America and the Crisis in Tigray
While the world was transfixed by events in Afghanistan and the speed of the Taliban advance on Kabul, unbeknownst to most—including myself—events in Ethiopia’s conflict were proceeding with similar stunning swiftness.
The tragedy in Africa’s second most populous country has “unfolded with Afghan-like velocity,” said the Financial Times’ Africa editor David Pilling.
After one year of conflict, the forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a group banished from government and criminalized, are now advancing on the Ethiopian capital. The TPLF “could now bludgeon its way back to power,” Pilling said.
It’s a stunning reversal of fortunes. This time last year, Tigray cities in Ethiopia’s northernmost region were falling to federal forces. After the Nov. 27 capture of the regional capital, Mekelle, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory. The outbreak of conflict followed nearly two years of tensions since Abiy came to power in 2018 and pushed the TPLF, which had dominated Ethiopian politics since the 1991 revolution, to the sidelines.
Tigrayan forces were rounded up, while the hunt began for TPLF leadership, who had fled into the surrounding mountains. Captures and arrests subsequently followed. It seemed the TPLF was truly done for, while Tigray descended into humanitarian crisis. But it didn’t end there. By June 2021, Tigrayan forces regained control of Tigray, with federal forces “redeploying,” as the government framed it.
Now the government is instructing residents in Addis Ababa to arm and ready themselves to defend the capital. Tigrayan forces have advanced southward and are now about 250 miles from Addis Ababa. The barbarians are at the gate, is the prime minister’s message, which also speaks to how much has been lost.
“Rarely can the prospects of any nation have imploded so spectacularly as those of Ethiopia,” Pilling said.
Throughout all this, as I have written about before for TAC, the U.S. and U.K., Ethiopia’s two biggest donors in the West—China provides Ethiopia with colossal amounts of money too—watched it all unfold.
The U.S. has finally upped the ante. It recently announced it will revoke trade privileges, such as duty-free access to Ethiopian exports, due to “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” At the same time, U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman has candidly called out both the TPLF and the government.
“We have consistently condemned the TPLF expansion of the war outside Tigray and we continue to call on the TPLF to withdraw from Afar and Amhara,” Feltman said during a recent press conference before visiting Addis Ababa. “The expansion of the war, however, is as predictable as unacceptable given that the Ethiopian government began cutting off humanitarian relief and commercial access to Tigray in June which continues to these days despite horrifying conditions of reported widespread famine.”
The TPLF is demanding the Ethiopian government end what the United Nations describes as a de facto humanitarian blockade of Tigray. Hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans could be starving. No aid has gone into Tigray by road since October 18 this year, and 364 trucks are stuck in the capital of the neighboring Afar region “pending authorization from the authorities to proceed”, the U.N. stated in a weekly report on the humanitarian situation.
Despite the U.S. lending weight to an increasing flurry of international diplomatic activity addressing the conflict, events may well have reached a stage where there is too much on the line for the implacable foes involved for the U.S., or anyone else, to say anything to persuade them to alter their course. As Pilling notes, Abiy is cornered and “anything other than total victory spells his political end,” while the TPLF is in a similar position and “short of recapturing national power, an organization now branded by Abiy as a ‘criminal clique’ faces life in the wilderness.”
Other commentators note that the TPLF, which initially attempted to open negotiations with the government, will not back down now that it has the upper hand militarily and can smell victory. Tsadkan Gebretensae, a former army general and key figure in the Tigrayan command, has said the war is almost over and the next step will be a post-Abiy national dialogue, according to the BBC.
“I don’t think the simple calls for negotiations, and asking the Tigray forces to stop their advance are going to work at this point,” William Davison, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said in an interview with CNN. “They have a lot of momentum, they have clear goals here. And I think what is needed is for the prime minister and his allies to recognize the reality of this situation and for the country’s best interest to try to make some form of concessions to the Tigray forces so they at least freeze their advance outside the capital.”
In 1991, the overthrow of the country’s military dictatorship was followed by a period of relative stability as different factions united. But if the government falls to the TPLF forces now, Davison warns that continuing resistance and intercommunal violence is more likely. The chances of a peaceful solution appear incredibly slim if Abiy and the TPLF continue to remain as entrenched as they are, and international mediation efforts don’t appear to be able to do much about it.
Of course, as ever, there are voices calling for American intervention and boots on the ground.
“The U.S. should also be willing to participate in a U.N.-led peacekeeping effort to separate the warring parties, and use its logistical capabilities to ensure that aid can flow to every area,” James Stavridis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, commented in a recent opinion piece for Bloomberg. “Sending troops to East Africa may not play well in U.S. domestic politics. But three decades ago, the world stood by and watched a brutal civil war unfold in the small African nation of Rwanda.”
While the terrible ethnic-based violence and proliferation of hate speech in Ethiopia has parallels with events in Rwanda, you won’t hear many commentators getting behind Stavridis’s proposal. There are more differences than similarities between Ethiopia’s situation and Rwanda’s for one.
“A peace-keeping mission would necessarily need to follow some kind of ceasefire agreement—a peace to be kept—and it is conceivable that U.S. troops could participate in such a mission,” said Jason Mosley, an associate senior researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “But the big unanswered question is how such a ceasefire could be achieved.” A security intervention to bring about a ceasefire, he explains, “would be a catastrophic error in U.S. policy,” while adding that he believes “it is not seriously being considered in Washington, thankfully.”
And yet, in addition to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Tigray, there is no question that the Ethiopian conflict has huge implications for the wider Horn of Africa region, which the U.S. can ill ignore.
“Anything that happens within Ethiopia is inextricably tied to the security, the safety of the rest of the region,” U.S. General William Zana, the commander of the Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, said in a BBC interview about the conflict. The U.S. military has a large base called Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, which abuts Ethiopia’s eastern border, and Zana said that troops are “here to respond to crisis.”
Davison and Mosley still hold out hope that a collective effort and united message from the international community—it’s been noted by others that Ethiopia could less easily ignore a united front from both the U.S. and China—might achieve something. But it requires a sensitive and sophisticated approach.
So far, significant pressure—both diplomatic, and in terms of the threat of U.S. sanctions and suspension of development and trade assistance programmes—has not only failed to dent the determination of the parties to the conflict to pursue a military solution, but also contributed to the deterioration of relations between the government in Addis Ababa and Washington, while driving the government and its alliance of supporters closer together and fuelling a propaganda war. The U.S. is a potentially significant player in the post-conflict reconstruction phase. At the moment, its leverage is limited. The most effective strategy is probably the quietest.
For all involved, there may be a far greater challenge in overcoming Ethiopia’s deep and powerful societal divisions, steeped in decades of rancor, rivalry, and jealousy.
“There is no strong impetus for peace within Ethiopia… no strong civil society invested in peace,” said Rashid Abdi, an independent Horn of Africa analyst. “No peace effort can succeed when it is all foreign-led. Only when there is a groundswell of local demand for end to conflict will we see real sustainable end to conflict.”
It’s a theme that appears to apply to the U.S. response, too. Sometimes the local and foreign players are the same people.
“The U.S. would do well to better police its own citizens in terms of hate speech, propaganda and fundraising for the conflict,” Mosley said. “Ethiopians and Eritreans in the diaspora who hold U.S. citizenship have been key players in the conflict.”
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist and writer who splits his time between the US, the UK, and further afield, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter: @jrfjeffrey and at his website: https://jamesjeffreyjournalism.com/.