World Bank. While they claim to be international organizations, and of course to a certain extent they are, they are US run and dominated. And since the late 1970s, early 1980s, the IMF has attached conditions to its loans. And those conditions are known as structural adjustment, which has been discredited by academics all over the world for the past 35 or 40 years. It doesn’t lead to development, but it does lead to greater debt.

So how would this particular proposal be any different from other IMF proposals? I don’t know.

But in terms of the broader geopolitical question, let’s just be frank about what’s happening in the Horn of Africa. And here I would like to take a specific example that relates to foreign aid and major funding. And that has been the West’s attitude towards the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which has the potential of really creating a kind of economic dynamism in the Horn of Africa which hasn’t existed until now.

Ethiopia went on several occasions to the IMF and the World Bank asking for financial aid to help build the dam, but they didn’t get it. And, in fact, most of the funding for that dam has come from the Ethiopian people themselves, which is quite moving. So this is their dam. And this is their dam, whether they’re Amhara, Oromo, Tigrayan, Somali, or any other Ethiopian ethnicity. It doesn’t matter. It’s their dam.

The creation of this dam is one of the few counterbalancing forces that I see to all this ethnic tension and dissent. Everyone has a place in that dam. And not just Ethiopia, because this dam, when completed, and it’s near completion, is going to provide electricity for the entire region. And without electricity, development is difficult, difficult to impossible.

Now, where do the Chinese fit into this? The Chinese are the only major foreign country to my knowledge that have played any role in funding this dam.

AG: I believe they invested in the electricity delivery infrastructure.

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