Why Did Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Rebuff Samantha Power?

The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development was seeking greater access for aid workers in Tigray.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
USAID Administrator Samantha Power speaks in Khartoum during a trip to East Africa.
Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, speaks at an event in Khartoum, Sudan, on Aug. 3. Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed last week rebuffed a request to meet face to face with a top Biden administration official to address the country’s civil war and worsening humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region, dealing a blow to U.S. efforts to tamp down a conflict that threatens to fuel famine and destabilize the wider Horn of Africa.

When Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), visited Ethiopia last week to seek greater access for humanitarian aid workers in Tigray, she was asked in a press conference why she hadn’t met with the Ethiopian prime minister.

“He was not in the capital today on my day here,” she said.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed last week rebuffed a request to meet face to face with a top Biden administration official to address the country’s civil war and worsening humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region, dealing a blow to U.S. efforts to tamp down a conflict that threatens to fuel famine and destabilize the wider Horn of Africa.

When Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), visited Ethiopia last week to seek greater access for humanitarian aid workers in Tigray, she was asked in a press conference why she hadn’t met with the Ethiopian prime minister.

“He was not in the capital today on my day here,” she said.

Behind the scenes, multiple U.S. officials familiar with the matter said that Abiy’s office did not respond to U.S. requests for a meeting with Power, effectively rebuffing the senior U.S. cabinet member and underscoring the increasingly strained relationship between Washington and Addis Ababa.

Several U.S. officials in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy they feared the conditions of the conflict in Tigray might bear early warning signs of ethnic cleansing and potentially genocide, unless all warring parties find a way to de-escalate tensions.

They also said U.S.-Ethiopia relations were worsening as the conflict continued, leaving the Biden administration with less leverage to pressure Abiy’s government into ending the conflict as it weighs new sanctions and other punitive measures on officials and commanders involved in the war.

Ethiopia, once seen by Washington as an anchor of stability in East Africa, is the recipient of massive amounts of U.S. government assistance, including nearly $1 billion in funding overseen by USAID in 2020.

When asked whether Abiy rebuffed requests for a meeting with Power, a USAID spokesperson told FP, “Administrator Power had hoped to meet with Prime Minister Abiy during her visit but as she mentioned in her press conference on August 4th, the Prime Minister was not in the capital on the day of her visit, and she hopes to have the chance to meet him soon.”

Power’s visit and meetings with other senior Ethiopian officials came against the backdrop of emerging reports of further atrocities against civilians in the Tigray conflict. Human rights watchdog Amnesty International released a report this week accusing forces aligned with the Ethiopian government of widespread sexual violence against women and girls in Tigray. There are also emerging reports of forces allied with the opposing Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) massacring hundreds of people, including over 100 children, at a camp for internally displaced people in Ethiopia’s Afar region—though those reports have not yet been independently confirmed by international watchdogs.

Power, current USAID chief and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under the Obama administration, first rose to prominence with her 2002 book on genocide, A Problem From Hell, which criticized U.S. policies in the run-up to to brutal ethnic cleansing campaigns and genocides in the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s.

During her visit to Addis Ababa, Power raised concerns about restrictions on humanitarian groups working to get sorely needed supplies into Tigray as the risk of famine increases, and about the safety of aid workers operating in the region.

“The organizations that we support are on fumes, literally,” she said at an Aug. 4 press conference in Addis Ababa. “This is not how aid workers can function with so little supplies. They are running out.”

She also voiced concerns about “dehumanising rhetoric” surrounding the conflict that could fan the flames of further atrocities or targeting of aid workers.

“We have seen horrific attacks against aid workers who are doing nothing more than trying to provide food and other forms of assistance to people in desperate need,” she said. “So dehumanizing rhetoric … only hardens tensions and can, and historically, certainly, often accompanies ethnically-motivated atrocities.”

In recent months, U.S. officials have engaged in meetings with top Ethiopian officials and used diplomatic backchanneling to try to de-escalate the conflict, including via talks and visits to Addis Ababa by Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa region, and Sen. Chris Coons, a key Democratic ally of President Joe Biden who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Abiy’s government, however, has doubled down on its efforts to defeat the TPLF, portraying the conflict as a war for the country’s survival. On Tuesday, the prime minister’s office issued a sweeping call to arms to battle the resurgent TPLF forces, which regained control of Tigray’s capital Mekele in June after a military campaign by Ethiopian national forces, its allied militias, and forces from neighboring Eritrea.

“Now is the right time for all capable Ethiopians who are of age to join the defense forces, special forces, and militias and show your patriotism,” Abiy’s office said in the statement, adding that he directed the country’s defense forces to “halt the destruction of the treasonous and terrorist TPLF and the machinations of foreign hands once and for all.”

Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and former CIA and State Department official, said the escalation in rhetoric and surge in online propaganda fanned the flames of ethnic tensions and made it harder for either side to come to the negotiating table to avert further conflict.

“Both sides are framing what is happening in existential terms, which is leaving neither side really any room to negotiate or discuss peace prospects,” he said. “Most people are reading this [Abiy statement] as a total declaration of war.”

Abiy’s proclamation came amid new reports of atrocities and potential war crimes as the balance of power in Tigray shifts back to the TPLF and the humanitarian crisis in the region worsens. In recent months, Tigray and the surrounding region have endured one of the world’s worst hunger crises in decades.

In May, about 5.5 million people in the crisis zone—more than half the local population—faced some degree of food insecurity, according to an analysis by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, a platform the U.N., governments, and humanitarian organizations use to monitor humanitarian crises. That number includes 340,000 people who faced catastrophic levels of food insecurity, or famine, between May and June. In June, USAID estimated that as many as 900,000 people in Tigray faced famine conditions.

The Ethiopian government has blamed the Tigrayan forces for creating the humanitarian crisis. “They have made it their full-time job to sabotage rebuilding efforts by disrupting the distribution of humanitarian assistance and the resumption of infrastructure repairs, destroying health and education facilities, brutally killing members of the interim administration, and disrupting agricultural activities,” the Ethiopian prime minister’s office said in the statement released on Tuesday. “The international community has turned a deaf ear, influenced instead by forces that seek to aggravate the problem.”

U.N. officials say that it is Ethiopian government restrictions that pose the greatest challenge to the delivery of assistance, and that relief workers have had little trouble distributing assistance once it enters the Tigray region.

“The frustration of the [U.N. aid] agencies … is that they have access, but they haven’t had the supplies needed to exploit the access,” Martin Griffiths, the U.N. undersecretary for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said at an Aug. 6 Geneva press conference following a visit to Ethiopia.

During an early phase of the conflict, Ethiopians and Eritrean forces aligned with the Ethiopian government destroyed massive amounts of Tigray’s infrastructure, including hospitals, health centers, and agriculture. This complicated efforts to respond to a deepening hunger crisis.

The U.N. is trying to establish a land bridge between Addis Ababa and Mekele, to funnel aid on at least 100 trucks this week. Several U.N.-based diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity told FP that relief agencies have faced a series of bureaucratic hurdles to delivering relief supplies into the region. The Ethiopian government, they say, has blocked aid shipments, shut down Tigray’s banking system, restricted the issuance of visas to aid workers, limited the amount of cash allowed into the region, and seized communications equipment from relief organizations.

The Ethiopian government has permitted some 178 truck shipments on the eve of Griffiths’ visit to the region, and another 100 shipments around the time that Power visited.

The restrictions were so severe that even Griffiths said he was subjected to an intrusive search by Ethiopian authorities and forced to surrender his earphones during a visit to Tigray because “it was thought they would be somehow helping the Tigrayan struggle.”

During her visit to Ethiopia, Power said the truck shipments accounted for only about 10 percent of what the U.N. says is needed to address the humanitarian crisis. She had witnessed warehouses filled with “lentils and split peas [while] trucks lay idle in the mud because deliveries had been backed up for weeks due to ongoing blockades.”

U.N. officials and human rights advocates say the Ethiopian government response has been inadequate. “They are just nibbling around the margins,” said Sarah Holewinski, the Washington director at Human Rights Watch.

Holewinski said that strenuous U.S. diplomatic efforts to compel Abiy to widen access for humanitarian aid deliveries had yielded little. “The things the U.S. has done so far have not seemed to change Abiy’s mind, which is extraordinary given the United States is Ethiopia’s largest donor,” she said.

Abiy has made repeated promises to improve humanitarian access, including a pledge in February to David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Program. But a U.N. Security Council diplomat said: “The prime minister has not been able to deliver on those promises. It is unclear whether it is due to a lack of efficiency, he is dragging his feet, or he lacks control over all elements of the government, including the military apparatus.”

Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director for Human Rights Watch, said the government is also restricting visas for aid workers. “Getting visas is an absolute nightmare for humanitarians,” she said. “If you look at all the measures [imposed by Ethiopia] since June 28, it has been to blockade the region.”

For months, the U.S. State Department has been weighing whether to officially accuse the Ethiopian government of committing international crimes, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and potentially genocide during the early phase of the conflict, when Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, backed by local armed groups, mounted a brutal offensive against Tigray.

But officials say any final determination would have to now consider violations of international law by Tigrayan forces, who retook control of Tigray in June and have now mounted an offensive in the neighboring regions of Afar and Amhara.

Hudson, of the Atlantic Council, said the conflict spilling over into other regions has led to other militias mobilizing, which could pave the way for further fighting and atrocities.

“The longer this goes on, the more we’ll be seeing the mobilization of ethnic and state militias,” he said. “If we were worried about massacres, and human rights abuses, and even the possibility of genocide, this means we need to be even more worried now.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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