Ethiopia’s civil war has reached a turning point. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is making inroads to Addis Ababa, the capital, ready to face off against the federal military forces. The United States fears that the ethnic violence enveloping Ethiopia will plunge the country into civil war, a possibility that is more and more likely every day.
Yet, beyond a few nominal efforts, the United States has not taken any decisive actions to deter fighting or encourage negotiations. The threat of economic sanctions and withdrawal of security aid are not enough; the United States needs to bring the warring parties and their allies to the negotiating table to hammer out a peace deal to end the civil war for good.
A Year into the Conflict and No End in Sight
Just over a year ago, Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, deployed federal forces against the TPLF, the ruling party of the Tigray region in the north of the country after alleging that the rebel forces attacked a military base where federal forces were stationed. Fighting alongside Ethiopian forces are paramilitary fighters from the Amhara region south of Tigray. Eritrea – who fought a border war against Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000 when the TPLF governed Ethiopia– sent troops shortly after the war started to fight on the side of the Ethiopian forces. In less than a month, Ethiopian forces and its allies captured a majority of Tigray. Abiy declared victory.
However, in recent months, the fight shifted heavily in favor of the TPLF. The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) joined forces with the Tigrayan forces, and these two groups scored a strategic victory by driving federal forces out of Tigray in June. As the rebel fighters make their way to the capital, Mr. Abiy declared a state of emergency and called for ordinary citizens to take up arms should Addis Ababa fall under attack. The ethnic tensions bubbling over have left Ethiopia on the precipice of a potentially ruinous civil war, causing the State Department to urge all Americans to leave the country while also scaling back embassy staff.
The United States Needs More than Rhetoric and Threats
The United States is becoming increasingly alarmed over the prospect of Ethiopia devolving into a civil war. The unrest in Ethiopia – once thought of as a close U.S. strategic and counterterrorism partner – is a central theme, as well as the recent coup in Sudan, in Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Africa, where he is making stops in Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal. Speaking from Narobi, Kenay’s capital, on November 17, Blinken noted that the United States is “deeply concerned about escalating violence, the expansion of fighting throughout the country and what we see as a growing risk to the unity of and integrity of the state.” The Biden administration maintains a position of opposing any action by the TPLF on Addis Ababa and imploring Prime Minister Abiy to halt violence against civilians that have been likened to ethnic cleansing.
Yet, the United States has done little more than take minor against Ethiopia and apply rhetoric to the situation. Blinken has imposed sanctions against some Ethiopian officials. In May, the State Department announced visas bans on specific individuals believed to be involved in the crisis. Yet, these efforts have had little to no impact on the Ethiopian government to end the conflict. Over the summer, the administration imposed economic sanctions on an Eritrean military official for his role in the conflict. In September, President Biden took a more concrete step in issuing an executive order that authorized an array of economic sanctions; however, the United States haven’t imposed any sanction under that order that in the hopes that the threats alone would be enough.
In early November, Biden suspended Ethiopia from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a program that gives African nations duty-free access to the United States in return for meeting certain conditions. State Department officials are also pushing for the accounts of ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia to be recognized as genocide, while no final determination has been made as the United States is still reportedly reviewing the matter. On top of sanctions, the United States announced in March its decision not to lift the pause in assistance imposed by the last administration, another critical step. While the actions already taken are moving in the right direction to defusing the civil war, the United States needs to step up its diplomatic pressure if it is serious about ending this conflict and ensuring the stability of the fragile Horn of Africa region.
A Deal to Bring Peace
The Biden administration is reportedly calling for peace talks. Despite reports that both sides, according to the U.S. special envoy to the Hortn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, that a “ceasefire doesn’t seem anywhere near,” the United States needs to take matters into its own hands and to start pressing the warring parties harder through diplomatic channels, and this encouragement should start at the top. The United States should leverage its once close ties with Ethiopia to encourage the government to come to the negotiating table. The United Nations is noticeably absent from any true effort to forge peace talks, and the United States should work closely through its U.N. Security Council allies.
A regional approach could also garner some success by getting the African Union – which maintains its headquarters in Addis Ababa – involved in securing a peace deal. Beyond the African Union, appealing to Ethiopia’s neighbors that share close partnerships with the United States, including Kenya and Uganda, to help solve the crisis. Only an enduring peace deal that keeps the players accountable will truly end the threat of civil war in Ethiopia. And it is too important for the United States to not try to bring all parties to the negotiating table.