Biden’s misguided Tigray policy

The dispatch of U.S. Special Envoy Jeffrey Feltman to persuade Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed to maintain a ceasefire, ease access for humanitarian relief, and punish human rights violations in the Tigray war takes on renewed urgency with recent reports of horrific sexual abuse.

Mr. Feltman’s is the second such attempt this month. His mission, like Samantha Power’s preceding one, will fail because the policy behind it fails to take Ethiopian history and security needs sufficiently into account.

The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, subjected Ethiopians to horrific brutality during its 27-year national rule. Since its 2018 retreat to its Tigrayan homeland following popular protests, it has sought to destabilize the country by fomenting tribal conflicts. The TPLF aims to reinstate its national reign of terror and resume siphoning the nation’s resources to its leaders’ pockets and support base.

The West, whose decades-long enablement of the TPLF’s cruel dictatorship most Ethiopians resent, ignores the revanchist danger to Ethiopia’s security that the TPLF’s senior leadership’s survival represents. Repeated western calls for a ceasefire and talks between the two sides sound to Ethiopians like a plea that the U.S. and Al-Qaeda negotiate would sound to Americans.

U.S. attempts to force a square peg into a round hole have brought US-Ethiopian relations to their lowest point since the Communist government of forty years ago. This has jeopardized Western counter-terror objectives in the region, enhanced the local influence of China, Russia and radical Islam, and undermined democratization efforts.

The policy has also fueled the war and all its attendant evils by encouraging and emboldening the TPLF.

Human rights and humanitarian relief are extremely important in foreign policy, but prioritizing them over all other strategic considerations is as impractical as if the Western allies broke with the Soviet Union in World War II because of Soviet forces’ mass rapes of German women.

A more effective way to approach the problem requires swimming with the political currents, not against them.

The U.S. and Europe should have sided squarely with Ethiopia from the start, discouraged TPLF resistance, and helped Abiy with the intelligence, diplomatic support, logistics, and money to get his war over quickly. They should offer to do so now in exchange for greater human rights and humanitarian cooperation from Abiy.

Abiy is already trying to rein in human rights abuses, many of which are also attributed to his allies and, increasingly, the TPLF. He also is willing to help improve humanitarian access to Tigray providing ways can be found to ensure the aid isn’t diverted by the TPLF for military use as is its habit. He therefore is likely to accept and enter into such a bargain.

It should be remembered that the TPLF started this war with an attack on federal military installations analogous to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumpter. By ascribing moral equivalence to the warring sides and conspicuously failing to punish TPLF aggression, the West encourages similar aggression throughout Africa and promotes regional destabilization.

The West could also contribute to regional security by conditioning a politico-military tilt in Ethiopia’s favor on further Ethiopian concessions toward Egypt in their dispute over Nile River waters.

The war, compounded by the TPF’s alliance with an Oromo rebel group, is a violent referendum on whether Ethiopia should be an ethnic federation or a unitary state. By seeking violent solutions to their claims, ethnic federalist politicians lost an opportunity to decide the issue at the polls.

The West should therefore support an Ethiopian constitutional convention—with nonviolent representatives from all sectors of Ethiopian society–to compromise between the two forms of government. That will offer a peaceful venue for settling the issue.

Abiy, for his part, can improve his international image, consolidate his domestic base, and make a sharper moral distinction between his regime and that of the TPLF by releasing nonviolent political prisoners like Eskinder Nega and others. He should re-do recent national elections where opposition parties claimed fraud or intimidation so his legitimacy is unquestioned. And he should make painful compromises with Egypt over the Nile and Sudan over the al-Fashga Triangle, however unfair, if that will buy their support in the Tigray war. First things first.

The Tigray situation is horrific, but an unrealistic western policy doesn’t help. There are two ways to stabilize a region. One is by balancing the conflicting parties. The other is by one party successfully dominating the other. The sooner the US realizes that balance won’t work here, and unequivocally sides with its erstwhile Ethiopian ally, the sooner it will see its humanitarian and strategic goals achieved.


The writer is the author of Money, Blood and Conscience, a historical novel about the TPLF dictatorship.