The Biden administration’s patience has snapped with Ethiopia, an important US ally in Africa. Washington imposed visa restrictions this week on as yet-unnamed Ethiopian and Eritrean officials, saying they had “taken no meaningful steps to end hostilities” in a brutal six-month war in the Tigray region. The US also put curbs on economic and security assistance, though humanitarian aid — which accounts for most of the $1bn it spends in Ethiopia each year — will continue.
Washington is right to get tough. The UK and Europe should follow suit. Under Abiy Ahmed, the once-lauded prime minister and winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, the Ethiopian government has been responsible for appalling atrocities in Tigray. There is near-incontrovertible evidence of civilian massacres, rape, looting and destruction of property, including schools, hospitals and churches.
This has been perpetrated by Ethiopian troops as well as by fighters from the neighbouring country of Eritrea, who were given virtual carte blanche to act as they pleased. There are also credible accounts of atrocities perpetrated by forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the party now fighting a guerrilla war against the central government. Still, even if the TPLF can meaningfully be designated a terrorist organisation as the Ethiopian government insists, there can be no justification for the atrocities being committed by the Ethiopian state.
Targeted sanctions can work. The international community did not act swiftly enough when the then TPLF-led government rigged the 2005 election and shot protesters in their hundreds. It should have. John Prendergast, former director for African affairs at the US National Security Council, this week gave testimony to Congress in which he argued that US intervention helped bring an end to the senseless Ethiopia-Eritrean war in 2000. He also argued persuasively that carefully targeted Magnitsky sanctions, which go beyond those the US has so far imposed on Ethiopia by including asset freezes, had helped prevent war crimes in several African countries.
The objective of the latest measures is to convince Abiy’s government to start a peace dialogue with the TPLF, which enjoys genuine popular support in Tigray despite all its past brutalities. Plenty of governments have negotiated with designated terrorist organisations before. Abiy must also make good on his promise to expel Eritrean troops. The first step must be to end what appears to be a cynical pact with Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s dictator, to destroy the TPLF.
Addis Ababa has already angrily rejected US sanctions as interference in its internal affairs. Everything must be done to avoid Ethiopia, a country that strategically dominates the Horn of Africa, sliding towards pariah status. It would be a mistake, for example, to end the current IMF programme. Nor should sanctions be deployed to scupper liberalisation of the telecoms sector, a development that could profoundly improve both the economic and political lives of Ethiopia’s 114m people.
Only a few years ago, for all the queasiness about the violence unleashed by the TPLF-led government, the international community held Ethiopia up as an economic model for Africa. It had wracked up two decades of Asian-style growth and lifted tens of millions from penury. Abiy was seen as a progressive leader who could take the country further by grafting political pluralism on to broadly successful economic policies. That hope is now barely flickering. Ending the violence in Tigray is the first step if the hope is ever to be revived.