The Biden Administration claims it is working to stop a humanitarian crisis from worsening, but it’s acting on its own agenda: keeping Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in power.
BY EDWARD HUNT NOVEMBER 18, 2021 9:06 AM
s rebel forces gain momentum in the war in Ethiopia, advancing toward the capital city of Addis Ababa with the goal of overthrowing the African country’s repressive government, U.S. officials are calling for an end to the fighting in the hope of saving the Ethiopian government from collapse.
“Without question the situation is getting worse, and we are, frankly, alarmed,” Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, a U.S. special envoy to the region, said earlier this month.
U.S. officials fear that, without an end to the fighting, the rebels could oust the ruling Ethiopian prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who started the war last year by launching a military incursion into Tigray and implementing a blockade that has created one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
Currently, U.S. diplomats are pressuring leaders on both sides to stop the fighting and enter into negotiations. Concerned about the implications of a rebel-takeover for U.S. interests in the Horn of Africa, some U.S. observers have begun calling for a military intervention.
The United States should consider “sending troops to East Africa,” even if it is politically unpopular, according to former U.S. military official Admiral James Stavridis, who is currently the managing director of the Carlyle Group, a global investment firm.
U.S. leaders say that they are trying to prevent the country from devolving into a full-blown humanitarian crisis, but what they really fear is that the rebels will seize power and reverse the neoliberal and geopolitical agenda of Abiy. They want to prevent the overthrow of the embattled Ethiopian prime minister, whom they see as the key to strengthening U.S. power in the region.
The war in Ethiopia began on November 4, 2020, when Abiy launched a major military operation in Tigray, a northern province that is home to about six million people. Abiy claimed to be responding to a rebel attack against an army base, but the Tigrayans insist that they were being targeted. Days before the start of the military operations, observers detected a military build-up in the region.
A year of fighting in Tigray, coupled with the Ethiopian government’s blockade of aid to the area, has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. News reports indicate that thousands of people have died. An estimated 90 percent of the population in Tigray requires humanitarian assistance. Nearly a million people are facing famine-like conditions, and more than two million people have fled their homes.
“It’s mostly government restrictions, bureaucratic restrictions that have prevented the type of humanitarian access from getting to the people of Tigray, and we see signs of famine and near-famine conditions,” Feltman acknowledged.
The full extent of the crisis remains unknown, largely because the Ethiopian government has prevented human rights groups from accessing the area.
It is likely that several of the parties to the conflict, including the Tigrayan rebels, have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Earlier this year, an internal U.S. government report concluded that the Ethiopian government and allied militias directed a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Tigray. A more recent joint investigation by the United Nations and an Ethiopian human rights commission found that all sides have committed violations of human rights.
“We’ve witnessed widespread human rights abuses and atrocities,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on November 8. “We’ve seen credible, documented, and persistent reports, from a wide range of sources, of looting, displacement, extrajudicial executions, rape, and sexual violence as weapons of war.”
The Ethiopian government is waging war with the intent of destroying the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a leftist political party that has dominated Ethiopia’s politics for most of the past three decades. Before Abiy rose to power in 2018, the TPLF was the vanguard of the country’s ruling political coalition. For years, the TPLF-led coalition oversaw a strong independent state that directed the country’s economic development while dominating much of the Horn of Africa.
After Abiy rode a wave of social unrest into power in 2018, he began moving to erode the TPLF’s political power, often through purges of Tigrayan officials. In late 2019, Abiy took a major step toward consolidating his political power by transforming the ruling coalition into a new political party that excluded the TPLF.
The United States has always held mixed views of the TPLF. Despite decades of cooperation with the former TPLF-led coalition, U.S. officials have wanted to see political change in Ethiopia.
For years, the United States opposed the TPLF’s form of state-directed economic development. A longstanding U.S. goal was to build opposition to the ruling Tigrayan party, which U.S. officials saw as an obstacle to neoliberal reforms and geopolitical transformation in the Horn of Africa.
A 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks reveals a proposal by U.S. diplomat Donald Yamamoto for the empowerment of opposition forces and the implementation of neoliberal reforms in Ethiopia. “The United States can induce such a change, but we must act decisively, laying out explicitly our concerns and urging swift action,” Yamamoto noted.
When Abiy first rose to power, U.S. officials were highly supportive of him, viewing him as a transformative leader who would steer Ethiopia in a new direction. They favored Abiy’s neoliberal plan for opening the country’s markets and his geopolitical program of making peace with Eritrea, a country that borders Ethiopia to the north and lies along the strategically important Red Sea.
“It is very rare that you have a government with so many good intentions,” Tibor Nagy, a State Department official, told Congress at the time.
As Abiy made peace with Eritrea, later receiving a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, he pushed through major economic reforms that began the process of dismantling the country’s state-controlled economic system, opening the country’s markets to foreign investors, and marginalizing the former ruling Tigrayans.
“He is extremely eager to open up trade and commerce in Ethiopia with other companies,” Nagy explained.
After Abiy launched the military incursion into Tigray, U.S. officials remained largely silent about the move. Some officials in the Trump Administration called for an end to the fighting, but they did not try to move the two sides toward negotiations. Some high-level U.S. officials also blamed the TPLF for starting the war.
Since the Biden Administration entered office, it has moved slowly to address the conflict. Although it has taken some steps, such as making critical statements about the Ethiopian government, issuing visa restrictions, and threatening Ethiopian leaders with sanctions, it has done little to pressure the Ethiopian government into ending its humanitarian blockade of Tigray.
Some Republican officials have discouraged the Biden Administration from doing anything that would impede the Ethiopian government’s military campaign in Tigray. This past May, Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, visited Abiy to express his support.
Now that the Tigrayan rebels are marching on the capital, the Biden Administration is growing increasingly concerned. Administration officials say that they want to prevent the conflict from spreading throughout the rest of the country, just as Stavridis claimed in his call for a military intervention.
The apparent real priority of the United States, however, is keeping Abiy in power; U.S. leaders do not want to see a Tigrayan victory in the war, fearing that it would return the TPLF to power.
“Let me be clear,” Feltman said. “We oppose any TPLF move to Addis, or any attempt by the TPLF to besiege Addis.”