Addis Abeba — In a statement he gave upon his return to the US following his latest visit to Ethiopia, U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman said there was "some nascent progress in trying to get the parties to move from a military confrontation to a negotiating process, but what concerns us is that this fragile progress risks being outpaced by the alarming developments on the ground that threaten Ethiopia's overall stability and unity."
Answering questions related to the status of progress on the diplomatic front in the backdrop of continued fighting and the recent announcement of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to join the battlefield, the special envoy explained that there's an overlap in the elements that both warring parties describe as being essential to get to de-escalation and a negotiated ceasefire. He recalled the discussion he had with the prime minister prior to his announcement to join the military in the front, "What the PM and I mostly discussed was how his goals could be achieved through the negotiating table rather than on the military battlefield," adding, "He is confident that he will be able to push back the TDF northward back into Tigray." The Ambassador also recalled telling PM Abiy he can achieve the same thing through a diplomatic process with the support of the African Union, the immediate neighbors of Ethiopia, and the international community.
Ambassador Jeffery confessed "I was encouraged that he was willing to talk to me in detail about what a diplomatic process could look like," underlining the role of the U.S.in the peace talks, "But at the same time, he also expressed confidence that militarily he would be able to achieve his goals, which is - but no, in terms of did he preview the statement that he released yesterday, no." Further highlighting the role of the U.S. in the negotiations, he said "This is not something that would be U.S.-led. It would be something where the U.S. would be one of many actors supporting it."
He expressed optimism in the potential for African Union's high representative for the Horn of Africa, Obasanjo with the support of the international community to take these elements that both sides agree have to be part of a political process and start sequencing them, and start deciding how the reciprocity works between the sides. Ambassador Jeffrey also acknowledged the role of Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, "I think that he's playing an extremely important role in being able to talk to Prime Minister Abiy, sort of peer-to-peer, about the need for stability in the Horn of Africa with stability in the Horn of Africa not being possible if there's destabilization in Ethiopia."
The special envoy underscored that "The basis for talks to lead to de-escalation and a negotiated ceasefire exists," recalling that Prime Minister Abiy's top priority which is to get the Tigrayan Defense Forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, the TDF and the TPLF, out of the lands that they have occupied in the states of Amhara and Afar and get them back into Tigray. He continued to explain that the United States shares the Abiy's objective as well as the priority the TDF and TPLF leaders told the US which is to break the de facto humanitarian siege that the federal government has imposed on Tigray since July.
Ambassador Jeffery noted that these two objectives are not mutually exclusive. He said, "With political will, one can achieve both. Unfortunately, each side is trying to achieve its goal by military force, and each side seems to believe that it's on the cusp of winning." Citing the hundreds of thousands of casualties and people displaced by fighting, he said, "It should be clear that there is no military solution. The government must remove the shackles that are hindering humanitarian relief and stop offensive military actions, and the TDF must halt its advance on Addis."
The Ambassador reiterated his country's commitment to address the underlying causes of this conflict through diplomacy. "We are not taking sides here. Rumors that we are supporting one side are simply false. We have no intention of any engagement except diplomatic engagement on behalf of international efforts to promote a political process," he stated, adding, "Ethiopia's neighbors, the African Union, the United Nations, and the international community all agree: There is no time to waste in pivoting to diplomacy." He said "Although both sides are still pursuing military options, they are also engaged on the idea that there may be other ways to pursue their objectives," adding, "That's what I find, again, marginally encouraging, but I don't want to overstate the case."
He revealed that there are some among Tigrayan leaders who recognize that entering Addis could be catastrophic for themselves and catastrophic for the country. "They don't want to be responsible for the collapse of Ethiopia. But they do want to see the siege that's been imposed on Tigray since the end of June lifted." He also indicated that the U.S. believed that 'moving on Addis is just unacceptable and catastrophic.' He detailed his country's efforts to 'strengthen the more moderate voices inside the Tigrayan camp to refute the idea that they need to try to move on to Addis' by way of ensuring access to humanitarian relief to Tigray. On the topic of humanitarian aid, he noted, "It's no longer just the Tigrayans who are suffering from deprivation under this conflict, there are needs in Afar and Amhara as well, in the areas that the TDF now occupies, where you have civilians under TDF occupation outside of Tigray. So there's a collective need for assistance to flow."
The ambassador divulged his discussion with Tigrayan leaders where he told them, "They need to remember this is not 1991. In 1991, as you know, the TPLF led a popular entry into Addis with the fall of the Mengistu regime. The TPLF would be met with unrelenting hostility if it entered Addis today. This is not the same as 1991, and we believe that the Tigrayan leaders understand that." He also addressed the narrative that the United States is nostalgic for a return of that EPRDF, TPLF-dominated regime that was under Meles Zenawi for 27 years, "That is not what we're after here. We are not taking sides in this conflict. We're not trying to tip the scales in favor of the TPLF," he continued, "Prime Minister Abiy emerged - his party emerged successful in elections that took place in June and additional elections in September for other districts. He has a parliament that backs him. Whatever the imperfections are in the elections, I think that they - in general his premiership reflects a popular mandate that we recognize. And so this idea that we're taking sides on behalf of the TPLF is pure fantasy, but it persists."
"But in terms of Tigray itself, the restrictions are largely imposed by the government and there's layers of restrictions," the ambassador said while expressing hope that there's a seriousness on the part of the government to start to strip away some of the restrictions that have been put in place since June. Citing the disruption of basic services in the Tigray region, he said, "Simply having trucks drop off food in Mekelle is not going to be sufficient to address the needs. There needs to be cash, telecom, fuel, et cetera to be able to do this." The special envoy stressed the role of access to humanitarian aid, "It's essential in order to make that argument as strongly as possible with the Tigrayan leaders that they cannot enter Addis under the guise of trying to break the humanitarian siege, that there are other ways to achieve those goals without tipping Addis into a bloodbath situation or chaos." AS