Fighting in Ethiopia threatens US security interests
It is a grave mistake to frame the Ethiopian conflict narrowly as a humanitarian and human rights problem. It is a regional crisis that threatens U.S. security interests. The United States must work, foremost with African countries, to stop the fighting before it is too late.
Four months after the outbreak of fighting in the Tigray region, the continent’s second-most populous country is unraveling. Ethiopia had been a lynchpin of stability for more than two decades, distinguishing itself as one of the largest peacekeeping contributors in the world and an engine of economic growth in East Africa. Its descent into horrific, unconscionable violence — in Tigray, as well as other parts of the country — threatens the broader region’s security. It has undercut the effectiveness of Ethiopian forces in Somalia and South Sudan, and it has contributed to an armed border standoff with Sudan. If unresolved, it will impose steep costs on the international community as it struggles to manage the pandemic and complex crises elsewhere.
It is imperative to take the following actions to end the war: build an international consensus, increase the pain for the conflict’s belligerents, establish credible benchmarks, and support an African-led dialogue.
First, until there is consensus, the Ethiopian government will continue to deny there are impediments to humanitarian access. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement asking international partners to address the crisis in Tigray through action at the United Nations is a step in the right direction. U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who assumed the UN Security Council presidency this month, has indicated that she intends to table the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia.
For the past four months, council members sidelined discussions on Ethiopia, relegating them to the informal “any other business” (AOB) agenda items. The government of Ethiopia has benefitted from this bureaucratic work-around because there is no public record of AOB topics, forestalling concrete action. The United States and the African Council members — Kenya, Niger and Tunisia — should insist on adding Ethiopia to the agenda. If the African governments stand firm, security council consensus can be forged and the international community finally will be able to tackle this crisis.
Second, international condemnation goes only so far. It won’t change behavior, and the combatants will continue to rip the country apart short of real consequences. The international community has to increase the costs to Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for continuing the killing. The recent reports released by Amnesty and the Ethiopia Human Rights Commission detailing human rights abuses conducted by Eritrean forces should serve as the basis for sanctions on Eritrea. This measure, echoing an earlier sanction regime on Asmara for its support of al-Shabaab and illegal deployment of troops in a neighboring country, will function as a warning to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. More importantly, the sanctions will serve as a pressure point to end the war, in part because Ethiopian operations in Tigray depend on Eritrean forces.
Third, the international community should pause the current International Monetary Fund (IMF) debt relief negotiations with Ethiopia and the U.S. Development Finance Corporation should suspend its up to $500 million loan in support of Ethio Telecom’s privatization. There is no justification for a major financial boost when Addis Ababa is refusing to end the fighting and denying life-saving assistance to its people. Similarly, French, Emirati, Kenyan and South African telecommunication companies may need to reconsider their bids to operate in Ethiopia until the conflict ends. Not only are there significant reputational risks involved, but it is hardly a sound investment when the government imposes communication blackouts to prosecute its war.
China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), all of which have substantial investments in and relations with Ethiopia, also should press the combatants to agree to a ceasefire. Saudi Arabia is especially important since it previously used its considerable financial largesse to facilitate rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The United States should not hesitate to expend political capital to nudge these governments into action.
Finally, it is critical to establish credible benchmarks to move forward. Humanitarian access is the responsibility of all governments, and it is unacceptable to reward Addis Ababa for living up to a universal standard. In addition to the expulsion of Eritrean troops, the Ethiopians should agree to a “no fly zone” as a confidence-building measure. The government must accept an international mediator to resolve the dispute between the government and TPLF that has metastasized into a regional crisis.
The African Union has appointed a Mauritanian diplomat to address the Ethiopia-Sudan border dispute, but AU Chair (and DRC President) Félix Tshisekedi needs to go a step further. In past conflicts, African leaders, including former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere and former South African Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, waded into the most intractable conflicts to hammer out workable peace deals. Tshisekedi, as well as Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, have discussed the conflict with Vice President Kamala Harris and President Biden, respectively, and they should seize the opportunity to show real leadership.
Ethiopians are a proud people who deserve better than to watch their country unravel while the international community stands by. While fighting continues in Tigray, security incidents are multiplying in other parts of the country and it is evident that the calamity in Tigray is only the most severe and acute example of the forces tearing Ethiopia apart. Achieving sustainable peace requires properly framing the conflict as borne of Ethiopia’s failed ethnic federalism model and its lack of inclusivity, resulting in a regional crisis threatening global security. Abiy should rise to the hallowed status conferred to him by the Nobel Peace Prize, working with the African Union and international community to restore Ethiopia’s former standing as a major contributor to Africa’s progress.
Jendayi Frazer is former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, the Duignan Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Hoover Institution and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He is a former national intelligence officer for Africa, and he served at the National Security Council and Central Intelligence Agency.