Ethiopia’s recently formed Ministry of Peace has hired its first lobbying firm amid escalating US criticism of the country’s handling of the conflict in the northern Tigray region.
Peace Minister Muferiat Kamil signed a six-month, $45,000-a-month contract with global law firm Holland & Knight on March 12, according to a newly disclosed lobbying filing. The firm will provide “strategic counsel and federal government relations assistance” before Congress and the Joe Biden administration.
Holland & Knight has assigned a powerhouse team of five attorneys, all of them partners at the firm, to handle the contract. Michael Cavanaugh, the co-chair of the firm’s energy team, signed alongside Muferiat. Also registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) are:
- Ronald Oleynik, the head of the firm’s International Trade Practice and an expert on compliance with trade embargoes and economic sanctions programs;
- Rich Gold, the leader of the firm’s Public Policy & Regulation Group and a former career lawyer with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Bill Clinton;
- Francisco Sanchez, a Tampa-based lawyer who served as Under Secretary of Commerce for Trade under President Barack Obama; and
- Michael Galano, one of the original members of the firm’s Public Policy & Regulation Practice Group and a former legislative aide to former Rep. Dick Zimmer (R-N.J.).
Holland & Knight and the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. This is the only current foreign lobbying registration for both Cavanaugh and Sanchez.
The contract comes a little over a month after the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington hired lobbying firm Venable to defend against mounting bipartisan blowback and increased lobbying by Ethiopian-American activists and human rights groups. The Ethiopian government blames Tigray’s ousted ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, for instigating the conflict.
Venable’s lobbyists have been busy helping Ambassador Fitsum Arega push back against a bipartisan Senate resolution decrying alleged human rights abuses by Ethiopian National Defense Forces and a letter from House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and ranking member Michael McCaul (R-Texas) urging Secretary of State Antony Blinken to enact “targeted sanctions” against human rights violators in Tigray. Blinken for his part has charged the Ethiopian government with “ethnic cleansing” in western Tigray.
Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy created the Peace Ministry in October 2018 as part of a sweeping government overhaul amid rising ethnic tensions. Its stated goal is to work with federal and regional government bodies to “ensure the maintenance of public order; develop strategies, and undertake awareness-creation and sensitization activities to ensure the peace, security and freedom of the country and its people.”
Muferiat, who served as Ethiopia’s first woman speaker of parliament from April 2018 until her appointment as minister six months later, was given authority over the country’s Federal Police Commission, the National Intelligence and Security Service and the Information Network Security Agency. Some experts have criticized the ministry for being dominated by the security services and lacking civilian input, Reuters reported at the time of its creation.
Shortly before long-simmering ethnic tensions in the northern region of Tigray broke out into open conflict in November, Muferiat called on both the regional state and the federal government in Addis Ababa to open a peaceful dialogue. In February she reportedly struck a deal with the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) to expand access for aid workers and “scale up” operations in Tigray amid international criticism that the government was contributing to a humanitarian catastrophe in Tigray by holding up food aid to areas outside the government’s control.
Karl Von Batten, a registered lobbyist for the Tigray Center for Information and Communication, an activist group based in Alexandria, Virginia, suggested the Holland & Knight contract may be evidence that the Ethiopian government is worried about potential executive actions by the Biden administration and lawsuits by private parties.
“You don’t get non-lobbying lawyers, especially from such a big law firm, to get involved unless you’re concerned about some major litigation issues,” Von Batten told Foreign Lobby Report.
He added that his policy and advocacy consulting firm Von Batten-Montague-York would soon be updating its lobbying registration to reflect a new push for sanctions against Ethiopian officials as the situation continues to deteriorate.
“As a result of this conflict and other natural occurrences like locusts, Tigray is faced with a famine that may result in the deaths of an unthinkable number of civilians, including innocent women and child that are the innocent victims of this conflict,” he said. “Due to these new developments, we will soon be amending our lobbying disclosure to reflect that we are also now actively lobbying Congress and the Biden Administration for aid to address the issues being faced by rape victims in Tigray and for humanitarian, economic assistance to address the famine, and sanctions against key members of the Ethiopian and Eritrean government found culpable of human rights abuses and war crimes.”