Military action fast outpacing diplomacy in Ethiopia as PM Abiy joins the frontline

Saturday November 27 2021

Ethiopians demonstrate in support of the government at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa after the advance of TPLF in Oromiya and Amhara on November 7. PHOTO | AFP

By Allan Olingo

Western countries and UN missions have urged their nationals to urgently leave Addis as conflict rages. Is this it for Ethiopia?

An ominous cloud of uncertainty hangs over Ethiopia as the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed battles rebel forces allied to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in a conflict that has lasted over a year.

The window for dialogue, according to mediators, seems to have closed when Dr Abiy announced he was joining the war at the fronline amid a flurry of shuttle diplomacy pushed by the US and the African Union.

Dr Abiy’s adversaries have also dug in, further dimming hope for a peaceful resolution.

An ominous cloud of uncertainty hangs over Ethiopia as the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed battles rebel forces allied to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in a conflict that has lasted over a year.

The escalation of the conflict has prompted Western capitals to ask their nationals to immediately leave the country. The US, UK, Germany, France and Turkey have asked their nationals to depart the country, amid an advisory by the US Federal Aviation Administration to airlines overflying Ethiopian airspace below 29,000 feet that they risk attack.


Possible US intervention

Already, Washington, even as it tries to weave together several diplomatic fronts to push the two sides from a military confrontation, is ramping up its military presence in Djibouti. For the US, Kenya and other players involved in trying to de-escalate the conflict, the worry is that diplomacy is being outpaced by military action.

Kenya Airways has increased its flight frequencies between Addis and Nairobi as it cashes in on the rise in demand by travellers scampering to safety for fear of getting caught up in a bloody fight.

No one has been more frustrated by the lack of will for dialogue than US Special Envoy for Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman, who visited Addis last weekend and left with little optimism.

“What I worry about is that the military developments on the ground are moving more rapidly than we’ve been able to get the diplomatic process to move,” he told reporters in Washington after returning on Monday from Ethiopia, where he met with Prime Minister Abiy.

Mr Feltman said that despite “the little progress in trying to get the parties to move from a military confrontation to a negotiating process, what concerns us is that this fragile progress risks being outpaced by the alarming developments on the ground that threaten Ethiopia’s overall stability and unity.”

On Monday, CNN reported that the US military had positioned its special operations forces in Djibouti ready to help the US Embassy in Addis should the situation worsen. The activation of some Army rangers from the 1/75 Battalion, and an increase in its military presence in Djibouti suggests that Washington is preparing for a worst-case scenario.

‘No planned evacuations’

Flight monitoring sites have shown an increase in US Air Force aircraft heading for the Horn of Africa. Since November 16, at least fifteen C-17 Globe master cargo aircraft have flown from various US locations to Ambouli International Airport in Djibouti, which shares a runway with Camp Lemonnier, the region’s US military complex that serves as its operational hub on the continent.

But a senior US State Department official said there are no plans to fly the US military into Ethiopia to facilitate evacuations or replicate the contingency effort “we recently undertook in Afghanistan, which was a unique situation for many reasons.”

“There should be no expectation, particularly after we have issued so many warnings that advise departing immediately, that the US will be able to facilitate evacuations via military or commercial aircraft in a non-permissive environment, including Ethiopia. Again, we recommend that US citizens in Ethiopia leave now while commercial flights are still available and while it is safe to do so,” the official said.

The US also said it is undertaking contingency plans with the United Nations as they push for mass exit of the expatriates.

UK’s Africa Minister Vicky Ford said that in the coming days, “we may see fighting move closer to Addis Ababa, which could severely limit options for British nationals to leave.”

“I am urging all British nationals — whatever their circumstance — to leave immediately while commercial flights are readily available and (the airport) remains open,” she said.

Ethiopia has dismissed as a “dumbfounding orchestra” the calls to foreigners to evacuate.

“When we ask them to even partially leave, they begin to lament that it's too soon and unfortunate,” said Rewan Hussien, Ethiopia’s State Minister for Political and Economic Diplomacy.

At loggerheads

Dr Abiy’s latest position on the conflict, according to Washington, is to get the Tigrayan Defence Forces (TDF) and the TPLF out of the lands that they have occupied in the states of Amhara and Afar.

The TDF and TPLF leaders say their top priority is to break the de facto humanitarian siege that Addis has imposed on Tigray since July.

“The basic point is that these two objectives are not mutually exclusive. With political will, one can achieve both,” Mr Feltman said. “Unfortunately, each side is trying to achieve its goal by military force, and each side seems to believe that it’s on the cusp of winning.”

Kenya is also not sitting pretty, as it plays a central role in trying to defuse the situation. President Uhuru Kenyatta visited Addis Ababa and met with Dr Abiy early in November before meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Nairobi. He called for cessation of hostilities.

Dr Martin Kimani, Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN, who sits at the UN Security Council, told The EastAfrican this week said that the conflict is Kenya’s the most urgent engagement at the UN Security Council, with Nairobi’s overriding priority being to help Ethiopia get through this crisis stable.

The decision by Dr Abiy to join the frontline may have been meant to motivate his troops, but mediators worry it could add more days to the conflict.

Some prominent personalities, including athletics legend Haile Gebreselassie, said they were ready to go to war.

Also, the various demands being made show the parties are still keen on fighting. When the groups met with former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo the previous week, they maintained that a ceasefire will not come unless one side surrenders.

Dr Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 largely by pushing a peace deal with Eritrea and mediating the Sudanese conflict after the departure of Omar al-Bashir. This week, he announced he would go the frontline to defeat an “enemy of Ethiopia,” rallying citizens to take up arms against the TPLF.

There have been calls on the Nobel Committee to recall the peace prize.

Washington link denied

Washington has faced allegations of taking sides, something Mr Feltman refutes.

Three weeks ago, opposition groups from Ethiopia announced an alliance to remove Dr Abiy from government. That announcement was made in Washington. President Joe Biden’s government has also sanctioned the Eritrean military for fighting alongside the Ethiopian forces in Tigray, where they were accused of atrocities.

Mediation will be crucial to resolving Ethiopia’s conflict — but there is no single actor who can effectively carry it out. The African Union’s (AU) Horn of Africa representative, Mr Obasanjo, is engaging in shuttle diplomacy, but his team needs more support and resources to achieve meaningful progress. US and EU envoys are also playing an important role in talks.

The conflict has caused jitters in Kenya over fears of an influx of refugees.

Regional telecoms giant Safaricom, through a consortium that includes British development finance agency CDC Group and Japan’s Sumitomo Corporation, won a licence worth $850 million to start operations in Ethiopia next year. While the telco is bullish that the crisis will not impact its plans, it has pulled some of its staff out of Addis over safety fears.

Meanwhile, the Ethiopian economy continues to be battered by Covid-19, and dollar reserves remain low as the war threatens to wipe out all plans for economic growth. According to the African Development Bank, gross reserves amounted to $3.1 billion in 2020, or 2.5 months of imports, and are unlikely to provide an alternative source of development financing in the short term.

The country risks debt default even after China three years ago restructured its debt when it showed signs of distress. Beijing agreed to restructure some of its loans, including the one for the $4 billion railway linking its capital Addis Ababa with Djibouti.

Dr Abiy said they would get a further 20-year extension, which will see annual repayments come down to affordable levels.

The US and EU have withheld aid to Abiy over the conflict. US President Joe Biden cut Ethiopia out of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), sub-Saharan African nations duty-free access to the US, setting the pace for further sanctions against the nation over its failure to end the war that has led to “gross violations” of human rights.

Agoa provides on the condition they meet certain requirements, including eliminating barriers to US trade and investment and making progress toward political pluralism.

“Expansion of public debt in the context of large public expenditure requirements could constrict the fiscal space and lead to repayment risks, especially since $1 billion in Eurobonds come due in December 2024. Further reforms in public finance and investment management are needed to improve the efficiency of public expenditures,” the bank says.

The CNN has been sanctioned by the Ethiopian government for its reportage on the war, which has been dismissed as disinformation.

“We have been c-oordinating very closely in the diplomatic community, including with the various UN agencies on the ground, to communicate our staffing posture and the reasons for it related to the armed conflict, the civil unrest, and possible supply shortages. Other entities and diplomatic missions, many have made similar assessments to us, and so we continue to compare notes and co-ordinate with them as to how we would undertake contingency planning,” the US State Department official said.

It added that the fighting needs to stop, “for the country to have a national dialogue that will allow it to address what their state, federal or centralised, should look like.”

Mr Feltman told reporters that “President Kenyatta shares the same concerns Washington has about Ethiopia’s overall stability, but he shares it as a neighbour.”

“He’s playing an extremely important role in being able to talk to Prime Minister Abiy, sort of peer-to-peer, about the need for stability in the Horn of Africa with stability in the Horn of Africa not being possible if there’s destabilization in Ethiopia,” Mr Feltman said.

Dr Kimani “President Uhuru Kenyatta has taken a more central role working closely with the UN Secretary General and former Nigerian President Olesogun Obasanjo. The African Union Peace and Security Council, in which Kenya is an influential member, has now also engaged in finding a solution. Other states and organisations are regarding these African interventions as critical,” Dr Kimani said.