Thoughts on an American-mediated settlement in Ethiopia

  • As the saying goes, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

Negash AbdurahmanOpinion ll Adiszeybe

Summary

An American-brokered settlement of the conflict in Ethiopia is clearly underway.  Such a deal will create two rival power centers in Ethiopia – an unrepentant TPLF enclave (or some rebranded variant with a different name) and a diminished central government.  To succeed, this plan will have to contain and marginalize the Amhara who have been decimated by the war, as well as neighboring Eritrea. Such a scenario will serve American interests in the short-term by diluting full Chinese dominance of the strategic Horn of Africa.  But for Ethiopia and the region, at best this will be a formula for long-term instability and vulnerability, if not outright chaos.

The January 7, 2022 surprise release of prominent Tigrai Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) prisoners such as Sebhat Nega, the phone conversations between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and US President Joseph R. Biden, various statements by the American government, and Olesegun Obasanjo’s trip to Tigrai, all point to a US-sponsored settlement of the conflict between the TPLF (or a rebranded version of it)  and the central government of Ethiopia.

Several questions come to mind

  • What are the driving forces behind the US push?  
  • What are the outlines of such a settlement? Who wins? And who loses?
  • Why is the Biden administration interested in a settlement? 
  • What are US interests in the Horn of Africa?

Strategic interests, plus…  

American policy makers have clearly signaled that an alliance among Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia that the US does not control is not acceptable. Eritrea and Somalia have a combined coastline of 4,300 kilometers in one of the most strategic corners of the world. America clearly wants to preempt such an alliance that appears to be favorably disposed towards China.  Add to that the personal connections that key people in the Biden foreign policy and national security establishment have with Tigrian leaders who ruled Ethiopia for almost three decades.

Weaponizing Human Rights —President Biden is marginally involved in Horn of Africa issues.  He has outsourced the thinking on this to the younger and more aggressive Anthony Blinken who is eager to make his mark on US foreign policy. Long before Biden was sworn in, Anthony Blinken and Jake Sullivan (who later became Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, respectively) had put together a policy of intervention designed to tip the balance in favor of Tigrian insurgents.  Within days of the start of the war in early November of 2020 between the TPLF and the central government of Ethiopia, Blinken and Sullivan were writing and tweeting about war crimes and ethnic cleansing by the government of Ethiopia without independent verification. At no time did the Biden Administration speak up against Tigrian insurgents as the instigators of the war or the genociders of MaiKadra, where an estimated 1,000 defenseless civilians were butchered. The American government also ignored or played down the shocking devastation of Amhara and Afar regions– the loss of life, rapes and the deliberate destruction of property and economic life, setting the regions back decades.  Human rights concerns were applied only selectively.

Human rights were formally weaponized once the Biden administration came into being in January 2021.  The strategy was to demonize Prime Minister Abiy, Eritrea and Amharas, all of whom were thought to get in the way of American ambitions in the Horn of Africa.  Coupled with the Ethiopian government’s failure to present its story, the Orwellian demonizing strategy has worked.  The aggressor TPLF is now the victim.  No one in the international community now speaks about civilians in Amhara and Afar who are the victims of unspeakable crimes. 

How about human rights and such?  Human rights is a favorite tool of convenience in the US foreign policy arsenal that is frequently used against countries and leaders who refuse to take their marching orders from Washington.  

Saudi Arabia is one of the flagrant abusers of human rights.  Routine Saudi violations of rights include “unlawful killings; executions for nonviolent offenses; forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of prisoners and detainees by government agents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious restrictions on free expression, the press” In addition, the Saudi war in Yemen is a glaring example of war crimes. It has been raging for the last seven years.  Using US weapons, the richest country in the Arab world has been engaged in a war to obliterate one of the poorest Arab countries.    No US threat of sanctions or genocide charges.

America’s New Pivot in Ethiopia:  No Regime Change.  But there will be Regime Castration….

PM Abiy appears to have been promised no regime change.  But there will be regime castration

What are the components of regime castration?  They are slippery slopes that will be implemented in stages once the US has put the noose on the Abiy government.

  • A coerced ceasefire that creates an equivalency between Tigrian insurgents and the central government of Ethiopia.  
  • Unfettered access to Tigrai for foreign powers and aid agencies who have been known to provide intelligence and logistics to the insurgents. 
  • Present all government military responses to insurgent provocations as attacks against civilians, and as massacres, creating the justification for foreign intervention.
  •  Accept a no-fly zone or some type of foreign “peacekeepers.”
  • Dangle reconstruction aid in front of Ethiopia that is highly conditional.  In other words, at every step Ethiopia has to prove it is worthy before aid is dispensed.
  • Provide guarantees that Tigrian leaders will keep their looted wealth.
  • Provide guarantees that Tigrian leaders will not be prosecuted for crimes they committed.
  • Contain and marginalize Amharas and neighboring Eritrea.
  • This is bound to create internal division within Ethiopia and anger Eritrea.
  • A weak, diminished central government, kept busy first and foremost by rivals in Tigrai, and also by other regional powers and warlords
  • Indefinite dependence on Western powers for handouts, both food and cash

From an Ethiopian perspective, what is the best outcome?

Herman Cohen, the American kingmaker who used America’s prestige and might to bring the TPLF to power in 1991, recently tweeted what most Ethiopians like to see.  “In #Ethiopia, it is time for the TPLF to accept the inevitable. The Abiy government has overwhelming military superiority. To save the Tigrayan people from further hardship, the TPLF must cease to exist, and its leadership depart into exile. Exile under amnesty.”  Cohen knows how to flatter Ethiopians and is very likely floating this idea to misdirect, and to manipulate their feelings and opinions.

If the TPLF surrenders, is disarmed and its leaders are jailed or exiled, an all-inclusive national dialogue can grapple with Ethiopia’s many problems.

But this is not likely to happen.  Making the TPLF go away will not be in America’s interest.  It is possible for America to orchestrate the exile of key TPLF leadership to a country such as Canada.  Such a move will also come with a rebranding of the TPLF with a different name.  But the TPLF and its ideology will continue to be a festering wound. The key measurement for any meaningful agreement is whether the TPLF and its remnants will be officially disarmed in a verifiable way.

A US-brokered settlement may include some kind of “protection” for Tigrai, possibly a no-fly zone or the stationing of foreign troops in an area such as Wolkait.  A weakened central government will be kept busy for the foreseeable future, dealing with economic crises and responding to increasingly assertive demands of regional governments and their associated militias.  It will be insecure and will not have the stamina and bandwidth to engage in major development projects, nor enter into grand alliances or negotiate with foreign powers on an equal footing.

US policy towards Ethiopia is an extension of its policy on the entire African continent.

What is the premise of US foreign policy in Africa? It stands on two pillars.

Pillar I.  Protection of Empire.  America’s interest is putting Africa in the service of its far-flung empire.  The US has been obsessed with fighting terrorism since September 11 and Africa is deemed important only through the prism of a militarized US policy.  In that context, as the journalist and author Howard French writes, “Africa has been treated more and more like an essentially military and security problem to be managed strictly at arm’s length. “

The US has created the Africa Command (AFRICOM).  Africom epitomizes the militarization of US policy towards Africa. Incidentally, Camp Limonnier, the only permanent US military base in Africa, is part of the Africa Command located in Djibouti, Ethiopia’s neighbor.  It is from this base that US commander General William Zana threatened to intervene in Ethiopia as recently as November 2021.

African armies that do not cooperate with Africom are treated with suspicion.  The Eritrean army, for example, was considered for co option but immediately ruled out.  A US report back in 2013 concluded that Eritrea’s military “could be a useful US ally in a historically tenuous region will likely remain more of a problem than a boon for the United States into the foreseeable future.” 

Outside of military concerns, America’s positive trade engagements with Africa center around extractive industries such as oil and minerals; and selling high-priced technologies such as aircraft.

America’s militarized approach is struggling to compete with extensive Chinese economic and infrastructure assistance.

Pillar II.  White supremacy.  As a 2014 Washington Post headline put it, the Western world, especially America, has a “long and ugly tradition of treating Africa as a dirty, diseased place.” Among American policy makers and journalists, Africa is viewed through a negative prism.  “There is an insidious and longstanding instinct among American policymakers when dealing with Africa, and that is to see bad news and calamity everywhere.

Africa is the only part of the world where people with thin expertise and little policy background or clout” are called upon to shape and guide American diplomacy.  Irrelevant celebrities such as “Bono, George Clooney, and Ben Affleck are looked to help set priorities and galvanize public interest.”

Trump called African nations “Shithole countries.”  He took off the diplomatic mask and was chastised for it.  Kissinger said South African “whites are here to stay.”  Reagan called Africans monkeys.  Beyond personal prejudice, the US was the head of a racist international cabal that secretly worked with and assisted apartheid South Africa.

In a nutshell, racialized American policy towards Africa can be summarized as follows:

  • Don’t send me your refugees; 
  • Don’t bring your diseases to my shores (hence Biden’s irrational, knee-jerk ban of Southern African travelers after the discovery of the Omicron variant of Covid;) and
  • Don’t breed terrorists

Back to Ethiopia.  The US has been the sugar daddy and enabler of the Tigrian insurgents.  As such, it has been a party to the conflict and cannot be a neutral mediator.

So what would a US-mediated settlement look like?  

Look no further than 1991.  US-mediated negotiations in 1991 empowered a tiny minority to come to power.  It brought about almost three decades of tyranny and kleptocracy in the form of the Tigrai People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).  This arrangement served US interests well.  But it brought real harm to the people both in material and psychological terms.  The TPLF helped itself to a lot of foreign aid and to borrowed money.  The leadership got filthy rich.  The Ethiopian people were traumatized and left holding the bag.

As the saying goes, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

How can Ethiopians stand up to these existential threats?  

  1.  Maintain Unity.  Ethiopian leadership, opposition parties and the diaspora need to work relentlessly to expand and intensify the hard-won unity.
  2. The Need for a Media Force.  There is a need to proactively clarify Ethiopia’s position to the international community on an ongoing basis, supported by facts and figures.  To do this, the government must spearhead a well-organized, skilled media force to convince the world of the justness of Ethiopia’s cause, and to reverse the negative narrative.
  3.  Reconstruction.  For all Ethiopians, especially those of us in the diaspora, to continue to make financial and in-kind contributions to mitigate the devastation caused by the TPLF invasion of Amhara and Afar regions.
  4. Intensify the “No More” movement and the Pan-African struggle.

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