Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and others seem determined to pursue war rather than peace and President Biden had no choice but to act, Senior U.S. officials say

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Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.

Senior U.S. officials have explained why President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has authorized sanctions against those standing in the way of peace in northern Ethiopia, saying that the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, as well as other actors in Eritrea and within Ethiopia seem determined to pursue war rather than peace, and the American leader was left with no choice but to act.

President Joe Biden signs the Emergency Security Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021, Friday, July 30, 2021, in the Oval Office at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
President Joe Biden signs the Emergency Security Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021, Friday, July 30, 2021, in the Oval Office at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

“Prime Minister Abiy seems determined to pursue a military approach,” a senior administration official told reporters in a conference call on Thursday. “My guess is it’s probably in hopes that, by his October 4th swearing-in — before the new parliament that was elected in the recent elections — that he can claim some kind of military victory or military strength. The mass mobilization that he’s provoked of the Ethiopian citizens essentially opens up a Pandora’s box in such a diverse country with so many political grievances and differences.”

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerkii is welcomed by Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed upon his arrival at Addis Ababa International Airport, Ethiopia, Saturday, July 14, 2018. (AP Photo Mulugeta Ayene)
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerkii is welcomed by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed upon his arrival at Addis Ababa International Airport, Ethiopia, Saturday, July 14, 2018. (AP Photo Mulugeta Ayene)

The official said Eritrean troops have also “expanded their presence, dug down in western Tigray,” while the TPLF “has been forging alliances with disaffected groups elsewhere in Ethiopia, which puts more of the country at risk of widespread civil conflict.”

“The TPLF presumably has a keen interest in denying Prime Minister Abiy the ability to report to the new parliament in October that he has scored some kind of military win,” asserted the official who added that the United States is worried that “the end of the rainy season that’s upon us is going to mark an escalation of the military conflict.” 

U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. signed an executive order on Friday authorizing sanctions Ethiopian against those blocking peace in Tigray.

“I, JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR., President of the United States of America, find that the situation in and in relation to northern Ethiopia, which has been marked by activities that threaten the peace, security, and stability of Ethiopia and the greater Horn of Africa region – in particular, widespread violence, atrocities, and serious human rights abuse, including those involving ethnic-based violence, rape and other forms of gender-based violence, and obstruction of humanitarian operations — constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.  I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat,” President Biden said in his executive order made public on Friday morning.

The executive order “provides the U.S. Department of Treasury, working in coordination with the Department of State, the necessary authority to impose sanctions against those in the Ethiopian government, the Eritrean government, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and the Amhara regional government if they continue to pursue military conflict over meaningful negotiations to the detriment of the Ethiopian people,” a senior administration official told reporters in a conference call on Thursday evening.

The official said unless the parties take concrete steps to resolve the crisis, the Biden administration “is prepared to take aggressive action under this new executive order to impose targeted sanctions against a wide range of individuals or entities.” 
 
“But a different path is possible,” asserted the official, who added that “If the government of Ethiopia and the TPLF take meaningful steps to enter into talks for a negotiated ceasefire and allow for unhindered humanitarian access, the United States is ready to help mobilize assistance for Ethiopia to recover and revitalize its economy.”

Tigray’s defense forces
Tigray’s defense forces

The official clarified that President Biden’s new executive order establishes “a sanctions regime to increase pressure on the parties fueling this conflict to sit down at the negotiating table and, in the case of Eritrea, withdraw forces.” 

“And I think some people may ask: Well, what are the steps we’re asking the parties to take? Very concretely and clearly, steps towards a negotiated ceasefire could include accepting African Union-led mediation efforts, designating a negotiations team, agreeing to negotiations without preconditions, and accepting an invitation to initial talks. Steps toward humanitarian access could include authorizing daily convoys of trucks carrying humanitarian supplies to travel overland to reach at-risk populations; reducing delays for humanitarian convoys; and restoring basic services such as electricity, telecommunications, and financial services,” the official added.

The senior administration official said the sanctions authorities are not directed at the people of Ethiopia or Eritrea, explaining that “the new sanctions program is deliberately calibrated to mitigate any undue harm to those already suffering from this conflict.” 
 
“In fact, Treasury will issue accompanying general licenses tomorrow to provide clear exemptions for any development, humanitarian, and other assistance efforts, as well as critical commercial activity in Ethiopia and Eritrea. The United States provides Ethiopia with more humanitarian assistance than does any other country, and we will continue to help those in Ethiopia who need our assistance. The executive order should not affect the continued provision of humanitarian and other assistance to address basic needs throughout Ethiopia,” the official added.

Another senior administration official said President Biden’s executive order was not taken lightly and only came after many months of trying to bring about peace in the region.

“The President’s approval of this executive order was not a decision that the Biden-Harris administration or any of us in the Biden-Harris administration took lightly. But we’ve telegraphed for months that the parties need to change course. They need to change course for the sake of Ethiopia, for the sake of Ethiopian people. And we’ve given them every chance to move toward a negotiated ceasefire to stop the human rights violations, to end the fighting to allow humanitarian deliveries,” the official said. 

The official added, “You know, [redacted] spent an extended time in Addis, talking directly with the Prime Minister, with other senior officials, sharing our analysis of the dangers of the current approach and the implications for Ethiopia and the region. You know, [redacted] engaged the Eritreans, including President Isaias Afwerki, on the need for the Eritrean troops to withdraw. And we’ve detected no signs of any serious move by any of the parties to end the fighting.

“What really strikes me after traveling to other African capitals, to the Gulf, through conversations and virtual meetings that I’ve had with Europeans and other friends, is how much our analysis — our shared analysis of the situation overlaps. Ethiopia’s neighbors and Ethiopia’s friends further away agree that there is a grave and growing risk to the stability of Ethiopia — a country of more than 110 million people — and that the current trajectory can lead to the disintegration of the state, which would be disastrous for Ethiopia, for the region, and beyond.

“So there’s a widespread consensus — outside of Ethiopia, at least — that there is no military solution to this conflict.  There’s widespread support for U.N. Secretary-General Guterres’s August call to, quote, “immediately end hostilities without preconditions and seize the opportunity to negotiate a lasting ceasefire.”

“Unfortunately, right now, all signs seem to be pointing to dangerous escalation and expansion of the humanitarian crisis. We’re really worried that the end of the rainy season that’s upon us is going to mark an escalation of the military conflict.  “Prime Minister Abiy seems determined to pursue a military approach. My guess is it’s probably in hopes that, by his October 4th swearing-in — before the new parliament that was elected in the recent elections — that he can claim some kind of military victory or military strength. “The mass mobilization that he’s provoked of the Ethiopian citizens essentially opens up a Pandora’s box in such a diverse country with so many political grievances and differences. “Eritrean troops have expanded their presence, dug down in western Tigray.  For its part, the TPLF has been forging alliances with disaffected groups elsewhere in Ethiopia, which puts more of the country at risk of widespread civil conflict.  The TPLF presumably has a keen interest in denying Prime Minister Abiy the ability to report to the new parliament in October that he has scored some kind of military win.

“So the polarization inside Ethiopia deepens; the grievances grow.

“We just can’t sit idly by. It must be clear that there are consequences for perpetuating this conflict and for denying lifesaving humanitarian assistance.

“You know, in previewing this decision with Ethiopian officials and others, I’ve made the point clear — the data I mentioned earlier — which is the Biden administration believes that there is a different path.  [Redacted] prepared to travel to the region to make the case and use the tools in our toolbox to encourage a different approach.  I’ve spoken with former Nigerian President Obasanjo several times — as recently as yesterday, most recently — who’s been named AU envoy for the Horn, to assure him of our support for his mission.  The time to pivot to a negotiated ceasefire and a way for military escalation is now.”

Simon Ateba

Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.

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