The Tigray War and the National Interests of Ethiopia and the United States

The Horn of Africa is a strategic chokepoint that can adversely impact global commerce and the ability of the United States to project naval power around the world. Twelve percent of global trade goes through the Suez Canal totaling over $1 trillion worth of goods per annum. The states in the Horn are desperately poor and weak, and some of the region’s governments are unrecognized by the international community as sovereign states. Ethiopia stands out as the dominant state in the region, but it is one of the poorest countries in the world. Ethnic conflict plagues Ethiopia, as would be expected for a nation with eighty ethnic groups and an $850 per capita GDP.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union battled for influence on the Horn. In 1974, the Soviets appeared to achieve a tactical coup when the Derg, a group of military officers, overthrew the feudal regime of Emperor Haile Selassie and established a Marxist- Leninist state in Ethiopia. Communist victories in Angola and Mozambique led some geopolitically minded American national security strategists to perceive threats to American sea power from these victories close to key bottlenecks of global commerce and transit.

Sadly, for the people of Ethiopia, communist victories brought power struggles, controversial and unpopular social engineering policies, anemic economic growth, and famine. Over a million people perished, and conflict displaced millions more during the reign of Mengistu Haile Mariam, a dictator who ruled through the Derg and the Ethiopian Workers’ Party.

The harm done by the Mengistu regime generated resistance movements in every corner of the country. The same Marxist-Leninist philosophy that inspired Mengistu’s rule inspired many of these movements. Their names advertised this allegiance, such as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front brought many of these liberation movements under its umbrella. The EPRDF succeeded in toppling Mengistu from power. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front proved to be one of the most effective fighting forces within the coalition and eventually became a dominant political force in the new government.

The EPRDF coalition strategy for governance focused on:

  1. building a federal state to address the challenge posed by Ethiopia’s numerous ethnic groups
  2. developing an agricultural capacity to feed its people
  3. developing infrastructure
  4. positioning the country as an ally of the United States and a trading partner of China.

This strategy resulted in a near 10% average per annum growth rate in GDP from 2010 to 2020.

The EPRDF would not have pushed the TPLF out of the current governing coalition of the country if this were the whole story. Unfortunately, during its reign, the TPLF pursued a ruthless strategy of repression against any signs of dissent. Human rights abuses were substantial and severe. Besides abusing human rights, the TPLF effectively placed its members in key positions in governmental institutions and state-owned enterprises.

Concerns about corruption and human rights abuses and desires to enhance their status within the EPRDF coalition led executive members from Amhara, Oromia, and the Southern Nations, Peoples, and Nationalities region to support Abiy Ahmed, an ethnic Oromian, to become chairman of the party against the selected candidate of the TPLF. Abiy’s elevation to party leadership set the foundation for him to become the fourth Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

Abiy pursued an ambitious reform agenda that targeted government corruption, pursued peace with Eritrea and Ethiopia’s other neighbors, partially privatized state-owned enterprises, released thousands of political prisoners, promoted greater freedom of the press, and reformed civil-military relations. Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to improve Ethiopian/Eritrean ties. He pursued a wide range of agreements with his neighbors to expand Ethiopia’s options for trade. Abiy’s popularity led him to form a new political party dedicated to his vision of reform – the Prosperity Party. His initial successes generated hope that Ethiopia would stay on course to become a low middle-income nation by 2030. The delay of elections to 2021 by Covid-19 has left his program untested by the Ethiopian electorate.

Perhaps necessarily, Abiy’s reform agenda directly attacked TPLF interests that stood in the way of his reforms. The TPLF retreated to Tigray province, where it consolidated its power base under Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of TPLF. Disputes about the legitimacy of TPLF rule in Tigray province and Abiy’s rule in Addis Ababa brewed until the TPLF launched a preemptive strike on the Ethiopian National Defense Force – beginning the Tigray War.

The war has lasted nearly a year and shows no signs of ending. It has been complicated by Eritrea’s intervention against the TPLF, turning a national crisis into an international crisis. Soldiers at the direction of their governments have killed, raped, displaced people, destroyed valuable infrastructure, and infringed human beings’ most fundamental rights. Instead of heeding the international communities’ pleas to resolve this dispute peacefully, the Ethiopian government and the TPLF seek new alliances and threaten to escalate the violence. It is likely the conflict will be prolonged and bloody.

With over one hundred million citizens, Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country, and its core interest is in economic development. State-led infrastructure development has achieved incredible growth averaging near ten percent over the past decade, but it has probably run its course. Covid-19 and its disruption of global trading networks and the uncertainty surrounding how the various ethnic conflicts across the country are going to play out have slowed the economy’s growth to around two percent. The attempt to wipe out the TPLF’s influence from Ethiopian politics and bring the country into a new era of economic reforms under a stronger Ethiopian national identity is a risky endeavor to move the country toward the type of reforms that are likely to bring growth. Unfortunately, using violence to eliminate a political rival, even one with a problematic legacy like the TPLF, leaves an illiberal preference for violence as the solution for political problems.

Over the last twenty years, the United States has donated around $13 billion to Ethiopia, with $4 billion of that coming over the previous four years. The Americans focused most of their aid on humanitarian missions, particularly in the healthcare and educational sectors. The development of capacity in these sectors is key to laying the foundation for market-led growth. The U.S. initially took a supportive position with regards to Prime Minister Abiy’s liberalizing reforms. Concerns about the direction of Abiy’s administration emerged as tensions with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front escalated into full-scale conflict. Widespread human rights abuses led the Americans and other international actors such as the African Union, the European Union, the United Nations, and Ethiopia’s neighbors to call for a mediated solution to the conflict. People looking from outside the country see more clearly than the belligerents that there is no military solution to their current conflict.

The rejection of mediation by Ethiopia and the humanitarian crisis emerging in Tigray province led the United States to institute targeted sanctions against the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments to persuade them to begin to work toward mediated solutions to the current crisis. By suspending millions of dollars of security aid and targeting key officials unwilling to cease hostilities, the United States signals its commitment to peace in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian response to this prodding has been divided. Some see the United States as interfering in the internal affairs of Ethiopia and resent this interference. Others welcome the United States as recognizing the pluralistic nature of the Ethiopian polity as a nation of nations and view American actions as pushing the belligerent parties toward compromise necessary to keep the peace.

Ethiopia has been a vital ally of the United States, offering the Americans critical intelligence and military assets. This alliance has curtailed the activities of Al-Shabaab and Somali pirates, promoting the interests of the United States and global commerce. The United States has used its relationship to guide Ethiopia away from conflict with its neighbors over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project. If Ethiopia fills the dam too quickly, it could bring catastrophe to Sudan and Egypt. If it fills it more slowly, it will give these countries time to adjust and negotiate the consequences of Ethiopia’s use of the Blue Nile to generate needed electricity. The destabilization of these countries could threaten global commerce and peace in the region. American diplomacy seeks stability in the region. 

Wars can drag on for decades. If a faction musters the force to end the war through military means, the peace can be punitive. Uncompromising regimes can rise to power and extract wealth from the defeated groups and punish commerce. The peoples of Ethiopia have experienced this sort of exploitation all too often in their history, and the extractive orientation of the Ethiopian state has contributed to the relative poverty of the nation.

If the current conflict persists and the growth rate of Ethiopia stagnates at two percent, it will take the country 35 years to double its per capita GDP from $850 to $1,700. If growth becomes negative, a likely occurrence during a drawn-out war, GDP per capita will fall below $850. If a mediated peace emerges and Ethiopia builds a package of economic reforms that stimulate growth to the 10% level of the past decades, the per capita GDP will be $27,200 within that same 35 years.

Mediation will be difficult. The TPLF opposes many of the reforms proposed by the Prosperity Party – most likely because it threatens the rents the TPLF has been able to extract from state-owned enterprises that they have grown over the 27 years of their dominance. The human rights abuses that occurred during their long run of governance are not insubstantial and are horrific. The attacks of the current government on the TPLF are leading them down a path that could match the abuses or even supersede the human rights violations committed by the TPLF. Recounting the abuses one group committed against another group could lead to the prolongation of conflict and perpetuation of poverty and suffering. The past needs to be left behind – not forgotten – if progress toward a more robust economy and greater human welfare is to be achieved. Only mediation animated by the spirit of truth and reconciliation will enable the country to get back on track to a path of prosperity.

The United States is committed to the Horn of Africa because of its role in protecting global commerce. The Americans have a naval base in Djibouti to help them in this role. The Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, and other regional actors join them in protecting global commerce. These combined forces are most likely to be successful in their mission. Instability in Ethiopia may make this mission marginally more costly, but it is unlikely to be a major factor impacting global commerce.

For Ethiopia, internal turmoil risks cutting them off from the commerce that leads to greater well-being for its citizens. The Chinese have invested substantial capital in the country to build infrastructure to strengthen the country’s connection to global commerce. The relationship with the United States and Europe offers some countervailing power to improve the negotiating position of Ethiopian businesses as they seek markets for their products and capital for their ventures. Improvement of relations with Eritrea has offered access to old ports on the Red Sea. The port of Berbera in Somaliland and the Port of Sudan provide further access to international markets. An abundance of mediators stand ready to begin the process of truth and reconciliation.

At the moment, the forces of the TPLF are invading Amhara and Afar. The Prime Minister of Ethiopia is calling for all able-bodied Ethiopians to join the fight. It is a fact that developing countries are six times more likely to have internal conflicts break out than wealthier countries. Matthew 7:13-14 captures the dilemma prophetically facing Ethiopia:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Voluntary exchange is the path to wealth. War and predation are the paths to poverty and perdition. The peoples of Ethiopia must choose, for no one else can generate the energy and creativity to bring these peoples peace and prosperity.

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