Ethiopia has hired a US lobbying firm amid rising tensions with its neighbors and the Donald Trump administration over a massive dam on the Nile river.
The Ethiopian Embassy in Washington signed a contract with Indiana law firm Barnes & Thornburg on June 30, according to a new filing with the US Justice Department. The agreement is for $130,000 and lasts three months.
“The Registrant will assist the Embassy in arranging meetings with government officials on matters of interest to the Embassy, and assisting in strategic planning and advocacy for those interests,” the filings states. Barnes & Thornburg partner Craig Burkhardt is the only registered agent on the account.
Neither the embassy nor Barnes & Thornburg responded to requests about Ethiopia’s priorities for the contract. But it comes as the country faces multiple challenges.
Ahmed has earned plaudits in the West as a democratic reformer, notably winning the Nobel Peace Prize 2019 for his efforts to resolve the conflict with neighboring Eritrea. But in recent months his government has been criticized for postponing elections until next year over COVID-19 concerns and for ethnic violence in Oromia, the country’s largest state.
Ethiopia also faces tensions with its downriver neighbors Egypt and Sudan over the filling of its 6,450 MW dam on the Blue Nile. President Trump has sought to broker a three-way deal at the behest of his ally President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, so far without success.
The faltering talks have caused uncharacteristic tensions between the US and Ethiopian governments, with Addis Ababa saying Washington had received “inaccurate and inadequate” information from Egypt. Commerce Department Steven Mnuchin for his part has said that the dam’s filling “should not take place without an agreement.” Egypt Sudan this week accused Ethiopia of starting the filing without a deal in place, although Ethiopia denies this.
The contract with the embassy hints at those regional tensions.
“We do not serve as registered foreign agents for the governments of any country adjacent to Ethiopia,” the contract states, “and would not seek to do so during the time we have a client relationship with the Embassy.”
Asked for comment about the latest developments, the State Department shared this statement:
“The United States supports a fair and equitable agreement on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that balances the interests of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Constructive dialogue and cooperation will pave the way for success. We reaffirm our commitment to remain engaged with the three countries until they reach a final agreement.”
The new contract marks the first time the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed will have a lobbyist in Washington. The country’s previous lobbyist, SGR Government Relations and Lobbying, was terminated April 18, 2018, two weeks after Ahmed entered office.