Ethiopia’s Descent into War

In a recent article Harry Verhoeven and Michael Woldemariam explore the genesis of Ethiopia’s current civil war and demonstrate that evolving US foreign policy approaches toward a vital African “anchor state” for security and development were a critical catalyst.

Since November 2020, tens of thousands of Ethiopian soldiers, rebels and citizens have died in one of Africa’s most lethal conflicts. UN estimates put the number of Ethiopians facing “an extreme lack of food” in the Tigray region at 2.5 million and another 6.5 million are acutely food insecure elsewhere on the territory. This descent into famine and state disintegration of a country that has served as an “anchor” of Western strategy in the Horn of Africa for decades raises many questions. Prominently is what role did the foreign policy of the United States, long Ethiopia’s foremost external partner, play in the crisis’ genesis?

Based on extensive interviews with Ethiopian elites, officials in the U.S. State Department, Department of Defense and other national security organs, and European and Middle Eastern allies, Verhoeven’s and Woldemariam’s article makes three important contributions.

First, the paper documents US government backing for Abiy Ahmed’s domestic consolidation of power. Following his selection as Ethiopian PM in April 2018, Abiy Ahmed enjoyed near unequivocal support from Washington to aid the expansion of his authority, and enable the wide-ranging reforms in the economy, security services and party-state he appeared to be pursuing. US Embassy Addis played a central role in developing and advancing this policy, including by packaging it for political appointees in the Trump administration.

Yet the troubling side-effects of this approach were ignored, even as growing evidence emerged that such policies might weaken state capacity to deliver public goods as well as broader state-society relations. The article documents the recurring failure of US officials to raise concerns when the PM pursued actions that were essential to consolidating power but destabilizing at the same time—the creation of the Prosperity Party, postponement of national elections, and crackdown on political opposition in July 2020 being notable examples. There was also little effort to encourage a transition roadmap or national dialogue. US officials dismissed metastasizing violence and growing criticisms from various population groups and social forces in Northern, Eastern and Southern Ethiopia as the sour grapes of the country’s displaced old guard or the opportunism of ethno-political barons.

Second, the article documents how the pursuit of this counterproductive policy must be situated in the long-arc of US-Ethiopia relations and competing global and regional geostrategic imperatives. By the time Abiy became PM, US ties with this most important of African allies were in trouble. Washington had found security cooperation with the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) increasingly challenging. The EPRDF’s ideological proximity to the Chinese Communist Party and Ethiopia’s economic dependence on Beijing was the source of added anxiety. And the EPRDF’s explicit illiberalism had become ever more unpalatable due to a rising tide of popular resistance that was eroding the country’s stability. Against this backdrop, the new PM positioned himself as a pro-American reformer who could revitalize a fraught partnership. Such spin worked. In August 2018, US Embassy Addis dubbed Ethiopia’s Abiy-led transition “a once in a generation opportunity” to rebalance the relationship in manner that better suited US interests. The dizzying array of liberalizing reforms in the early months generated a reservoir of goodwill in Western circles. But this alone cannot explain the scale and consistency of Washington’s embrace of the PM, since “democracy” and “human rights” were not Trump administration priorities and Abiy’s equivocation on these issues soon became apparent.

Instead, the new PM was understood to subscribe to three, inter-related geostrategic imperatives deeply ensconced in the Trump administration worldview: turning Ethiopia away from China; generating commercial opportunities for American businesses in Africa’s second most populous state; and encouraging proximity between Ethiopia and America’s Middle Eastern allies, especially the UAE, which was a pivotal actor in the emerging Abraham Accords and US strategy in the broader Middle East. Such priorities appeared useful in Washington, but they blinded US policymakers to a sober assessment of their interests in Ethiopia and the Horn and how the new course of action might undercut these.

Third, the paper evidences the complex impact of US foreign policy on the decision making of Ethiopian actors. Ethiopians of course had agency and exercised it decisively and often shrewdly. This was especially the case with the new Premier. But the net effect of US engagement was to diminish the possibility of an Ethiopia-wide political settlement and catalyze conflict. The mechanism at work was one of moral hazard, whereby American support incentivized increasingly risky power consolidation moves by the PM and dangerous counter-measures from opponents like the TPLF and Oromo opposition forces. The coup de grace was the Tigray war, which despite ample warnings US officials did little to prevent. They then provided political cover for the PM’s decision to use force, with allies such as Eritrea and the UAE. It was only once the war had spun out of control that the Trump administration begin to cautiously recalibrate its support for Addis, a shift accelerated by the Biden administration after January 2021.

This careful documentation of recent Ethiopian history and US foreign policy also carries broader implications. The politics of enablement that characterized US policy toward Ethiopia between 2018-2020 seemingly echoes the routinized and institutionalized patterns of US relations with many other anchor states—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, and even several of Abiy’s predecessors. But the parallels only go so far. US policy vis-a-vis Ethiopia in recent years was a less a reflection of enduring patterns of diplomacy than a bold gambit to fundamentally remake US-Ethiopia relations. That this effort backfired was in large part due to some wishful thinking and the pursuit of geostrategic imperatives at the expense of Ethiopian stability. This fact carries major lessons and warnings for the management of US alliances in an era of so-called Great Power Competition.

Harry Verhoeven and Michael Woldemariam are the authors of “Who lost Ethiopia? The unmaking of an African anchor state and U.S. foreign policy”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here

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