Editorial: US leadership can help end the crisis in Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s worsening civil war, which has already drawn in Eritrea and is now spilling over into Sudan, threatens to destabilize the entire Horn of Africa, with alarming humanitarian consequences. American leadership is urgently needed to restore peace.

The conflict began last November, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into the northern province of Tigray, the home of his most powerful political opponents, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Eritrea, which formally ended a long-running war with Ethiopia two years ago, provided its new ally with reinforcements. Tens of thousands of Tigrayans fled to neighboring Sudan, straining the limited resources of one of the world’s poorest countries. Still more were displaced internally and housed in refugee camps.

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The Tigrayan capital fell quickly, but sporadic fighting has continued. Abiy has prevented human rights monitors, humanitarian aid groups and United Nations agencies from fully accessing the province. There are credible reports of atrocities committed in Tigray by Ethiopian forces and their proxies. The European Union has accused Eritrean troops of “exacerbating ethnic violence.” A famine looks increasingly likely.

Now the prime minister has ordered tanks and artillery to the border with Sudan. As with the offensive into Tigray, his government claims to have been provoked by the other side, but there’s more than a little suspicion of an Ethiopian land grab. The two countries have long-standing disputes over territory. They have also quarreled over water resources since Ethiopia built a giant dam on the Blue Nile. Along with Egypt, Sudan fears the decimation of its agricultural resources if Ethiopia proceeds with plans to fill a huge reservoir in front of the dam.

The African Union has been unable to resolve any of these issues, not least because other member states are leery of antagonizing the country that hosts their organization. The EU has suspended nearly 90 million euros ($108 million) in aid to the government in Addis Ababa, to no apparent effect. The UN has done little more than wag a disapproving finger.

That leaves President Joe Biden’s administration. As Ethiopia’s most important ally, the U.S. has substantial leverage over Abiy’s government. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken to Abiy about the humanitarian crisis in Tigray, and his department has called for the withdrawal of Eritrean troops. Having thus put the government on notice, the administration should be prepared to impose punishment if Abiy fails to respond adequately.

A good first step would be to join the EU in suspending assistance until the UN and other aid agencies are allowed free access to Tigray. If necessary, the U.S. should freeze the preferential trade benefits Ethiopia enjoys under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. It should also demand independent investigations into the alleged atrocities, and appropriate punishment for those found guilty. Any Ethiopian adventurism in Sudan should be met with even harsher penalties, including economic sanctions.

Simultaneously, the U.S. should push for negotiations — between Ethiopia and Sudan, and between Addis Ababa and the Tigrayans — to resolve old disputes. If the African Union cannot mediate such talks, then the U.S. should be prepared to do so.

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Blinken has said the U.S. should “not be AWOL as problems emerge” in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia presents an urgent challenge to that commitment.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.