National security officials in the United States, Europe and regional neighbors – who already have inboxes full – will need to pay urgent attention. Sanctions certainly provide leverage, but may not be enough. Military intervention or occupation is not an option in a country twice the size of Afghanistan and already sinking into civil war. This crisis will require diplomacy and mediation on a scale not seen since the Dayton peace process in 1995 to end the bloody war in Bosnia.
Dayton was a model of how warring ethnic parties can be brought to the table through intense and coordinated diplomatic efforts on the part of honest brokers. This required constant engagement from the highest levels of the US government, including the President, the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of State, and a chief negotiator like the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. The EU and other great powers have played an essential supporting role.
Ethiopia in 2021 is not the same as Bosnia in 1995, and a Dayton-style process should be adapted to local realities. But if the United States and other partners do not intervene urgently to promote a peaceful settlement and provide the necessary support to Jeffrey Feltman, the recently appointed United States special envoy to the Horn of Africa, the Ethiopia could disintegrate like Yugoslavia – with far more serious repercussions.
This commitment is in the best interests of the United States and all other parties involved. The United States, Europe and our African allies and partners have clear security, economic and humanitarian interests in Ethiopia. The implications of state collapse would be devastating for the entire Horn of Africa and beyond. Ethiopia is at the strategic center of the Horn, surrounded by Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somaliland, Somalia and Kenya.
Ethiopia’s instability could affect sea routes across the Red Sea, trigger refugee flows that eclipse those of recent years, and disrupt fragile post-conflict transitions in Sudan and Somalia. The chaos would also be exploited by terrorist groups like al-Shabab and other al-Qaeda affiliates who want to expand their grip on the region.
It is no longer just an Ethiopian or East African problem. It will have a wider impact and will require solutions and actions that unite all who care about Africa and beyond.
The Ethiopian government’s blockade of Tigray turns this region into a 21st century ghetto. At the end of last year, Ethiopia restricted the flow of humanitarian aid, in violation of international law, cutting off all banks, electricity and communications. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has started a famine; he decides who is starving and who does not. Interethnic atrocities have been committed, mainly against the Tigrayans, but the Oromo, Amhara and other ethnic groups are also under serious threat.
Ethiopia’s unprecedented cycle of revenge led some experienced African leaders to speak privately about the echoes of Rwanda before the 1994 genocide.
Tigray is in the heart of the highlands of Ethiopia, a country that has expanded over the centuries to include an array of ethnic groups who speak dozens of different languages. In 1991, the Tigrayans defeated the ruling Soviet-backed Marxist regime through prolonged guerrilla warfare, a victory that saw them control politics in Ethiopia, often with a heavy hand. That changed in 2018 when massive popular protests propelled Abiy Ahmed, a non-Tigrayan, into the prime minister’s seat. Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year for “his efforts for peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea.” However, for three years, Abiy and the Tigrayan leaders clashed over the role ethnic regions should play in the governance of the country.
Last November, these tensions escalated. An armed conflict has erupted between the government of Ethiopia (aided and abetted by neighboring Eritrea) and Tigray, which lacks resources. Ethiopia now risks becoming a patchwork of violent struggles for self-determination.
For the center to be maintained in Ethiopia, there must be a skillful balance between internal regional interests and group grievance sensitivities. In addition, a united and stable Ethiopia has always been a vector of stability in the Horn of Africa region.
If the drift towards civil war in Ethiopia is not stopped, the consequences are foreseeable. The massive mobilization by Prime Minister Abiy of forces from other ethnic regions against Tigray threatens to plunge the country into irreversible conflict, with enormous economic and humanitarian costs. Each failed state tragedy is unique, but the world has seen variations of this nightmare before: Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar.
The bloodshed and the cost of the government’s offensive against Tigrayan forces last weekend could start to wear down the parties, creating an opening for negotiation. Now is the time to prepare for concerted international action to avoid further chaos and to focus diplomacy on a comprehensive settlement. Secretary Antony Blinken’s recent meeting in Washington with his European Union counterpart Josep Borrell, the African Union High Representative for the Horn of Africa, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was a good start. This is the first time that Africa, the US and the EU have come together at this level to chart a course for the Ethiopian crisis. And President Biden’s Oval Office meeting with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Thursday is significant, with Kenya now chairing the UN Security Council. This is the level of commitment that will be required for a Dayton-type process to gain traction and be successful.
A future political settlement will have to be comprehensive. This should include lifting the blockade and immediately opening humanitarian access to Tigray and other regions; the withdrawal of Eritrean troops and the non-intervention commitment of neighboring powers; the release of political prisoners; negotiation of a new political balance for Ethiopia, with substantial regional autonomy and a fair system of fiscal federalism; and the creation of an independent commission to investigate abuses of power.
The Peace Playbook isn’t easy, but it’s no secret. It is now.