Abiy’s war aims meet geopolitics
Addis Ababa is trying to regain finance and investment from the West but continues to support Russia at the UN
Source: Africa Confidential
As a two-months-old ceasefire with fighters in the northern Tigray region risks unravelling, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is grappling with multiple national and international contradictions.
At home, he is trying to balance ethnic Oromo interests against those of the Amhara militias, who are bridling at the ceasefire. Internationally, he generally supports Russia‘s President Vladimir Putin but is also trying to regain some backing from the West. That has become much harder in the current geopolitics. Not only does Abiy’s government face financial restrictions and strong criticism over human rights from the European Union and the United States over its war in Tigray, western officials have also criticised Ethiopia’s stance on Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
During the first Cold War, Ethiopia often played off the US against the Soviet Union, getting support from both Washington and Moscow. But Ethiopia’s relations with the US and the EU crashed following the outbreak of war in the Tigray region in November 2020.
Abiy was deeply angered by western criticism of his policies towards Tigray and of the war. Western aid flows were frozen or cancelled, including €90 million (US$96m) of EU budgetary support in December 2020. In the face of international criticism of his blockade of Tigray in 2021, he accused international aid agencies of collaborating with ‘terrorists’, by which he means the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Oromo Liberation Army-Shene (AC Vol 63 No 9, An Oromo rebellion constrains Abiy).
As relations with western states continued to plummet, Abiy allowed humanitarian aid to Tigray to resume from 1 April. Yet, any diplomatic gains from this will be balanced by Ethiopia’s accommodating stance towards Russia at the UN. It didn’t vote in the UN General Assembly’s condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 2 March, and a month later voted against the Assembly’s suspension of Russia from the Human Rights Council.
Abiy saw the loss of Ethiopia’s access to the US duty-free trading regime, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, in January 2022 as a deliberate act of Washington’s policy, rather than an automatic decision based widely shared assessments of his government’s human rights record. Abiy had expected, mistakenly, that Russia, China or Middle Eastern countries would make up for lost foreign direct investment. The United Arab Emirates, for example, stopped drone exports to Ethiopia for several months in 2021 at the request of the US. It resumed them later in the year, only when the US started worrying about the TPLF’s advance towards Addis Ababa.
Addis Ababa is seriously concerned about two US legislative initiatives, making their way through Congress: the Ethiopia Peace and Democracy Promotion Act, and the Ethiopia Stabilization, Peace and Democracy Act. These call for accountability over violations of human rights, threatening to cut all non-humanitarian financial assistance, including loans from international financial institutions, as well as to restrict arms sales.
To manage the friction with the US, Ethiopia has hired several US lobbying firms in the last two years. They have supported and encouraged a disparate group of academics and ‘independent’ journalists from the US and Canada to visit Ethiopia and Eritrea. But Addis has hardly benefited as these trips coincided with his expulsion of some respected international journalists and harassment of their local counterparts.
This prompted the Committee to Protect Journalists to conclude: ‘When international journalists are expelled while local members of the press face the threat of arrest, the message is clear: Ethiopian authorities will not tolerate critical journalism or dissenting opinions.’
On the economic diplomacy front, Ethiopian officials attended a flurry of meetings with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the US authorities. Finance Minister Ahmed Shide discussed debt relief with IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva in Washington during the 18-24 April Spring Meetings of the Fund and the World Bank.
A foreign ministry delegation – led by Grum Abay, chief advisor to Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen, and by Abiy’s foreign policy advisor, Girma Temesgen – was also in Washington. The delegations met with American officials, including USAID Administrator Samantha Power and David Satterfield, the US’s outgoing Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa. US officials have been pushing to move the current truce on to a negotiated ceasefire, and to press for the rebuilding of infrastructure and restoration of services in Tigray, still under blockade.
Similar issues were raised in the annual EU-Ethiopian Political Consultation on 6 May. Apart from concerns over Tigray, EU officials also questioned Ethiopia’s position on Ukraine.
Within the region, the Tigray fighting has damaged Ethiopia’s relations with Sudan: they have descended to a near state of war over the future of the Al Fashqa region, a triangle of territory on the countries’ north-west border area.
Much of the area has been occupied for over half a century by Amhara farmers but it has long been the subject of dispute. A joint commission between the two countries tentatively agreed on a boundary before Abiy came to power but it was never finalised.
Just before the outbreak of the war in Tigray on 3-4 November 2020, Sudan’s General Abdel Fattah al Burhan agreed to Abiy’s request to close the Sudan border to Tigrayan activity. But as Ethiopian government soldiers stepped up the war in Tigray, Sudanese forces moved into the region and took it over, despite resistance by Amhara regional state militia.
Sudan now controls the Al Fashqa region, in the face of repeated Amhara region complaints. Mediation attempts by South Sudan‘s President, Salva Kiir, and by Turkey have made no progress. In a speech in parliament last week, Deputy Prime Minister Mekonnen accused Sudan of allowing TPLF ‘terrorists’ to use Al Fashqa as a base to attack Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s relations with Eritrea, a military ally in the war in Tigray, are showing signs of fraying, as Eritrean President Issayas Afewerki becomes closer to Amhara politicians and business interests. Issayas’s delays in responding to requests to withdraw Eritrean troops from Ethiopia last year angered officials in Addis. Abiy and Issayas also seem to disagree over the need to continue a heavily militarised campaign in Tigray.
Like the Amhara ethno-nationalists, Issayas wants to see the TPLF totally eliminated – a tougher line to that currently taken by Abiy. Eritrea has been spearheading plans to reshape regional relations in the Horn of Africa, forming an alliance with Ethiopia and Somalia in 2018, and attempting to set up an alternative organisation to the East African body the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
This is likely to be upset by the election of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as Somalia’s President this month. Abiy and Issayas had preferred the incumbent, Mohamed Abdullahi ‘Farmajo’, to win (AC Vol 63 No 10, Farmajo faces the ultimate test). Mohamud is unlikely to want to participate in the tripartite alliance, which Farmajo had backed.
In 2020, Farmajo secretly sent over 5,000 Somali troops to be trained in Eritrea, and subsequently allowed them to be used in the war in Tigray. They have yet to return to Somalia and uncertainty about their fate was one of the factors that contributed to Farmajo’s defeat. Leaving office on 23 May, Farmajo belatedly admitted to having authorised this ‘training’. As President, Mohamud will try to bring back the survivors to Somalia as a matter of urgency.
Mohamud suffered from Eritrean interference in Somalia during his previous term of office, from 2012 to 2017. Eritrea’s support for elements associated with Al Shabaab, including leading Islamist figurehead Sheikh Aweys, undermined support for Mohamud among his own Hawiye clan, and contributed to his defeat in 2017.
Ethiopia has lost its regional position and status since the Tigrayan conflict started in November 2020. In 1991, when the Tigrayan-led Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front captured Addis Ababa and overthrew the military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the country became the hegemonic power in the Horn of Africa.
It led the way in containing regional crises, and was seen by the US as underwriting regional stability. Ethiopia’s position in IGAD has been severely diminished. Khartoum’s demand last June that Ethiopian forces withdraw from a UN peacekeeping mission in Abyei – a region disputed between Sudan and South Sudan – was symbolic of its loss of standing. The Ethiopian commander if the UN force was finally replaced in February.
The African Union, like IGAD, has made little progress in finding an ‘African solution for an African problem’ in Tigray. It has confined its efforts to appointing Nigeria‘s former President Olusegun Obasanjo as Special Envoy. He has made little visible progress in persuading the two sides towards substantive talks but the TPLF referred to his efforts when it released 4,000 government prisoners of war this month (AC Vol 63 No 6, Rivals set out their minimum conditions).
The release appears to have been the result of telephone discussions between senior military officers on both sides in recent weeks, and were encouraged by Obasanjo. The TPLF, in turn, called on the government to release thousands of Tigrayan civilians and soldiers, arrested in 2020.
Outside the hyper-cautious statements of the AU and IGAD, concern about Ethiopia’s stability is growing among African officials and activists. In mid-May, a consortium of 16 African civil society organisations wrote to the UN Security Council, calling for Ethiopia to be placed on its agenda, and for measures including an arms embargo on all parties, the disarmament of militias, and the deployment of peacekeepers to Western Tigray.