Violence in Ethiopia Doesn’t Stay There

Biden should learn from Carter and head off further conflict while he still can.

Members of a military band attend an event to honor Ethiopia’s national defense forces in Addis Ababa, on Nov. 17.
Members of a military band attend an event to honor Ethiopia’s national defense forces in Addis Ababa, on Nov. 17. Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty Images

Among other parting gifts, when U.S. President Donald Trump leaves office in January he will bequeath the incoming foreign policy team with an intractable conflict in Ethiopia, one that threatens to wreak havoc across northeast Africa and destroy the African Union’s fragile institutions for peace and security.

Like in all wars, the truth was an early casualty in Ethiopia. Both sides—the government under President Abiy Ahmed and the leadership of the rebellious region of Tigray, the area where Ethiopia’s ruling class came from until Abiy took power—blames the other for firing the first shot. And both have their own interpretation of Ethiopia’s delicate federal constitution, and the powers it grants the central government and regions like Tigray. With every passing day, every massacre of civilians, every air attack on a Tigrayan town and drone strike, every rocket launched by the Tigrayans at a city elsewhere in Ethiopia or in neighboring Eritrea, the grievances accumulate, and the risks of violent chaos across the region increase.

There’s history to learn here. Over four decades ago, the incoming Carter administration promised a new era of human rights as a guiding principle for U.S. foreign policy. One of its first challenges was Ethiopia, where a military junta had recently overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie and was embarked upon a ruthless campaign of suppression.

Barely two weeks after Carter’s inauguration, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, Ethiopia’s new dictator, held a mass rally in Addis Ababa’s newly renamed Revolution Square. Addressing the crowd, he threw three bottles of a red liquid resembling blood to the ground, promising to smash all his enemies in that way. That day he launched the so-called Red Terror—a year-long campaign of torture and murder during which tens of thousands of Ethiopians were killed and millions driven into exile.

The United States didn’t contemplate military interventions in Africa in those days, and Carter couldn’t do much about Mengistu except condemn him and halt military aid—which he did. Historians of diplomacy agree that Carter did dither, though, over what to do about the ambitions of the pro-Soviet dictator of neighboring Somalia, General Mohamed Siyad Barre, who had long nurtured dreams of annexing Ethiopia’s Ogaden region—inhabited by ethnic Somalis—and making it part of Greater Somalia.

For Barre, Ethiopia’s turmoil was just too tempting, and he mobilized his army to invade. But instead of clearly signaling that attacking Ethiopia was wrong, the Carter administration sent mixed messages, which Barre took as a green light to invade. As Somali tanks crossed the border, Ethiopia called on the Soviet Union for military aid.

The United States, which had counted Ethiopia on its side in the Cold War and might have otherwise intervened against Soviet involvement, blinked—it didn’t want to start World War III over an African territorial dispute. In one of the most astonishing great power convulsions of the Cold War, Ethiopia and Somalia switched sides, with former Soviet ally Somalia becoming part of the Western bloc and Ethiopia allying with the Soviet Union.

There’s a simple lesson for the U.S. administration: Wars in Ethiopia are easy to start and dreadfully difficult to stop.

Ethiopia defeated Somalia, but the Ethiopian army—the largest in sub-Saharan Africa and lavishly equipped by the Soviets—still couldn’t crush rebellions elsewhere, in Eritrea, Tigray, and the Oromo regions. Every few months, Mengistu announced a final offensive promising to destroy the outlaws, bandits, terrorists, or secessionists. Finally, in 1991, the rebels drove him from power.

There’s a simple lesson for the U.S. administration: Wars in Ethiopia are easy to start and dreadfully difficult to stop. Far better to head off military operations before they escalate and spread.

That lesson was painfully re-learned in 1998. By this time, Ethiopia was ruled by the Tigrayan-led rebels who had formed a government. Neighboring Eritrea, meanwhile, was ruled by their allies in the liberation war against Mengistu. Both the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, and the Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, were considered close U.S. allies. But in May that year, a minor border dispute over the town of Badme suddenly escalated into a military confrontation between the two. And a newly appointed young U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, Susan Rice, was confronted with her first tough challenge.

Working together with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Rice nearly succeeded in hammering out a compromise that de-escalated the conflict. But Isaias rejected the formula at the last moment—he didn’t want to lose face and he thought he might just win a war. He told me at the time that Ethiopia was like Yugoslavia, ready to fall apart.

In the end, Rice and Kagame did not succeed in preventing a war that became the continent’s bloodiest conventional conflict, costing 80,000 young soldiers’ lives on both sides. But their proposal had a vital afterlife. It included an independent inquiry into who started the war, so that the African and American mediators could stay neutral, above the recriminations that flew between the two countries. Ethiopia’s Meles was wise enough to limit his war aims to repelling Eritrea’s invasion and restoring the status quo, and when his army won on the battlefield and was on the point of overrunning Eritrea, he called a halt.

Isaias never forgave Meles for that victory, and the disdain with which he refused to press it home.

Eighteen years of cold war between Ethiopia and Eritrea followed, until a young new Ethiopian prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, flew to Asmara in 2019 to embrace Isseyas and announce peace. It was one of a number of dizzying reforms underway at that time, launched by Abiy’s predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, and continued by Abiy. It won him acclaim and a Nobel Peace Prize. But Isseyas didn’t reform. Perhaps the most hardline and retrograde of any African ruler—Eritrea has no constitution, no political parties, no media—Isaias saw peace with Ethiopia as a security pact to crush the Tigrayans. And if he could get the Ethiopian army to destroy itself on the Tigrayan rocks, as Mengistu had once done, he would achieve two long-cherished goals at once.

Like much of the world, the Trump administration was impressed by Abiy. But in the Horn of Africa, reformist credentials—socialist or liberal—are always secondary to the cold calculus of power and the passions of national pride. And naivete about that fact becomes hazardous when a country goes to war.

The circumstances of Ethiopia’s war in Tigray aren’t clear. The legalities of the dispute, notionally about whether Tigray was entitled to hold regional elections without the assent of the federal government, are open to interpretation in either direction, and it isn’t obvious who fired the first shots.

What’s clear is that there are three belligerents: the Federal Government in Ethiopia; the Tigray People’s Liberation Front; and as discreetly as possible, the Eritreans. The armed drones that are decimating the Tigrayan armor are flown from the Eritrean airbase at Assab. (There are unconfirmed reports that they are actually United Arab Emirates weapons systems. The UAE has been using Assab as a base for its military operations in Yemen.) And the timing is suspicious. Isseyas’s fingerprints appear to be all over the war, which he likely knows he couldn’t get away with it the moment that Rice is back in office—as she may be, under the Biden presidency.

What’s clear is that with pitched battles, air raids, missile attacks, massed infantry offensives, and massacres of civilians, this is a major war. It won’t be over if the Ethiopian army captures the Tigrayan towns and declares victory, it will mutate into a guerrilla fight. Abiy has turned to nationalist rhetoric and Ethiopian media is indulging anti-Tigrayan hate speech, which will only deepen the society’s divisions. Here, history should be our guide: Ethiopia’s wars kill tens of thousands if not millions. Famine is possible. Promises of quick victory are delusions.

There’s only one sensible policy in dealing with a war like this: Do everything possible to stop it. Arms embargoes, sanctions, travel bans: All are appropriate.

The next few weeks are crucial. Currently the Trump administration is indulging the Abiy government, following its line that it is conducting a policing operation against renegades that will be wound up in a week. That’s absurd; full armored divisions are in daily combat and hospitals are overflowing with thousands of wounded soldiers.

If Biden’s foreign policy transition team can’t get working with the outgoing Trump officials to reorient U.S. policy in the coming days, then Congress needs to send a bipartisan message to Abiy: Halt this needless war. Or else Biden’s term will open with an insoluble quagmire in the Horn of Africa that will drag down his administration’s foreign policy and quite possibly destroy Ethiopia.

Alex de Waal is the executive director of the World Peace Foundation and a research professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.