Ethiopia – US: How far will the diplomatic escalation go?

By Romain Gras
Posted on Thursday, 1 July 2021 10:15

The US was the first to impose sanctions on Ethiopia. JA editing: ALEX BRANDON/AFP; Mistrulli/Fotogramma/ROPI-REA

At the beginning of his term in office, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was hailed by the international community. However, he has been subjected to strong diplomatic pressure since the beginning of the conflict in Tigray. The US was the first country to impose sanctions on Ethiopia. Will others follow suit?

Will US secretary of state Antony Blinken be able to make Abiy bend to his will? After seven months of conflict in Tigray, the US secretary of state decided to engage in a showdown with the Ethiopian prime minister by announcing, on 23 May, that visa restrictions would be implemented against several officials.

Blinken said these sanctions are aimed at all actors involved, specifically, “Ethiopian or Eritrean government officials, members of the security forces, or other individuals”. But there is no doubt that the most unexpected target is Ahmed’s administration.

To justify himself, the US diplomat accused the targeted parties of having taken “no meaningful steps” to end the hostilities in Tigray, where the situation on the ground – still somewhat unclear because of restricted access for journalists and humanitarians – is becoming increasingly concerning.

A key ally

Under fire from a section of the international community that has been calling for a ceasefire for several months, the Ethiopian prime minister seemed impervious to the pressure until the Tigrayan rebels retook the Tigray capital city, Mekelle, in late June.

Ethiopia’s foreign ministry immediately reacted to Blinken’s speech by accusing the US of interfering in an internal conflict.

It’s one thing to not listen to the Europeans or the Americans. But he doesn’t even listen to his African peers.

This decision [on visa restrictions], which comes after several months of warnings and diplomatic efforts, marks a turning point in Washington’s approach to Addis Ababa. From the beginning of his tenure, Blinken made the situation in the Horn of Africa one of his priorities, calling on Washington to not be “AWOL when these […] problems emerge”.

The fact that the US is Ethiopia’s first major partner to introduce targeted sanctions, coupled with “wide-ranging restrictions on economic and security assistance’, is significant in several ways. Firstly, because Addis Ababa has in recent years been one of Washington’s key regional security allies.

In fact, the US has strategic, diplomatic and security interests in several of Ethiopia’s neighbouring countries, including Somalia and Djibouti – which hosts its main military base in Africa. Secondly, because Ethiopia, which has a population of more than 100 million people, is the main beneficiary of US aid on the continent.

Abiy changes his tune

But above all, the diplomatic escalation underway between Washington and Addis Ababa illustrates the international community’s change of heart towards Abiy, who was praised – upon entering office – for the wave of reforms that he undertook from April 2018 and which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

Will the sanctions lead Ethiopia to reconsider its position? A week after implementation of the restrictions, several anti-US demonstrations were held in the Ethiopian capital. In the crowd, some protesters brandished photos of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, whose influence in Ethiopia remains a major challenge for Washington.

There was also significant mobilisation in the run-up to the 21 June general elections, which allowed Ahmed to consolidate his position. “When the whole world says we are going to fight on election day, instead we will give them a lesson,” he said on 16 June at the meeting he held in Jimma, Oromia.


Ahmed seems determined to use US pressure to rally his base but he has not given up the battle on the diplomatic front. Since the beginning of the year, major lobbying efforts have been deployed in Washington where the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has long-standing contacts.

As early as February, the embassy there, which is headed by Ahmed’s former chief of staff Fitsum Arega, turned to the lobbyists at Venable to defend Addis Ababa’s policy in Tigray. Furthermore, peace minister Muferiat Kamil hired the US lobbying firm Holland & Knight for a six-month assignment in April.

Will this flurry of effort bear fruit? “The United States is hoping that it will be supported in its efforts to increase pressure,” says a European diplomat posted to the region. The EU has not yet imposed targeted sanctions.

However, in December 2020, the EU postponed payment of €90m ($106.6m) in aid, decided against sending an observation mission for the 21 June elections and lastly, threatened to introduce heavier measures in mid-May. Joseph Borrell, a high representative of the EU, also stated that those who obstruct humanitarian work would be “held accountable”.

But options are limited for the international community. “It’s one thing to not listen to the Europeans or the Americans. But he doesn’t even listen to his African peers,” says a European diplomat who has met Ahmed on several occasions.

This is all the more worrying as another important deadline is approaching: that of the second phase of the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is due to take place in July. On this issue, Ethiopia has taken an opposing stance to Egypt and Sudan, and the US is heavily involved in attempts to resolve the dispute.

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