To End Ethiopia’s War, Biden Needs to Correct Course

Read Time:17 Minute, 34 Second

A one-sided U.S. approach provided political cover to the TPLF insurgency. Washington now has an opportunity to create the conditions for peace.

From: foreignpolicy.com

By Bronwyn Bruton, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, and Ann Fitz-Gerald, the director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a professor of international security at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Four years ago, escalating protests threatened to unleash a civil war in Ethiopia, as repressed and miserable crowds of various ethnic backgrounds across the nation sought to escape the yoke of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a former rebel group that had enjoyed near-dictatorial powers in Ethiopia for 27 years.

Then—as now—Ethiopia appeared to many to be on the brink of implosion. But it was pulled back from the edge in March 2018, when the TPLF agreed to surrender leadership of the nation to a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.

Abiy launched a series of frantic reforms to placate the protesting population. But ethnic violence suppressed by the TPLF during its reign boiled over and—having petulantly withdrawn to its northern enclave in Tigray and rejected engagement with Abiy’s new political party—the TPLF continued to use its immense patronage networks, domination of the economy and military, and billions of dollars of looted resources to frustrate meaningful change throughout the country.

Soldiers from the Ethiopian National Defense Force ride on a truck in Wichale, Ethiopia, on Dec. 13. AMANUEL SILESHI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

While most Western analysts then reveled in the seemingly peaceful transition of power, astute observers feared a military confrontation with the TPLF was unavoidable. Abiy’s celebrated peace with Eritrea—for which he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019—pressured the TPLF to surrender to Eritrea territory that Ethiopia, under TPLF rule, had illegally annexed. The TPLF had refused to surrender that territory for almost two decades, creating a tempestuous “no peace, no war” situation throughout the Horn of Africa that fueled destructive proxy conflicts.

Four years ago, escalating protests threatened to unleash a civil war in Ethiopia, as repressed and miserable crowds of various ethnic backgrounds across the nation sought to escape the yoke of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a former rebel group that had enjoyed near-dictatorial powers in Ethiopia for 27 years.

Then—as now—Ethiopia appeared to many to be on the brink of implosion. But it was pulled back from the edge in March 2018, when the TPLF agreed to surrender leadership of the nation to a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.

Abiy launched a series of frantic reforms to placate the protesting population. But ethnic violence suppressed by the TPLF during its reign boiled over and—having petulantly withdrawn to its northern enclave in Tigray and rejected engagement with Abiy’s new political party—the TPLF continued to use its immense patronage networks, domination of the economy and military, and billions of dollars of looted resources to frustrate meaningful change throughout the country.

While most Western analysts then reveled in the seemingly peaceful transition of power, astute observers feared a military confrontation with the TPLF was unavoidable. Abiy’s celebrated peace with Eritrea—for which he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019—pressured the TPLF to surrender to Eritrea territory that Ethiopia, under TPLF rule, had illegally annexed. The TPLF had refused to surrender that territory for almost two decades, creating a tempestuous “no peace, no war” situation throughout the Horn of Africa that fueled destructive proxy conflicts.

Four years ago, escalating protests threatened to unleash a civil war in Ethiopia, as repressed and miserable crowds of various ethnic backgrounds across the nation sought to escape the yoke of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a former rebel group that had enjoyed near-dictatorial powers in Ethiopia for 27 years.

Then—as now—Ethiopia appeared to many to be on the brink of implosion. But it was pulled back from the edge in March 2018, when the TPLF agreed to surrender leadership of the nation to a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.

Abiy launched a series of frantic reforms to placate the protesting population. But ethnic violence suppressed by the TPLF during its reign boiled over and—having petulantly withdrawn to its northern enclave in Tigray and rejected engagement with Abiy’s new political party—the TPLF continued to use its immense patronage networks, domination of the economy and military, and billions of dollars of looted resources to frustrate meaningful change throughout the country.

While most Western analysts then reveled in the seemingly peaceful transition of power, astute observers feared a military confrontation with the TPLF was unavoidable. Abiy’s celebrated peace with Eritrea—for which he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019—pressured the TPLF to surrender to Eritrea territory that Ethiopia, under TPLF rule, had illegally annexed. The TPLF had refused to surrender that territory for almost two decades, creating a tempestuous “no peace, no war” situation throughout the Horn of Africa that fueled destructive proxy conflicts.

Four years ago, escalating protests threatened to unleash a civil war in Ethiopia, as repressed and miserable crowds of various ethnic backgrounds across the nation sought to escape the yoke of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a former rebel group that had enjoyed near-dictatorial powers in Ethiopia for 27 years.

Then—as now—Ethiopia appeared to many to be on the brink of implosion. But it was pulled back from the edge in March 2018, when the TPLF agreed to surrender leadership of the nation to a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.

Abiy launched a series of frantic reforms to placate the protesting population. But ethnic violence suppressed by the TPLF during its reign boiled over and—having petulantly withdrawn to its northern enclave in Tigray and rejected engagement with Abiy’s new political party—the TPLF continued to use its immense patronage networks, domination of the economy and military, and billions of dollars of looted resources to frustrate meaningful change throughout the country.

While most Western analysts then reveled in the seemingly peaceful transition of power, astute observers feared a military confrontation with the TPLF was unavoidable. Abiy’s celebrated peace with Eritrea—for which he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019—pressured the TPLF to surrender to Eritrea territory that Ethiopia, under TPLF rule, had illegally annexed. The TPLF had refused to surrender that territory for almost two decades, creating a tempestuous “no peace, no war” situation throughout the Horn of Africa that fueled destructive proxy conflicts.

Four years ago, escalating protests threatened to unleash a civil war in Ethiopia, as repressed and miserable crowds of various ethnic backgrounds across the nation sought to escape the yoke of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a former rebel group that had enjoyed near-dictatorial powers in Ethiopia for 27 years.

Then—as now—Ethiopia appeared to many to be on the brink of implosion. But it was pulled back from the edge in March 2018, when the TPLF agreed to surrender leadership of the nation to a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.

Abiy launched a series of frantic reforms to placate the protesting population. But ethnic violence suppressed by the TPLF during its reign boiled over and—having petulantly withdrawn to its northern enclave in Tigray and rejected engagement with Abiy’s new political party—the TPLF continued to use its immense patronage networks, domination of the economy and military, and billions of dollars of looted resources to frustrate meaningful change throughout the country.

While most Western analysts then reveled in the seemingly peaceful transition of power, astute observers feared a military confrontation with the TPLF was unavoidable. Abiy’s celebrated peace with Eritrea—for which he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019—pressured the TPLF to surrender to Eritrea territory that Ethiopia, under TPLF rule, had illegally annexed. The TPLF had refused to surrender that territory for almost two decades, creating a tempestuous “no peace, no war” situation throughout the Horn of Africa that fueled destructive proxy conflicts.

Four years ago, escalating protests threatened to unleash a civil war in Ethiopia, as repressed and miserable crowds of various ethnic backgrounds across the nation sought to escape the yoke of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a former rebel group that had enjoyed near-dictatorial powers in Ethiopia for 27 years.

Then—as now—Ethiopia appeared to many to be on the brink of implosion. But it was pulled back from the edge in March 2018, when the TPLF agreed to surrender leadership of the nation to a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.

Abiy launched a series of frantic reforms to placate the protesting population. But ethnic violence suppressed by the TPLF during its reign boiled over and—having petulantly withdrawn to its northern enclave in Tigray and rejected engagement with Abiy’s new political party—the TPLF continued to use its immense patronage networks, domination of the economy and military, and billions of dollars of looted resources to frustrate meaningful change throughout the country.

While most Western analysts then reveled in the seemingly peaceful transition of power, astute observers feared a military confrontation with the TPLF was unavoidable. Abiy’s celebrated peace with Eritrea—for which he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019—pressured the TPLF to surrender to Eritrea territory that Ethiopia, under TPLF rule, had illegally annexed. The TPLF had refused to surrender that territory for almost two decades, creating a tempestuous “no peace, no war” situation throughout the Horn of Africa that fueled destructive proxy conflicts.

Four years ago, escalating protests threatened to unleash a civil war in Ethiopia, as repressed and miserable crowds of various ethnic backgrounds across the nation sought to escape the yoke of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a former rebel group that had enjoyed near-dictatorial powers in Ethiopia for 27 years.

Then—as now—Ethiopia appeared to many to be on the brink of implosion. But it was pulled back from the edge in March 2018, when the TPLF agreed to surrender leadership of the nation to a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.

Abiy launched a series of frantic reforms to placate the protesting population. But ethnic violence suppressed by the TPLF during its reign boiled over and—having petulantly withdrawn to its northern enclave in Tigray and rejected engagement with Abiy’s new political party—the TPLF continued to use its immense patronage networks, domination of the economy and military, and billions of dollars of looted resources to frustrate meaningful change throughout the country.

While most Western analysts then reveled in the seemingly peaceful transition of power, astute observers feared a military confrontation with the TPLF was unavoidable. Abiy’s celebrated peace with Eritrea—for which he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019—pressured the TPLF to surrender to Eritrea territory that Ethiopia, under TPLF rule, had illegally annexed. The TPLF had refused to surrender that territory for almost two decades, creating a tempestuous “no peace, no war” situation throughout the Horn of Africa that fueled destructive proxy conflicts.

Last week’s announcement of the TPLF’s withdrawal from the Amhara region signifies the success of the federal forces’ effort to halt the TPLF advance on Addis Ababa and secure key strategic arteries of the country: Amhara’s industrial heartlands of Dessie and Kombolcha, and the main road between Addis Ababa and Djibouti.

The withdrawal of non-fallen and non-surrendered TPLF fighters back to Tigray also exposes multiple U.S. policy failures that—based on the lack of calls for the TPLF to withdraw from Amhara and Afar and punitive measures incentivizing a TPLF cease-fire—arguably prolonged the conflict.

U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa is in tatters, with Sudanese generals overrunning the Washington-backed transitional government; Sudan acting aggressively in the al-Fashqa border region with Ethiopia; Khartoum and Cairo adopting a bellicose stance toward the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD); Somalia demanding the withdrawal of U.S.-backed peacekeepers; Eritrea seething over the imposition of U.S. sanctions; and Ethiopian officials convinced that Washington is fomenting regime change.

Even Djibouti’s foreign minister has felt driven to announce, on Twitter, that the Djiboutian government would not allow any foreign troops—meaning U.S. forces—to use its territory to launch attacks on its neighbors.

The United States has been losing ground in Africa to China, Russia, Turkey, and the Gulf states for some time. But now, there’s not a single nation in the geostrategically vital Horn region that is reliably in Washington’s corner. As a new cold war heats up, that bodes poorly for U.S. President Joe Biden.

Also underappreciated is the massive surge of nationalism that the TPLF’s aggression has ignited in Ethiopia. Abiy’s party won a landslide victory in elections that were certainly imperfect but generally deemed by international observers to be “calm, peaceful, and credible,” and in which approximately 75 percent of the eligible population voted.

Tens of thousands are taking to the streets every week—not only in Ethiopia, but across 27 cities around the world—to demonstrate support for the federal government, thousands of new recruits have flocked to the military, civilians are taking up arms, and pro-government cyber armies are flooding Facebook and Twitter.

Last week’s announcement of the TPLF’s withdrawal from the Amhara region signifies the success of the federal forces’ effort to halt the TPLF advance on Addis Ababa and secure key strategic arteries of the country: Amhara’s industrial heartlands of Dessie and Kombolcha, and the main road between Addis Ababa and Djibouti.

The withdrawal of non-fallen and non-surrendered TPLF fighters back to Tigray also exposes multiple U.S. policy failures that—based on the lack of calls for the TPLF to withdraw from Amhara and Afar and punitive measures incentivizing a TPLF cease-fire—arguably prolonged the conflict.

U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa is in tatters, with Sudanese generals overrunning the Washington-backed transitional government; Sudan acting aggressively in the al-Fashqa border region with Ethiopia; Khartoum and Cairo adopting a bellicose stance toward the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD); Somalia demanding the withdrawal of U.S.-backed peacekeepers; Eritrea seething over the imposition of U.S. sanctions; and Ethiopian officials convinced that Washington is fomenting regime change.

Even Djibouti’s foreign minister has felt driven to announce, on Twitter, that the Djiboutian government would not allow any foreign troops—meaning U.S. forces—to use its territory to launch attacks on its neighbors.

The United States has been losing ground in Africa to China, Russia, Turkey, and the Gulf states for some time. But now, there’s not a single nation in the geostrategically vital Horn region that is reliably in Washington’s corner. As a new cold war heats up, that bodes poorly for U.S. President Joe Biden.

Also underappreciated is the massive surge of nationalism that the TPLF’s aggression has ignited in Ethiopia. Abiy’s party won a landslide victory in elections that were certainly imperfect but generally deemed by international observers to be “calm, peaceful, and credible,” and in which approximately 75 percent of the eligible population voted.

Tens of thousands are taking to the streets every week—not only in Ethiopia, but across 27 cities around the world—to demonstrate support for the federal government, thousands of new recruits have flocked to the military, civilians are taking up arms, and pro-government cyber armies are flooding Facebook and Twitter.

Last week’s announcement of the TPLF’s withdrawal from the Amhara region signifies the success of the federal forces’ effort to halt the TPLF advance on Addis Ababa and secure key strategic arteries of the country: Amhara’s industrial heartlands of Dessie and Kombolcha, and the main road between Addis Ababa and Djibouti.

The withdrawal of non-fallen and non-surrendered TPLF fighters back to Tigray also exposes multiple U.S. policy failures that—based on the lack of calls for the TPLF to withdraw from Amhara and Afar and punitive measures incentivizing a TPLF cease-fire—arguably prolonged the conflict.

U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa is in tatters, with Sudanese generals overrunning the Washington-backed transitional government; Sudan acting aggressively in the al-Fashqa border region with Ethiopia; Khartoum and Cairo adopting a bellicose stance toward the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD); Somalia demanding the withdrawal of U.S.-backed peacekeepers; Eritrea seething over the imposition of U.S. sanctions; and Ethiopian officials convinced that Washington is fomenting regime change.

Even Djibouti’s foreign minister has felt driven to announce, on Twitter, that the Djiboutian government would not allow any foreign troops—meaning U.S. forces—to use its territory to launch attacks on its neighbors.

The United States has been losing ground in Africa to China, Russia, Turkey, and the Gulf states for some time. But now, there’s not a single nation in the geostrategically vital Horn region that is reliably in Washington’s corner. As a new cold war heats up, that bodes poorly for U.S. President Joe Biden.

Also underappreciated is the massive surge of nationalism that the TPLF’s aggression has ignited in Ethiopia. Abiy’s party won a landslide victory in elections that were certainly imperfect but generally deemed by international observers to be “calm, peaceful, and credible,” and in which approximately 75 percent of the eligible population voted.

Tens of thousands are taking to the streets every week—not only in Ethiopia, but across 27 cities around the world—to demonstrate support for the federal government, thousands of new recruits have flocked to the military, civilians are taking up arms, and pro-government cyber armies are flooding Facebook and Twitter.

Last week’s announcement of the TPLF’s withdrawal from the Amhara region signifies the success of the federal forces’ effort to halt the TPLF advance on Addis Ababa and secure key strategic arteries of the country: Amhara’s industrial heartlands of Dessie and Kombolcha, and the main road between Addis Ababa and Djibouti.

The withdrawal of non-fallen and non-surrendered TPLF fighters back to Tigray also exposes multiple U.S. policy failures that—based on the lack of calls for the TPLF to withdraw from Amhara and Afar and punitive measures incentivizing a TPLF cease-fire—arguably prolonged the conflict.

U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa is in tatters, with Sudanese generals overrunning the Washington-backed transitional government; Sudan acting aggressively in the al-Fashqa border region with Ethiopia; Khartoum and Cairo adopting a bellicose stance toward the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD); Somalia demanding the withdrawal of U.S.-backed peacekeepers; Eritrea seething over the imposition of U.S. sanctions; and Ethiopian officials convinced that Washington is fomenting regime change.

Even Djibouti’s foreign minister has felt driven to announce, on Twitter, that the Djiboutian government would not allow any foreign troops—meaning U.S. forces—to use its territory to launch attacks on its neighbors.

The United States has been losing ground in Africa to China, Russia, Turkey, and the Gulf states for some time. But now, there’s not a single nation in the geostrategically vital Horn region that is reliably in Washington’s corner. As a new cold war heats up, that bodes poorly for U.S. President Joe Biden.

Also underappreciated is the massive surge of nationalism that the TPLF’s aggression has ignited in Ethiopia. Abiy’s party won a landslide victory in elections that were certainly imperfect but generally deemed by international observers to be “calm, peaceful, and credible,” and in which approximately 75 percent of the eligible population voted.

Tens of thousands are taking to the streets every week—not only in Ethiopia, but across 27 cities around the world—to demonstrate support for the federal government, thousands of new recruits have flocked to the military, civilians are taking up arms, and pro-government cyber armies are flooding Facebook and Twitter.

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