The worsening humanitarian tragedy in Ethiopia’s Tigray region is now in its seventh month. Fighting between the Ethiopian National Defence Force and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) continues to escalate. Despite promises by both countries, Eritrean troops continue to commit grave violations of human rights and unspeakable atrocities. Ethiopia’s major allies, including the European Union and the United States, have consistently called upon Eritrea to withdraw its troops while urging the Ethiopian government to ensure that further atrocities are prevented, perpetrators are held accountable, and civilians have access to humanitarian aid.
However, the regime in Addis Ababa seems preoccupied with a sham election to bolster its fading legitimacy. It has responded to the call to end human suffering and violence with denial and dereliction. The U.S. government has imposed visa restrictions on current and former Ethiopian officials who are complicit in prolonging the conflict. Washington is reportedly mulling further economic sanctions. The U.S. Congress has also called for inclusive national dialogue and reconciliation to stabilize the country. Washington is calling on its allies to apply similar pressure on Ethiopia.
Predictably, instead of seeking a political resolution to the conflict, the Ethiopian government has opted for a war of words, characterizing the U.S. decision as meddling in the internal affairs of Ethiopia. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has threatened that if the pressure persists, “Ethiopia will be forced to reassess its relations with the United States, which might have implications beyond our bilateral relationship.”
Ethiopia was once the centerpiece of peace and stability in the Horn of Africa and a western ally on regional peacekeeping. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his administration have turned the country into a pariah state and a source of tension for the entire region. As a result, Ethiopia has little left to offer to the Horn of Africa, the international community, or the United States. Millions of people need urgent food aid; providing peace and security to citizens has become hopelessly impossible, and the cost of living continues to skyrocket. The destructive civil war in Tigray, Oromia, and Benishangul Gumuz and Abiy’s reckless approach in dealing with his political opponents will only exacerbate the country’s economic, political, and security challenges.
Oblivious to the stakes
Ethiopia is one of the topmost recipients of U.S. foreign aid. Washington considers Ethiopia a strategic partner in East Africa, instrumental in maintaining peace, stability, and security in the region. Addis Ababa receives a considerable amount of U.S. aid for poverty reduction, maintenance of national peace and security, and the provision of education and healthcare services.
Over the past ten years, Ethiopia has received billions of dollars in U.S. humanitarian, development, and security assistance. In 2019 alone, Ethiopia received $922 million from the U.S., making it the 6th top receipt of U.S. aid in the world. In 2020, the amount increased to $1 billion.
Ethiopia has a century-old bilateral relationship with the U.S., and since 2006 the two countries have forged strategic partnerships and conducted coordinated military operations in Somalia. This and Ethiopia’s relative domestic stability have been the glue for the strong bilateral ties between the two countries. Until now, the U.S. saw Ethiopia as an important ally in building stable democracies and fighting against terrorism through sharing intelligence. This is the key driver for the U.S. engagement with Ethiopia, not some hidden agenda or control over Ethiopia’s internal affairs as the Abiy government would like to make the Ethiopian people believe.
During the Trump administration, the U.S. government suspended aid to Ethiopia due to failed negotiations with Egypt over the filling of the Great Renaissance Dam (GERD). The move angered Ethiopians, and the Ethio-U.S. relationship suffered a temporary challenge. Trump also engaged in toxic rhetoric in an apparent attempt to appease the Egyptian government by publicly stating that Egypt would blow up the GERD. But this unprecedented and atypical treatment of Ethiopia by a U.S. leader did not last long.
President Joe Biden reversed course by quickly decoupling the GERD dispute from U.S. aid. In fact, the Biden Administration started with a sympathetic approach to Ethiopia, but it was forced to suspend $23 million in security and $249 million in development assistance over the Tigray war. While the recent visa restrictions affect only individuals, unless Abiy changes tack, a broader economic sanction and the suspension of funding from multinational development banks, mainly the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), would squeeze Addis Ababa’s regime.
A prisoner of a misguided decision
While parties to an armed conflict initially aim to defeat their enemy and make them surrender, that is rarely possible. In many cases, even the party that is considered to have a decisive military advantage eventually sits down for peaceful negotiation, usually after needless mutual destruction. The Ethiopian government and its ardent supporters have closed the door for a peaceful solution by claiming that no state negotiates with a terrorist group—TPLF.
This has been transformed into a law by the one-party controlled parliament, which last month voted to designate the TPLF and the so-called Shane as terrorist organizations. The ill-advised decision was concocted to give the government a semblance of legal cover and avoid peace talks.
The Abiy government and its supporters decided that Ethiopia would not negotiate with the “TPLF-Junta” as soon as the war broke out in November. The parliament was simply codifying an existing policy. In its response to the U.S. visa restrictions, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated that the government of Ethiopia “could not be compelled to sit down and negotiate with the TPLF, which has already been labeled as a terrorist organization. Any sort of attempt to resuscitate the terrorist group would be counterproductive and untenable.” Ethiopia already faces unprecedented political division and instability. The stubborn insistence on sovereignty and refusal to seek a political solution has pushed the country to the brink of disintegration.
A diplomatic failure
The Abiy government is known for externalizing and offering fictitious explanations for its failures. Over the last three years, the government blamed TPLF for all that is wrong in Ethiopia. It sought to paint TPLF as a treasonous force in cahoots with Ethiopia’s adversaries. In a statement on May 29, 2021, the Prosperity Party alluded to unnamed actors trying to harm Ethiopia’s national interest in the Red Sea. The statement mentions the economic and military interests of various countries with military bases around the Red Sea. The statement does not mention the U.S., but it read like election propaganda to rally supporters behind the government in the wake of the pressure from Washington. The communique itself is a pure work of fiction as Ethiopia is a land-locked country with no direct access to or military base around the Red Sea.
Even as the U.S. is criticized for its failed foreign policies in the Middle East and Africa, Ethiopia has constantly enjoyed a privileged status for being a U.S. ally. Unfortunately, the Abiy government appears more interested in the temporary electoral campaign than saving Ethiopia’s long-standing partnership with the United States. Typically, a country with a common strategic interest with the U.S. does not overreact to a temporary political and diplomatic turbulence, as can be learned from Israel during the recent Israel-Hamas conflict.
Despite President Biden calling for peaceful solutions between the two parties, something Israel perceives as creating a moral equivalence between Hamas designated as a terrorist organization both by Israel and the U.S. and Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu did not go on a complete meltdown to aggravate the tension. What the Ethiopian government is unable to confront is a historic diplomatic failure that would have catastrophic consequences. The series of responses and statements being issued are not doing the government any good.
Ethiopia must reverse course
While the designation of TPLF and Shane as terrorists may achieve short-term political gain by appeasing and rallying Abiy Ahmed’s elitist base and actors who seek vengeance against the TPLF, it has no sound policy rationale. Moreover, it is at odds with the experiences of other countries.
The only viable solution to the current predicament of Ethiopia is for the government to make an elevated effort to engage in a national dialogue with various political actors. To that end, the Abiy government should resist the temptation to remain a victim of its propaganda and start negotiating with the TPLF and others in good faith. The U.S., which leads in the global fight against terrorism, provides an excellent example of the desuetude of the Nixonian no-concession policy. This policy prevented the U.S. government from negotiating with a group designated as a terrorist organization.
In 1973, when a Palestinian group called Black September took hostages from the Saudi Embassy in Sudan, including two American diplomats, President Nixon clarified that America would not bow down to blackmailing. Unfortunately, this led to the killing of the two American diplomats. Since this policy has been officially unchanged, U.S. presidents have used different tactics to circumvent it, including paying ransoms through covert means in exchange for hostages. The most telling of all is the decision not to label the Taliban in Afghanistan as a terrorist organization while its Pakistani counterpart is on the list of foreign terrorist organizations maintained by the U.S. government. One analyst observed that “the deterring factor has long been a concern that applying the terror label to the group would restrict U.S. and Afghan government diplomatic contacts with the Taliban, making peace talks more difficult.” However, in 2020, under President Trump, the U.S. struck a peace deal with the Taliban.
In Europe, there is a policy that treats negotiating with radical groups as taboo, but “European governments, such as France, Spain, and Italy, quietly [pay] multimillion-dollar ransoms to free their citizens.” For example, in 2018, the Italian government successfully negotiated the release of Silvia Romana, an Italian volunteer in Kenya who al-Shabaab kidnapped. According to media reports, Silvia Romana, who was brought to Italy on a state-organized flight, has been freed at the cost of €1.5 million.
The evidence from the United States or Europe shows that a blanket no-concession policy is untenable. The Abiy government must reconsider its policy and open the door for peaceful negotiation with TPLF to restore peace and stability in Tigray. This requires Abiy to think outside the box and stop listening to Eritrea’s strongman and radical Amhara nationalists, blinded by the pursuit of vengeance against the TPLF. The alternative path would be protracted and costly internal instability, significant compromise of Ethiopia’s regional and international standing, and catastrophic economic consequences that may take decades to recover from.
The prospect of reviving the deteriorating bilateral relationship between Ethiopia and the United States will likely depend on Addis Ababa’s willingness to take a bold step by reversing its course of action regarding the TPLF and its openness to an inclusive national dialogue with all stakeholders.