Ethiopia hires lobbying help amid dual threats from Egypt, human rights critics
Ethiopia has hired a new lobbying firm for outreach to Congress and the Joe Biden administration as the country battles a diplomatic crisis with Egypt and ethnic strife at home.
The Ethiopian Embassy in Washington signed a $35,000-per-month contract with DC-based law firm Venable on Feb. 1. The contract is for an initial three months but can be extended.
Venable will provide “government relations service which may include outreach to the United States Congress and the federal government,” according to the new filing with the US Justice Department. Registered on the account are attorney Thomas Quinn and policy adviser Loren Aho. The pair also represent the Embassy of Qatar in Washington, while Quinn also represents the Hong Kong Trade Development Council.
Venable declined to comment beyond what’s in the filing. The Ethiopian Embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
The new hire comes as Ethiopia is under increasing pressure in Washington on several fronts.
Regional rival Egypt has been flexing its new lobbying muscle to try to convince Biden to follow President Donald Trump‘s lead and side with Cairo in its dispute with Addis Ababa over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD. Ethiopia sees the 6,450 MW project as a vital development priority, but Egypt and Sudan want a say in how it is filled because of concerns it could hurt their downstream share of Nile waters.
Egypt benefited from personal ties between President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Trump, who famously referred to his Egyptian counterpart as “my favorite dictator” and tried to broker a deal between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan at the White House. Dissatisfied with what it called the “lack of progress” in resolving the dispute, Trump’s State Department even suspended some aid to Ethiopia in September “based on guidance from the president.”
Outflanked in Washington, the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed hired its first lobbying firm last summer. The contract with Barnes & Thornburg was for $130,000 but only lasted from June 30 to Sept. 30 (the firm provided no services after that date and is expected to shortly file paperwork indicating that it formally terminated its registration on Jan. 19, the day before Biden’s inauguration, Foreign Lobby Report has learned).
Lobbying filings show that Barnes & Thornburg’s lobbying focused exclusively on the dam issue. The firm contacted multiple congressional offices over the summer as well as officials at the National Security Council, the State Department and the Treasury Department, which Trump had put in charge of the negotiations.
Following Trump’s defeat, the Egyptian Embassy in Washington moved quickly to hire Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck on a year-long, $65,000-a-month contract. Former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), former Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Nadeam Elshami, a former chief of staff to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), are lobbying for the embassy.
Earlier this month, Royce touted his conservationist credentials to pitch a virtual congressional briefing by the embassy.
“As you may know, the negotiations surrounding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam have stalled,” Royce wrote to congressional staff. “Without an enforceable agreement, the operations of the dam will have significant environmental ramifications, for both the populations of Egypt and Sudan as well as for the Nile’s regional ecosystems.”
Ethiopia is also facing pushback over long-simmering ethnic tensions, including in the northern region of Tigray that broke out into open conflict in November. At the time Biden’s pick for Jake Sullivan warned of “potential war crimes” and urged the Ethiopian government and the fugitive leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to open negotiations facilitated by the African Union.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also called for an end to the violence that has killed thousands of people and displaced nearly half a million others. He expressed his concerns about the situation in Tigray on a phone call with Ahmed on Feb. 4.
Ethiopia has enjoyed a helping hand from some Ethiopian-American activists in the Nile dispute. Two groups, the Ethiopian American Civic Council and the Ethiopian Advocacy Network, successfully urged the Congressional Black Caucus last year to object to Trump’s perceived siding with Egypt in the dispute.
“The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) urges the United States and all other international actors to respect the 2015 Declaration of Principles trilateral agreement signed between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, and to continue to play an impartial role, only seeking the counsel of the African Union and diplomats on the ground in the region,” the group wrote in a June 23 statement. “In particular, the African Union has a pivotal role to play by expressing to all parties that a peaceful negotiated deal benefits all and not just some on the continent.”
But Abiy also has fierce critics in the diaspora.
Among them is the Oromo Legacy Leadership & Advocacy Association, a Washington-area nonprofit that advocates for human rights in Ethiopia. The group works with policy advisory firm Von Batten-Montague-York, which retained DiRoma Eck & Co., a new firm started by former Trump Treasury Department officials Andrew Eck and Michael DiRoma, in November to lobby for sanctions against “members of the Ethiopian security forces responsible for the extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses.”
Activist Seenaa Jimjimo founded the group to fight for the rights of the Oromo, a marginalized ethnic group in Ethiopia. But as violence flared up in Tigray she told The Influencers podcast co-hosted by Foreign Lobby Report and crisis communications firm LEVICK that the group is coordinating with victims of violence across the country regardless of their ethnicity.
“We stand with the Tigrayan people and we are working closely with them trying to highlight the human rights violations,” Jimjimo said in December. “What is happening with the Tigray right now is that has happened with the Oromo for so long.”