The international community breathed a sigh of relief as Joe Biden took his oath to become President of the United States last week. While the US faces multiple domestic challenges, its foreign policy agenda is no less complicated. Leaving aside its relationships with China and Saudi Arabia, it has marked the Horn of Africa as one of its most pressing issues. It is right.
Leaders from around the world have categorised Abiy Ahmed’s “law and order” operation in Tigray as one of the worst humanitarian crises this century. With nearly 2 million people fleeing their homes, and up to 4 million people trapped and facing starvation as the food runs out, the refusal by the Ethiopian authorities to allow UN food parcels is shocking. The Economist has suggested that Abiy Ahmed is using hunger as a means to force the people of Tigray into submission.
The EU’s foreign policy chief has stopped all budget support aid to Ethiopia(approximately $107m) until aid agencies are allowed in. Dominic Raab, the UK’s foreign secretary, has said that Abiy Ahmed’s reputation is tarnished. Where before the Ethiopian Prime Minister was regarded as a reformer and a deserving recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, nowadays many in the region regard him as an African strongman.
It looks like Abiy Ahmed was promised an easy victory in Tigray. A short and targeted “law and order” operation was meant to assert the federal government’s authority and put the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) in its place. Misplaced optimism perhaps led to diplomatic blindness. Ethiopia mobilised Eritrean forces, with an old grudge to settle against the TPLF, to help. There have been reports this week that the Eritreans have co-opted the Somalis in this fight. The conflict, now in its third month, shows no signs of abating. Other internal tribal conflicts in Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuzhave flared.
On the international stage, it is the tension between Sudan and Ethiopia that is most concerning. In December 2020, Sudan took steps to mark its sovereignty on the al-Fashqa border.The fertile agricultural land, recognised to be within Sudan’s borders, has long been settled by Ethiopian farmers. Sudan’s steps have led to weeks of low-level clashes between the two forces. If this border dispute worsens, the Horn of Africa is at a perilous turning point. Sudan is likely to allow access to TPLF fighters to re-arm and re-train which will make the situation in Tigray even worse. If Ethiopia retaliates, the Sudanese might call on Egypt to its defence. They are already in-sync over concerns about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project. Kenya is reportedly worried about the new Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali tripartite arrangement.
None of this is easy, especially not for a new US administration. Antony Blinken, Secretary of State, is not shying away. At his confirmation hearingslast week, he said that “it starts with our very active engagement; not being AWOL when these problems emerge. On Ethiopia I share your deep concerns. […] And I worry as well that what started there has the potential to be destabilising throughout the Horn of Africa.” Blinken did not rule the appointment of a new special envoy to the region.
US special envoys have a chequered history in East Africa. With no need for Senate confirmations, Congress appearances or bureaucracies to run, envoys are free to dive deep into a conflict, develop expertise and speak their minds. Special envoys are also a double-edged sword – especially if they have been appointed to satisfy domestic special interests.
It is perhaps the experience in South Sudan that serves the best warning. Initially proud at being the “midwife” of Africa’s newest state, the US now shakes its head in despair as it watches the old rebels tear the country apart and steal its spoils. For observers, this was clear from the start. Special envoys, driven by evangelical agendas and Christian lobby groups, were appointed by President Bush to Sudan in the years leading up to the South’s independence. They reduced the civil war to a binary conflict – the Christian South fighting the Muslim North – where loyalty to the southern cause obscured the atrocities carried out by the rebels, who later went on to lead the new country. They are still in power.
Ethnic divisions in Ethiopia are now raw – and could lead to a regional disaster. President Biden may not have been referring to the Horn of Africa when he said that “there is truth and there are lies. Lies told for profit and for power” in his inauguration address. Whoever is appointed as special envoy to the Horn of Africa should heed the President’s warning. They will need to tread carefully between competing narratives and tribal tensions. They will need to acknowledge the complexity in the region and act as an honest broker to ensure that the mistakes of South Sudan are not repeated. Millions of lives might be at stake.