No Peace for a Peace Prize Winner in Ethiopia
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As rebel troops advance toward Addis Ababa, chickens are coming home to roost for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose belligerence has helped bring about this calamity; and for African Union and the U.S., whose quiescence has contributed to it.
Having long since betrayed the principles that won him the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago, Abiy is now exhorting citizens in the capital to arm themselves in preparation for the consequences of his political choices. The prime minister shows no interest in negotiations with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the northern group that is in revolt against the national government. He has brushed aside allegations by the U.S. and humanitarian organizations of ethnic cleansing by his allies in the civil war.
The AU and the U.S, meanwhile, are struggling to respond to the repercussions of their own inaction.
Little has been heard from the AU, which has been mostly mum as the continent’s second-most populous country has descended into the worst ethnic conflagration since the Rwandan genocide. The most charitable explanation is that the AU is overburdened. There are concurrent crises across much of the Sahel, the band of countries stretching across the continent just south of the Sahara. But the organization is also beholden to the Ethiopian government — the AU’s headquarters are in Addis Ababa -- and has been reluctant to criticize Abiy, much less pressure him to parley with the TPLF.
At least the U.S. has finally roused itself to action. A day after Secretary of State Antony Blinken pronounced himself “alarmed” at the TPLF’s takeover of two key northeastern towns, the Biden administration suspended Ethiopia’s duty-free access to the American market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, citing gross violations of internationally recognized rights.
But the U.S. remains reluctant to name and shame those responsible for those violations. It has not followed through on its threat to impose sanctions against individuals and entities deemed to be prolonging the civil war.
Still, the suspension of duty-free access is more than a rap on Abiy’s knuckles. Ethiopia exported goods worth $245 million to the U.S. last year under the AGOA, almost half its shipments to America.
The Ethiopian economy, once Africa’s most promising, has been damaged by the conflict. Worse is to come. Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. special envoy to the Horn of Africa, has described the situation as dire and deteriorating. “Without question, the situation is getting worse and we are frankly alarmed,” he said.
Abiy has thus far been impervious to economic penalties. A year ago, he shrugged off the European Union’s decision to suspend nearly 90 million euros ($108 million) in aid. But the cost of the civil war has escalated since then, so the suspension of duty-free access to the U.S. will certainly be felt. The timing, as the rebels advance toward the capital, may amplify the impact.
But the Biden administration should now prepare sterner measures, including acting on the threat of sanctions. The U.S. should also coordinate with the EU to impose tougher economic punishment if Abiy doesn’t start negotiations.
Bringing the Tigrayans to talks will be tougher now that the rebels are on the ascendancy. That task should fall on the African Union. The prospect of TPLF fighters at the gates of its headquarters in Addis Ababa should be incentive enough for the AU to finally act.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.
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