ALEX RONDOS and MARK MEDISH
October 17, 2021
Right now, Ethiopia stands on the brink of escalating civil war and state failure. Last week, fighting intensified dramatically, with Ethiopian forces striking hard against rebels from the Tigray province. Millions are starving — and time to avert a descent into chaos is running out.
The plight of places like South Sudan and Afghanistan after years of U.S.-led support should remind everyone of the limits of any outside nation’s influence. But Addis Ababa is not Juba or Kabul. Two years ago, Ethiopia was one of the emerging economic success stories of sub-Saharan Africa. Which means there’s a chance to turn things around. If we act now.
This is the moment to prepare for concerted international action to prevent further drift and to focus diplomacy on a comprehensive settlement for this nation of more than 110 million. Nothing less than a Dayton-style peace process with visible, American- and neighbor-led daily engagement will pull Ethiopia back from the brink.
National security officials in the U.S., Europe and regional neighbors —who already have full inboxes — will need to pay urgent attention. Sanctions certainly provide leverage but may not be enough. Military intervention or occupation is not an option in a country twice the size of Afghanistan and which is already sliding into civil war. This crisis will require diplomacy and mediation on a scale not seen since the 1995 Dayton peace process to end the bloody war in Bosnia.
Dayton was a model of how warring ethnic parties can be brought to the table through intense, coordinated diplomatic efforts on the part of honest brokers. It required steady engagement from the highest levels of the U.S. government including the president, national security adviser, secretary of state and a chief negotiator such as the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. The EU and other major powers played critical supporting roles.
Ethiopia in 2021 is not the same as Bosnia in 1995, and a Dayton-style process would need to be adapted to local realities. But if the U.S. and other partners do not step up urgently to promote a peaceful settlement and provide necessary support to Jeffrey Feltman, recently appointed U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia could disintegrate like Yugoslavia — with far more serious repercussions.
This engagement is to the benefit of the U.S. and all others involved. The U.S., Europe and our African allies and partners have clear security, economic and humanitarian interests in Ethiopia. The implications of state collapse would be devastating for the entire Horn of Africa and beyond. Ethiopia is at the strategic center of the Horn, surrounded by Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somaliland, Somalia and Kenya.
Ethiopia’s instability could affect maritime routes through the Red Sea, trigger refugee flows that would dwarf those of the last few years, and disrupt the fragile post-conflict transitions in Sudan and Somalia. Chaos would also be exploited by terrorist groups like al-Shabab and other al Qaeda affiliates that want to extend their grip on the region.
This is no longer just an Ethiopian or East African problem. It will have a wider impact and require solutions and actions that unite all who care in Africa and beyond.
The Ethiopian government’s blockade of Tigray is turning that region into a 21st century ghetto. Late last year, Ethiopia restricted the flow of humanitarian assistance, in violation of international law, cutting off all banking, electricity and communications. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has unleashed a famine; he decides who starves and who doesn’t. Inter-ethnic atrocities have been committed, primarily against the Tigrayans, but the Oromo, Amhara and other ethnic groups are also at grave risk.
The cycle of vindictiveness, unprecedented in Ethiopia, has led some experienced African leaders to speak in private about echoes of Rwanda before the 1994 genocide.
Tigray is at the heart of the highlands of Ethiopia, a country that expanded over the centuries to include an array of ethnic groups who speak dozens of different languages. In 1991, the Tigrayans defeated the ruling Soviet-backed Marxist regime through a prolonged guerrilla struggle, a victory which set them up to control politics in Ethiopia, often with a heavy hand. This changed in 2018 when massive popular protests propelled Abiy Ahmed, a non-Tigrayan, into the prime minister’s seat. Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year for “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea.” However, for three years, Abiy and the Tigrayan leadership have clashed over the role ethnic regions should play in governance of the country.
Last November, those tensions escalated. Armed conflict broke out between the government of Ethiopia (aided and abetted by neighboring Eritrea) and under-resourced Tigray. Ethiopia now risks becoming a patchwork of violent struggles for self-determination.
For the center to hold in Ethiopia there must be a deft balancing act of internal regional interests with sensitivities to group grievances. What’s more, a united and stable Ethiopia has always been a provider of stability across the Horn of Africa region.
If the drift toward civil war in Ethiopia is not stemmed, the consequences are predictable. Prime Minister Abiy’s mass mobilization of forces from other ethnic regions against Tigray threatens to plunge the country into irreversible strife, with massive economic and humanitarian costs. Each failing state tragedy is unique, but the world has seen variants of this nightmare before: Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar.
The bloodshed and cost of last weekend’s offensive launched by the government against Tigrayan forces could begin to exhaust the parties, creating an opening for negotiation. This is the moment to prepare for concerted international action to prevent further chaos and to focus diplomacy on a comprehensive settlement. Secretary Antony Blinken’s recent meeting in Washington with his European Union counterpart Josep Borrell, the African Union’s high representative for the Horn of Africa, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was a good start. It is the first time Africa, the U.S. and E.U. have met at this level to chart a way forward on the Ethiopian crisis. And President Biden’s Oval Office meeting with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Thursday is important, with Kenya now presiding in the U.N. Security Council. This is the level of commitment that will be required for a Dayton-style process to gain traction and be successful.
A future political settlement will need to be comprehensive. It should include lifting the blockade and immediate opening of humanitarian access to Tigray and other regions; the withdrawal of Eritrean troops and a commitment to non-intervention by neighboring powers; the release of political prisoners; negotiation of a new political balance for Ethiopia, with substantial regional autonomy and a fair system of fiscal federalism; and provision for an independent commission to investigate abuses of power.