Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Noble Peace Prize winner, has come under heavy criticisms for the conduct of the country's military in the Tigray region/Photo: Abiy Ahmed Ali/Facebook

Analysis: Why Ethiopia presents major challenges to Biden’s Africa foreign policy

By Prof David Monda*

On July 4th, 1776, the preamble to the American Declaration of Independence emphasized the centrality of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to the ideals of the new American nation. While America advanced lofty ideals on this day, the reality of balancing its ideals and its interests in Ethiopia, almost a century and a half later, have proved to be a tough balancing act for the Biden administration.  

On coming to office, Joe Biden emphasized the ideals of human rights as central to his administration’s conduct of foreign policy. This position has come to be severely tested in Ethiopia, which for most of its history, has been a close American ally.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Noble Peace Prize winner, has come under heavy criticism from the former US Ambassador to Kenya, Robert Godec. This high-ranking Biden Administration official, who is now the Acting Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs (State Department), recently warned the Ethiopian administration of its actions in the Tigray region. He is quoted by Reuters as stating the Biden administration “is in full agreement that horrifying atrocities are being committed in Tigray”.  

This warning was because Abiy Ahmed’s government engaged in repressive military action in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. In this region, thousands of innocent civilians have been killed in recent violence. There have been claims by human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International of genocidal acts. These acts have been perpetuated by the Ethiopian army.

These human rights organizations have called for investigations to establish if crimes against humanity were committed. The irony of a Noble Peace Prize winner like Abiy Ahmed overseeing a government engaged in ethnic cleansing put the Biden Administration in an even more challenging situation in chastising him.

The American government was placed in the unenviable position of having to admonish an ally and a figure internationally recognized for bringing peace to the volatile state of Ethiopian politics when he came to power in April 2018.  

In Ethiopia, the Biden administration navigates the tight rope of balancing the pursuit of the ideals of human rights with the reality of its core interests in a charged political situation. America needs a stable and orderly Ethiopia. However, Abiy is faced with a rebellion from the leadership of the Tigray region who, prior to his ascendancy to power, had a dominant place in the central government of Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian leader is seen to have sidelined the regional government of Tigray and its leadership in favour of increasing the power of the central government. The situation is not helped by the act of President Abiy to invite the Eritrean Army into Ethiopia to crush the Tigrayan revolt. This act encapsulates the classic adage of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Asmara and Addis have not had cordial relations. However, faced a common threat in the Tigrayan revolt to their national interests, they united to eliminate this threat. 

Another struggle facing the Biden administration, is the importance of Ethiopia to American interests. This is highlighted diplomatically. Addis Ababa is the seat of the African Union (AU). Also, strategically, Ethiopia is critical in its contribution of troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). It is important to American economic interests that Ethiopia is stable so that American companies can access its $100 billion dollar economy.  

In relation to human rights, it is vital the war with the Tigray region does not escalate. This will create a humanitarian catastrophe dangerous to American interests in the country. Escalation of the war with Tigray will only add to the probability of civil war in southern Ethiopia. In this region, the Oromo who make up the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, have been fighting for years for independence from Ethiopia. The largest Oromo opposition party, the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), boycotted the recent elections. Abiy’s administration will come under significant duress if it must fight on two fronts. On one hand, having to challenge the Tigrayan revolt in the North of the country and on the other, to tackle an Oromo revolt in the South.  

The situation is further complicated by the presence of foreign Eritrean troops in Ethiopia. The Tigrayans demand they leave. There also remains discontent to the Abiy administration in the Ethiopian military as seen in the 2019 coup attempt that led to the death of a leading general, Seare Mekonnen.

Regional powers like Egypt and Sudan have also added to the pressured situation Abiy finds himself in. They oppose his administration’s stance on the Great Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD) project. Abiy has rejected any mediation efforts from the Biden administration on the GERD project. Claiming it is purely a question of national sovereignty.  

Because of these core diplomatic, strategic, and economic interests, the Biden Administration is caught in a dilemma. Pushing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed too hard on human rights violations could lead to an implosion of the Ethiopian state from within. Ethiopia’s road to democracy has been truncated by military intervention, civil war, and power struggles between elites at the apex of government. The fragility of national institutions to support the nurturing of democracy, and the lack of a historical precedent of democratic practice, makes the Biden administration doubly concerned with events in Ethiopia.

The next few months will illustrate more clearly what path Ethiopia will take. Either a shift to despotic authoritarianism, or the path Abiy Ahmed initially followed. Of nurturing and supporting the development of accountable democratic governance in Ethiopia. 

Prof Monda teaches political science, international relations, and American government at the City University of New York (York College), New York, USA.

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