Nearly three months after it was signed, it appears that the tentative peace deal between the Ethiopian government and leaders of the country’s northern Tigray region is holding. Tigrayan forces have begun to disarm, basic services such as banking and telecommunications are being restored, and desperately needed humanitarian relief is making its way to Tigrayan civilians. Although thorny questions remain about the presence of Eritrean forces in Ethiopia, the status of contested territory, and accountability for the severe human rights abuses that characterized the two-year conflict, the momentum is toward a reduction in violence. For the United States, the top priority is supporting the implementation of the agreement and ending the suffering of civilians who have been denied access to food and medical care for much of the conflict.
But even in the best-case scenario, in which the parties move toward lasting peace without a backward glance, the Biden administration should resist the urge to return to business as usual in its relationship with the Ethiopian government. As European states work to quickly thaw relations with Addis Ababa and China continues to present itself as a steadfast friend to the country, Washington could feel compelled to join the crowd, afraid of being left out. But caution is in order. The war brutally dashed hopes that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed would be a champion of a more just and free Ethiopia. And it is no longer clear that Ethiopia and the United States share an understanding of the challenging peace and security issues confronting the Horn of Africa. Going forward, U.S. and Ethiopian interests and objectives will align less frequently.
Ethiopia is an endlessly complex country and has always been allergic to external actors whose policies smack of bullying or condescension. It remains undeniably important to the future trajectory of the region, and perennial policy issues still require Washington’s careful attention. These include how to avoid conflict among states that rely on the Nile River for fresh water and fear that Ethiopia’s giant hydroelectric project, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, could reduce their water supply. As ever, the United States will remain invested in the integrity and viability of the Ethiopian state, as the collapse of a country with a population 110 million would have destabilizing consequences far beyond the Horn of Africa. Even though U.S. interests remain largely consistent, in some cases, the desirability or wisdom of partnering with the Ethiopian government to achieve them has diminished, and the manner in which the United States engages the Ethiopian state will require an overhaul.
For many years, critics of U.S. policy in Ethiopia decried the personalization of the bilateral relationship. The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who cultivated strong relationships with senior U.S. officials until his death in 2012, was largely successful in sequestering sensitive topics, such as respect for civil and political rights, making it clear that discussion of such things was out-of-bounds. To maintain access to the powerful Meles, who could help advance U.S. security and development objectives, too often diplomats avoided difficult conversations. When Abiy rose to power in 2018, the United States resumed this approach. Abiy, with his youthful energy, initial sweeping reform agenda, and pro-Western rhetoric, seemed to embody many U.S. hopes for a more open Ethiopian society and less fraught bilateral relationship.
The critics were right in the Meles era, and their analysis is still valid today. The bilateral relationship should not revolve around one charismatic figure. It is understandable to want to return to the days when a powerful leader in Addis Ababa could advance U.S. security and diplomatic objectives, provided they overlapped with Ethiopian goals. But this type of relationship between the United States and Ethiopia sometimes required a willful blindness to the repressive methods used to maintain order within Ethiopia’s borders, and the past two years of conflict have made clear just how costly such an approach can be. Abiy marshaled historical grievances against the long-dominant and often brutal Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in service of a horrific military campaign that targeted the Tigrayan people and revived the specter of manmade famine as a weapon of war. He also used resentment of the United States’ support for the TPLF government of the past to undermine Washington’s credibility and dismiss current U.S. concerns. Abiy and his supporters insinuated that Washington was full of TPLF partisans, using a mixture of whataboutism and imagined neocolonial conspiracies in responding to U.S. calls for open humanitarian access routes and American alarm about ethnic profiling. Many in the Ethiopian diaspora, some of whom left the country because of the TPLF’s repression, were eager to amplify that message.
Depersonalizing the relationship would not just represent a lesson learned; it would also acknowledge a political reality. Abiy was once regarded as a dynamic reformer and highly sought after as a champion for African interests. Abiy and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa led the region’s advocacy for economic relief in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, achieving real results at the G-20. But today, Abiy is a diminished figure. The brutality of the Tigray campaign and the obfuscations that his government offered up over the past two years about everything from civilian casualties to foreign troops to mass arrests are impossible to square with the “breath of fresh air” narrative that buoyed his initial popularity. His dependence on Eritrea and the irredentist Fano militia forces, which seek more territory and influence for Amhara nationalists, has left observers wondering who is really in charge. These partnerships also constrain his room to maneuver politically. His domestic wartime supporters may desert him if peacetime fails to deliver the dividends they seek. After rebuffing African elders and largely sidelining the African Union’s efforts to stop the devastating Tigray conflict until the siege had done enough damage to make Addis comfortable, Abiy is now an unlikely and uncomfortable frontman for African equities.
Indeed, as important as Ethiopia’s trajectory is to the future of the strategically vital Horn of Africa, the notion that its leadership can now wield the kind of regional and even continental influence it once enjoyed is wishful thinking. Ethiopia is not as strong as it once was. The country’s military no longer appears as capable as it did in the past. Until 2020, Ethiopia was the world’s largest contributor of troops to international peacekeeping missions. But it scaled back its commitments to security operations abroad to focus its forces on the Tigray crisis. Even after keeping more of its troops inside the country, Ethiopia needed significant intervention from its neighbor Eritrea and supplemental forces from regional militias to pursue its military aims on its own territory. Reports indicate that the Tigray conflict also saw Ethiopia turn to Iran, among others, for military support, which should give pause to any policymaker imagining that Addis will be interested in supporting a rules-based international order anytime soon.
Ethiopia’s economy is also struggling. It was once one of the fastest-growing in Africa and a tantalizing opportunity for investors intrigued by plans to open up previously state-controlled sectors such as telecommunications and banking. But today, Ethiopia needs to restructure $30 billion in debt and rein in inflation. External shocks, such as COVID-19 and Russia’s war in Ukraine, have been compounded by the war in Tigray. Investors excited about an important African market are less confident after years of horrifying headlines and the state’s demonstrated willingness to cut off banking, utilities, and communications in large parts of the country.
Going forward, it will be important for the United States to support accountability for those responsible for grave human rights violations perpetrated by all sides in the Tigray conflict—an effort sure to be difficult given the Ethiopian government’s hostility to the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia. Standing firm in support of accountability is an essential element of any lasting peace even though it will undoubtedly complicate the U.S.-Ethiopian relationship. But the overall thrust of U.S. policy toward Ethiopia should not be to punish the state for the abuses perpetrated in its name, or simply to signal U.S. disapproval of the horrific tactics employed over the course of the conflict. Such an approach would be as misguided as a return to the status quo ante. The United States cannot change the past, and a punitive posture would play into false and counterproductive narratives suggesting that the United States does not want Ethiopia to succeed while distracting policymakers from focusing on Ethiopia’s future.
Instead, the United States will need to assess the degree to which Ethiopia has become an instrument of Eritrea’s agenda in the region, which is fundamentally at odds with U.S. interests in a stronger, freer, and more stable Horn of Africa. Eritrea’s strategy is premised on a notion of strength that requires the weakness of others, particularly neighbors such as Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia, and an absolutist view of sovereign authority resistant to any institutional or normative pressure. Even if Eritrean troops fully withdraw from cities and towns in Tigray, that would not mean the end of Eritrean influence. The prospect of future Eritrean military intervention, Eritrea’s ongoing relationship with leaders and militia from Ethiopia’s Amhara region who fought alongside Asmara’s forces in the conflict, and Eritrean infiltration of Ethiopia’s national security establishment will continue to give Eritrea an alarming amount of leverage over Ethiopia. Should Eritrea become the animating force driving Ethiopian peace and security policies, promoting efforts to keep the region fragile and dotted with potential spoilers just waiting to be unleashed, then the United States will find itself countering Ethiopian policy rather than cooperating with it.
The bilateral relationship should not revolve around one charismatic figure.
The United States should continue to help lift Ethiopians out of poverty and allow the country to avoid economic collapse. That means supporting the G-20 Common Framework process to manage the country’s unsustainable debt, making smart development assistance investments, and encouraging trade and investment where opportunity exists. Washington’s decision about whether to reinstate Ethiopia’s eligibility for duty-free access to U.S. markets under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) should hinge on conditions on the ground throughout the country. In any case, with the current incarnation of AGOA expected to sunset in 2025, the parameters of the U.S.-Ethiopia trade relationship will be reshaped in the years ahead.
In pursuing all these issues, policymakers should not shy away from using what leverage exists to keep the peace process, including accountability for abuses, on track. They should also recognize that promoting stability over the long term in Ethiopia is not synonymous with supporting all the policies of the federal government. For example, Washington should keep a close eye on the relationship between economic policy in the country and efforts to settle the political debts that Abiy’s government incurred with specific ethnic constituencies. After what happened in Tigray, and in light of the ongoing violence in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest region, and elsewhere, it is not possible to take at face value the government’s claims that it is interested in creating opportunities for all its citizens equally. More selective exclusion from circles of political and economic influence will further undermine the Ethiopian stability that the United States seeks.
Finally, the United States needs to develop an over-the-horizon strategy aimed at better understanding the diversity of forces and interests that will influence Ethiopia’s direction. The powerbrokers who coalesced around Abiy in 2018 are not monolithic, and some are deeply concerned about the country’s stability and the degree to which Eritrea has penetrated the Ethiopian state. Few believe that the long-gestating national dialogue process, which is ostensibly intended to discuss how the country’s diversity should be reflected in its governing institutions, will resolve the tensions that threaten to tear Ethiopia apart. The federal authorities have profoundly weakened Tigrayan power, at tremendous cost to Ethiopians. But that does not mean that the center is strong. Domestic disillusionment with the leadership in Addis is widespread, although while fractious, fragmented politics may keep this frustration from uniting in opposition to the status quo.
The future of Ethiopia is for its citizens to decide. As U.S. diplomats work with care to prevent the disintegration of the Ethiopia state and to identify the areas in which bilateral cooperation could still bear fruit, they should simultaneously broaden their contacts beyond Abiy and his circle, and redouble their efforts to better understand the most likely scenarios for the future. The formalized national dialogue will not be the only space in which Ethiopians express their aspirations and frustrations. While any change in the country’s overall political direction will likely require the time-consuming process of building new coalitions, the current transactional, short-term approach to the country’s governance is bound to have a limited shelf life.