Biden’s brewing problem in Ethiopia
War broke out in the Tigray region of Ethiopia in November. Five months later, the scale of the carnage, destruction, and destabilization is becoming evident.
The spark for the fighting was an attack on army bases by soldiers loyal to the region’s ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front which was at odds with the federal government headed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. But wars don’t happen overnight: the European Union, International Crisis Group, and many others issued warnings. Most worryingly, Eritrea — with whom Prime Minister Abiy had made a much-heralded peace agreement in 2018 — had a scarcely-hidden war plan.
Abiy’s initial goal was cutting the TPLF down to size. But his coalition partners’ war aims appear to go much further. For Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki, the aim is nothing less than the extermination of any Tigrayan political or economic capability. For the militia from the neighboring Amhara region it is a land grab — described by the U.S. State Department as “ethnic cleansing.”
For the first month, the Trump administration endorsed the war, backing up Abiy’s depiction of it as a domestic “law enforcement operation” and praising Eritrea for ‘restraint’ — at a time when divisions of the Eritrean army had poured over the border and reports of their atrocities were already filtering out.
The Biden administration is building a sensible policy — but is hampered by the slow process of putting its senior team in place. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made reasonable demands. President Biden dispatched Senator Chris Coons to convey how seriously Washington is taking the crisis. A special envoy for the Horn of Africa — reported to be the senior diplomat Jeffrey Feldman — is due to be appointed, short-cutting the process of confirming an Assistant Secretary of State for Africa. The new USAID Director Samantha Power, a passionate advocate of action against mass atrocity, is awaiting confirmation.
But Biden’s approach is not working. To be precise, the Ethiopian government is providing just enough of a plausible impression of compliance to postpone or dilute effective action.
Blinken’s first demand was that Eritrean forces should withdraw. This pushed Abiy — after months of dissembling — to admit that the Eritrean army was actually present and that he would request Pres. Isaias to pull them back. Abiy’s problem is that if Eritrea withdraws, he loses Tigray: the Tigrayan resistance would overwhelm his depleted army. Isaias is a veteran operator and he has prepared for this: his security agents and special forces are now so strategically placed inside Ethiopia that Abiy’s fragile government would be endangered if he withdrew.
Second, the U.S. insisted on a ceasefire and political negotiations. This is essential to stop the battlefield slaughter — thousands were killed in combat in March—and the ongoing scorched earth campaign that is reducing Tigray’s economy to the stone age. But Abiy rejected this. He and Isaias appear determined to try one more offensive to vanquish the Tigrayan Defense Forces. What they fail to see is that inflicting atrocities only stiffens the resolve of the Tigrayans to fight back. Speaking on April 3 Abiy belatedly conceded that a “difficult and tiresome” guerrilla war is in prospect — but he has made no mention of peace talks.
Third, Blinken demanded unfettered humanitarian access for international relief agencies to provide food and medicine for to the starving. He might have added, without a pause in the fighting, farmers cannot prepare their lands for cultivation. The agricultural cycle brooks no delay: ploughing needs to begin soon, before the rains come in June. If there’s no harvest this year, hunger will deepen.
The World Food Program and international agencies are reaching about 1.2 million of the 4.5 million people estimated to need emergency relief. But there are reports that as soon as food is distributed, soldiers sweep through and take it from civilians at gunpoint. The aid effort is, at the moment, too little and too late.
Last, there should be an independent investigation into reports of atrocities, which the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has begun, but in partnership with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. This has the drawback that it’s unrealistic to expect the staff of an Ethiopian government body—whatever their personal integrity—to withstand the personal pressure that the authorities will put on them. And many Tigrayans will automatically reject their findings as biased.
The United States has other policies in this complicated mix too. Last year, the Treasury took on the task of trying to mediate in the Nile Waters dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt. Abiy inherited a huge dam, under construction on the Blue Nile, from his predecessors. It’s a point of national pride, the centerpiece of Ethiopia’s development. Egypt sees any upstream state controlling the Nile waters as an existential threat.
To protect the “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam” project, Ethiopia’s ministry of foreign affairs had constructed a coalition of African riparian states, which isolated Egypt and minimized the danger of direct confrontation. Abiy upended this: 18 months ago he went into direct talks with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who invited the United States to mediate — confident that the Trump administration would lean his way. Sudan, the other party to the talks, had no option but to line up with Cairo and Washington. By the time he had realized his error, Abiy was stuck, and the scenario foreseen by his diplomats was unfolding: Ethiopia was the one isolated as Egypt pressed home its advantage and the United States suspended some aid. Since then the talks have repeatedly broken down, with each side escalating its rhetoric.
To compound the error, in preparing for his assault on Tigray, Abiy antagonized Sudan. A few days before the war, he asked Sudanese leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan to seal the Sudanese border. He hadn’t anticipated that this would trample over a delicate live-and-let-live border agreement, whereby the Sudanese allowed Ethiopian farmers to cultivate land inside their territory. They were ethnic Amharas. In sealing the frontier, the Sudanese troops drove those villagers out — enraging the powerful Amhara regional government and igniting a needless border conflict.
To complicate the picture still further, Isaias’s planned axis of autocracy extends through Ethiopia to Somalia. A painstaking process of stabilizing and reconstructing Somalia is imperiled by President Mohamed Farmajo’s failure to agree an electoral timetable with the opposition, and refusal to step down when his term of office expired in February. Farmajo’s special presidential forces have been trained in Eritrea and many Somalis believe that he plans to use them to impose a military solution on his rivals.
The African peace and security order lies wrecked. The African Union has failed to act. Ethiopian diplomacy and pressure (the organization’s headquarters are in Addis Ababa) has kept Ethiopia’s war and Eritrea’s destabilization of the wider region off the AU agenda. Abiy rebuffed African mediators and convinced enough of his fellow African leaders that it was a purely domestic affair to prevent an African consensus position against the war. In turn, Africa’s inaction gave a green light to Russia and China to threaten to veto any resolution at the UN Security Council. Last month, the U.S. tried and failed this route. This passes the baton to the U.S. and Europe acting alone — at the G7 last week and next week at the Spring meetings of the World Bank and IMF.
At the center of this chaos is Abiy. At every turn he has blundered. He has overpromised, mistaken image for reality, made needless enemies and locked himself into dangerous alliances. Those who once embraced his rhetoric of reform and peacemaking are looking naïve at best. He’s not a consensus-builder, rather an agent of polarization. Perhaps most significantly for the incoming U.S. diplomatic team, the Ethiopian leader has demonstrated an explosive combination of hubris and poor judgement that make him an unreliable interlocutor — sitting atop a fragile country of 110 million people in a volatile region.
There’s no obvious solution: it’s a problem from hell.