The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Foreign powers are intervening in Ethiopia. They may only make the conflict worse.

The civil war has become internationalized — and all the more intractable

A destroyed tank lies on the side of the road south of Humera, in an area of western Tigray annexed by the Amhara region during the ongoing conflict, in Ethiopia on May 1, 2021. The war in Africa's second most populous country has killed thousands of people and displaced millions. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)

Amid the violence in Ethiopia, Eritrea and the United States have engaged in an escalating war of words. On Nov. 12, Washington imposed fresh sanctions as punishment for human rights abuses committed by Eritrean troops fighting alongside the Ethiopian army in a bloody civil conflict, with the U.S. Treasury announcing that it would blacklist the Eritrean military and ruling party. The Eritrean Information Ministry responded by alleging that the “illicit and immoral sanctions” were designed to harm the Eritrean people.

It’s a useful window into just how internationalized Ethiopia’s civil war has become. Like so many conflicts in the Horn of Africa during the Cold War — when the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a series of proxy wars — the violence has domestic roots, but is shaped by foreign powers. Each foreign player presents its intervention as a constructive contribution toward Ethiopia’s future. But in reality, global competition for influence in one of Africa’s most economically and militarily significant states has become a major barrier to resolving the conflict.

Ever since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, tensions had been growing with the party governing the Tigray region. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had played a dominant role in Ethiopia’s government since 1991, found itself increasingly marginalized — especially after Abiy announced plans to set up his own political vehicle, the Prosperity Party. Mounting distrust escalated into a civil war last November. Early gains led Abiy to predict that the conflict would be quick and contained, but instead TPLF forces, returning to guerrilla-war tactics, regained control of Tigray. The threat that they would march on the capital prompted the prime minister to ask ordinary citizens to take up arms earlier this month.

With no end in sight to the conflict, which has killed more than 50,000 people and displaced 2 million others, the international community has faced pressure to broker a settlement. Yet so far, foreign powers have represented more of a problem than a solution.

U.S. sanctions Eritrea’s military, ruling party over role in Ethiopia conflict

While most media attention has focused on the involvement of Eritrean troops, reports suggest they have pulled back to the border. The most significant problem may now be a diplomatic one: It is widely believed that Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, who has personal antipathy to the TPLF, is pushing Abiy to seek an unlikely military victory. Indeed, the timing of the latest U.S. sanctions, coming some 12 months after initial reports of abuse by Eritrean forces, suggests that they are designed less to punish past wrongs than to force Afwerki to support peace talks.

The hostility between Eritrea and the TPLF is nothing new. Tigray sits at Ethiopia’s northernmost point, on the country’s long-disputed border with Eritrea. Before Abiy came to power, TPLF forces continued to occupy areas claimed by their neighbor, in defiance of a binding verdict from the International Court of Justice. Some Tigrayan leaders even announced their desire to reconquer parts of Eritrea, which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991. Abiy therefore found a natural ally in Afwerki, who will expect to play a significant role in deciding how the conflict ends.

When Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for “his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea,” it was widely celebrated as evidence that the prime minister was on track to forge a more inclusive and thus stable government in Ethiopia. But read against recent events, it is now clear that the achievement for which the prize was awarded — forging a new peace and “international cooperation” in the region — was part of a broader agreement to curtail TPLF influence over both countries. The deal that led to the peace prize was, in reality, a prelude to war.

Eritrea’s involvement makes the Ethiopian war more difficult to resolve, but it is hardly the only complicating factor from a foreign power. The Ethiopian government appears to have bombed towns in Tigray using drones purchased from authoritarian states including Turkey. It has also been emboldened by its strong relationship with China. As of 2020, China was the main source of foreign investment in Ethiopia, with its companies and corporations accounting for 31 percent of all brand-new projects last year (compared with the 21 percent that originated in the United States and the 5 percent in Britain). Ethiopia has also reduced its dependence on the West by diversifying its international partnerships. It receives a large amount of fungible money from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Persian Gulf states’ implicit support for Abiy’s shortsighted approach thus represents another barrier to peace.

Meet the new China strategy, same as the old China strategy

Against this complex backdrop, Western democracies have presented themselves as neutral, but their influence has also been problematic. Both London and Washington supported Abiy after he came to power, even when it became clear that his claim to be a democratizing reformer was little more than a public relations exercise. Ethiopia is key to anti-terrorism operations in the Horn of Africa; the country’s economic success has made it a poster child for foreign aid; Western governments fear ceding global influence to China. For all of these reasons, the United States and Britain were slow to publicly challenge Abiy’s handling of the Tigray issue — just as they tolerated the repressive strategies of his predecessors. These failures, and a tendency to underestimate the destabilizing potential of confrontation with the TPLF, emboldened Abiy at a critical moment.

A swift U-turn followed when the full horror of the conflict became clear. But U.S. efforts to use economic and military leverage to force Abiy to compromise have so far proved futile — as did the European Union’s decision to suspend about $100 million in budget support in a bid to secure greater humanitarian access to Tigray last December.

Among Western states, there appears to be growing consensus about the need to push back against leaders on both sides of the conflict, since armed groups have been accused of gross human rights violations. The United Nations has criticized the mistreatment of its staff by the Ethiopian government; U.S. Maj. Gen. William Zana, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, has suggested that American troops be used to respond to the crisis; a growing number of countries have called for a cease-fire. But since the conflict has inflamed popular grievances, triggered a proliferation of militias and raised major questions about how Ethiopia should be governed, the presence of so many regional spoilers could make peace talks drawn out and tortuous.

Though negotiations have the best chance of success if foreign powers act together, even African governments are deeply divided over how to engage. Egypt and Sudan are hostile to Abiy, who has refused to negotiate over a controversial dam that the Egyptian government believes is a threat to its very existence because it would restrict the country’s water supply. They have therefore adopted a more aggressive posture than the African Union, whose largely ineffectual mediation efforts have not been well coordinated with either Western governments or with neighboring countries such as Eritrea, Somalia and Kenya. Shifting regional alliances will further complicate this process: If countries including China, Russia and the United Arab Emirates sense that Abiy is close to being toppled, they may prepare for a transition by changing their positions in the hope of gaining influence within the new regime. (China in particular has strong historic ties to the TPLF.)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is visiting the region to build support for a diplomatic resolution. But the irony of a senior American leader talking about the need to preserve democracy, when the United States spent the last three decades providing economic and military support to repressive Ethiopian regimes, will not be lost on African leaders or the people of Ethiopia. Foreign powers cannot build an international coalition for peace without recognizing their own considerable errors — ones that have aggravated the conflict and made it all the more intractable. 

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