A few years ago, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize for settling a long-running war with Eritrea, it looked like Ethiopia had a bright future. But over the past year, thousands have been killed in a revolt in Tigray Province and by the government’s efforts to suppress it. It is not yet a full civil war, one engulfing the entire population. But the combined military forces of the rebel groups are within a few of hundred miles of Addis Ababa, and the prime minister has called on all males to prepare for combat.
What are the U.S. interests in this conflict, and what should Washington be doing about it?
First, Ethiopia matters because of its size and potential. It occupies a huge landmass — more than 1.5 times the size of Texas — in the heart of the Horn of Africa. While landlocked, it is the economic and political center of the strategically important northeast coast of Africa. Addis Ababa is the diplomatic capital of Africa, hosting the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa as well as the African Union and large missions from other nations on the continent.
Second, Ethiopia is central to overall politics and security on the continent. I discussed this with a former U.S. ambassador to the African Union, Reuben Brigity, who said: “Ethiopia’s stability affects the entire region, from oil-rich South Sudan to the commercial hub of Kenya. Instability in Ethiopia will impact myriad U.S. interests in the region and beyond — from counterterrorism and trade to countering China and promoting democracy.”
East Africa and the Sahel region have become breeding grounds for terrorist groups, and President Donald Trump’s administration withdrew most U.S. troops from training and security missions there.
Third, we are seeing a huge humanitarian crisis unfolding. The United Nations projects mass refugee movements, greater atrocities and a high level of hunger if a full civil war breaks out. Dr. Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said, “Nobody is winning this reckless war which is engulfing increasing parts of the country.”
Finally, there is a large, activist Ethiopian population in the U.S.; many of those immigrants remain closely connected with family and friends in their homeland. Hence the large demonstrations lately in the Washington metropolitan area, which hosts an Ethiopian population estimated at 75,000 to 200,000 people.
For all these reasons, the U.S. has a strong national interest in helping with the crisis. The problem — much like in the Balkans in the 1990s — is the longstanding antipathies in the country. The heart of the opposition to the federal government is the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which has cobbled together a coalition of other disenfranchised minorities and is marching on the capital. Large numbers of the Oromo and the Amhara peoples, along with smaller ethnic groups, have joined the antigovernment coalition
The first step is negotiating a cease-fire leading to talks between the sides. International mediation efforts, led by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo under the aegis of the African Union, are attempting to create the conditions for pause in the fighting. U.S. diplomatic efforts are being led by special envoy Jeffrey Feltman, a highly regarded diplomat I’ve known for a decade — he’s a fellow graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, where I served as dean — and he’s a good choice for the job.
Washington needs to give Feltman freedom to use carrots and sticks: continuing to sanction the Ethiopian government for its human rights violations, while proffering aid and other assistance to the civilian population as an incentive for a cease-fire. Ethiopia should be considered for a new initiative by President Joe Biden’s administration and Johnson & Johnson to rush doses of Covid-19 vaccine into conflict zones.
The U.S. should also be willing to participate in a UN-led peacekeeping effort to separate the warring parties, and use its logistical capabilities to ensure that aid can flow to every area. The military’s U.S. Africa Command has deep knowledge of the region and the Ethiopians, and could help in structuring such a peacekeeping force.
Sending troops to East Africa may not play well in U.S. domestic politics. But three decades ago, the world stood by and watched a brutal civil war unfold in the small African nation of Rwanda. That was shameful. Ethiopia is far larger and more geopolitically important than Rwanda, and Africa is now the fastest-growing continent — it may flourish, or it could collapse into political chaos, starvation and terrorism. As the U.S. and its allies forge a strategy to engage the continent as whole, helping end Ethiopia’s misery now makes a lot of sense.