As Ethiopia crosses the one-year mark since the start of its devastating war in the Tigray region, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is preparing the capital, Addis Ababa, for one final stand against a blitzkrieg attack at the hands of Tigrayan rebels, who months ago turned the tide of the war and who now stand poised to turn out the country’s Nobel prize-winning prime minister.
In the process, as international diplomats and Ethiopian-Americans scramble to leave the country, the risk of state-sponsored genocide, and even state collapse, remain frighteningly real scenarios that will have catastrophic consequences for the country, the region, and U.S. interests for years to come.
This was an unfathomable scenario at the start of the conflict. Abiy promised a limited “law-and-order operation” against a select number of Tigrayan leaders who challenged his rule through, in his mind, an unwavering commitment to an anachronistic ethnically-based system they put in place during their more than 20 years of autocratic rule.
In reality, Abiy likely never believed Tigrayans would “go along to get along” and so set about from the start of his time in office to weaken their ties to the state and ensure their future banishment from power. It was those efforts to treat Tigrayans as Tigrayans treated the majority of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups during their time in power that created the self-fulfilling prophecy Abiy is now struggling to survive.
But with the bulk of the Ethiopian army’s best fighters and tacticians hailing from Tigray, the government has slowly seen its overwhelming strategic advantage eroded on the battlefield against a rump force more adept at insurgency combat and clearly more motivated by a fight for its literal survival.
The government’s response to its own tactical shortcomings and sagging morale has been to wage an asymmetric battle against not just the Tigrayan Defense Forces but more broadly against the people of Tigray. A recent joint report from the United Nations and Ethiopia’s own human rights body points out the widespread use of sexual violence as central to the government’s war strategy.
An ongoing government humanitarian blockade of the region has for months put more than 900,000 civilians at risk of famine and forced Tigrayan fighters to expand their fight into neighboring Amhara and Afar regions in a bid to break the siege, expanding the death toll and humanitarian suffering.
There are similar efforts to scapegoat all Tigrayans, led personally through the prime minister’s statements and state media, though the rampant use of hateful and dehumanizing speech makes the case that the government may well be inciting genocide as part of its last-ditch defense effort to save itself.
Reports this past week of mass roundups of Tigrayans living in and around Addis Ababa, under a far-reaching state of emergency declaration “to ensure national security,” suggest a possible last-ditch effort to deter the oncoming onslaught by holding hostage an entire people.
As the situation deteriorates, and the vast human and economic implications begin to take shape for the region, Ethiopia’s neighbors have only just begun to respond. Forced by the possible fall of one of Africa’s most important cities and the continent’s diplomatic capital, after months of callously treating the devastating conflict as Ethiopia’s “internal affair,” Kenya, Uganda and the African Union itself are finally calling for a ceasefire and political talks.
While Washington and its European allies have been sustained in their condemnations of the violence and abuses, they have done little to force either side’s hand to relent. Importantly, a bipartisan Senate bill, introduced last week in the Foreign Relations Committee, makes use of the Biden administration’s own Executive Order sanctions regime — rolled out in September but never applied — by mandating “the imposition of targeted sanctions against individual actors … undermining efforts to resolve the conflict or profit from it.”
Coupled with a freeze of more than $200 million in trade preferences — which, again, the administration was forced to announce last week under congressional deadline — and efforts to impose costs on belligerents are only beginning to take shape after a year of fighting.
As Prime Minister Abiy prepares what is possibly a final, bloody stand in the war he has wrought, will last-minute calls for calm and pressure tactics be enough to change the calculations of the warring parties and avoid catastrophe in the Horn of Africa?
Cameron Hudson is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. He previously served as director for African affairs at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush Administration. Follow him on Twitter @_hudsonc.