News coming out of Addis Ababa suggests that the conflict in Ethiopia is entering a new phase. For over a year, momentum seemed to be forever driving toward worsening violence between the federal government, its allies, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), as well as a deepening rift between the Ethiopian government and international partners including the United States. But now the TPLF has retreated back to Tigray, and federal ground forces have declined to advance on the region. Ethiopian authorities have freed prominent opposition leaders from prison—including members of the TPLF and Oromo groups that have been at odds with the government—framing the pardons and amnesty as a step toward unity and reconciliation. Late last month, lawmakers approved the establishment of a national dialogue commission that will seek political solutions to the multiple fractures in Ethiopian society. While the dialogue as envisioned will not include armed opponents of the government, it could perhaps create a pathway toward more inclusive and consequential talks.
But not all the news is good. Humanitarian conditions in Tigray are as dire as ever, in large part because the Ethiopian government continues to impede access to the region. Ongoing aerial attacks on civilian targets are exacerbating the loss and suffering, killing Ethiopians and refugees and prompting aid organizations to suspend operations because they cannot safely do their work. This weekend the TPLF claimed that Eritrean forces were continuing to fight in Tigray—a claim that, if true, would render the restraint of federal forces far less meaningful. Meanwhile, many Ethiopians who were swept up in a wave of dubious arrests targeting human rights activists, journalists, and ethnic Tigrayan Ethiopians—whose only crime seemed to be their ethnicity—are still detained.
The Biden administration is assessing these developments and trying to capitalize on the positive trends as it transitions from Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman, whose resignation was announced last week, to his successor, David Satterfield. It will be important to resist the temptation of wishful thinking in this moment and to ensure that a desire for a reset of the bilateral relationship does not lead to a selective reading of the latest developments. There are positive signs, but doubts over the sincerity of the government’s desire for peace persist, as do real questions about the sustainability of steps toward peace. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s political base may have been unified in its animus toward the TPLF, but without an urgent threat from a common enemy, competing and sometimes contradictory interests will be hard to satisfy. Some of the militant Amhara nationalists that Abiy relied on over the past year already view the latest amnesties as a betrayal. Eritrea will continue to pursue its own agenda, which does not entail standing down while Ethiopians resolve their political differences peacefully and emerge a stronger and more just society. Accountability for atrocities committed by all parties to the conflict remains elusive.
Over the past year Abiy and his supporters have used the history of U.S.-Ethiopia relations as a cudgel, pointing to Washington’s tendency to overlook internal repression and abuse during the years of TPLF dominance to question U.S. motives. It would be ironic if American desires to end this difficult period led to repeating the same mistakes. Of course, the United States wants a productive relationship with Ethiopia—especially a just, peaceful Ethiopia that models a successful heterogeneous society, champions democratic norms, and supports African institutions. But good relations with the government in Addis Ababa are not worth much if the country is tearing itself apart, simmering with grievances that explode into violence, or practicing and exporting the kind of brutal authoritarian governance that characterizes Eritrea. The United States should take care to consider the totality of the picture in Ethiopia today, remembering that it is the ultimate course of that influential country, not rapport with any one leader, that matters most.