China has upped the stakes in the Horn of Africa conflict after announcing it will name a special envoy for the region, an indication of Beijing’s concern for the security situation in regions it is heavily invested in.
This comes as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken named former ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield the new US envoy for the Horn of Africa to replace Jeffrey Feltman, who has unsuccessfully tried to mediate the conflict in Ethiopia and the crisis in Sudan.
“The ongoing instability in the Horn of Africa and the region’s interlinked political, security and humanitarian challenges demand sustained focus by the United States. Ambassador Satterfield’s decades of diplomatic experience and work amidst some of the world’s most challenging conflicts will be instrumental in our continued effort to promote a peaceful and prosperous Horn of Africa and to advance US interests in this strategic region,” Mr Blinken said.
Beijing’s entry into the Horn of Africa politics is expected to unsettle Washington, which has for the past year been actively involved in trying to diffuse the escalating conflict in Ethiopia and the political turmoil in Sudan. President Joe Biden has been keen on the affairs of the region, roping in Kenya as a preferred mediator, with little success.
Seeking lasting peace
The US last April named Mr Feltman as Special Envoy for the Horn, but his five visits to the region in the past one year have yielded little as Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia all face continual crises.
Speaking in Kenya, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said his country will send the special diplomat to the region “to support efforts in overcoming security challenges as well as search for lasting peace in the region.”
Mr Wang said the envoy will help stop conflicts and “support peace and prosperity" but suggested Beijing will not interfere. Rather, he said the region’s countries should also take “their destiny in their own hands”, suggesting that Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan hold peace talks and encourage peace building.
Yet the region is important for China, which already has a military base in Djibouti and has invested heavily in Ethiopia, Kenya and is currently establishing footprints in Somalia.
The war in Ethiopia, pitting the government against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), may not directly hurt Beijing, but it could slow down investments, including the continuing infrastructure building.
Chinese companies recently completed expansion of Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport, raising its capacity to handle more passengers and flights.
China also completed the construction of berths at Kenya’s Lamu port, which could be more viable if Ethiopia taps into the port through its southern border.
The Lamu port was envisioned to be part of the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport Corridor (Lapsset), a Ksh2.1 trillion ($18.53 billion) project that included the port, highways, railways and airports.
Security threats, such as those posed by Somalia-based al-Shabaab attacks on the Kenya-Somalia border and the conflict in Ethiopia, could slow down these investment efforts.
Mr Wang was also this past week hosted by Eritrea’s leader Isais Aferweki, a player in the Ethiopian conflict, where he said that Beijing was a "sincere friend" and "reliable partner" of the countries in the Horn of Africa, and is willing to play a constructive role in the peace process.
“Some major countries outside the region have used the Horn of Africa as an arena for geopolitical games in recent years, causing chaos and conflicts in the region,” Mr Wang said, in a veiled reference to the West’s involvement.
But even as Beijing becomes entangled in the Horn of Africa affairs, Ethiopia is rejecting third parties seconded by Western governments to seek dialogue in its internal war, further dashing hopes of mediation with the TPLF.
Ethiopian officials said they want all outside entities interested in solving the conflict to directly engage the government, rather than sending third parties.
Kenya, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the African Union and Qatar have been at the centre of the mediation efforts pushed by Washington, whose envoy criss-crossed these countries in 2021, seeking an end to the conflict, now in its second year.
In his weekly news briefing, Dina Mufti, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, suggested Addis Ababa’s displeasure at the continual use of third parties by the US government to push for dialogue with the TPLF.
“Instead of taking matters that concern Ethiopia to third parties, we invite the US and other countries to engage with us directly,” Mr Mufti, a former Ethiopian ambassador to Kenya, told the media in Addis Ababa on New Year eve.
The official did not name the third parties, but the US has recently asked Kenya to use its strong ties with Ethiopia to prevail upon the protagonists to seek dialogue.
In November, President Uhuru Kenyatta visited Addis Ababa and met with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, just weeks after holding talks with President Joe Biden in Washington, and just before Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Nairobi.
Mr Blinken, while in Nairobi, said Ethiopia must choose dialogue and added that the US supports the African Union Special Representative for the Horn, Olusegun Obasanjo, to mediate the conflict.
Kenya has not formally commented on Ethiopia’s sentiments but a diplomat in Nairobi said the country still enjoys “friendly relations” with Ethiopia and did not believe there has been disappointment in Kenya’s bid to help a neighbour.
“At the end of the day, only Ethiopians can solve their problems. What we have done, and will continue to do, is what any neighbour can do to help a troubled neighbour,” said the diplomat, who chose to remain anonymous.
Mr Mufti, in another interview with the Walta Information Centre’s Don’t Touch Ethiopia show suggested Addis will continue to keep relations with neighbours strong through mutual respect and respect to their sovereignty. And with specific reference to Sudan -- with whom they have a border row and unfinished agreement on the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD) — Mr Mufti said Ethiopia believes the Sudanese will resolve their current political crisis.
Since the conflict began in Tigray, PM Abiy has rejected what he called "internationalisation" of the conflict. He rejected a panel of eminent persons nominated by the African Union to seek dialogue and declined two bids by Mr Feltman to have the two sides talk.
Mr Obasanjo’s bid to mediate has all but failed.
The former Nigerian president had travelled around the world, including to the US and EU, seeking support for his mediation efforts, which Ethiopians see as interference.
Mr Feltman was in Addis on Thursday for his last bid “to discuss prospects for peace talks” before he leaves office on February 1.
There was no likelihood of securing any dialogue, even though the US has said the first step is opening humanitarian corridors.
“We have said for some time now that we seek an immediate cessation of hostilities, an end to ongoing human rights abuses and violations, unhindered humanitarian access and a negotiated resolution to the conflict in Ethiopia, precisely because, in addition to the human suffering, it threatens peace and security in the Horn of Africa,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said last Tuesday.
He added: “This is in some ways an opportune time for the special envoy to engage with senior Ethiopian government officials, with Tigrayan forces having withdrawn into Tigray, and the Ethiopian government stating it does not intend to pursue those forces into Tigray.”
For Ethiopia, however, the solution to the conflict is for the international community to stop pressuring Addis Ababa and instead place the burden on the TPLF.
Demeke Mekonnen, the deputy prime minister and Foreign Affairs minister, argued that his country was choosing between survival and extinction.
“Many outsiders have grossly misunderstood or misconceived the true nature of the TPLF.
‘‘Some governments saw TPLF as a Trojan horse to reckon with and advance their geopolitical and economic interests in the Horn of Africa,” he argued without naming the countries.
“In essence, the war of survival and restoration of order in northern Ethiopia has galvanised the unity of the country more today than ever before. We want our partners particularly, from the West to understand what is at stake here,” he added.
Call to diaspora
This week, the Ethiopian government suggested civilians, especially those suffering under the blockade imposed on areas the TPLF controls, must also rise and reject the group.
“If the people want their rights and privileges to be respected, they should exert efforts to stop the warmonger TPLF, which wants to live at the expense of war, and not to repeat the dragging of their children for another round of war,” said Communication Service Minister Legesse Tulu.
He was referring to Ethiopia forces’ decision not to enter Tigray.
“All Tigrayan Ethiopians in the diaspora should help the people in the region to fruitfully use the chance given to them for the second time to ponder about the existing situation and act accordingly.”
Despite announced halting of offensives, both sides have accused each other of firing rockets.
TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda said “dozens” had been killed via drone raids in Axum, Shire and Endabaguna in Tigray.
“These places are very far away from battlefields. Every loss Abiy’s forces sustain in battlefield entails wanton targeting of civilians,” he said.
Mr Mufti too blamed TPLF for shelling Abala area in Afar region, where they reportedly also destroyed a humanitarian convoy.