AfricaArmed Conflict in TigrayEthiopiaEthiopia CrisisHorn of AfricaHumanitarian Crisis in TigrayOp/EdTigray regional stateUnited States

Op-Ed: US government’s blind spots on the current crisis in Ethiopia

Jeffrey Feltman U.S. special envoy to the Horn of Africa (Left) and Demeke Mekonnen, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Ethiopia during their discussion on May 10, 2021, in Addis Ababa (Photo: MFA)

By Ayele Gelan @AyeleGelan

Addis Abebe, June 10, 2021 – The recent US government sanction on Ethiopia has exacerbated polarization of public opinion among Ethiopians both at home and abroad. As it happens, even in normal times, political discourse in Ethiopia comes in black and white. If one adds any other colour to that mix, then one is in trouble. In the context of the current crisis, one is expected to be vehemently pro-TPLF or anti-TPLF. To complicate matters even further, in each case TPLF and the people of Tigray are conveniently jumbled together. 

The way the US government sanction was formulated seems to fall in this stereotype. The sanction was expected to be framed in such a way that it would damp down the emotionally charged public discourse in Ethiopia. In this piece, I will illustrate why and how the framing of the US sanction and the rhetoric accompanying it has perhaps inadvertently contributed to worsening divergence in public opinion. I will start by briefly discussing the nature of Ethiopia’s current crisis and setting the context, and then proceed to developing my argument, adducing evidence along the way.  

The setting

It is appropriate to start with the last episode in the fallouts between the federal government led by the Prosperity Party (PP) and the TPLF. The thread linking PP and TPLF was pulled so much in both directions for over two years that it was getting thinner by the day. It was snapped during the bitter disagreement between them over the decision to postpone Ethiopia’s 6th general election using COVID-19 as an excuse.  PP applied some formal machinations to conveniently interpret the constitution but effectively it unilaterally postponed the election without consultation to reach a consensus with major stakeholders.  

TPLF reached a tacit agreement with all other pro-federalist parties to reject PP’s insensitive decision.  The pro-federalist parties who held the same view with TPLF included the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which jointly had overwhelming support among the Oromo people, the largest region in Ethiopia both population and territory sizes.   

On the other hand, pro-unitary Amhara hegemonic nationalist parties and the so-called pan-Ethiopian parties, including Amhara ethnic nationalist political party (NAMA) and the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party (also known as EZEMA) supported PM Abiy’s decision to postpone the election.  

The OFC and OLF stated they would not recognize Abiy Ahmed’s administration after 25th October 2020, when the current government’s term limit was supposed to expire according to Ethiopia’s constitution.  

TPLF did not limit itself to such an ultimatum as not to recognize Abiy Ahmed’s administration after the term limit ended, they went ahead and conducted a regional election in Tigray.  

Meanwhile, a tragic landmark event took place in Addis Ababa on June 29th, 2020:  the renowned Oromo singer, Hachaluu Hundeesa was assassinated in dubious circumstances.  This was followed by massive protests in Oromia, accompanied by interethnic classes which led to losses of numerous innocent lives.  Tens of thousands of Oromo youth and key political leaders were thrown into jail.  The upheaval was used as a pretext to imprison almost all political leaders of OFC and OLF, sparing only the figureheads, chairpersons of the respective parties. This was reminiscent of Meles Zenawi era tricks, rarely touching the figureheads of political parties but sparing no other senior leaders and activists.  

PM Abiy Ahmed and the hardliners, with whom he chose to surround himself, harbored a strong anti-federalism stance.  They would have liked to see all federalists languish in prison.  That is exactly what they did when the government imprisoned prominent pro-Federalist leaders such as Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba and many other OFC and OLF leadership teams. TPLF was well-armed and too strong for federal security forces to attempt to imprison them like other leaders in the pro-federalist camp.  

In the circumstances, PM Abiy Ahmed chose to engage with TPLF through mediations. Elders, religious leaders, and notable personalities shuttled between Addis Abeba and Mekele, Tigray’s capital, particularly after TPLF successfully concluded the regional election, defying ultimatums from PM Abiy for dire consequences.  

In their responses to mediators each time they arrived in Mekele, as well as in their day-to-day rhetoric, TPLF steadfastly committed to a condition that they would agree to mediation only if the dialogue was inclusive of all political groups. They explicitly demanded that they enter into a dialogue with PM Abiy only if Pro-federalist leaders such as Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba, and other OLF leaders were released from prison and allowed to take part in the broad-based dialogue. This was the line of argument that TPLF held when the war broke out and before they disappeared into the Tigray mountains.   

Any effort to seek a durable and comprehensive solution to Ethiopia’s current crisis would start from this position, a position TPLF and pro-federalist forces held before war broke out in Tigray. TPLF, OFC, and OLF have made repeated calls for a national dialogue among political parties and the wider community to reach a consensus and form a caretaker or transitional government rather than forging ahead to hold a national election in the middle of chaotic security and political conditions. PM Abiy Ahmed and his hardliner and hegemonic nationalist supporters flatly refused to open opportunities for dialogue.  They resorted to violent threats both in rhetoric and action. That is why the bloody war broke out in Tigray, Oromia, and other regions. 

The trouble with the US government sanction lies in the fact that Tigray’s specific urgent humanitarian intervention and the broader national dialogue to Ethiopia’s democratic transition are so carelessly jumbled up together. It is appropriate to sort these issues into two separate categories. For instance, UK, France, Germany, and others have synchronized and framed Tigray-specific interventions:  immediate cessations of hostilities and unfettered access for humanitarian aid.  

Ironically, as if the US government were not the first in taking the initiative to intervene, now it seems the US would follow the Europeans. On 2nd June 2021, more than a week after the US government sanction was declared, the US Embassy Addis tweeted: “We agree with the UK that the humanitarian situation in #Tigray is rapidly deteriorating. A break in the fighting NOW, coupled with unfettered humanitarian access, will immediately help avert the risk of famine.”

We now proceed to examine the causes and consequences of the unsuitably framed US sanction. I start by highlighting the US Ethiopian bilateral diplomatic legacy established during the last three decades and then argue that the US government sanction was rooted in that legacy, losing sight of recent changes in the context. 

Something is not right!

During the TPLF-led EPRDF era, Ethiopia’s relationship with the rest of the world was turned into what one may call Orwellian Diplomacy.  For instance, USA-Ethiopia bilateral (USA-Ethiopia) was effectively tripartite (USA-Tigray-Ethiopia). This was pretty much the same for Ethiopia’s diplomatic relationship with any other rich nations.  Most diplomats have been operating with a mindset fixated on the way things have evolved during the last thirty years when TPLF has deliberately nudged them to think that “all Ethiopian peoples or regions are equal but some are more equal than others.” We can understand the US government sanction only if we pitch it in the context of the style of diplomacy established during the TPLF led EPRDF era.

With this background, I will endeavor to explain complex issues surrounding the US government’s sanction on Ethiopia.  The statement by the US Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, gives appropriate attention to the human rights tragedy unfolding in Tigray. The sanctions are primarily in response to the unmet conditions for unfettered humanitarian assistance and lack of commitment to ending the human rights abuses in Tigray. But it goes further in seeking political solutions. I am interested in shedding some light on the framing and the rhetoric of the US government sanction to end the political crisis and polarization in Ethiopia. The announced US sanction ends with the following conditionality statement: 

The United States reiterates its calls for a durable, political solution to the crisis. We are committed to supporting efforts to resolve the crisis in Tigray and help Ethiopians advance reconciliation and dialogue to overcome current divisions.

It follows that the US sanction is firmly hinged not only on the humanitarian tragedy but also the underlying political crisis in Tigray. Although this appears a rather appropriate approach to conflict resolution, the underlying assumption is that the political crisis in Tigray is peculiar from the rest of the country and overlooks the fact that the war is a political battle over the future of the Ethiopian federation.  The durable political solution being referred to seems to imply stopping the war and entering a dialogue with TPLF.  

There is a clear intent to steer away from the wider crisis in the rest of Ethiopia as a political problem. At the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing, entitled Ethiopia in Crisis: U.S. Strategy and Policy Response, one of the witnesses were the Honourable Robert F. Godec, Acting Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of African Affairs. Acknowledging the appropriateness of the focus on Tigray, Chairman Menendez asked him to explain crises elsewhere in Ethiopia. His reply was the usual mantra: interethnic clashes on grazing land and waterholes, territorial disputes, etc. without even acknowledging political and security crises that have engulfed Oromia Regional State which is nothing but a battle over the future of Ethiopian federalism.  

Senator Coon tried to nudge him in the right direction, mentioning to him that Oromo youth who brought Abiy Ahmed to power have mostly been thrown into jail or joined the armed struggle but to no avail.  In my opinion, Ambassador Godec still fell short of comprehending the whole picture.  This was worrying!  Senator Coon, who went to Ethiopia for a one-off mission, was more informed and understood the complexity of the political crisis in Ethiopia than the Ambassador who is tasked with affairs on every matter to do with Africa.

The Inertia

Now it becomes clear that the US sanction and the conditionalities that go with it are framed with the established diplomatic style I alluded to earlier.  For the US diplomats, the politics in Tigray matters more than any other region in Ethiopia.  This emerges from the diplomatic capital TPLF has built over the decades for itself. That is the way the US has operated ever since they installed TPLF in Addis Ababa, back in 1991.  

The chart shown here is taken from a US foreign assistance database. For instance, the US government donated about USD one billion to Ethiopia in 2017, that is three years before the war broke out in Tigray. The USAID allocates funds for implementation by partner organizations and retains a portion to be implemented by itself.  The chart displays the top 10 ranking partners.   

Relief Society of Tigray was the third-largest recipient partner organization. This ranking has been maintained over the last two decades.  What is astonishing is the amount of funds that USAID retains to allocate for its operation in Ethiopia was one rank below the sizable fund allocated to Tigray through the Relief Society of Tigray.  

In addition to funds allocated exclusively to Relief Society to use in its region, Tigray gets funds allocated through all other partners like every other region in Ethiopia.  

It seems the USA is still trapped in a diplomatic trajectory that was manipulated and created by TPLF during the three decades. The recent sanction, 

that extends a call for a national dialogue more explicitly to TPLF and the Ethiopian government, perfectly reflects the existing bias and the legacy of the tripartite diplomacy between Ethiopia-USA-TPLF.  This will prove to be unproductive in many ways.  The US may need to reconsider its position, shifting to a US-Ethiopia diplomacy that reflects the changing reality on the ground. 

Reframing the sanction

The way the US government sanction has been framed has created a perception that the motivation of the US diplomats is not only seeking a solution to the Tigray crisis but also to save the TPLF.  Given the image TPLF has in the minds of many Ethiopians, it is not surprising that many political groups have viewed the move by the US government not only with suspicion but also with fear that TPLF might be empowered once again.  

Therefore, reframing the US government intervention would partly address these concerns.  On the other hand, forging ahead with implementing the sanctions with the conditions already set would mean handing ammunition to hardliners surrounding PM Abiy to rekindle popular sentiment and continuing to trumpet the national sovereignty mantra.  

The US government sanction has already been enacted and now it may not be feasible that it will be substantially revised.  However, there is a clear case for tweaking its implementation.  

In a way this has already been started, given the US Embassy Addis tweet cited [1] earlier in which the US government expressed flexibility in the implementation of the sanction.  There are two diametrically opposite problems in the way the international community has framed intervening in Ethiopia’s current crisis.  

On the one hand, the European countries seem to have consulted and synchronized their actions, coming up with clearly set conditions to intervene in Tigray: immediate ceasefire and unfettered access for humanitarian assistance.  The strength of the European approach lies in the focus, sharpness, and specificity for conditions of intervention in Tigray.  However, the crisis in Tigray is a manifestation of the wider country-wide governance crisis in Ethiopia.  Civil war in Tigray has been intensive and catastrophic in every sense, otherwise, civil wars are happening at a wider scale in Oromia, Benishangul. It is just that Oromia has geography and demography much larger than Tigray and the conflicts there are more extensive than intensive as in Tigray. The European are yet to come up with clearly set out conditions for countrywide intervention to seek durable solutions and democratic transition.  

On the other hand, the US sanction hinged primarily on the crisis in Tigray but not being explicit to recognize the widespread crisis and civil war elsewhere in Ethiopia.  Unlike the European countries, the US government has shown a degree of commitment to seeking durable solutions for countrywide troubles, but that commitment was posed rather vaguely.    

Decoupling the Issues

It follows from the foregoing discussion that bringing about a durable and comprehensive solution to Ethiopia’s crisis would require the US government to decouple the issues: 

  1. Refine its approach by clearly distinguishing interventions, and measures to resolve the crisis in Tigray from the national dialogue. This amounts to integrating the US Embassy Addis message to follow and work with European countries to enforce the cessation of ceasefire and unfettered humanitarian aid in Tigray. 
  2. Lead the international community to explicitly set conditions for national dialogue between all political forces and civil societies in Ethiopia. The US government would need to considerably revise the way “national dialogue” was vaguely, loosely, or ambiguously defined in the context of conditions set in framing the sanction.  Such a broader national dialogue was expressed wishes of the pro-federalist parties, whose leaders have been thrown into jails, and the TPLF who entered into war with the government precisely because PM Abiy Ahmed and the hardliners surrounding flatly refused to allow national dialogue to take place.   

In other words, the scope of the national dialogue needs to be explicitly broadened to include pro-federalist parties in Oromia and the rest of the Southern regions, which represent the interest of more than two-third of the people of Ethiopia.  Key players in the pro-federalist camp are languishing in prison.  It is necessary that these leaders are released from prison for any meaningful national dialogue to take place. AS


Editor’s Note: Ayele Gelan (PhD) is an economist by training. He can be reached at He tweets@AyeleGelan

Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button