Violence in Ethiopia Doesn’t Stay There
Biden should learn from Carter and head off further conflict while he still can.
Among other parting gifts, when U.S. President Donald Trump leaves office in January he will bequeath the incoming foreign policy team with an intractable conflict in Ethiopia, one that threatens to wreak havoc across northeast Africa and destroy the African Union’s fragile institutions for peace and security.
Like in all wars, the truth was an early casualty in Ethiopia. Both sides—the government under President Abiy Ahmed and the leadership of the rebellious region of Tigray, the area where Ethiopia’s ruling class came from until Abiy took power—blames the other for firing the first shot. And both have their own interpretation of Ethiopia’s delicate federal constitution, and the powers it grants the central government and regions like Tigray. With every passing day, every massacre of civilians, every air attack on a Tigrayan town and drone strike, every rocket launched by the Tigrayans at a city elsewhere in Ethiopia or in neighboring Eritrea, the grievances accumulate, and the risks of violent chaos across the region increase.
There’s history to learn here. Over four decades ago, the incoming Carter administration promised a new era of human rights as a guiding principle for U.S. foreign policy. One of its first challenges was Ethiopia, where a military junta had recently overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie and was embarked upon a ruthless campaign of suppression.
Barely two weeks after Carter’s inauguration, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, Ethiopia’s new dictator, held a mass rally in Addis Ababa’s newly renamed Revolution Square. Addressing the crowd, he threw three bottles of a red liquid resembling blood to the ground, promising to smash all his enemies in that way. That day he launched the so-called Red Terror—a year-long campaign of torture and murder during which tens of thousands of Ethiopians were killed and millions driven into exile.
The United States didn’t contemplate military interventions in Africa in those days, and Carter couldn’t do much about Mengistu except condemn him and halt military aid—which he did. Historians of diplomacy agree that Carter did dither, though, over what to do about the ambitions of the pro-Soviet dictator of neighboring Somalia, General Mohamed Siyad Barre, who had long nurtured dreams of annexing Ethiopia’s Ogaden region—inhabited by ethnic Somalis—and making it part of Greater Somalia.
For Barre, Ethiopia’s turmoil was just too tempting, and he mobilized his army to invade. But instead of clearly signaling that attacking Ethiopia was wrong, the Carter administration sent mixed messages, which Barre took as a green light to invade. As Somali tanks crossed the border, Ethiopia called on the Soviet Union for military aid.
The United States, which had counted Ethiopia on its side in the Cold War and might have otherwise intervened against Soviet involvement, blinked—it didn’t want to start World War III over an African territorial dispute. In one of the most astonishing great power convulsions of the Cold War, Ethiopia and Somalia switched sides, with former Soviet ally Somalia becoming part of the Western bloc and Ethiopia allying with the Soviet Union.
There’s a simple lesson for the U.S. administration: Wars in Ethiopia are easy to start and dreadfully difficult to stop.
Ethiopia defeated Somalia, but the Ethiopian army—the largest in sub-Saharan Africa and lavishly equipped by the Soviets—still couldn’t crush rebellions elsewhere, in Eritrea, Tigray, and the Oromo regions. Every few months, Mengistu announced a final offensive promising to destroy the outlaws, bandits, terrorists, or secessionists. Finally, in 1991, the rebels drove him from power.
There’s a simple lesson for the U.S. administration: Wars in Ethiopia are easy to start and dreadfully difficult to stop. Far better to head off military operations before they escalate and spread.
That lesson was painfully re-learned in 1998. By this time, Ethiopia was ruled by the Tigrayan-led rebels who had formed a government. Neighboring Eritrea, meanwhile, was ruled by their allies in the liberation war against Mengistu. Both the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, and the Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, were considered close U.S. allies. But in May that year, a minor border dispute over the town of Badme suddenly escalated into a military confrontation between the two. And a newly appointed young U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, Susan Rice, was confronted with her first tough challenge.
Working together with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Rice nearly succeeded in hammering out a compromise that de-escalated the conflict. But Isaias rejected the formula at the last moment—he didn’t want to lose face and he thought he might just win a war. He told me at the time that Ethiopia was like Yugoslavia, ready to fall apart.