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Everything you need to know about Ethiopia’s Tigray war and how Biden is balancing between defending human rights and cooperating with a strategic ally – Perspectives by Simon Ateba

Mr. Biden has not yet imposed sanctions on anyone but U.S. Treasury Department now has authority to act

It all seems like a big mess that continues to worsen by the day, so much so that U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on September 17 signed an executive order establishing a new sanctions regime to help push for a resolution of the ongoing crisis in northern Ethiopia.

Just to be clear, Mr. Biden has not yet imposed sanctions on anyone, but he has given the U.S. Treasury Department and other U.S. agencies the authority they need to impose sanctions on anyone or any entity that is standing in the way of peace in Ethiopia.

The U.S. Treasury Department has detailed what those sanctions may mean and who will be affected, and has also clarified that they will not be against ordinary Ethiopian people, but against those refusing to see Ethiopia become once again a relatively stable nation with humanitarian access reaching the people in need in the northern part of the country. You can read what they said here as we have been following this as close as anyone else.

At a White House briefing on Tuesday, September 28, I asked Press Secretary Jen Psaki whether the President has a deadline for his sanctions to go into effect since nothing seems to have changed on the ground.

Press Secretary Jen Psaki answers questions from members of the press Monday, July 26, 2021, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith) 
Press Secretary Jen Psaki answers questions from members of the press Monday, July 26, 2021, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith)

Psaki told me (from the 37th minute of this recording) that the next step would be to impose “targeted sanctions” if nothing changes on the ground. Psaki, however, clarified that the White House continues to urge all parties to “end ongoing hostilities, take steps to initiate discussions to achieve a negotiated ceasefire, and grant unimpeded humanitarian access.”

And just to clarify once again, the White House is not interested in imposing sanctions for nothing. The White House seems more interested in seeing peace return and negotiations take place because as the United Nations has asserted there is no military solution to the conflict in northern Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian Defense Force cannot win. The Tigray Defense Force or the Tigray People’s Liberation Front cannot win. The conflict will continue to worsen, investors will flee, hunger will metastasize, civilians will die, poverty will expand, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize will leave office and TPLF fighters and Eritrean combatants and all those from Ahmara and Afar will grow older but nothing will change if there’s no negotiation for lasting peace.

But, but….let’s start from the beginning

This is already too much, let me take you to the beginning of the current conflict to understand how it all started, has continued to worsen and has lasted for almost 10 long months.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali address the media briefing at the conclusion of the Official Visit by the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia at the Union Buildings in Tshwane. January 12, 2020 
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali address the media briefing at the conclusion of the Official Visit by the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia at the Union Buildings in Tshwane. January 12, 2020

How and why did the conflict in Tigray explode in November 2020?

In early November 2020, using tanks, mortars and heavy guns, the regional government controlled by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front launched an attack on a key Ethiopian military base at Sero. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali retaliated by ordering federal forces to go after TPLF, starting the conflict that has now lasted for almost 10 months, killed thousands of people, displaced millions of people, sent tens of thousands of people into refugee camps in Sudan and triggered a deadly humanitarian crisis that has left hundreds of thousands civilians at an increased risk of famine.

The United Nations and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have all said that they have been unable to reach people in need outside major cities, such as Mekele, Tigray’s regional capital because trucks with humanitarian assistance are being blocked by the Ethiopian government. As the conflict continues to expand, U.S. fears that that it may destabilize the entire Horn of Africa. In addition, early this year, the New York Times published a story citing an internal U.S. government report that described a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in Tigray. This is also putting President Biden, who has vowed to defend human rights in a very difficult situation. Failure to act may become a miss opportunity to show leadership if Ethiopia becomes another Rwanda.

But what is really the problem in Tigray?

But to understand what is really going on in Tigray, you need to listen to all sides, including what Ethiopians are telling me here in Washington D.C. There is nothing complicated about it, Ethiopians in the United States tell me. Ethiopia has about 112 million people and only about 7 million of them are from Tigray and call themselves Tigrayans, they assert. But that ‘tiny region’ with only 7 million people, or 6 percent of the population, led the country for 27 years until 2018 when Abiy Ahmed Ali, the current Prime Minister came to power after the former leader was forced to resign. They ask me after reading my reports whether it makes any sense for 7 million people or 6 percent of the population to rule over 105 million people or 94 percent of the population?

Where is Tigray located and why is that important?

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To understand why Tigray had such an outsized influence in Ethiopia, you need to understand its history and location. Tigray is a region in northern Ethiopia, bordering Eritrea, which used to be part of Ethiopia but fought a brutal war for decades until it won its independence in 1991. Ethiopia and Eritrea went to war again in 1998 in a territorial conflict that ended inconclusively in 2000 after claiming over 100,000 lives. With Tigray bordering Eritrea, those wars were mainly fought between Tigray and Eritrea, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which was originally formed in the 1970s to push for Tigrayan self-determination before moving away from that goal, played a major role in all those wars. As those conflicts between Ethiopia and Eritrea raged over decades, the TPLF remained very relevant.

However, in 2018, after Abiy Ahmed who is from the Oromo tribe, became Prime Minister, he reached out to President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea and both reached a historic peace accord that aimed at ending the conflicts and putting their past behind them. As a result, Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts to resolve the long-standing conflict.

By that time in 2018, the TPLF had been the dominant player in a coalition of ethnic political parties that was known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) that had led the country for almost three decades. Ethiopians tell me that EPRDF was able to last that long by practicing what it called divide and rule. When Abiy came to power in 2018, he decided to form a new political party but the TPLF refused to go along and decided to focus rather in Tigray where it has widespread support. Abiy reacted by sidelining the TPLF at the national level and accused it of seeking to destroy Ethiopia through ethnic violence.

This was all happening as Abiy was planning to hold the country’s first truly democratic elections in 2020 but postponed them, citing the COVID-19 pandemic. The delay angered the TPLF which described the move as an unconstitutional extension of Abiy’s term in office.

The TPLF then held its own regional election and Abiy’s government declared them invalid. Tension continued to build as each side describes the other as illegitimate. The TPLF was saying abiy’s mandate had come to an end and Abiy’s government was saying the elections in Tigray were null and voice. It was in the midst of all these crises that the TPLF attacked a military base on Sero and Abiy sent the Ethiopian National Defense Forces backed by soldiers from the Amhara region,which also borders Tigray, to respond to the attack in November of 2020.

How did the fighting go?

At the beginning of the fight, the Ethiopian Defense Forces had the upper hand. They quickly captured most cities in Tigray, including the regional capital Mekele, which had approximately half a million people. It all appeared that it was all over and Abiy declared the main phase of the conflict over. But the TPLF was still controlling large swaths of Tigray and on June 28, 2021, the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire. Back then, it appeared as though the conflict had been resolved or at least that peace was within reach. But months after, nothing much has changed. The TPLF is said to have expanded the war into neighboring Amhara and Afar regions while the Ethiopian government has effectively canceled the ceasefire. This, even as Eritrean troops remain stationed in Tigray, according to the United Nations and the United States. With the deal that Abiy made with the Eritrean president, Eritrean troops have been reported to be engaged in the Tigray conflict on the side of Abiy. Human rights organizations have said that Eritrean soldiers were involved in the massacre of civilians in the town of Axum and at a church in the Tigrayan town of Dengelat. Eritrea and Ethiopia have denied that Eritrean troops are in Ethiopia.

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)

Biden and Ethiopians protesting at the White House in Washington D.C.

The conflict in Ethiopia has put President Biden and his entire administration in a very difficult position. When he was inaugurated in January, he vowed to defend democracy and human rights but also to cooperate with allies, asserting that the United States will be used as a force for good. Ethiopia has been a strong ally of the United States in the fight against terrorism, especially against al-shabab in Somalia.

Ethiopia and the United States are also good business partners, with many Ethiopians doing well in the United States. It was a point aEthiopians who protested at the White House on Monday noted.

President Biden faces a real dilemma. To continue to cooperate with Ethiopia in the fight against regional terrorism, preserve a good business ally and also defend and protect human rights and those who are abused by those who are meant to protect them.

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