Tigray conflict: Once a trusted Western ally, Ethiopia becomes a strategic headache

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As the battle between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government and rebels from the Tigray region continues, tensions are growing between Washington and its Ethiopian former ally. The Biden administration is now considering imposing sanctions against Addis Ababa, once considered a strategic and trustworthy partner in an unstable East Africa.

The situation in Ethiopia continues to deteriorate amid ongoing fighting between pro-government forces and Tigrayan rebels. As Tigrayan forces gained the upper hand in recent weeks and are now closing in on the capital, the federal government has launched a campaign against any international organisations still active in the country, including the United Nations, accusing them of collaborating with the enemy. The government ordered the expulsion of seven UN agency officials accused of "interference" on September 30.

The UN announced on Wednesday that 72 of its World Food Programme (WFP) drivers were being held in a northern town on the only road leading into Tigray, which is facing a severe threat of famine. The day before (November 9), at least 16 Ethiopian UN employees were arrested in the capital Addis Ababa.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government has intensified its crackdown as the United States, which remained neutral, has been leading diplomatic efforts for several months to put an end to the civil conflict.

But now Washington is considering levying fresh sanctions on Addis Ababa in the coming days or weeks, according to a senior State Department official. "We can use them quite quickly," the official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We'll see in the coming days how things unfold."

Ethiopia considers any such measures as a betrayal by one of its closest allies.

Washington shifted from words to action on Friday by imposing sanctions on the Eritrean military and other Eritrea-based individuals and entities for their roles in the neighbouring northern Ethiopia conflict.

"Eritrean forces have operated throughout Ethiopia during the conflict and have been responsible for massacres, looting and sexual assaults," a Treasury Department statement said.

Both Asmara and Addis Ababa have denounced the move. "The real target for sanctions and further tougher actions by the US government and the greater international community should be directed towards the TPLF," Ethiopia's foreign ministry said in a statement, referring to the Tigray People's Liberation Front rebel group.

'Reassessing relations’

Early this month US President Joe Biden announced Ethiopia’s exclusion from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) as of January 1, 2022. The measure was unveiled two weeks after Biden signed an executive order paving the way for sanctions, including the seizure of assets and suspending the financial transactions of parties involved in the conflict.

"We are not imposing sanctions at this time on elements aligned with the government of Ethiopia and TPLF,” the main rebel movement, “to allow time and space to see if these talks can make progress," US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a statement on Friday. He warned that the United States would not hesitate to target both cites with future measures if diplomacy fails.

For Biden, the situation in northern Ethiopia “constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”, he wrote in an executive order on September 17.

Bilateral tensions have been rising since May, when Washington introduced visa restrictions on Ethiopian and Eritrean officials accused of having "taken no meaningful steps to end hostilities". The Ethiopian government issued a warning at the time, saying it would "be forced to reassess its relations with the United States, which might have implications beyond our bilateral relationship".

Although the Biden administration wants to increase the pressure on Ethiopian leaders, it took seven months to put in place these first concrete measures.

"The United States has an interest in maintaining good relations with Ethiopia. They benefit from a trusted and key regional partner in an area dominated by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, of which Washington is suspicious," said Gérard Prunier, a historian specialising in the Horn of Africa.

Washington has long considered Ethiopia an important ally in the international fight against terrorism, particularly because of its proximity to Somalia, where al Qaeda-linked Islamist group Al Shabaab is based. Addis Ababa has also actively participated in UN missions by providing large contingents of troops. The US, on the other hand, is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to the country, with an estimated $1 billion a year donated through UN agencies.

A Western disappointment

The international community was slow to react to the Tigray conflict in part because of its faith in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won a Nobel Prize for his role in ending the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea. After becoming the leader of a country in the grip of a political crisis and plagued by ethnic conflicts in April 2018, the new prime minister implemented reforms to bring Ethiopia closer to its neighbour and regional rival Eritrea, ending a bitter war that killed tens of thousands of people. The war officially lasted until a July 2018 peace deal.

The peace agreement earned Ahmed the Nobel Prize in October 2019.

Africa’s youngest head of government became a symbol on the continent and was soon being courted by Western capitals. In March 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron praised Ahmed’s modern reforms and courage and signed a bilateral defence agreement. The deal was suspended in August 2021 as the conflict in Tigray intensified.

"The United States hailed Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's arrival in power. It is true that the evolution of the situation puts them at odds, and not only with Washington. Many people believed in him," Prunier said of Ahmed.

"No one could have imagined that this political newcomer, who promised openness and modernity, would suddenly launch a war to assimilate Tigray (which was officially a semi-autonomous region) that is totally incompatible with the reality of Ethiopian diversity."

Partnership ‘not sustainable’

As Ethiopia marked the first anniversary of the conflict in Tigray in early November, US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, special envoy for the Horn of Africa, published a lengthy piece on the Department of State website saying that "the United States and others cannot continue 'business as usual' relations with the Government of Ethiopia".

"The extraordinary partnership we have enjoyed is not sustainable while the military conflict continues to expand," he wrote, condemning the recurrent blockage of humanitarian aid to famine-threatened Tigray and expressing indignation at the expulsion of the "key UN officials". Feltman vigorously denounced the move, noting that there were "more UN humanitarian staff expelled in a single day by the Ethiopian government than Bashar al-Assad’s regime has expelled in 10 years of war in Syria".

"The US has been very patient. That being said, its expectations over Ethiopia are modest, because it is far from being a priority for them in the same way that China or Iran are," Prunier said. "But [the United States] no longer has any confidence in Abiy Ahmed, and hope to find a functional ally at least. By imposing sanctions against the government, at a time when it seems to be losing the battle, they are planning for the aftermath," he observed.

This story has been adapted from the original in French.

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