Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s talks in Ethiopia and his announcement of new U.S. aid this week advance vital steps for building peace in the country and greater stability in East Africa. Yet those tasks remain arduous and will require difficult compromises on all sides in Ethiopia’s conflicts. U.S. and international policymakers face a tough calculation over how to mesh critical goals: restoring full trade and economic assistance to help Ethiopia meet its people’s needs while also pressing all sides to advance justice and reconciliation to address the atrocities committed and damage caused during the war.
Blinken met Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and signatories of the truce that was reached in November to end the two-year civil war between the central government and the northern region of Tigray. These included Ethiopia’s national security advisor, Redwan Hussein, and the spokesperson of the Tigrayan authorities, Getachew Reda. Blinken stressed “the importance of accountability for the atrocities perpetrated by all parties” in the war, and since the truce, which included killings, sexual violence and starvation of civilians, according to U.N. factfinders. Economic recovery, including an International Monetary Fund loan and a resumption of duty-free exports to the United States under its African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), is a priority for the Ethiopian government. Blinken expressed U.S. readiness to advance those goals in tandem with steps by Ethiopia and the Tigrayan leadership to consolidate peace. And he announced a new $331 million in U.S. humanitarian aid to support the process.
Blinken, who also met African Union leaders, is the latest in a steady stream of high-level U.S. official visitors in Africa — a sign of the sustained, high-level U.S. engagement that’s needed both to advance peace in Ethiopia and for the U.S.-proclaimed effort to build a broad, new partnership with the continent. Since hosting December’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, the U.S. government has sent Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, First Lady Jill Biden and other senior State Department officials on tours in Africa. Vice President Kamala Harris this week announced a tour in coming days to Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia, and President Biden and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo have announced plans to visit later this year.
Amid East Africa’s web of conflicts, many of them at least indirectly connected, difficult but vital steps remain to convert Ethiopia’s cease-fire in Tigray into a sustainable, nationwide peace, according to Susan Stigant, who directs USIP programs in Africa.
This truce between Ethiopia and the Tigrayan forces is about four months old. What steps are next to consolidate it?
The truce was an important step. It silenced the guns. It opened a pathway to address critical humanitarian needs. For those most directly impacted by the violence over two years, this cannot be understated.
Going forward it’s important to remember the complexity of this conflict, which has included not just those two forces, but also troops from Eritrea and fighters from Ethiopia’s Amhara region fighting alongside the government, against the Tigrayan forces. All of those forces need to move to agreed areas and keep the guns silent. Forces are made up of people — and those people need to be fed and their basic needs provided for. In the medium term, many of the young people who took up arms will need to transition back to life as normal. To do this, they must have confidence that their families and communities are safe — which means having trust that leaders can reach a deal on the many political questions facing Tigray. These include the formation of its interim administration, its relationship with Ethiopia, and Ethiopia overall. People leaving forces also need jobs and a way to make sense of and deal with the violence that they witnessed or were involved in.
The necessary next steps are also complex. As so often in peace processes, the combatants and those facilitating their process will need to take multiple steps at once. Actually, to help focus American efforts in this overall direction, USIP convenes a bipartisan Senior Study Group on Peace and Security in the Red Sea Arena that has noted the need to simultaneously advance an Ethiopian peace process through negotiations among the direct combatants, marshalling a region-wide commitment to support that process, and surge humanitarian and economic support into a country facing widened impoverishment and vast damage to the economy. Analysts note that the Eritrean government of President Isaias Afewerki could prove obstructive if it sees developments as contrary to its interests.
A particular conundrum for U.S. and international policymakers is how to time, sequence and calibrate the restoration of economic assistance, including an Ethiopian return to the AGOA trade opportunity, in tandem with the absolutely critical need to end and address human rights violations. Obviously, that problem becomes more acute when the atrocities have been so pronounced and widespread — and tragically, this has been the case in this war. There is no simple answer here; there is a need for justice based on documentation, investigation, and fair processes. And there is a need for reconciliation that allows Ethiopians to find a way to live together in the future. It’s going to be a complex problem of management, which I think Secretary Blinken just signaled in his talks this week.
Beside those twinned issues is an imperative for humanitarian assistance, including the reopening of all of Tigray to access that aid. The United States highlighted this need — and the needs in other parts of the country impacted by the war, other conflicts and climate-induced drought — with its new commitment this week. This new aid brings the U.S. total of humanitarian assistance since 2020 to $3 billion.
Looking beyond Tigray, another complexity is that the war there was not the only conflict in Ethiopia. The central region of Oromia is seeing violence and human rights abuses in the conflict between the central government and the Oromo Liberation Army — and the same need to end violence and advance peace will apply there as in Tigray.
You’ve talked in the past of the ways that East Africa’s various conflicts affect each other. What is happening now at that regional level?
Well, especially for those unfamiliar with the region, just a glance at the map is helpful. Of Ethiopia’s six immediate neighboring states, nearly all are involved in conflicts that have triggered violence over recent years or have been impacted by refugees fleeing violence.
The high-level diplomatic travel of the past weeks reflects the interconnectedness of peace and security in the region. Prime Minister Abiy was just in South Sudan meeting with the leaders of its two main factions, which recently recently extended their own peace deal through 2024. The president of Somalia was just in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. The deputy head of Sudan’s military government was there as well. These meetings are indicative of the ongoing negotiations of alliances, interests and roles in the region — and the uncertainty around the truce in Ethiopia, the ongoing negotiations between the military and civilians in Sudan, and the fluid political transitions in Somalia and South Sudan.
In the region, there are also clear signs of leadership for peace. Notably, Kenya’s new government has taken an active role as part of the African Union efforts to advance a settlement in Ethiopia and to host talks to reduce violence in the conflicts in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
You wrote an essay a year ago that underscored the way that East Africa and its conflicts are affected, and at times fueled, by wider global rivalries. What is the current version of that picture?
In this peacemaking effort, people will be listening to the messages of regional powers that have had influence on the conflict and the region, including countries of the Gulf region, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Also Turkey. One development that people will be trying to interpret is the renewal this month of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran — a step that China brokered. That’s a new role for China in an adjacent space that East African governments will be noticing — and they will not have failed to notice, just a few weeks ago, that the new Chinese foreign minister, Qin Gang, included Ethiopia in his first international visit in office, a tour of five African countries.