From American foreign policy bigwigs to legislators in the Senate, statements coming out of Washington, DC, on Ethiopia's current conflict lack unanimity and in some cases are contradictory. It is a moment of uncertainty and confusion whereby members of the outgoing administration of Donald Trump speak in manners that are contrary to those in the transitional team of Joe Biden, the incoming president.
The latest in a series of statements made by American officials since the start of the conflict on November 3, 2020, came from two senior diplomats in the Trump administration. Tibor Nagy, a former ambassador to Ethiopia now serving as an assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and Michael Raynor, United States ambassador to Ethiopia, briefed the international media virtually last week. It was their first briefing on the matter; it could also be their last.
To the delight of those in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's administration, the ambassadors put the blame squarely on the TPLF, accusing its leaders of "first attacking" the Northern Command and characterised the missile attacks on the Asmara airport as an "unacceptable and dangerous" attempt to internationalise the conflict.
The ambassadors who view Ethiopia as a "linchpin" in a troubled region would rather want to see the status quo as the only way forward, an African affairs analyst said following the briefing late last week.
"Ideologically, they seem to see no alternative to Abiy," he told Fortune.
Perhaps his view is informed by the ambassadors contemplating the motivation of TPLF leaders in their preemptive move in neutralising the Northern Command from deployment against them. They believe the TPLF leaders have an agenda to depose Prime Minister Abiy from power and reassert themselves into "a prominent position that they had atop the Ethiopian political spectrum for the last 27 years."
This was not a popular statement in some quarters. It is viewed as a deliberate attempt to skirt around the issues of the alleged involvement of the Eritrean government in the conflict, the relentless aerial bombardment of targets in Tigray with reported civilian casualties, and their silence on the jailing of political opponents. When they spoke about atrocities committed against civilians, they pointed their fingers squarely at TPLF forces.
"We condemn the November 12 massacre in Mai-Kadra, apparently perpetrated by the TPLF soldiers and militia as they retreated from the town," said Assistant Secretary Nagy.
This has angered at least one TPLF leader, who denied involvement in a massacre of civilians estimated to number 500. Briefing the media based in Meqelle on Friday, Getachew Reda, political bureau member of the TPLF, has denied responsibility for the violence, which many human rights advocates believe will be considered a crime against humanity. But he called the Ambassador's remark a "slip of the tongue."
"It's very unfortunate that people who should have known better squarely blame the TPLF and the government of Tigray for having committed something that was committed by people who are collaborating with Abiy Ahmed," said Getachew, but remained short of saying who the collaborators might be. "It's unfortunate that the international community, which should have been watching closely, is not paying attention to the humanitarian crisis."
The international community has begun to raise its voice on the humanitarian toll the conflict has caused, although belatedly. An average of 4,000 people are running for their lives a day, taking refuge in Sudan. The numbers reached 40,000 last week and are swelling by the day. Authorities in Sudan have set up two reception centres and reopened camps that remained closed for over 20 years after Ethiopians had returned at the end of the civil war in the early 1990s. The alarming development in the growing military confrontation has compelled the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to issue a statement warning the situation could spiral out of control.
In Washington, DC, one such concerned voice is Antony Blinken, deputy director at the National Security Council under the Obama Administration and now a foreign policy advisor for President-elect Biden.
"The TPLF and Ethiopian authorities should take urgent steps to end the conflict, enable humanitarian access, and protect civilians," Blinken tweeted on November 18.
His call for a ceasefire, de-escalation, the protection of civilians, and access to humanitarian corridors was echoed by two senators, Chris Van Hollen and Cory Booker. Fifteen other senators have joined them in co-signing the petition to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.
Getachew may say "peace has always been in our best interest," however, pushing for an immediate ceasefire appears to have little chance at the moment, according to the Ambassadors. Both Nagy and Raynor saw a firm commitment from both sides to seeing the military conflict through.
"At this point, neither party, from everything we hear, is interested in mediation," said Nagy.
Raynor adds: "I will tell you that at the time of my conversations, there was no receptivity to that approach."
David Shinn served as the US Ambassador to Ethiopia during the height of the bloody war between Eritrea and Ethiopian in the late 1990s. He remains a close observer of the Horn of Africa region, actively analysing development. He sees the current US administration's bias toward the federal government, but not its apportioning of the blame on the TPLF. The Ambassadors' focus on immediate de-escalation of tension, cessation of hostilities, return to peace, and the protection and security of civilians may not be in tandem with the federal government's position not to engage the TPLF.
"It sounds to me like the central government is determined to crush the TPLF militarily," Shinn told Fortune.
While the militarised conflict is raging in the north to an intensity last seen in the region during the war with Eritrea, the door for its negotiated settlement appears remote. For now. Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo arrived in Addis Abeba a week ago, seeking an audience with Prime Minister Abiy, to no avail, according to individuals close to the effort.
The very efforts by various international bodies to broker a deal for a ceasefire and resumption of dialogue is being contested as Addis Abeba remains adamant there won't be talks before the TPLF, and its government, are disarmed. Whether Addis Abeba has given in to the international pressure for dialogue has become a casualty of alternative facts.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who also chairs the African Union, has sent three eminent personalities in the continent to Addis Abeba. His pronounced aim is to "contribute to a process that could lead to a dialogue and an end to the fighting that has cost many lives and extensive displacement of people."
The understanding of the visit to Addis Abeba of the three envoys - Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Joaquim Chissano, Kgalema Motlanthe - by Prime Minister Abiy's administration may not be on the same page with the rest of the world as articulated by Josep B. Fontelles, high representative of the EU for foreign affairs. It is to help bring a peaceful resolution of the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.
"Military escalation and long-term instability in the country and the region must be avoided," said Fontelles.
Yet Addis Abeba views the visit by the three former heads of state as no more than receiving a courtesy call, largely out of respect for the African Union. While the State of Emergency office called the news jamming the airwaves on the mediation effort as "fake news," Ethiopia's President Sahle-work Zewde remained on the official script.
"The federal government is engaged in a law and order enforcement operation, and the perpetrators of these atrocities will be brought to justice," she tweeted last week, after her visit to South Africa.
But how the militarised engagement in Tigray will evolve in the coming week will determine the tenacity of the federal government to stick to its adamant position calling for surrender. Hence, facing global pressure mounting by the day for roundtable talks should its forces fail to make their advances to Meqelle, time is of the essence.
The voice from Washington, with the advent of a new administration in two months, may have coherence in due course. Whether it will have a different policy from its predecessor remains an open question. For a foreign policy expert such as Shinn, there could be a number of cases where the Biden administration will implement a different foreign policy than followed by Trump.
"Its position on the conflict in Ethiopia, however, may not be much different," Shinn told Fortune.