Has President Biden failed in Ethiopia? Is he failing in Africa? – Perspective by Simon Ateba

For a start, the sanctions President Joseph R. Biden Jr. authorized on September 17 to be used against all those undermining peace and security in Ethiopia have clearly yielded no meaningful result. The imposition of those sanctions on Eritreans and Eritrean entities have had no meaningful result on the ground.

In an interview with Alessandra Galloni of the Reuters NEXT Virtual Global Conference in Washington D.C. on December 3, 2021, United States Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was asked about Ethiopia once again, and whether the Biden administration has any other tool to bring about peace and stability in the Horn of Africa nation.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken holds a Meet and Greet with U.S. Mission Senegal, in Dakar, Senegal, on November 20, 2021. [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ 
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken holds a Meet and Greet with U.S. Mission Senegal, in Dakar, Senegal, on November 20, 2021. [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/

“I’d like to ask you about Ethiopia, an area that we have covered. It’s a country that we have covered extensively,” Alessandra Galloni began putting her question to Secretary Blinken. “Thousands have been killed, 400,000 people in Tigray are living in famine, and efforts by the U.S. and African Union to get the two sides to the negotiating table have stalled.  And even the threat that Ethiopia could lose duty-free access to U.S. markets doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference.  And in fact, the prime minister has himself gone to the battle front.  What leverage does the U.S. have in Ethiopia?  What specific sanctions could you impose?

Blinken responded, “Well, Alessandra, first let’s look at the stakes because they are – they’re high; they’re significant.  And they’re significant in – first of all in human terms, and second of all in strategic terms. The human terms, we’ve already seen: the extraordinary cost of this conflict, the tremendous suffering of people, particularly in Tigray. And we have – we’ve had as many as a million people being on the brink of famine.  That alone is horrific.  But the perpetuation of this conflict is also having a dramatic impact on increasing ethnic tensions throughout the country, and that really risks the implosion of the country itself with tremendous spillover effects in a vital region of the world.  And that is good for no one.

“So we have been intensely engaged, supporting the efforts of the African Union led by former Nigerian President Obasanjo, who has been the lead negotiator. There have been other very important actors in Africa, notably President Kenyatta of Kenya, who have been engaged on this. And of course, we have our own diplomats who have been working to basically do three things. One, everyone needs to stop in place, whether it is the TPLF or – and the Tigrayan Defense Forces trying to move south, or the Ethiopian Defense Forces responding and trying to move north, and then other ethnic forces that have come into the mix. Then people need to sit down around a table and negotiate a more durable ceasefire.  Humanitarian assistance has to start to flow in sustained ways into areas that need it.  And ultimately, there needs to be a political resolution to the differences that have emerged. That’s what we’ve been driving toward. 

“Now, we have not just the tools of our diplomacy. Yes, we have sanctions authorities that we’ve put in place. We’ve used some of them already against Eritrea, which has been unfortunately a very negative actor in this drama. Those tools remain at our disposal for others if they are, instead of trying to engage in a diplomatic resolution of this problem, perpetuating it. But we’re in constant engagement and constant contact with all of those who are working to try to bring this to a close in terms of the military conflict and get people off the battlefield and at the negotiating table. That’s what’s so critical.”

US President Joe Biden (R) and DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi joke at the G20 of World Leaders Summit in Rome, Italy, on Saturday, October 30, 2021. Photo: White House 
US President Joe Biden (R) and DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi joke at the G20 of World Leaders Summit in Rome, Italy, on Saturday, October 30, 2021. Photo: White House

Secretary Blinken’s response seemed to indicate that Washington has run out of all options in Ethiopia and that the United States does not have any leverage in Ethiopia as well.

For a start, the sanctions President Joseph R. Biden Jr. authorized on September 17 to be used against all those undermining peace and security in Ethiopia have clearly yielded no meaningful results. The imposition of those sanctions on Eritreans and Eritrean entities has had no meaningful results on the ground.

In addition, the threat that Ethiopia could lose duty-free access to U.S. markets doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference as Galloni noted.

The United States Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman has also not recorded any meaningful success apart from a few meetings with the leaderships of the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Feltman in recent weeks has been claiming that the United States is just playing background and that the African Union Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Olusegun Obasanjo is the one leading the talks. But Obasanjo himself has not had any success in bringing all parties to the raging conflict together.

Feltman 
U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman addresses the conflict in Ethiopia at the U.s. Institute of Peace in Washington DC on Tuesday, November 2, 2021.

For a start, the former Nigerian President at 84 is almost 40 years older than Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali of Ethiopia who is 45 years old. That huge gap in age means Obasanjo and Abiy are from very different generations, were never friends and may never have had any contacts in the past.

It seems the United States has failed to identify who is Abiy’s friend, someone or some people he may be listening to, or some people both sides could be looking up to or listening to, either here in the United States, in Ethiopia or across the African continent.

Olusegun Obasanjo, Former Nigerian President 
Olusegun Obasanjo, Former Nigerian President

The administration’s message has also not been well coordinated. Samantha Power, the USAID Administrator would post her own tweets blasting the government of Ethiopia while Feltman would be trying to talk to both sides. The United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Mary Catherine Phee is almost in the background trying to find a voice amid tweets and retweets by Power. It was all a recipe for disaster.

In any case, the United States has resorted to urging Americans in Ethiopia to leave the country now before all hell breaks loose.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power 
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power

Last Wednesday, the United States government again urged U.S. citizens to depart Ethiopia now using commercially available options, asserting that the security situation in Ethiopia continues to deteriorate.  

“Although the Embassy continues to process emergency passports and repatriation loans, and to provide other emergency services, the Embassy is unlikely to be able to assist U.S. citizens in Ethiopia with departure if commercial options become unavailable,” the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa wrote in a travel advisory.

It also urged Americans to see information ‘on What the Department of State Can and Can’t Do in a Crisis‘.

The Embassy wrote, “U.S. citizens wishing to depart Ethiopia, currently have multiple options via commercial flights from Bole International Airport. If you have difficulty securing a flight or need assistance to return to the United States, please contact AddisACS@state.gov for guidance.

Ambassador Mary Catherine Phee, President Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s top diplomat for Africa was sworn into office on Thursday, September 30, 2021, by U.S. State Department Under Secretary Victoria Nuland 
Ambassador Mary Catherine Phee, President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s top diplomat for Africa was sworn into office on Thursday, September 30, 2021, by U.S. State Department Under Secretary Victoria Nuland

“The Embassy can also provide a repatriation loan for U.S. citizens who cannot afford at this time to purchase a commercial ticket to the United States.

“If you are a U.S. citizen or parent of a U.S. citizen minor and delaying your departure because of your non-U.S. citizen spouse, your minor child, or you do not have a valid U.S. travel document please contact us.”

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali 
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali

However, fleeing Ethiopia is not a diplomatic success. It’s a diplomatic failure that may be an indication that the United States may be declining in Africa and around the world.

And this failure could have been avoided. The Biden administration has grappled with a perception issue that has made talks between government and the TPLF virtually impossible.

Among many Ethiopians in the United States, it is widely believed that the Biden administration is backing the TPLF fighters against government forces, a wild allegation that has been denied by all U.S. officials but that has remained the belief of Ethiopians.

Four weeks ago, thousands of Ethiopians rallied at the White House in Washington D.C. in support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, and against the Biden administration’s stance in the ongoing conflict in Tigray, a day after a similar rally held in Addis Ababa with tens of thousands of people in attendance.

The demonstrators in Washington, like those in Addis a day earlier, accused the United States of supporting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and their allies who are said to be advancing toward the capital of Ethiopia in an attempt to seize power from Abiy.

Berhnu Endegena, a 60-year old Ethiopian demonstrator sat by the White House’s fence with a placard that read, “We stand with our government in its effort for political reform!”

Ethiopians rally at the White House in Washington DC, on November 8, 2021, in support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali in the ongoing conflict in Tigray. Photo: TODAY NEWS AFRICA/Simon Ateba 
Ethiopians rally at the White House in Washington DC, on November 8, 2021, in support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali in the ongoing conflict in Tigray. Photo: TODAY NEWS AFRICA/Simon Ateba

He told Today News Africa‘s Simon Ateba that he came to the White House to let the Biden administration know that Ethiopians are behind their Prime Minister and against the TPLF.

Riyot Zeleke, a 39-year old demonstrator said the Biden administration is on the wrong side of history in Ethiopia and that he came to the White House to protest against the administration’s stance toward the war in Tigray. He said the Biden administration should stand with the people of Ethiopia and not the rebels.

Other demonstrators’ placards read, “TPLF is terrorist. USA take your hands off from Ethiopia. CNN. fake news. Long Live Ethiopia. Heartbroken Democrat. No More.”

Other big banners read, “CNN stop false reporting on Ethiopia. Ethiopians defeated colonialists, will overcome neo-colonialism too!”

That perception that the United States is not there to help but to force a TPLF takeover is what dominates conversations among Ethiopians and Ethiopian Americans in Washington.

Although President Biden’s top officials, including the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield have repeated rejected claims that the United States is one-sided, and backing the rebels rather than standing with the government of Ethiopia, many Ethiopians still believe that the United States is backing the TPLF and cannot be a fair mediator.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield 
Linda Thomas-Greenfield

But there is a bigger problem. As the demonstrations were going on outside the White House, inside the White House, an Ethiopian journalist was having a question during the briefing with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. He was not given the opportunity to ask his question and other African journalists there, including me (Simon Ateba) of Today News Africa were not given the opportunity to ask questions on Ethiopia even though thousands of Ethiopians were outside the gate.

That arrogance, that failure by American officials and diplomats to listen to African perspectives, take interviews from African journalists right here in Washington rather than Reuters and the rest, that failure to bring Africans and Ethiopians onboard right here in the United States for a possible resolution of the conflict at home, may explain why the United States seems to be failing in Ethiopia, no matter how diplomats at the State Department or officials at the U.S. National Security Council try to pain it.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki holds a press briefing, Wednesday, August 25, 2021, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Katie Ricks) 
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki holds a press briefing, Wednesday, August 25, 2021, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Katie Ricks)

The attempt by the Biden administration to resolve the conflict in Ethiopia, and its failure to do so, seems to be sending a clear message to African leaders: The United States’ leverage in Africa may be weakening. It may need to be strengthen again for the sake of peace, democracy, human rights, liberty and prosperity.

Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa in Washington who has monitored the conflict in Ethiopia for over a year. His opinion does not reflect the opinion of Today News Africa.

Chief White House Correspondent for

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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