US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is no doubt a smart and experienced man. What I am not sure of is the clarity of his understanding of the current situation in Ethiopia. I can bet, however, that the corps of diplomats he has over there are competent to brief him well.
Let’s start with the raw reality. The Ethiopian government will not under any circumstances agree to a ceasefire if the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces are occupying territory outside Tigray, as they are in Afar and Asmara regions. Nor will the government accept a ceasefire if the TPLF are in a position to threaten Addis Ababa militarily, which various reports indicate they are.
The Ethiopian government will only do so if its very existence comes under mortal threat, and if Addis Ababa calculated its military options were untenable. Otherwise Ethiopia will seek to play this war out to the bitter end, at whatever cost in casualties, while falling back on its massive population advantage over Tigray.
For Tigray, a return to occupation by government forces is a non-starter. At the very least it will expect a return to the earlier status quo, when Tigray enjoyed a large degree of autonomy. The form and scope of that is negotiable, I think. It is what the Americans, the UN, the AU and Igad should be working on.
To appreciate the box Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is in, it is important to understand who he must assuage at all costs. The greatest pressure being brought to bear on him to pursue the current hardline is coming from the Amharas, who have a long history of conflict with the Tigrayans and cannot countenance chunks of their territory being occupied by TPLF.
Flight into exile
Abiy is essentially in a corner because his own Oromo people are opposed to his policies and, in fact, an armed faction of them has vowed to link up with TPLF to oust him. If he antagonises the Amharas, then he better take the quickest flight into exile.
I doubt TPLF are in a hurry to march into Addis Ababa, where Amhara militias have sway. Holding the populous capital and its environs would overstretch the Tigrayans. For now, their gambit is to force negotiations favourable to their region.
It’s just as well Blinken was not making a stopover in Addis Ababa. He wouldn’t have received a warm welcome. The Ethiopian government regards the US as biased. Washington has repeatedly criticised the Ethiopian side for rights violations and blocking humanitarian aid for those displaced by the war, but has failed to condemn the Tigrayans for similar actions.
The US has asked Americans to evacuate the country, but has not closed its Addis embassy.
While in Nairobi, Blinken emphasised that the US government “fully supported” the mediation mission of the AU lead negotiator, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. That is good, but could be better. Obasanjo must be assured of complete support from the powerful UN Security Council.
The AU has its limitations, not least with the Ethiopians, who have traditionally hosted it and usually expect it to go along with their prodding.
To President Uhuru Kenyatta, Abiy is not just a Prime Minister. He’s a personal friend. Ethiopia is also an inspirational story to many Africans because it was never colonised.