from Africa in Transition, Africa Program, and Preparing for Leadership Transitions in Africa

As Crisis Deepens in Ethiopia, Need for Committed Diplomatic Response Grows

Ethiopian refugees who fled Tigray region, sit inside a courtesy bus at the Fashaga camp as they are transferred to Um-Rakoba camp on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in Kassala state, Sudan December 13, 2020.
Ethiopian refugees who fled Tigray region, sit inside a courtesy bus at the Fashaga camp as they are transferred to Um-Rakoba camp on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in Kassala state, Sudan December 13, 2020. Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / REUTERS

As the crisis persists in Ethiopia, the government in Addis Ababa aims to draw clear lines for the international community, positioning itself as a cooperative partner (after months of obstruction) in addressing the humanitarian crisis in Tigray, but also deeming any mention of Amhara forces in Tigray inappropriate interference in its internal affairs while continuing to largely ignore the issue of Eritrean troops in Ethiopian territory. These delineations are unpersuasive, but for now it appears that UN Security Council members China, Russia, and India are prepared to accept the Government of Ethiopia’s parameters, despite the obviously dire consequences of Ethiopia’s unraveling for international peace and security.

All of these developments come against the backdrop of chilling reports of massacres and mass rapes committed against civilians in Tigray. The Ethiopian government continues to use language suggesting that urgent humanitarian needs in Tigray are manifesting in the aftermath of a “law and order” operation that has been completed. But clearly the conflict continues, and the ongoing presence of Eritrean troops, who are reportedly responsible for many of the atrocities, has never been satisfactorily addressed. Either they are welcome guests of an Ethiopian government comfortable with their crimes against Ethiopian citizens, or they are an invading force that the Ethiopian government is unable or unwilling to repel. The murky middle ground that these troops occupy in Ethiopia’s public positioning does not exist in reality.

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It is heartening that the crisis clearly has the attention of the Biden administration, and that the president, vice president, secretary of state and U.S. ambassador to the UN have all engaged directly on these issues, including by reaching out to African Union leadership and to Kenya, a regional linchpin and current member of the UN Security Council. But the new administration still finds itself with a number of empty seats at a critical time. The United States currently does not have an ambassador in Nairobi or Khartoum. Reports suggest that an envoy for the Horn of Africa will be announced soon, a welcome step that can help address some of the bureaucratic seams hampering policymaking in the strategically important and volatile region. It will take an all-hands-on-deck approach to move past the government of Ethiopia’s obfuscations, stop the violence, build multilateral support for real accountability, develop the relationships required to address the political dynamics at the root of the violence, and prevent an already dire situation from degenerating into regional catastrophe.

More on:

Ethiopia

East Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa

Foreign Policy