US – Ethiopia: Biden looks to capitalise on peace momentum with Abiy call

By Julian Pecquet

Posted on Monday, 10 January 2022 23:47, updated on Tuesday, 11 January 2022 15:02
US President Joe Biden and Ethiopia's President Abiy Ahmed (TAR)

President Joe Biden spoke with his Ethiopian counterpart on Monday in the latest sign of growing US confidence in a negotiated end to the conflict in northern Ethiopia.

Biden’s first call with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed comes after Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman travelled to Addis Ababa on 6 January in what the State Department called an “opportune” time following Tigrayan forces’ withdrawal from Afar and Amhara. This was Feltman’s last trip to the region as he prepares to step down at the end of the month to be replaced by David Satterfield, the current US ambassador to Turkey.

The very next day, Abiy’s government announced it was releasing high-profile political detainees, including several leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) as well as Oromo and Amhara activists.

“President Biden commended Prime Minister Abiy on the recent release of several political prisoners,” the White House said in a read-out of the call, “and the two leaders discussed ways to accelerate dialogue toward a negotiated ceasefire, the urgency of improving humanitarian access across Ethiopia, and the need to address the human rights concerns of all affected Ethiopians, including concerns about detentions of Ethiopians under the state of emergency.”

Abiy’s office likewise issued a statement that was sanguine about improving relations. The call notably follows the passage of a law at the end of December to establish a commission for national dialogue with a view to ending the conflict.

“Both leaders affirmed the commitment to strengthen bilateral relations,” Abiy’s office said, “and to work collaboratively on matters of mutual concern.”

Relations back on track?

The call marks a rare bit of good news in a bilateral relationship that has been increasingly strained since conflict erupted 14 months ago.

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.

Previously, the two countries had been firm allies, with the US embracing Abiy’s rise to power four years ago and hosting more members of the Ethiopian diaspora than any other country. But allegations of war crimes by the Ethiopian government and its allies have led to escalating pressure from the US, including individual sanctions and Ethiopia’s expulsion from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) duty-free trade scheme at the beginning of this month.

Ethiopia in turn has accused the US of siding with the TPLF, which it considers a terrorist group.

Monday’s call goes some way to beginning to repair relations, but tensions remain.

According to the White House, Biden “expressed concern” about ongoing civilian casualties, “including recent air strikes” that reportedly killed more than 50 people over the weekend in a camp for displaced people. There are also reports that Eritrean forces are still fighting in Tigray even as the Ethiopian government is staying out of the region, at least for now.

“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,” writes Michelle Gavin, a former US diplomat and senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “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.”

In a statement Monday, Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the call “long-overdue but welcome” given the war’s “impact on the vital U.S.-Ethiopia bilateral relationship.”

“The Ethiopian government’s recent release of several political prisoners and the prime minister’s expressed willingness to engage in political dialogue are symbolic gestures that do not go unnoticed,” Risch said. “However, the realities of this war remain on stark display for the world as thousands of political prisoners continue to languish in prison, deadly attacks on civilians continue – including through the Ethiopian National Defense Force’s use of drones, and human suffering worsens with unspeakable violence and starvation.”

“What happens after today’s conversation is what matters,” Risch continued. “Prime Minister Abiy should act urgently to cease hostilities, including airstrikes on civilian targets, end the humanitarian blockade, release the thousands who remain detained without charge, and advance political dialogue. Similarly, President Biden should continue intensifying U.S. diplomatic efforts toward peace while making good on the countless U.S. promises to hold all actors accountable for obstructing the delivery of humanitarian aid and furthering this devastating war. The United States can and should use every tool possible to bring about peace in Ethiopia and prevent the continuation and expansion of this war’s horrors.”

Domestic tensions

Abiy is also under pressure from his own constituents, many of whom see the TPLF as a group to eliminate, not negotiate with.

The American Ethiopia Public Affairs Committee (AEPAC), a new diaspora advocacy group launched last year with the blessing of the Ethiopian embassy in Washington, applauded the Biden-Abiy discussion in a tweet, calling it a “positive step towards restoring relations between our two countries and removing sanctions.”

Previously, however, the group noted its “widespread concern with the recent release of the TPLF leaders.”

“We all want to see a united Ethiopia at peace, and we are in full support of the national dialogue process that has been set up,” AEPAC Executive Chairman Mesfin Tegenu wrote in a 9 January message to supporters. “But, we also want to see justice for the crimes that have been committed against Ethiopia and its people. The leadership of the TPLF should be in prison, not walking free.”

Tegenu went on to say that while his group favours improved relations with the US, it shouldn’t come at Ethiopia’s expense.

“At AEPAC we have become used to the politics of this war and are not deaf to the support the amnesty has secured from the international community. If this was a gesture of goodwill to the United States and others, we will be watching closely to understand what Ethiopia will be provided in return,” he wrote.

“The West has done little to support Ethiopia to date, indeed their actions during the conflict only ever emboldened the TPLF. We would welcome a change of approach from Washington DC, Brussels, London etc., but Ethiopia owes them nothing.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options