ADDIS ABABA — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken took a cautious line during a visit to Ethiopia on Wednesday, calling for “accountability” for atrocities during the country’s recent civil war, without singled out his host, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, or his opponents in the north Tigray region of the country.
Mr Blinken arrived in the rainy Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on Tuesday night, the last in a parade of Biden administration officials courting the continent amid mounting competition for influence with Russia and China.
Ethiopia’s civil war has been mainly fought between Mr Abiy’s central government and armed forces in the country’s northern Tigray region, where in November 2020 a simmering feud between Mr Abiy and Tigray leaders exploded into a wide-ranging conflict that threatened to tear the country apart tear.
A deal last November ended the fighting that the US government estimates has killed 500,000 people and displaced millions more. But many Ethiopians and foreign observers alike fear that the peace is fragile.
Mr Abiy’s government was furious last year when the United States excluded Ethiopia from a regional trade deal, citing “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” by the Ethiopian government, although it also blamed other parties for the violent two-year conflict. However, Mr Blinken did not reiterate such condemnations in Addis Ababa on Wednesday, instead focusing on what he described as progress on the cessation of hostilities agreement.
US officials said Mr. Blinken’s goal is to shore up the peace deal and America’s relationship with Ethiopia, a nation of 120 million that is the headquarters of the African Union and was until recently a pillar of American security policy in the region. to redesign. But the war put a heavy strain on this relationship.
On Wednesday, Mr Blinken said Mr Abiy, along with the Tigrayan leaders he also met here, “should be commended” for ending the violence, although he warned more work was needed to reach the agreement implement.
Understand the war in Ethiopia
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Rebels are turning the tide. Despite Mr Abiy’s promise of a speedy campaign, the Ethiopian military suffered a heavy defeat in June when it was forced to withdraw from Tigray. The fighting then shifted south. In late October, Tigrayan rebels captured two towns near Addis Ababa, the country’s capital. The government declared a state of emergency and called on citizens to arm themselves.
The truce is broken. In August, fighting erupted on the border of the Tigray region after weeks of military build-up on both sides of the front line, shattering a five-month truce between rebels and the government. Each side accused the other of shooting first.
A deal to end the war. In October, the warring factions met in Pretoria, South Africa, for a mediation process led by the African Union. Just 10 days later, both sides agreed to end the war. Tigrayan leaders agreed to disarm their forces and allow federal troops to enter the regional capital, Mekelle. In return, the government pledged to reconnect the region, which had been without electricity, banking or internet services for almost two years.
He also pointed out that the US bears some historical responsibility for Ethiopia’s civil war by remaining silent when abuses occur.
“For our part, the United States recognizes human rights abuses and oppression committed over the past few decades, actions that have sown the seeds of future conflict,” he said, in an apparent reference to a time when Ethiopia was a key American counterterrorism partner and his government was led by a Tigrayan-dominated coalition. “We and others have not spoken out adequately about these abuses in the past.”
Ethiopian officials seemed interested in restoring their good standing with Washington. Sharing Ethiopian coffee with Mr Blinken in front of cameras before a private meeting, Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen remarked that their two nations “have longstanding ties and it is time to revitalize them and move forward”.
Mr Blinken later held a two and a half hour meeting with Mr Abiy during which the men discussed the continued implementation of the November Accord, the need for humanitarian assistance to the conflict zone and “the importance of accountability for the atrocities committed by all parties during the conflict “, says a summary of the meeting of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Mr Blinken also announced $331 million in new US humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia, which he said in a statement would support people displaced and affected by conflict, drought and food insecurity.
American reporters were denied access to Mr Blinken’s meeting with Mr Abiy.
Mr. Blinken’s trip, his third to sub-Saharan Africa as Secretary of State, is part of a recent US focus on Africa, a continent often neglected by Washington policymakers. In December, President Biden hosted a US-Africa summit in Washington. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen; the First Lady, Jill Biden; and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United Nations Ambassador, have all paid visits to the continent this year. Vice President Kamala Harris plans to visit Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia this month.
Elizabeth Shackelford, a former US diplomat in Africa and now a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said Mr Blinken should be skeptical of Mr Abiy, whose heroic image as a 2019 Nobel Prize winner – for ending the war years with neighboring Eritrea – had been overshadowed by a devastating civil war for which he bore much responsibility, during which his armed forces and allied forces from neighboring Eritrea were accused of massacres, sexual assaults and ethnic cleansing in Tigray.
“I hope that the war has changed our approach to the Ethiopian government and made us less willing to buy Abiy’s lines,” Ms Shackelford said.
But American fears of giving more ground to strategic competitors in Africa led by China and Russia could increase pressure for hasty normalization with Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country, she added.
Molly Phee, the deputy secretary of state for African affairs, said in a briefing for reporters last week that US relations with Ethiopia could not quickly return to “normal” amid the “earth-shattering” civil war.
“So we want to reframe our engagement with Ethiopia,” she said, adding that Mr Abiy’s government “must help break the cycle of ethnic political violence” that has plagued the nation for decades.
However, whether Mr Abiy can ensure stability is unclear given the plethora of conflicts he faces in several parts of the country.
A key question for Mr Abiy’s administration is whether the US could agree to resuming Ethiopia’s participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which grants sub-Saharan African countries duty-free trade access to the US market. The Office of the US Trade Representative suspended Ethiopia’s participation in January 2022 over civil war atrocities, dealing a blow to the manufacturing sector.
Mr Blinken was noncommittal on the issue, saying America’s ability to advance its “economic engagement” with Ethiopia would depend on a continued reduction in hostilities and “ensuring there are no ongoing human rights abuses”.
The civil war has also disrupted the region’s economy and deterred investors concerned about human rights abuses, said William Davison, senior analyst for Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group.
In this climate, a potential loan from the International Monetary Fund could be more important to Ethiopia than trade, which would require the support of the Biden administration.
Mr Blinken plans to travel to the West African nation of Niger on Friday, which lies at the center of a region where Russia has made considerable strides in recent years, led largely by fighters from the Wagner mercenary group. US officials said Mr Blinken’s visit to the country was the first by a sitting secretary of state.
Michael Crowley will report from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Declan Walsh will report from Nairobi, Kenya. Abdi Latif Dahir reports from Nairobi.
Michael Crowley and Declan Walsh