The ongoing war in Ethiopia’s Tigray state represents one of the greatest disappointments in Africa in recent memory. The hope that the new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, would lead his country into an era of democracy and unity is dimming amid the horror of the conflict. The United States has little ability to change the course Abiy has set, and must now find the difficult balance among maintaining a working relationship with the government of this critical country, advocating for a negotiated end to the dangerous war, and hedging against the possibility that Ethiopia is reverting to an illiberal state.
Ethiopia’s ancient civilization has never featured a democracy, and violence and schism have racked its recent history in particular. The country’s long line of emperors ended when a coup overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. Seventeen years later, the brutal putschist regime succumbed to a rebel coalition led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, that in turn dominated an iron-fisted government that ruled for nearly three decades.
When a popular revolution brought the reformist Abiy to power in 2018, it represented an unprecedented opportunity for Ethiopia to break from its legacy of authoritarian, violent rule. The US and many others hurried to support the prime minister’s agenda, and the early returns were promising. Abiy swiftly ended the border stalemate with Eritrea to the north, released thousands of political prisoners, committed to free and fair elections, and welcomed previously exiled rebel and opposition movements back to Ethiopia. His labors earned him international acclaim, including a Nobel Peace Prize.
The honeymoon was short. Partly because of Abiy’s own alienating, peremptory style, and partly because of the dysfunction bequeathed by former regimes, Ethiopia’s troubles accelerated. Elements of a disillusioned, previously exiled opposition movement tried to assassinate Abiy. The economy languished, and ethnic violence worsened. A string of unsolved murders of senior state government officials and of a popular opposition singer ratcheted up tensions further. The protests that elevated Abiy continued, and the security services responded brutally.
These developments were concerning, but Abiy was new and trying to manage a hugely complex set of problems. He may have been limited in his ability to rein in the powerful security services who could have been operating on muscle memory from their years as enforcers for the former regime. Even his decision in March 2020 to delay national elections because of the COVID-19 pandemic was defensible, though also politically convenient for him.
The worrisome trajectory of the country’s politics became outright alarming, however, when the government in 2019 and 2020 shut down the internet during protests and upheavals. The government also arrested prominent opposition leaders and charged some of them under Ethiopia’s vague terrorism law, a favored tool of autocrats everywhere and straight out of the former regime’s playbook.
Then, after months of increasing tensions, the TPLF in November 2020 attacked an Ethiopian military base in Tigray. The rebels offered the inadequate justification that it was a preemptive strike as hostile forces gathered on Tigray’s border.
The government had the right and responsibility to respond sternly, and the TPLF’s undeniable lust for power may have made conflict inevitable. Yet there is little indication that the government exhausted every possible means of avoiding the disaster of a war with its own people. Instead, it choose confrontation and escalation with the TPLF.
Regardless of whether the government could have done more to avoid the conflict, there should be no confusion about the indefensible way it has fought the war. It invited or allowed into Tigray Eritrean forces that have a particular hate for their greatest enemy, the TPLF, and used militias from the neighboring state of Amhara that were still smarting over the loss years ago of power and territory to Tigray.
The results were predictable. Stories trickling out depict not a restrained, targeted law enforcement operation as Abiy has portrayed it, but a campaign of vengeance against the Tigrayan people. Massacres of scores of civilians at a time, mass rapes, ethnic cleansing, the razing of refugee camps, and the pillaging of towns and critical infrastructure have been common. The forces marauding through Tigray are either out of control or have been given at least tacit carte blanche to behave in whatever vile way they please.
The government throughout the conflict has tried to veil what is happening from public view. It imposed a communications blackout on the state that, yes, disrupted the TPLF’s networks, but also suppressed information about the brutal nature of the fighting. Addis Ababa also impeded humanitarian access to much of Tigray, even as thousands face starvation there. For months it denied the presence of Eritrean forces, until international pressure recently forced Abiy to admit the truth. Even now, however, with an appalled world watching, Abiy’s claim that they are withdrawing may be another obfuscation.
The TPLF and associated militias have committed their own horrors against non-Tigrayans during this conflict. They must be held accountable, and the US should support lawful and proportionate actions to do so. If, however, it was impossible to defeat them without the help of the Amhara and Eritreans, that was more reason for Addis Ababa to avoid brinksmanship. At the very least, it should have demanded and ensured restraint from its allies.
The US has expressed concern over the fighting and withheld some aid money to Addis Ababa. Realistically, however, Washington has few reasonable options for dissuading Abiy from his current course. His actions suggest he believes destroying the TPLF is an existential need. He has also repeatedly told his people that the war in Tigray is necessary and quickly winnable, so relenting now would entail a loss of face. It could also cost him the backing of the Amhara, who have benefitted from the war and whose political support Abiy appears to be courting. Seeking a negotiated end to the fighting could also antagonize Eritrea, which behaves as though the war is its long-awaited opportunity to destroy the TPLF and punish the Tigrayans who supported it.
Washington now faces one of the quandaries that frequently bedevils foreign policy. US interests require a relationship with Ethiopia, as it is Africa’s second most populous country, a long-time American partner in counterterrorism, a country of great economic potential, and strategically placed in the important East Africa region.
Yet an extended insurgency in Tigray, as is likely, would make nearly hopeless the already daunting task facing Addis Ababa of developing the unity and stability necessary for Ethiopia to be a strong American partner. A long conflict might also attract interference from Sudan and Egypt, whose critical Nile River water supplies are threatened by the filling of the huge dam Ethiopia has built upstream from them. The scale and intensity of the crimes in Tigray also require the US to condemn them if it wishes to remain a credible voice on human rights.
Even though the chances for success are slim, Washington should continue making the case, temperately but consistently, to Abiy that a political solution is in his best interests. He does not wish a long war that sucks up resources or to oversee the crack-up of his country, and may become more amenable to negotiation as the fighting prolongs. The primary combatants are mostly Orthodox Christian, which could be an opening for appeals grounded in Christian ethics, though Senator Chris Coons, a Christian himself whom President Joe Biden recently dispatched to Ethiopia to call for negotiations, had limited success in his mission.
The US must also temper its engagements with Addis Ababa with the knowledge that Ethiopia could be reverting to illiberal rule and sustained violent instability. That will require continuously evaluating whether any form of US engagement or aid is being twisted to malign ends, prioritizing assistance for civil society organizations focused on building the rule of law and democracy in the country, and contingency planning for the possibility that Ethiopia is backsliding—whether the general election scheduled for June is free and fair will be an important test of the government’s democratic commitment.
There are no tidy or fully satisfactory solutions available in Ethiopia. The US must hobble along trying to balance its competing interests colliding in this important country in a more sober and warier way from the early days of optimism and fulsome engagement that characterized Abiy’s rise. It is a sad but necessary adjustment.