Foreign Policy Inconsistency regarding Ethiopia is Costing a Trusted Ally.
Once again, a fragile peace agreement in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region broke as rebels loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) went on the offensive. Fighting emerged again near the end of August, as rebel forces sought to drive west and south, capturing the small town of Kobo in the Amhara region. At the start of this third round of conflict, Tigray’s insurgent forces had a strong showing, capturing Kobo as Ethiopia’s National Defense Forces exited, citing the risk to civilians posed by urban fighting. Nonetheless, the tide seems to have turned in favor of Ethiopia’s army.
Observers had warned of increasing tensions in this volatile region, despite optimism just weeks earlier that talks to establish a lasting peace agreement were set to get under way. However, seemingly insurmountable challenges remained. For one, TPLF leaders continued insistence on preconditions involving the resumption of basic services, such as telecom, and banking. The government of Ethiopia maintains these can only be part of a larger comprehensive peace deal. According to the office of the prime minister, “there is no magic on/off button to restart telecom and banking in the Tigray region”. Authorities maintain this would require hundreds, if not thousands of technical experts to repair damaged infrastructure.
Since the outbreak of recent fighting, government forces have had a relatively easier fight in maintaining an upper hand. Unlike last year this time, when TPLF fighters overran cities and towns in the Amhara and Afar regions, this time around the insurgents’ offensive has stymied, with thousands of their recruits captured or even killed in the first few weeks. Among the captured are soldier under the age of 15. Government forces are now back in Kobo and last vestiges of TPLF fighters have been pushed back out of Amhara.
The mass human wave tactics used successfully by the rebels last year have been largely ineffective, partly due to better prepared defenses as well as recently surprising twists in the fight, as Ethiopian forces opened other assaults flanking the rebel stronghold region. TPLF’s leaders have accused the government of launching an attack from the north, from neighboring Eritrea, which is allied with Ethiopia. These reports have not been officially confirmed by Ethiopian officials
Still more reports suggest forces loyal to the TPLF have been operating along the border with neighboring Sudan, where they’re engaged in fighting to gain the critical corridor of Humera and Welkait. According to a recent report by CBS News tensions in the area could potentially draw Sudan into what is already a complicated regional conflict. In August Ethiopia’s air force said it shot down an Antonov 26 type cargo airplane carrying arms supplies to the rebels in the Tigray region. Moreover, Ethiopian authorities have complained about insurgents using UN administered refugee camps in eastern Sudan as launch pads for military missions.
The tacitly agreed humanitarian truce between the TPLF and the Ethiopian government on March 24, 2022 was to get much needed humanitarian supplies into the Tigray region, which had been severely hampered by intense fighting before that. The trickle of aid had improved before the most recent flare up. It was hoped that the ceasefire would lay the groundwork for a more permanent peace deal under the auspices of the African Union, and chief mediator and former president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo.
But TPLF officials have said the AU appointed Obasanjo is not an honest broker and is too close to Ethiopia’s prime minister, preferring instead former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta as replacement for Obasanjo. Ethiopian officials prefer to maintain AU stewardship as well and have indicated willingness to negotiate anywhere and at any time without pre-conditions. Ethiopian government officials insist there can only be a comprehensive peace deal.
As fighting rages, Ethiopian joint forces, which includes regional Amhara forces have fought well. The US has once again stated its desire to see an end to hostilities, albeit not as vociferously as it once did. Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa, Mike Hammer is again headed to the region, reportedly to try and broker an end to hostilities. Rightly or wrongly, many in Ethiopia view the US desire to end conflict at this juncture as implicitly giving the beleaguered rebels a fighting chance. Last year, as TPLF rebels advanced the threat of sanctions were used by the US to hand tie Ethiopia’s federal government according to statements by officials.
Indeed, Ethiopia – US relations have been fraught of late. There also seems to be some policy disconnect among American foreign policy circles regarding Ethiopia, a once international aid darling held up as a success story. Ambassador Mike Hammer is the fourth Special Envoy appointed specifically to deal with the conflict in northern Ethiopia. The last several envoys were viewed by the Ethiopians as pandering to TPLF’s whims. This is perhaps a reflection of the once close relationship held between the TPLF-led regime in Addis Ababa before the advent of the current ruling Prosperity Party. Recent conflict seems to be closing the door on the Tigray rebel’s chances. The situation on the ground is significantly different now, particularly after the last round of atrocities committed by the rebels against civilians in the Amhara and Afar regions. The rebels are a much more despised group now than at any point in the past. More importantly, Ethiopia’s army and regional forces are much more capable fighting force than before 2020.
The hope is that Mike Hammer will find success whereas others have failed to convince the TPLF leadership to end their warlike stance. Perhaps under some sort of security guarantee or transfer to a third country, rebel leaders can exit their current predicament and let a new generation of leaders in Tigray hammer home a lasting peace deal that sees an end to the suffering in northern Ethiopia. This seemingly far fetched plan may be the path of least resistance to end a festering conflict. The bigger picture in the Horn of Africa requires a stable and peaceful Ethiopia that is friendly to the United States. Achieving this task is the primary interest the special envoys are keenly aware of.