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To Cement Peace in Ethiopia, Take Action on Eritrea

Abiy Ahmed
Abiy holding his acceptance speech after receiving the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

Ethiopian and Tigrayan negotiators agreed yesterday to a truce in their two-year civil war after a marathon session in South Africa mediated by the African Union with U.S. support. “The two parties in the Ethiopian conflict have formally agreed to the cessation of hostilities as well as to systematic, orderly, smooth and coordinated disarmament,” former Nigerian President and African Union mediation head Olusegun Obasanjo said.

Is it Actually Peace?

Call me pessimistic. The war was unnecessary from the start, driven by Abiy Ahmed’s belief that he could bypass the democratic process with a quick military victory. When Tigrayan forces resisted, he laid siege with genocidal effect. Given a choice of modeling himself after South African President Nelson Mandela or Anti-Tutsi Genocide-era interim Rwanda President Théodore Sindikubwabo, Abiy chose the latter. Incitement is a cancer not easily excised; Ethiopia will pay the price for generations.

The greatest problem with the peace deal is that it ignores and may even empower Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s 76-year-old dictator. Eritrea was a combatant in the war and was responsible for some of its greatest atrocities. Because Eritrean forces saved Abiy’s skin, Afwerki believes that Abiy owes him and must defer to his interests. 

That will be a disaster for both peace and regional stability. The problem for peace is that Abiy can feign compliance with the Pretoria agreement but outsource genocide against the Tigrayans to Eritrea. That Afwerki emerges as the top dog in the region bodes ill for broader stability. After Abiy, Afwerki is most responsible for fanning flames of instability and intolerance regionally. He was the brains behind the tripartite alliance between Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Mohamed Farmajo’s Somalia, as well as the forced impressment of thousands of Somalis into the Tigray fight.

If the United States and the broader international community wish to support peace in the Horn of Africa, it is time to address the Eritrea problem.

Fifteen years ago, the United States considered designating Eritrea as a state sponsor of terrorism. It was a mistake not to do so. Eritrean agents act far beyond their borders to promote terror and genocide. Recent actions in Tigray are only the latest case in point. The Biden administration might find bipartisan support in Congress for such a move.

Eritrea Presses Forward

Eritrea is also the only country to impose a “diaspora” tax on Eritreans based on ethnicity rather than citizenship. Eritrean embassies seek to extort this money by threatening the health and well-being of relatives back inside Ethiopia. The problem is so pernicious that even the United Nations Security Council condemned it. 

The international community should also step up. While the United States and many European countries have acted admirably to help the Ukrainian people defend themselves, the juxtaposition between attention to the war in Ukraine and lack of sustained attention toward Ethiopian and Eritrean aggression against Tigray is troubling. There is no excuse why countries such as Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom refrain from trade with Russia because of Ukraine but continue to trade with Eritrea whose crimes are equally egregious. 

It is important that genocide not occur with impunity. Senior Ethiopian and Eritrean officials individually have the blood of tens of thousands of civilians on their hands. The State Department has already held some officials to account. It should continue to designate abusers with international Magnitsky Act sanctions, especially as true peace will enable access to Tigray. Accountability should not be one-sided. Should any members of the Tigray Defense Forces be responsible for human rights abuses, they should not be immune from the consequence of their actions. 

Finally, the Biden administration should resist a desire by diplomats to restore Ethiopian trade privileges under the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA). Suspension of Ethiopia from AGOA cost Ethiopia privileged access to a nearly quarter-billion-dollar market segment. Rather than base action on the promise of peace, the White House should tie a return to Ethiopia maintaining its commitment to allow unhindered relief to Tigray. The danger now is that Abiy will play an elaborate game of good cop, bad cop with Afwerki, using Eritrean forces to attack and loot aid.

In short, the White House might welcome the Pretoria agreement, but it will only be the end of the beginning of the conflict rather than its end. Diplomats might hope for peace but, so long as they leave the Eritrea problem unaddressed, the actualization of such hope may remain outside the realm of reality.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Abel Bedesta

    November 3, 2022 at 1:58 pm

    This guy is such a pessimist. Also it’s a shame how you are still trying to support the TPLF even when it’s game over for that “political party.” I have a particular problem with this sentence: “Should any members of the Tigray Defense Forces be responsible for human rights abuses, they should not be immune from the consequence of their actions.” SERIOUSLY? Dude, have you not heard all the atrocities they (TPLF) committed in After and Amhara regions? How many times have you read about “both sides” being equally responsible? It warms my heart that Abiy has triumphed just like I’d hoped he would. Things are finally looking up for Ethiopia and no amount of bellyaching from the “white TPLF” will change anything.

    • Amintore

      November 3, 2022 at 3:06 pm

      Mr.Rubin:

      You must be a very sick person to write this trash. You know nothing whatsoever about the Horn of Africa. You don’t even know the letters of the Geez alphabet let alone our culture. Get some help and hire yourself a psychotherapist.

    • MARDOKAI G RUSSOM

      November 4, 2022 at 9:11 am

      There’s a difference between being ignorant and being stupid… For me, an ignorant person is someone who makes the wrong decision or a bad choice because he or she does not have the proper facts. We the 99% truly Eritrean pay our dues the 2% willingly so why is that bothering you??? Ignorance breeds fear. We fear those things we don’t understand. If we don’t keep that fear in check, that fear in turn will breed hatred because we hate those things that frighten us. The most powerful tools you can have are information and knowledge. which you don’t seem to have!! Instead of slandering or defaming a hero such as president Isaias Afwerki you should put some effort to understand him or know him better!! At the end, ignorance is the source of biases!! So that I urge you to find a way to remain alone with yourself, listen to your silences. Try to find not what the crowd wants. So you can be successful, but try instead to find the true inner meaning of your life here on earth, and question everything, do your own research and come to your own conclusions instead of echoing lies the crowd wants you to spread!!!

    • y.haile

      November 5, 2022 at 5:25 pm

      Michael, what is wrong with you? I am concerned with your mental well being. First, your friends, TPFL have provided you with nice pay check for long time. Well Michael, the game is over, your friends, TPLF got demolished, no more pay check for you. First, wake up, the TPLF started the war, and send long range ballistics missiles to Eritrea, and many civilian got killed, i guess you have short term memory. Micheal, a friendly advice, be a good person and not to cheer for destruction in Eritrea and Ethiopia-Weyane signed the deal, and they are done.

  2. Samson Gebreamlak

    November 4, 2022 at 5:11 am

    I dont believe this to be your text. There is nothing substantial here. All recycled tplf propaganda. The criminal stated as the victim. Shame on you.

  3. Kassahun Gabremikael

    November 4, 2022 at 1:45 pm

    Your premise that “Abiy Ahmed’s belief that he could bypass the democratic process with a quick military victory” is totally wrong; what followed is therefore also wrong.

  4. Yitshak Yitbarek

    November 5, 2022 at 2:48 am

    Thank you Dr. Rubin for your advocacy for justice, truth & human rights! The people who are commenting rudely are paid cadres of Isaias, the despotic tyrant dictator of Eritrea a.k.a. the North Korea of Africa. They are the dogs of war of the war lord Isaias Afewerki and his junior partner Abiy Ahmed. In your analysis, you portrayed the truth and the truth hurts to these perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity & genocide. No wonder they are making empty loud noises. The power of your factual analysis forced them to be emotionally out of control.

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