November 25, 2020

Imagine North and South Korea normalising relations with one another. The Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for doing something equivalent: for negotiating a peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea. The two countries, which were united until Eritrea seceded in 1993, had fought a bloody border war from 1998 to 2000 that killed tens of thousands of people, and left the nations on edge. Ending the stand-off not only relaxed the threat of a new war between the countries, but also brought stability to the volatile East Africa region, where ethnic and religious clashes have created overlapping conflict in multiple countries — and a steady stream of refugees.

But barely a year after winning the Peace Prize, Abiy is leading his country’s military in a war against one of its own regional states. The conflict between the federal army of Ethiopia and troops loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the party that once controlled the country, is not simply a “large-scale law enforcement operation” as Abiy has called it. Nor is it just a localised conflict. The military forces of the Tigray Region, where the TPLF rules, have fired rockets into the nearby Amhara Region — and into Eritrea, accusing that country’s forces of intervening against the Tigrayans.

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Many aspects of the conflict are troubling, including reports of civilian massacres, growing numbers of fleeing refugees, and unease over the total media blackout that Abiy has imposed on the Tigray region. Facing these humanitarian crises, international actors have urged both sides to pull back. Abiy has so far rebuffed offers from neighbouring countries and from the African Union to mediate. As federal forces prepared to lay siege to the Tigray capital, Mekelle, a senior aide was blunt in his remarks to the BBC about the Ethiopian PM’s position: “We don’t negotiate with criminals… We bring them to justice, not to the negotiating table.”

Similarly, statements from the TPLF express a refusal to surrender, maintaining that Tigrayans are “ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region”. The party has reasons to be confident that, even if it is ultimately outmatched, it can put up a fight. It has hundreds of thousands of fighters, a large chunk of the country’s heavy artillery, and the loyalty of many officers and soldiers within the national army, some of whom have defected to the Tigrayan side. The US Ambassador to Ethiopia, after speaking to both Abiy and the Tigrayan president, Debretsion Gebremichael, reported that there remains “a strong commitment on both sides to see the military conflict through”.

With two intransigent sides, there’s not much that Ethiopia’s neighbours or the African Union can do. Similarly, the UN has been limited to practically begging Addis Ababa to guarantee the safety of civilians and aid workers. And for now, the two powers with the influence to pressure the Ethiopian government or the TPLF to back down seem unwilling to do so. But both the United States and China have reasons to change their policies should peace prove elusive.

The US has leverage. The nation is home to a large and influential Ethiopian diaspora, many of whom live in Washington DC. This community sends billions of dollars in remittances back to Ethiopia, supplementing the nearly $1 billion a year in official aid that the federal government has sent to the country recently.

At the moment, of course, there’s no evidence that Donald Trump has even realised there’s a war going on in Ethiopia. To the extent that he knows who Abiy is, the President probably just regards him as the leader who took the Nobel Peace Prize that he thinks should have been his. Abiy, meanwhile, is probably still smarting at Trump’s reckless remarks that Egypt was likely to “blow up” a Nile River dam in Ethiopia that has caused tension between the two countries. He is therefore unlikely to listen to the American president should Trump attempt to wade in on the issue.

So far, his administration has largely backed the Ethiopian government’s moves. The top State Department official for Africa tweeted that the US “strongly condemns the TPLF’s unjustifiable attacks against Eritrea” and later characterised the conflict as “a faction of the government running a region in Ethiopia that has decided to undertake hostilities against the central government”. While advocating for peace, US officials have signalled that they are monitoring, rather than influencing, the situation.

The US government’s support for Addis Ababa is driven by its concern for continuing cooperation with Ethiopia, its regional ally against extremism in the Horn of Africa. The two countries have significant shared national security concerns — the US has supported efforts by Ethiopia to prevent Islamist militants from seizing power in neighbouring Somalia, including a 2007 Ethiopian invasion of the country. But the American stance also reflects a desire not to push Ethiopia — or other African governments for that matter — further into the orbit of China.

Ethiopia was one of the first countries to receive high levels of Chinese investment; it is seen as an important component of President Xi Jinping’s trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative trade network. Over the past 15 years, Beijing has financed vast infrastructure projects within Ethiopia, as well as building links between the landlocked country and its neighbour Djibouti, where China has also built its first overseas naval base. China is Ethiopia’s main trading partner and investor (and holds billions in Ethiopian debt), giving Beijing strong economic leverage.

So far, China has been silent on the conflict. Xi probably doesn’t mind which side wins. Beijing has had a long relationship with the TPLF — which started as a Marxist, Chinese-trained rebellion against a Soviet-backed communist dictatorship in Ethiopia called the Derg. On the other hand, Abiy has maintained a solid relationship with China since taking office, negotiating a delicate debt restructure. Beijing also has a track record of support for Abiy’s ally, the Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, who also received training in China in the 1970s as a rebel fighting against the Derg (Eritrea was at the time incorporated into Ethiopia).

The risk to China is not that either side will win, but that no one will, and that ongoing instability will endanger Chinese investments and disrupt its trade networks in the East Africa region. If the Tigray crisis devolves into a guerilla war — and the UN has privately assessed that this is a likely outcome — then China may see the need to put pressure on Abiy and the TPLF to negotiate a settlement.

Recent examples give some hints as to how China could approach a protracted conflict in Ethiopia. China has engaged in mediation efforts with the government and rebels in nearby South Sudan, where Chinese firms have substantial investments in that young country’s oil industry. There have also been longstanding rumours that China approved, or at least knew about, the coup that removed President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, another country where China had valuable investments. As in Ethiopia, China had decades-old relationships with all sides, including Mugabe (whose rule became increasingly untenable), his replacement Emmerson Mnangagwa, and Constantino Chiwenga, the general who led the coup after returning from a visit to Beijing. Should one side of the Ethiopian conflict prove a liability to Chinese interests, it is conceivable that Beijing would throw its weight behind the opposing force — discreetly.

Meanwhile, there are reasons to believe that, should the conflict still be going on two months from now, the Biden administration may take a more active role in addressing it. His foreign policy team includes diplomats with great expertise in African politics — such as Susan Rice, who almost negotiated a peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998 — and has signalled that it will both be more attentive to Africa and more concerned with human rights than the current US administration. Last month, Biden condemned the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, and his security forces for a massacre of peaceful demonstrators protesting against police brutality, and the Secretary of State nominee, Antony Blinken, recently condemned the Egyptian government for arresting the head of a well-respected civil rights organisation.

And yet, in relation to the war in Ethiopia, Blinken has issued a more even-handed and humanitarian-focused statement than that of the current State Department: he urged that both “the TPLF and Ethiopian authorities should take urgent steps to end the conflict, enable humanitarian access, and protect civilians”. The American people rarely support the US getting involved in complicated African conflicts, and the Biden team will not want to spend much political capital on such an endeavour.

Nevertheless, Biden could frame American diplomatic intervention in national security terms — one of the consequences of the current fighting is that Ethiopia has withdrawn thousands of troops from fighting al-Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia in order to send them to Tigray. The US also has an important military base in Djibouti, from which its military launches many of its drone strikes against targets in countries such as Somalia and Yemen. Putting pressure on the warring sides in Ethiopia to negotiate a settlement would therefore free up troops and protect American assets that are essential the war on terror.

American involvement — diplomatically, at least — can also be framed as a check against Chinese influence in Africa. Biden and Blinken have already suggested that they see the rivalry with China as perhaps the biggest foreign policy challenge facing the US, and indicated that they want to take a multilateral approach based on amassing allies against Beijing. Ethiopia serves as a hub for Chinese influence across East Africa; by intervening in the nation’s conflict, the US could increase its own influence, curbing Xi’s sway over not only Addis Ababa but the wider region.

Any US intervention is unlikely to involve American troops — the negative perceptions of past American interventions in Somalia and Libya all but rule out that possibility — but Biden will have diplomatic and economic tools at his disposal. One tool would be for the US to implement more generous debt relief measures for Ethiopia (which were rejected by the Trump administration) — on the condition that Abiy’s government negotiate peace with the TPLF. It was Abiy who earlier this year urged the G20 countries to provide such relief for Africa. The US taking a leading role in providing aid could serve American interests by pulling Ethiopia away from China and its debt-heavy investments.

Pulling this off successfully would be tricky: if the US pushes Ethiopia too hard, it could drive Abiy further into the arms of Beijing. But a properly negotiated agreement would benefit both nations significantly.

Of course, all these scenarios could be rendered moot if the conflict in Ethiopia comes to a swift end, either through a decisive government victory, a collapse of the regime in Addis Ababa, or a negotiated settlement. Unfortunately for the civilians forced from their homes or caught in the crossfire, peace does not seem to be on the horizon. The conflict risks becoming a humanitarian crisis — one that could kill thousands in combat (and perhaps as many civilians, through collateral damage or intentional attacks), and send hundreds of thousands fleeing to neighbouring countries. A protracted guerilla war in Tigray could also inspire other ethnic militia and separatist groups in Ethiopia to rise up, destabilising the region further.

It’s in the best interests of the international community, therefore, to promote a peaceful settlement. And for the globe’s two de facto superpowers, currently competing for the allegiance of Ethiopia and other African nations, the stakes are high.