BY TESFA-ALEM TEKLE
Bilateral relationship between the United States and Ethiopia was strained by the two-year conflict in the country’s northern Tigray region.
The conflict, which broke out in November 2020 has claimed the lives of over 600,000 people and displaced millions more.
Parties to the conflict including the Eritrean forces who were fighting alongside the Ethiopian army are accused of committing a widespread atrocities including mass killings and gang-raping against civilians in Tigray.
Since the onset of the Tigray war, the US government was outspoken in its firm criticism of alleged war crimes by Ethiopian forces and their allies from Eritrea and the Amhara region.
Relations between Ethiopia and the United States start to witness a sharp deterioration in September 2021, when President Biden signed an Executive Order establishing a new sanctions in response to the Tigray crisis.
The US move came as 5 million people in Tigray became aid dependent and nearly one million people in the region become subject to a famine situation over a blockade imposed by the Ethiopian government.
The financial sanctions and visa restrictions targeted individuals and entities in connection with the conflict, including those responsible for threatening peace and stability, obstructing humanitarian access or progress towards a ceasefire, or committing serious human rights abuses.
In early 2022, the United States also removed Ethiopia from the US trade program known as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a preferential trade agreement which allows sub-Saharan Africans a duty-free access to the US markets.
The move further affected the bilateral relations between Ethiopia and the world’s most powerful country.
However, a peace agreement signed last November between the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) brought a new hope for the United States and Ethiopia to renew their ties hurt by the conflict.
The US had played a crucial role in pushing for the peace deal including in facilitating transportation and protection of TPLF negotiators to Pretoria where the peace accord was signed.
Blinken’s Addis visit
Over four months after the Tigray peace agreement was reached, president Joe Biden has sent his top diplomat, Antony Blinken to Ethiopia this week.
Blinken became the highest ranked US diplomat to visit Ethiopia since Tigray peace deal was inked.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held talks with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonon as well as officials from both parties who negotiated the peace agreement.
Discussions mainly focused on the implementation of the peace accord, on the establishment of Tigray’s interim administration as well as on establishing accountability.
In Addis Ababa, Blinken announced a new $ 331 million humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia for the current fiscal year.
“Today I am announcing more than $331 million in new humanitarian assistance for Ethiopia in FY 2023 through the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development” Blinken said on Wednesday in Addis Ababa.
The US official said the funding would provide life-saving support for people displaced and affected by conflict, drought and food insecurity in Ethiopia.
“This funding will provide life-saving support to those displaced and affected by conflict, drought, and food insecurity in Ethiopia” he said.
This assistance includes $12 million through the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and more than $319 million through the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The newly announced funds brings the total U.S. humanitarian assistance for the response to the region to more than $780 million in 2023 fiscal year.
The United States is the largest single-country provider of humanitarian assistance in Ethiopia.
“Our assistance provides critical, life-saving support, including food, shelter, safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, healthcare efforts, education, and other key services”
“This announcement will help deepen the partnership between the United States and Africa” he added.
Normalizing Ties is a process
The Tigray war has strained US-Ethiopia ties as Addis Ababa felt the US was siding with TPLF, for demanding dialogue with an entity declared by Ethiopia as terrorist group.
According to diplomats and political analysts normalizing the bilateral US-Ethiopia ties is a process and not a switch.
Molly Phee, the top US diplomat for Africa, said that Blinken’s visit intends to “help consolidate that peace” but cautioned that the US-Ethiopian relationship was not ready to go “back to normal.”
She said that Ethiopia needed to take steps “to help break the cycle of ethnic political violence” if it wants to put the US relationship back on a “forward trajectory”.
Speaking to The EastAfrican, Metta-Alem Sinishaw, a senior political analyst on Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, says US-Ethiopia ties is unlikely to improve in the near future until Ethiopia reconfigures its ethnocentric internal political dynamics and returns to stability by curbing growing ethnic conflict, which could affect the Horn region.
“Agreement on how to deal with the human rights violations would remain a strong area of contention. The US asserts that the Ethiopian government cannot be neutral for the allegation, while the Ethiopian government insists foreign investigation undermines its sovereignty” he said.
Senior officials in the African affairs department of the US State Department are reportedly pushing for the US to improve its relations with Ethiopia.
According to the political analyst relation with the US would likely remain constrained for several reasons.
“The peace accord has not yet been fully implemented, and growing internal political dynamics could further delay the implementation” Metta-Alem said.
“Ethiopia’s request for debt restructuring and IMF loan to appease its growing economic pressure remains unapproved”
“The protocol accorded to Mr. Blinken signals Ethiopia’s dissatisfaction with at least the state of current relations following its participation in the US-Africa submission” Metta-Alem said.
Upon arrival at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport, Blinken was welcomed by Mesganu Arga, deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Return to AGOA
After Tigray peace deal, Ethiopia is pushing for a return to AGOA after it was suspended more than a year ago over the human rights violations in Tigray.
At a press conference held on Wednesday in Addis Ababa, Blinken said that with peace taking hold, Ethiopia is moving in the right direction, and the US shares its aspirations.
However, he said US is not yet ready to welcome Ethiopia back into AGOA.
Blinken however said there’s a clear pathway back to AGOA.
“As the process of implementing the peace agreement moves forward, we want to move forward in continuing to strengthen the relationship with Ethiopia in all areas but particularly when it comes to economic development” the US official stated.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Addis Ababa comes as senior officials in the African affairs section of the US State Department reportedly push Biden’s administration to improve its ties with Ethiopia.
The officials argue that the US must take the necessary steps to ensure that it does not lose its role in the African continent, where the influence of Russia and China is expanding.
The Biden administration is under pressure to improve ties with Africa where the influence of Russia and China is expanding.
There are growing concerns that the US might lose its role in the African continent.
“The strong push may have been motivated by a multitude of factors. The China commissioned recent Iranian-Saudi peace deal will likely affect strategic and geopolitical interests of powers in the Red Sea region, says Metta-Alem.
“The African Union’s removal of Israel from its recent summit is a dangerous signal of isolation that the US could appease. Growing Chinese and Russian expansion in Africa and rapidly evolving alignment of Horn countries could have been the impetus for the current diplomatic tour” he added.
In an interview with VOA, Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies said that the US “has a very critical role to play as a trusted actor, as a guarantor,” in the ongoing peace process.
The U.S., he said, can make sure the process is balanced by speaking up for Tigrayan interests while still ensuring “that Ethiopian sovereignty and Ethiopian interests are also being respected.”
Although the cease-fire is an opportunity to pursue justice and hold those responsible for atrocities accountable, Siegle said that mending relationships between US and its long time regional security partner, Ethiopia is not a simple process.
“It’s complicated because there are many actors involved in this conflict and atrocities were committed on all sides including from the Tigrayan side, the Eritreans who were involved as well,”
“And although it might not be easy to get “accountability to the full extent that human rights advocates might want,” he added, “there is room for considerable progress on that front.”
(Source: The EastAfrican)