Living Up to the Legacy of “Never Again”: How the U.S. Can Support Ethiopians as Civil War Looms

Image by Ivan via Stockvault

By Daren Caughron

Today, Ethiopia stands on the brink of disaster. Just a few years ago, outside observers were celebrating the significant economic and political developments being made in Ethiopia. What has happened?

On April 2nd, 2018 Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was sworn in after having run on a platform calling for unity, prosperity, and an end to violence — seemingly building on the many years of increasingly-improving conditions for the Ethiopian people. It seemed to many that this country was finally turning a new leaf. Long gone was the horrific famine that killed hundreds of thousands in the 1980s. Numbered were the days of fighting between Ethiopia and its neighbor, Eritrea. Ethiopia was finally on the right track. Reverend David Beckman, the former President and CEO of Bread for the World, thought as much on a trip to Ethiopia back in 2018 – as can be seen in this video. “The thing that has most excited me is being able to see what people in the north of Ethiopia have done to put famine into the past and generate a stronger agriculture [system],” Beckman said at the time. This progress for the people seemed all but inexorable as Abiy Ahmed won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. Then, in 2020, this honeymoon period came to a dramatic end.

The rumblings of conflict began brewing in 2019, when Prime Minister Abiy merged the ethnic and regional-based constituent parties of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) with several opposition parties creating the unified, centralized Prosperity Party. Under the previous EPRDF system, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated Ethiopian politics from the overthrow of the Communist Derg regime in 1991 to 2019, when Abiy’s reforms ended this domination. Having lost their status as kingmaker in this new system, the TPLF refused to join Abiy’s new political party, leaving a massive rift between the central government and Ethiopia’s northern-most Tigray region.

The powder keg was finally ignited in 2020. General elections had been scheduled for the 29th of August, but, as a result of the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, were postponed to 2021. The TPLF-controlled Tigray region went ahead with its regional elections, in direct defiance of the central government, in September 2020. Abiy’s government refused to acknowledge the outcomes of these elections, declaring the vote illegal. Simmering tensions and military build-up along the Tigrayan border finally boiled over into direct conflict on November 3rd, 2020, with attacks on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) in Tigray by the TPLF. ENDF forces, with Eritrean allies, launched counter attacks throughout the region. Though these retaliations started as simple “police actions” that were predicted to only last a few weeks, that has obviously not panned out.

Each side has traded control of the Tigray capital, Mekele over the past 12 months; first with the ENDF forces taking control and declaring victory on November 28, 2020 only to have the capital be retaken by the TPLF in June 2021. Since June 2021, TPLF forces have not only forced back the ENDF, but have taken control of several key highway links between Mekele and Addis Ababa. Conflict has also spilled over into neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar and many smaller, similarly disgruntled, ethnic forces (such as the Oromo Liberation Army) have joined in coalition with the TPLF. This new alliance, called the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Forces, has the expressed goal of dismantling Abiy’s government. Large scale ethnic conflict is looking increasingly likely and the capital of Addis Ababa is under direct threat of attack. Untold numbers of mass atrocities have been perpetrated by ENDF and TPLF forces and their allies, with at least 10,000 deaths and more than 2 million forced to flee their homes. Mass rape has become a common tactic for forces on both sides of the conflict, targeting children as young as eight and elderly women as old as 72. We’ve also seen the mass “weaponization of food” that has forced at least 400,000 Tigrayans into famine and has put millions more on the brink of famine, according to the UN.

There are a number of important policies that the U.S. can enact to pressure both sides of this horrific conflict to come to the negotiating table. The Biden administration has recently announced that it will be denying the extension of Ethiopia’s eligibility for duty-free imports under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) unless it stops preventing the unrestricted flow of humanitarian aid to Tigray. Additionally, on November 5th, 2021, the UN Security Council finally issued a statement expressing “deep concern” over the escalation of fighting and called for parties to refrain from “inflammatory hate speech and incitement to violence and divisiveness”. While both the AGOA denial for Ethiopia and statements from the Security Council are great first steps, there is certainly more need for further pressure on the central government and the TPLF:

  • Authorize More Targeted Sanctions. The Treasury Department and Congress could consider strengthening economic sanctions against leaders of the ENDF, TPLF, OLA, Eritrean forces, and others involved in the conflict on both sides. This step, alone, will likely result in limited success and could risk inadvertently punishing innocent civilians if not properly structured. Sanctions, alone, likely won’t alter the calculus of those on both sides enough — especially if they are unilaterally implemented by the Biden administration. Thus other actions should be taken. We can’t “put all our eggs in the one basket” of sanctions.
  • Condition U.S. Support for IMF Emergency Loans to Ethiopia. The administration could commit to voting against Ethiopia’s request for an emergency IMF loan unless and until the aid blockade is lifted on Tigray. Prime Minister Abiy has floated this request in recent weeks in order to gain the needed capital to pay off some of the $30 million in externally held debt that the country has.
  • Pass the Ethiopia Peace and Democracy Promotion Act. Senators Menedez, Coons, and Risch have introduced the bipartisan Ethiopia Peace and Democracy Promotion Act of 2021. This act, if passed, would suspend security assistance to the government of Ethiopia and authorize support for conflict resolution and civil society peacebuilding efforts. This bill would also mandate the imposition of targeted sanctions against individual actors who are found to undermine attempts to resolve, who profit from, or who provide material support to any entity that is party to the civil war. Congress should act quickly on this important piece of legislation.

Following the Holocaust, again in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and most recently after the 2017 mass persecution of Rohingya muslims in Myanmar, the world has come together to say “never again” to genocide and mass ethnic killings. Yet, despite international rhetoric, we continue to allow such horrific atrocities to happen again and again. If we truly care for human rights, we must act now to pressure both sides of the conflict in Ethiopia to end the fighting and stop the intentional starvation of millions of innocent men, women, and children.

Hopes were high for Ethiopia not so long ago. A new democratic government, a fast-growing economy, and a strong recovery from horrific famine and oppressive governance seemed to point towards a bright future for this ancient, beautiful country. How far we’ve fallen in such little time. Ultimately, of course, the future of Ethiopia can, and should, only be determined by Ethiopians, themselves. However, it is in the interests of the United States and the millions of innocent Ethiopians caught in the crossfire to bring both sides to the negotiating table and end the senseless violence targeting civilians. As a vital partner to the country, the U.S. can exercise a number of policy levers to help bring about these negotiations. The spector of genocide looms omniously over Tigray, and the future of the Horn of Africa region is largely reliant on a strong and stable Ethiopia. We must act now, before it is too late.

Daren Caughron is a global nutrition and foreign policy advocate and analyst in the Washington, DC area.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.