The U.S. military is flying drone aircraft from a base in Ethiopia to fight against Islamist militants in Somalia. Officials report that the remote-piloted drones are being used strictly for surveillance and are flying unarmed because their use is considered sensitive by Ethiopia’s government, according to BBC News.
Today, Ethiopia is letting the U.S. use its remote civilian base in the southern city of Arba Minch as a way to help fight the war on terror, but the relationship between the two countries dates back over 100 years.
Dr. Assefa Mehretu, an Ethiopian native and professor of geography at Michigan State University, spoke about American-Ethiopian relations at Western Michigan University Wednesday afternoon.
More than 50 people, both students and professors, listened intently as the accomplished Africa scholar talked passionately about the history America and Ethiopia share.
“Americans really identified with Ethiopians back then,” Mehretu said of the two countries’ relationship in past years. “It was a love affair.”
Although just a small country in Africa of about 77 million people, Ethiopia has always had the attitude that it was a country to be taken seriously and respected.
When Ethiopia first won the war over colonial Italy with King Menelik II in charge, the United States noticed. They were impressed and made their first official mission to Ethiopia in 1903.
It was not much later that Italy tried defeating Ethiopia again, but this time Americans got involved. In the 1930s, many Americans were willing to go fight the Italians to defend Ethiopia.
“The U.S. didn’t endorse people going over to fight but Americans would go to Ethiopia as tourists and then actually fight,” Mehretu said.
Many of the first pilots for Ethiopian airlines were Americans.
Haile Sellassie, king of Ethiopia at that time, became an extremely visible character even for Americans. He was named man of the year in TIME magazine for being so progressive.
The relationship between America and Ethiopia truly started in 1945 when Selassie met former President Roosevelt. Selassie wanted to develop his country and needed the U.S. in order to cement their independence from Europe. Roosevelt did not mind helping.
“The relationship between the U.S. and Ethiopia was one of the best examples of partnership,” Mehretu said. “It worked because the U.S. and Ethiopia respected each other and had started off as a people to people relationship.”
Selassie went on to meet and work with former Presidents Truman, Nixon and Kennedy. President Kennedy put a lot of money toward Ethiopian education during his presidency. Ethiopia was also the first and largest beneficiary of the Peace Corps.
Ethiopian airlines DC3 also started with assistance from America.
“Whatever the U.S. touched in those days became successful,” Mehretu said. “Ethiopian airlines were one of them.”
”On the other hand, Selassie established the first agriculture college as well as helped the United States in the Korean War.
The relationship changed when President Carter came into office and supported Somalia over Ethiopia in the 1970s. Ethiopia was then taken over by the soviets.
“That arrested almost all the work that has been done in past years,” Mehretu said.
The light in which Ethiopians view Americans today is a lot different now.
“A whole generation has heard only bad things about the U.S.,” Mehretu said. “You do not hear many good things anymore.”
Mehretu credits this to a generational gap.
“Americans invited us into their homes, took us to school, and were part of our air force,” Mehretu said. “Many young people just didn’t know how it was.”
Though the relationship has changed between the U.S. and Ethiopia, it is still considered good.
“The relationship is just more military now because the U.S. wants an ally in the war,” Mehretu said. “It’s whatever he can do for us, the war comes first.”
The connection the two countries first had has faded more into one based mainly on security.
“The relationship that began pre-1974 doesn’t exist anymore,” Mehretu said.