Biden Must Ensure Ethiopia Does Not Return to War
Biden Must Ensure Ethiopia Does Not Return to War
Op-Ed / Africa 4 minutes

Biden Must Ensure Ethiopia Does Not Return to War

Two years into the pitiless war ravaging northern Ethiopia, on Nov. 2, the Ethiopian government and the leaders of the northern Tigray region agreed to stop fighting after talks convened by the African Union in Pretoria, South Africa.

The deal is a significant first step toward peace, but the cease-fire could quickly fall apart without sustained attention from American, African and other world leaders.

It is arguably right now the world’s deadliest conflict: Fighting, starvation and lack of access to health care in Tigray are estimated to have killed as many as half a million people in two years and rendered millions homeless. The Ethiopian government placed Tigray under siege during the war, and experts from the United Nations concluded that it may amount to the war crime of weaponizing starvation.

The most recent phase of fighting in Tigray, which started after a truce ended in late August, has sucked in more than half a million combatants, according to the International Crisis Group’s estimates.

Starting in 2014, Ethiopia was roiled by several waves of intense protests in the two largest regions, Oromia and Amhara. Demonstrators demanded a more representative government after nearly three decades of authoritarian dominance by a coalition helmed by Tigray’s political elite.

In 2018, Ethiopia’s governing coalition chose Abiy Ahmed — a charismatic former military officer who was born to a Muslim Oromo father and an Amhara Orthodox Christian mother and is a Pentecostal Christian — as its leader and elected him prime minister. He promised to democratize and liberalize and raised hopes of building on Ethiopia’s decades of economic growth and relative stability. After ending a 20-year freeze in relations with neighboring Eritrea that followed a two-year war, he received the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

Tensions with Tigray escalated after Mr. Abiy sidelined the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

Ethiopia was full of hope. But tensions with Tigray escalated after Mr. Abiy sidelined the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which had dominated the ruling coalition. Amid a constitutional dispute and power struggle between the federal government and the Tigray elite, the T.P.L.F. seized a federal military command in Tigray in November 2020. War broke out.

Mr. Abiy teamed up with his new ally, President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, who remains embittered by the war with Ethiopia, which was then led by Tigrayans. Mr. Isaias has pushed much of his country’s military might into the war. At the same time, security forces and militias from Amhara used the conflict to violently seize territory in western Tigray that many Amharas believe Tigray wrongfully claimed decades ago.

Since August, Mr. Abiy and his allies have won several military victories against the T.P.L.F., and they were proceeding toward Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. The truce signed in South Africa is largely on the terms of Mr. Abiy’s government. The T.P.L.F. has agreed to allow the Ethiopian federal government back into Mekelle and to cede control of its highways and airports. The Tigrayans also agreed to disarm their forces within 30 days — a tough deadline to meet even if the political will existed.

Eritrea’s involvement in the conflict has been especially problematic.

If fighting resumes, the battlefield carnage will again be horrific. Eritrea’s involvement in the conflict has been especially problematic. Few leaders have shown more ruthless disregard for human rights or imperviousness to international censure than Mr. Isaias, and disturbing reports have emerged of Eritrean abuses. Eritrea was not a party to the new agreement and has declined to publicly back the truce. The T.P.L.F. is likely to demand Eritrea’s withdrawal before disarming, a condition that could derail the accord in its infancy.

If the truce falls apart and the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces pursue the T.P.L.F forces into rural areas, where the bulk of the population is likely to seek refuge, there is reason to fear that civilians will again be targeted.

The war has been fought in a dense fog. The Ethiopian government has mostly barred journalists from covering the war and cut off Tigray’s access to the internet for the past two years. World leaders need to pay more attention.

At the U.N. Security Council, China and Russia have opposed any action, and the Security Council’s African members have seemed wary of allowing the body to meddle in Ethiopia’s affairs. China has been Ethiopia’s biggest trading partner and a major source of infrastructure loans for the past decade.

Washington still has significant leverage.

Yet despite years of uneven attention to the region, Washington still has significant leverage. Ethiopia is heavily indebted to China and desperately needs an infusion of hard currency from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, where the United States wields substantial influence.

The African Union faces difficulties of its own because its headquarters sit awkwardly in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital — which has made Tigray’s leaders question its objectivity.

Despite the challenges, the formal peace talks in South Africa materialized after months of difficult diplomatic efforts, including secret talks between the Ethiopian government and the T.P.L.F. facilitated by Washington. African, American and other world leaders need to sustain high-level pressure on Mr. Abiy and the Tigrayan leaders to ensure the truce holds.

Coordinated diplomacy, high-level engagement from African leaders and Washington’s combination of offering financial incentives and threatening punitive measures have proved effective in pushing the warring sides toward the path of peace. They need to double down on it.

To secure the truce, the African Union must quickly staff up to monitor the implementation of the deal and press the Ethiopian government and the T.P.L.F. to stick to their obligations and deadlines. Mr. Abiy must ensure Eritrea withdraws its troops and must act with magnanimity toward his Tigrayan foes should the T.P.L.F. meet its side of the bargain.

President Biden should call Mr. Abiy, emphasize American support for the the deal and urge a conciliatory approach toward his opponents. Mr. Biden should make it clear to Mr. Abiy that the United States will not support new financing from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund until aid is allowed unhindered into Tigray and the situation on the ground markedly improves.

In this moment of reprieve, Ethiopia remains at risk of slipping through the cracks of our battered world order.

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