Ethiopia is sprinting toward calamity. Last week, as the rebel forces of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and their allies advanced toward the capital of Addis Ababa, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed traveled to the frontline and vowed to lead Ethiopian troops into battle himself. “We won’t give in until we bury the enemy,” he said. Not to be outdone, a spokesperson for the TPLF called Abiy’s leadership a “chokehold on our people” and pledged to continue the rebels’ “inexorable advance.”
If Abiy and his opponents continue on their current path, they risk triggering not only massive bloodshed and economic collapse but the fracture of the Ethiopian state as we know it. Ethiopia is at risk of becoming this generation’s Yugoslavia: a great nation and a regional leader that violently shatters along ethnic lines. Echoes of the bloody Yugoslav wars are already evident in the polarization, hate speech, and violence that have gripped Ethiopia over the last year. The memory of those previous conflicts haunts me when I think of what may be next for Africa’s second most populous nation.
Even as the fighting comes to the doorstep of the Ethiopian capital, it is not too late for swords to be beaten into plowshares and for Abiy and the TPLF to come to the table for dialogue to prevent further escalation of a war that has already claimed far too many lives. Both parties should take immediate action to bring the most pressing humanitarian crises to an end, which in turn can create the necessary space for negotiations.
Not long ago, Ethiopia was on a very different trajectory. In 2019, Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending a brutal 20-year border war with Eritrea and advancing a series of broad democratic reforms. In his Nobel acceptance speech, Abiy described his governing philosophy as Medemer, an Amharic word for “addition” that he said signified the combination of reconciliation, unity, and tolerance. Together with his early reform efforts, this vision for a diverse, inclusive, and united country gave millions of people hope that Ethiopia was on the path to a more stable future.
But over the last year, that hope has all but evaporated. I first spoke to Abiy about the brewing conflict in Tigray in November 2020. Tensions between his government and the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition until 2018, had been mounting for months, culminating in a TPLF attack on Ethiopian military bases in the north of the country. In response, Abiy was preparing to launch a major military offensive against the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle. I urged him to reconsider and to take the path of negotiation and reconciliation instead. Abiy insisted to me that he was merely undertaking a law enforcement operation to apprehend a gang of criminals; the mission, he said, would be completed in a matter of weeks. I cautioned that generals on both sides of the American Civil War had made similar predictions in the spring of 1861. Far from having a swift and decisive outcome, however, that conflict dragged on for more than four years, becoming the deadliest and most destructive war in U.S. history. Despite my warnings—and the warnings of many leaders from Africa and around the world—Abiy pressed forward with a military campaign that has since caused mass displacement and human rights abuses.
In early 2021, President Joe Biden made the conflict and humanitarian emergency in Tigray one of his administration’s first foreign policy priorities, investing significant high-level attention and resources in trying to alleviate the crisis. Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman have all worked with regional partners and European allies to push the warring parties toward negotiations. I have been proud to be a part of the administration’s diplomatic efforts, including by traveling to Addis Ababa to meet with Abiy and hand deliver a personal letter from Biden.
In March, I spent five hours with Abiy over two days in Addis Ababa. He conveyed a deep pride in Ethiopia’s history as the only African nation never colonized by a foreign power, and he demonstrated a strong sense of independence. It was clear to me that he saw himself as a determined reformer even as he struggled to balance competing internal political forces and external pressures from the international community. I urged him to take decisive measures to address the conflict and resolve humanitarian, security, and human rights issues before they spiraled any further out of control.
Abiy made a number of promises to me, some of which he initially kept. After acknowledging for the first time that Eritrean troops had entered the conflict to fight alongside Ethiopian forces, Abiy fulfilled his pledge to visit the Eritrean capital of Asmara to discuss the withdrawal of Eritrean troops with President Isais Afwerki. Abiy also publicly recognized that all parties to the conflict had committed human rights abuses and expressed the need for accountability. He allowed improvements in humanitarian access and permitted a joint UN-Ethiopian Human Rights Commission investigation to proceed. Within a few weeks, however, these glimmers of hope had faded, as Abiy reversed course and pressed forward with the war effort.
The results are as clear as they are devastating. A little more than a year into the brutal and tragic conflict, over 60,000 people have fled Ethiopia. I visited some of them in April at the Um Rakuba refugee camp in neighboring Sudan. Individually, their stories of forced relocation, rape, and other forms of ethnic violence were heartbreaking. Together, they add up to a generational tragedy.
Although the exact casualty figures are unknown, the human toll of the conflict has been terrible. In addition to the 60,000 people who have fled the country, more than two million have been internally displaced. Over half are women and girls, many of whom have faced appalling gender-based violence. The war has killed thousands, pushed at least 400,000 people into famine-like conditions, and left seven million people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. All sides of the conflict have committed atrocities, according to international investigators.
The U.S. government has responded to the crisis in Tigray by suspending security assistance to Abiy’s government, imposing targeted sanctions on those fueling the conflict and violating human rights, and revoking the preferential trade access Ethiopia has enjoyed through the African Growth and Opportunity Act. With a unified bipartisan voice, the U.S. Congress has condemned the actions of the Ethiopian government, its allies, and the TPLF. Alongside Senators Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho, I recently introduced bipartisan legislation requiring mandatory sanctions on perpetrators of the conflict and human rights violators, an end to arms sales and security assistance to Ethiopia, and restrictions on U.S. support for funding for Ethiopia from international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund.
The conflict has fueled anger and division both inside Ethiopia and across the Ethiopian diaspora, which are riven by dueling narratives about ethnicity, nationalism, and history. Making matters worse is a toxic digital environment awash in misinformation, propaganda, hate speech, genocidal rhetoric, and incitements to violence. This dangerous online discourse has had real-life consequences, in some cases resulting in atrocities. In August, for instance, rumors spread on Facebook that the Quemant people, an ethnic minority in the Amhara region, were supporting opposition forces. Soon after, supporters of the Ethiopian federal government allegedly dragged more than a dozen Quemant people from their homes in the town of Aykel and butchered them in the street.
Eight months after Abiy and I met in Addis Ababa, I am once again calling on him to choose the path of compromise and peacemaking that will prevent the conflict from tipping over into genocide. I am also calling on the TPLF and the other combatants to do the same. The battlefield dynamics have changed drastically since I was in Ethiopia, as the TPLF and its allies have apparently made significant gains against Abiy’s government. For leaders in the midst of a military campaign, I know that compromise can seem like weakness, but leadership requires a willingness to compromise. Running roughshod over the opposition is never a recipe for success.
As the insurgents move toward Addis Ababa, grinding conflict, massacres, and enduring ethnic divisions are not just possible but probable. They are not inevitable, however. There is still an opportunity for both sides to show real leadership by ceasing hostilities and coming to the negotiating table in pursuit of a genuine national dialogue to chart a path forward.
Abiy’s government must lead the way by creating conditions under which both sides can negotiate. To that end, it should take immediate steps to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Tigray, including lifting the de facto blockade and allowing sufficient food and medical supplies into the region. It should also restore electricity, telecommunications, banking and commerce, and other basic services to the region that it cut off during the conflict. These steps will not only end violations of international humanitarian law but also eliminate the TPLF’s initial justification for expanding its offensive outside Tigray. Finally, Abiy’s government must cease arresting and detaining Tigrayans based solely on their ethnic identity and stop referring to the TPLF as a terrorist group to be annihilated. As long as Addis Ababa continues to say that it seeks the TPLF’s destruction, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which Tigrayan leaders pull back their forces. For its part, the TPLF must stop its relentless advance toward the capital, tone down its own aggressive rhetoric, and signal a willingness to negotiate. If Ethiopia’s warring parties continue to choose violence, accountability will be sure, forceful, and global—but by then, Ethiopia will be irreparably damaged.
This article was originally published by Foreign Affairs.