As US sanctions loom over Ethiopia, who is the real target?

An executive order by Joe Biden makes way for sanctions on all main parties fighting in northern Ethiopia. However, diplomatic positions taken by the US make it evident that the primary target is the Ethiopian federal government, and not the TPLF which has been accused of multiple massacres and human rights violations

September 20, 2021 by Pavan Kulkarni

On September 17, the US president Joe Biden issued an executive order authorizing the Treasury and State Departments to impose sanctions aimed at pressurizing the Ethiopian federal government to negotiate a ceasefire with Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). This was welcomed by the northern-Ethiopian separatist TPLF, which has allegedly been committing multiple massacres of civilians while on the retreat after suffering military losses earlier this month.

The text of the order makes way for sanctions on all main parties fighting in northern Ethiopia. However, diplomatic positions taken by the US since the start of this civil war almost a year ago make it evident that the primary target is the Ethiopian federal government, and not the TPLF.

Marginalized after 27 years of authoritarian rule over the country, the TPLF, which is now designated by the Ethiopian parliament as a terrorist organization, has expressed its willingness to cooperate with the US government to end the civil war it started by attacking a federal army base in Tigray regional state’s capital city, Mekele, in November 2020.

Condemning Biden for “cajoling the terrorist TPLF,” the Ethiopian American Civic Council (EACC) said in a press statement on September 17, “The TPLF-led war has resulted in the massacre of thousands of civilians.. internal displacement; and severe food shortages.” The EACC is the largest Ethiopian diaspora organization in the US with 750,000 members.

The EACC further pointed out that when the federal government declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew its troops from the regional state of Tigray in June-end to facilitate a peaceful farming season, the “TPLF used the ceasefire to regroup and attack civilians and civilian infrastructures in the (neighboring) Amhara and Afar regions.”

TPLF is choking aid supply to Tigray

The expansion of the fight into Afar led to the severe disruption of food supply to northern Ethiopia. Aid coming in from the port in neighboring Djibouti passes through this region. 5.2 million people, amounting to 90% of the population, are estimated to be in need of food aid. About 400,000 are suffering famine conditions.

The majority of these in need are in Tigray, whose dominant ethnicity the TPLF claims to represent. However, it kept the fighting along the supply route to take the Afar region in order to cut off Addis Ababa, the landlocked country’s capital, from the highway and railway line connecting it to the Djibouti port.

By September 9, the TPLF was pushed out of Afar by the federal forces and the Afar militias. This came a month after over 200 civilians, mostly internally displaced persons (IDP) sheltering in a school and health center, were reportedly killed by the TPLF which used heavy artillery to shell Afar’s Gale Koma district. Following this, there was renewed popular pressure on federal troops to re-engage the TPLF. Pointing out that more than 100 of the victims were children, UNICEF had said it was “extremely alarmed”.

The head of USAID’s mission in Ethiopia, Sean Jones, had pointed out in an interview on August 25 that destruction of houses and looting of trucks and warehouses, including those of the USAID, was widespread in all villages TPLF entered. He made these remarks three days after aid transportation had come to a complete halt due to fighting in Afar.

Throughout this period, however, the US government continued to lead an international effort to blame Ethiopia’s federal government for human rights violations and disruption of aid in order to lay the ground to justify the sanctions it was threatening to impose.

A day before the sanctions were authorized by Biden’s executive order, the UN Ethiopia revealed that “only 38 out of 466 trucks that entered Tigray since 12 July returned.” While the UN did not call out the TPLF, it is known that by early June almost all of Tigray was in its control, which implies that the remaining 428 trucks may have been seized by the TPLF or its affiliated groups. Several clips and pictures were shared by social media users, purportedly showing similar trucks being used by the TPLF to transport its militias.

“At the moment, this is the primary impediment to moving humanitarian aid into Tigray. We are unable to assemble convoys of significant size due to lack of trucks,” added Gemma Snowdon, spokesperson of the UN World Food Program (WFP).

Authorizing sanctions on September 17, the US has threatened sanctions within weeks if a ceasefire is not negotiated. A ceasefire at this point would mean that not only Tigray, but also many portions of Amhara, where the TPLF is allegedly carrying out repeated massacres of civilians as it retreats, will remain under its control.

A trail of massacres as TPLF retreats

On September 7, two mass-graves consisting of at least 100 civilians in Chena Teklehaymanot locality of Dabat District of the North Gondar in Amhara state were discovered after TPLF’s retreat. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reported that the victims were those civilians who were unable to flee the area when TPLF took control, and had been assured of their safety so long as they provided the fighters with food. However, when forced to beat a retreat upon the arrival of federal troops and Amharan militias, the TPLF killed the civilians on September 3-4, according to the residents and local authorities.

Confirming the massacre, Amhara Regional State Communication Affairs Director, Gizachew Muluneh, said in a press statement that the TPLF “went house to house, killing elders, women, children and priests from church after tying their hands back.”

Describing TPLF’s atrocities in Chena as “just the tip of the iceberg”, Ethiopian activist Getachew Shiferaw pointed out that “Civilians were [also] massacred in Kobo, Alamata, Lalibela, Abergele, Maytemri, Gaint, Gashena and Mersa, among others towns.”

The press Secretary of the PM’s office, Billene Seyoum, said in a briefing on September 9 that these attacks were carried out by the TPLF to avenge the defeat in Afar. She further alleged that the Chena massacre was carried out by TPLF’s youth group called Samri, which was also the perpetrator of the massacre in Tigray’s Maikadra town in November 2020, according to preliminary investigations by Amnesty International, EHRC and the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO).

On being forced to retreat at the arrival of the federal army, EHRCO found, the TPLF massacred over 1,100 civilians, mostly migrant workers of Amharan ethnicity. The Ethiopian federal government has alleged that following the massacre, this group had escaped across the northwestern border to Sudan, where its members were allegedly sheltered in UNHRC’s refugee camps.

In the weeks preceding the Chena massacre, “TPLF fighters with UNHCR ID cards on the outside of the Ethiopian borders have been found within the Amhara State, and UNHCR itself over the past day has admitted a decrease in the number of refugees that it could not account for.”

PM Abiy Ahmed confronts President Biden

“Unfortunately, while the entire world has turned its eyes onto Ethiopia and the Government for all the wrong reasons, it has failed to openly and sternly reprimand the terrorist group in the same manner it has been chastising my Government,” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said in an open letter to the US president on Friday, September 17, when his executive order authorized sanctions.

“The many efforts the Ethiopian Government has undertaken to stabilize the region and address humanitarian needs amidst a hostile environment created by the TPLF have been continuously misrepresented,” he lamented, adding that, “As a long-time friend, strategic ally and partner in security, the United States’ recent policy against my country comes not only as a surprise to our proud nation, but evidently surpasses humanitarian concerns.”

Two days after Biden’s executive order, when the TPLF welcomed it and assured cooperation with the US, the EHRC said on Sunday, September 19, that it was yet again receiving reports “about allegations of deliberate attacks against civilians in Kobo town and surrounding rural towns by TPLF fighters, including shelling on civilian areas, house to house searches and killings, looting and destruction of civilian infrastructure.”

“U.S support has inspired TPLF to continue the fight,” Ugandan journalist, Kungu Al-mahadi Adam, observed in an article the same day. “Even TPLF leader Getachew Reda openly praised the United States’ partisan and antagonistic stance against Addis Ababa on Friday, after he told Egypt TV that TPLF will break apart Ethiopia like Yugoslavia on Thursday.”

The US has a long history of supporting the TPLF, which, despite representing only 6% of Ethiopia’s population, had been the country’s ruling party for 27 years starting from 1991. During this period, political parties were not allowed to operate outside the ruling coalition which was dominated by the TPLF. Freedom of speech and press did not exist under its authoritarian rule, which was rife with human rights abuses. Its foreign policy was centered around the war with Eritrea, which the US continues to antagonize.

Ousted in 2018 after years of pro-democracy mass protests, the TPLF was marginalized to a regional party in power in Tigray state alone. Meanwhile Abiy Ahmed, who rose to power as a reformist Prime Minister, gained popularity by releasing political prisoners and lifting the ban on political parties and free press. His initiative to end the war with Eritrea with a peace treaty won him the Nobel Prize for peace.

His Prosperity Party (PP), which champions modernization and a national identity transcending ethnic identity-based politics, won the election in June 2021 with a landslide. Despite the security situation not permitting the polls to be held in many regions, a total of 40 million people came out to vote in other regions of the country, and the election marked a major milestone in Ethiopia’s democratic transition.

“With the Ethiopian people having spoken and affirmed their faith in Prosperity Party to lead them through the next five years in a landslide victory, my Party and administration.. are even more resolute in granting our people the dignity, security and development they deserve within the means we have and without succumbing to various competing interests and pressures,” Abiy Ahmed added in his letter to Biden. “And we will do this by confronting the threats to democracy and stability posed by any belligerent criminal enterprise.”