The blunt comments by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the worsening humanitarian and human rights crisis in Ethiopia, and his references to an impending “disaster” in Tigray are a rude awakening for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government.
Ahmed declared victory over the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in late November 2020. But six months later, the conflict is still going on, with the TPLF reportedly entrenching themselves and turning the conflict into a guerilla war. Eritrean troops, which Abiy belatedly admitted, were operating on Ethiopia’s soil and reportedly sometimes wearing Ethiopian army uniforms, have still not left Tigray. TheUN says there is no sign of them leaving, either.
Blinken’s comments bite
America’s top diplomat openly pressing Ahmed to end the conflict in Tigray and demanding the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray “immediately, in full and in a verifiable manner” is telling.
Ethiopia is a longstanding American ally, and stability in Africa’s second-most populous country is key to anchoring the greater Horn of Africa region.
“Biden wants to underline that the United States is returning to a hybrid foreign policy that includes stronger statements on values and human rights and governance in particular,” says Alex Vines, head of the Africa Program at Chatham House, London.
For emphasis, the White House has appointed veteran diplomat Jeffrey Feltman as a special envoy for the Horn of Africa.
“This emphasis is not only the concern of Washington around the region but also other issues such as Sudan and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) issue, which is very important for the United States,” he adds.
US allies Sudan and Egypt are also involved in the GERD dispute, where control of the Nile River’s water is at stake.
Yet the longer the conflict continues, cases of human rights violations mount, and a growing famine has shone an unwelcome spotlight on Abiy Ahmed’s leadership.
“The conflict has certainly prioritized Ethiopia for many countries,” says Alex Vines.
Ethiopia was previously seen as a success story of economic growth and lifting large numbers of people out of abject poverty. “Now Ethiopia has become very much an issue of security and geopolitics,” Vines told DW.
With elections in Ethiopia scheduled for June 5, guaranteeing stability no longer seems a given.
Domestic elections in the balance
Abiy came to power in 2018 after several years of anti-government protests staged by Amhara and Oromo youth. Despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize the following year for opening up Ethiopia and making peaceful overtures to long-time foe Eritrea, Abiy’s tenure has been marred by ethnic violence, capped by the war in Tigray which exploded in late 2020.
Analysts warn the hotly anticipated national elections could bring about more insecurity. Organizing the vote is already proving difficult.
Birtukan Medeksa, head of the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), has previously warned that insecurity has temporarily halted voter registration in several locations.
NEBE has not yet responded to DW’s request for comment.
For Ethiopian political analyst Deyam Dalemo it is widely accepted that peace is a precondition for election. “The government is working to bring peace. However, there were conflicts in the recent past, and new conflicts may occur in the future,” Dalemo told DW. He adds that the chances of the election actually happening largely depend on the government’s ability to control clashes between rival ethnic groups.
“Canceling the election can backfire. It can create a legitimacy crisis for the government,” Dalemo said. “Even though it is difficult, I believe the election should be conducted.”
According to Yilkal Getnet of the Hibir Ethiopia Democratic Party, a smaller opposition party coalition member, an election is a non-starter.