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Whither Washington’s Stance on the Ethiopian Crisis?

In a statement released on 2 December, the United Nations (UN) condemned the inter-ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia that put the country at risk of disintegration, warning against a repeat of the chaotic scenes of Kabul Airport in Addis Ababa. 

The statement came amidst pitched battles between the Eritrea-backed Ethiopian army and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, (TPLF) allied with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).  It was released in tandem with a plethora of conflicting statements on who is the winner and loser, along with fluctuating speculations on the victorious camp, particularly with the capability of the opposition to notch up quick field victories. This situation prompted Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to declare a state of emergency throughout the country, vowing to head to the battlefront to lead the war against Tigray and calling on civilians to take up arms to defend the capital. 

In this prevailing climate of hostility and tension, several countries called on their nationals to leave Ethiopia immediately. This raises questions about the US position on the situation in Ethiopia, particularly given the intense diplomatic efforts undertaken by its Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman, and the news on the United States placing its special operations forces in Djibouti on high alert.

The US Response to the Ethiopian Crisis

Since Joe Biden’s administration took office, foreign policy has taken a backseat to US domestic affairs. As such, Biden’s administration tended to focus on addressing specific files of foreign policy and reduce the US engagement abroad, with Africa seemingly standing out as a shrunken focus of US foreign policy. However, the momentous developments in Ethiopia served as a catalyst for a broader US engagement. At present, preventing escalation of the civil war, mitigating conflicts’ regional spillovers, and reducing the scope of the humanitarian crisis particularly in Tigray seem to be among Biden’s administration priorities. Therefore, the US administration intensified its response to the Ethiopian crisis in many ways that we review below: 

  • Early Attention: Despite the change of focus of US foreign policy, the deplorable situation in Ethiopia considerably disturbs the US administration, particularly it is aggravated by a huge humanitarian disaster and mountainous waves of immigration and asylum. Biden’s administration response to the Ethiopian crisis came quite early since Biden assumed office. On 27 February, Antony Blinken called on the Ethiopian government to withdraw the Eritrean forces and the Amhara militia from Tigray. Blinken reiterated his call for government forces’ immediate withdrawal from Tigray on 2 March in a phone conversation with Abiy Ahmed.
  • Pressuring Ethiopia: The rapidly unfolding developments in Ethiopia prompted Washington to take up a hardline stance towards Addis Ababa. For instance, it suspended the economic and security funding to Ethiopia, introduced a restriction policy on visa issuance for current or former Ethiopian officials as well as Eritrean officials involved in the crisis due to violations committed in Tigray. In that connection, Cindy King, spokeswoman for the US Department of Defense for Africa told Sky News Arabia that “the Pentagon has taken steps to suspend military aid and joint security programs with Addis Ababa due to violations in the Tigray region.”
  • Disassociating US Aid from US Policy on GERD: The Biden administration delinked suspension of assistance to Ethiopia from the GERD dispute, making it clear that GERD is no longer as much of a priority as developments of the Ethiopian interior. On 20 February, Washington announced a temporary pause on the foreign assistance to Ethiopia which affects the $272 million security and development assistance, against the backdrop of the deteriorating situation in Tigray.
  • Intensive Diplomacy: Washington has made substantial efforts to pacify Ethiopia through the diplomatic efforts of its Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman. In an interview with the Foreign Affairs magazine after taking office, Feltman expressed his concern over the volatility in the Horn of Africa, noting that the conflict in the Tigray region, which is facing a humanitarian disaster, takes precedence. On 10 December, Feltman started a tri-country trip to the UAE, Turkey, and Egypt, to discuss the situation in Ethiopia.
  • Supporting Negotiations: Washington is aware that sitting down at the negotiating table is the only way to contain the flammable situation in Ethiopia. In other words, the Biden administration recognizes the difficulty of a military solution. In this vein, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called for a ceasefire and the warring parties coming to the negotiating table, stressing that there could be no military solution to the conflict.
  • The Situation Spiraling out of Control: Washington realizes that the situation is likely to spiral out of control. This was evident when Washington urged its citizens to leave Ethiopia as soon as possible and positioned its special operations forces in Djibouti to assist when necessary in helping American citizens leave Ethiopia.
  • Regional Repercussions: According to several analysts, Washington’s regional concerns over the situation in Ethiopia are closely intertwined with Somalia and the expansion of terrorist activities. In effect, Ethiopia has always helped and provided substantial support to the Somali government to confront the insurgency of the Al-Shabab movement. Additionally, the worsening situation in Ethiopia would give rise to increasing waves of migrants and asylum-seekers where there camps provide a favorable environment for recruitment activities of terrorist organizations.
  • Sanctions: Given the persistence of tensions in Ethiopia, President Biden issued an executive order that allows for imposing sanctions on parties complicit in perpetuating the conflict in Tigray. Yet Feltman admitted that it isn’t normal to impose sanctions without specifying the intended target of the sanctions, indicating the step aims at giving all actors the opportunity to move towards peace.
  • Limiting Concessions: As the Ethiopian crisis continues to worsen, Biden notified the Congress early November of his intention to remove Ethiopia from the list of beneficiaries of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) as of January 2022 –an act that gives African countries duty-free access to the U.S. market. AGOA brings Ethiopia $100 million in hard cash annually and provides direct employment opportunities for about 100,000 people, most of whom are women working in textile mills that export their production to the United States.
  • Congressional Attention: Congress takes a similar interest in the current situation in the Ethiopian interior. On 27 May, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing themed, “Ethiopia in Crisis: US Strategy and Policy Response.” During which Senator Bob Menendez, Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, stated that the brutal war in Tigray, violence, and insecurity in other parts of the country, and the rapidly closing political space increased the likelihood of the collapse of Ethiopia, pointing out that there is evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Tigray. Menendez indicated that Abiy Ahmed’s met Washington’s diplomatic initiatives with stonewalling, broken promises, and unfulfilled commitments. In this vein, the Congress introduced the Ethiopia Peace and Democracy Promotion Act of 2021, a bipartisan legislation aimed at enhancing Washington’s diplomatic, development, and legal response to support democracy, human rights, peace and stability in Ethiopia. Furthermore, the US security assistance to the government of Ethiopia was suspended, allowing the US to support conflict resolution and peacebuilding efforts.

Whither Washington’s Stance on Ethiopia?

Makila James, former US diplomat in Africa, stated that the “situation is especially tragic considering the lengthy relationship between the United States and Ethiopia, once a staunch ally and bulwark against terrorism in the region.”, which implies the Ethiopian crisis has imposed itself forcefully on Biden’s administration agenda, prompting Biden’s administration to engage with the crisis early since taking office. Accordingly, the persistence of the deadlocked situation in Ethiopia will push for greater US engagement with the crisis. Beyond that, Ethiopia remains of great significance to the US interests in Africa, and its collapse would take Africa down a slippery slope of instability, violence, and terrorism, necessitating Washington’s intervention to find a “safe exit” from this complex situation.

On the other hand, it is not in the interests of Washington to lose its role and influence in Ethiopia to one of its adversaries, particularly China. Hence, Washington needs to step up its efforts to contain the deteriorating situation in Ethiopia, in an attempt to deter any moves of rivalries to capitalize on the situation. Since 2000, China has turned to developing the infrastructure in Ethiopia. Afterwards, Ethiopia became one of the countries participating in the Belt and Road initiative. China controls about 60 percent of foreign direct investment in Ethiopia. From 2000 to 2018, China lent $13.7 billion to Ethiopia and the United States $9.2 billion. In many respects, the current unrest in Ethiopia can be viewed as a threat to Beijing’s interests that tend to benefit Washington. However, this assumption may not make sense if the situation spirals out of control, and the Ethiopian state moves towards disintegration.

Beyond that,  at home, there seems to be reasons pushing for an increased US interest in Ethiopia, most notably Biden’s values-based policy that necessitates adopting a rejectionist stance on the widespread humanitarian crimes committed in Ethiopia, the new crystallized model that highlights Washington’s global role in ensuring international peace and security, and the  pervasive impact of the progressive movement concurring with Biden’s coming to power, a Democrat who gives major focus to humanitarian issues and human rights, let alone pressures from political lobbies that support the different conflicting parties in Ethiopia and the role the US companies can play in pressuring Biden’s administration to protect their interests and pave the way for them in Ethiopia.

Seemingly, the Biden administration is likely to scale up its efforts initiated since taking office towards a resolution of the Ethiopian crisis. Yet the plot thickens. In a statement to the Associated Press, Kassahun Berhanu, the Political Science professor at Addis Ababa University noted, “unless there is some kind of divine intervention, I don’t see any chance for a peaceful resolution through dialogue because the positions are highly polarized.” As such, Washington needs to rely more heavily on political and diplomatic tools, as settling the conflict on the ground would mean massive bloodshed and would make disintegration and collapse of Ethiopia a more likely scenario. Washington’s consociational formula will probably put the Tigrayans in a privileged position given the United States, particularly the Democratic party, close relationship with the TPLF since the 1980s.    

On another vein, Washington can still employ aid as a powerful tool to pressure Addis Ababa. At large, Ethiopia relies heavily on foreign aid, which makes it highly sensitive to pressures from aid donors such as the United States. In effect, the United States funds one third of Ethiopia’s budget. Further, Washington is Addis Ababa’s largest aid donor, which means it has an increased ability to guide the conflict’s direction. That said, Washington still needs to pressure other parties to have the situation put on an even keel.

Clearly, the broader application of sanctions would prove effective, especially with Biden’s administration establishing a more flexible sanctions regime.  For instance, the current system of sanctions makes legal exceptions for the delivery of humanitarian relief, unlike what was the case for the Obama administration whose fight against the Somali Al-Shabab movement obstructed humanitarian relief. Moreover, the gradual pace of the current sanctions regime allows for more room to back down from fighting and head to the negotiating table.

Overall, despite the increasing talk of US foreign policy being given lower priority than domestic affairs, the critical developments in Ethiopia stirred up Biden’s administration interest in the crisis. As the Ethiopian situation continues to deteriorate, Washington will have to step up efforts towards a settlement that would pacify the situation, albeit temporarily.

Maha Allam
Researcher at American studies unit

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