Bass Under Fire for Praise of Ethiopian Prime Minister

Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed and Rep. Karen Bass (D., Calif.) / Getty Images
February 26, 2021

Rep. Karen Bass (D., Calif.) is coming under fire for her past praise for Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed amidst the human rights crisis in Ethiopia that has left millions on the verge of starvation and displaced hundreds of thousands of refugees.

A crowd of protesters gathered outside the State Department Thursday to press for the United States to lead an international response to address the humanitarian crisis in the Ethiopian region of Tigray. Simon Hagos, a local resident who was born in Tigray, said that Bass, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, needs to understand the reality of the violence in the country and to take action.

"You're talking about him winning the Nobel Prize, being praised by multiple state officials, Karen Bass being one of them," Hagos said. "I hope that the United States government and their representatives can see beyond the wolf in sheep's clothing and see what the reality is."

The protest comes as more detailed reports emerge about the violence occurring in the region. One report detailed a church massacre that left an estimated 800 people dead. Other videos show the aftermath of a purported massacre in Tigray and foreign forces shelling a hilltop church.

A spokesman for Rep. Bass said the congresswoman is concerned about the human rights crisis raging in Ethiopia but did not directly address whether or not she stands by Abiy.

"In 2019, Rep. Bass joined leaders around the world in congratulating Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his initiative to resolve the border conflict with Eritrea," the spokesman said. "Rep. Bass is also concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia and is calling for additional assistance from the US government and calling on the Ethiopian government to ensure assistance reaches the people."

The spokesman for Bass pointed to a resolution Bass introduced in October 2020 and a statement issued in November 2020 in which the congresswoman encouraged respect for human rights in the country and raised concerns about unrest. Activists say that the region needs actions, rather than vague statements.

"You see that a lot of leaders or people like Karen Bass or other people, I don't know their exact views on him right now, but when people speak on the crisis they say they are gravely concerned or deeply worried but there's never any actual direct action," said Eden Gebremariam, a college student with family in Tigray.

Bass congratulated Abiy in 2019 for receiving a Nobel Peace Prize. She praised the prime minister for "his commitment to peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia" and described his leadership as a "model" for other nations. She also welcomed him to her California district in 2018.

Congressional Republicans have demanded action from the Biden administration in the region, especially after new reports surfaced about Eritrean involvement in the conflict. Protesters gathered outside the State Department in January to call on the Biden administration to take immediate action to alleviate the situation.

Beyond regional concerns, the conflict in Tigray also poses grave challenges to American national security. The Abiy government has withdrawn from several counterterror missions in neighboring Somalia to exert pressure on Tigrayan forces, opening the door to growing ambitions from al-Shabaab, a jihadist terrorist organization. An attack from al-Shabaab last year in Kenya led to the deaths of three American citizens.

The Biden administration has urged Eritrean troops to leave the country and for an immediate ceasefire, but critics have said this response is insufficient. A refugee watchdog urged the Biden administration to take charge and lead the international community in responding to the growing refugee crisis.