Last week, the Biden administration rolled out a new executive order authorizing targeted financial sanctions on those found to be responsible for, or complicit in, exacerbating the conflict in and around the Tigray region of Ethiopia, hindering humanitarian assistance in the region, or undermining Ethiopia’s democracy or territorial integrity. In its announcement, the White House was explicit in putting all of the parties to the conflict on notice, underscoring that the sanctions could apply to those in the Ethiopian government, the Eritrean government, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and the Amhara region’s government and forces. The unsurprising determination, which was months in the making, follows a series of steps aimed at shifting belligerents’ cost-benefit calculations away from escalating military conflict.
But the reaction from Ethiopia illustrates just how hard it will be for the United States to effect meaningful change on the ground—in part because leaders have wholeheartedly embraced jingoistic, uncompromising narratives that foreclose the possibility of negotiated solutions. In an open letter to President Biden posted on Twitter, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed bemoans Washington’s failure to see his campaign in Tigray as an extension of the global war on terror and posits that U.S. policy is rooted in “an orchestrated distortion of events and facts on the ground” and “policymakers and policy influencers’ friendships with belligerent terrorist groups like the TPLF.” In his telling, Ethiopia’s problem in Washington is not the millions of Ethiopians in desperate crisis, the metastasizing conflict, the crimes against humanity, or the ominous ethnic profiling, but rather that the United States is getting the story—used to justify or dismiss these realities—all wrong. Abiy seems unaware of how badly his credibility has been eroded by the gulf between some of his public statements and demonstrable facts on the ground.
Meanwhile, TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda was telling journalists that Tigrayan leaders welcome dialogue and will agree to investigations into credible allegations that their forces have committed grave abuses. But when they had wind in the sails of their military campaign in July, the Tigrayan forces had a long list of preconditions for any ceasefire. With their push beyond Tigray’s borders, outreach to other armed opponents of the government, and hardline social media partisans, they have fueled alarm and speculation about the scope of their ambitions.
The United States hopes that influential Ethiopians aware of the difference between self-serving propaganda and the catastrophic consequences of worsening conflict will begin to puncture the alternate reality that partisans have constructed and energetically reinforced since November. But it is not readily apparent who remains respected enough to be heard and courageous enough to try to challenge the competing narratives. Notably, when a number of Ethiopian civil society organizations came together earlier this month to call for peace and reconciliation in the country, they requested a cessation of not just hostilities but also “war propaganda.” When prominent African intellectuals called for more involvement from the African Union and political rather than military solutions to the conflict, they made it clear that many Ethiopian colleagues had expressed agreement in principal but fear retaliation if they publicly join the effort. The best that international pressure can do is clarify some of the economic and reputational stakes and the opportunity costs of continued conflict for those willing to reckon with the complex realities of the country’s crisis. An actual change in course will only happen when Ethiopians themselves insist on it.