Blinken in Ethiopia to push peace accord as US returns from cold

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) arrives for an official visit to Ethiopia, at the Bole International airport in Addis Ababa, on March 14, 2023. PHOTO / AFP

What you need to know:

  • Blinken's trip to Africa's second most populous nation comes as part of a push by President Joe Biden's administration to step up engagement with Africa, where China and Russia have been stepping up influence.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived late Tuesday in Ethiopia on a bid to support the peace process after a brutal two-year civil war, and renew ties with a longtime ally. 

Blinken's trip to Africa's second most populous nation comes as part of a push by President Joe Biden's administration to step up engagement with Africa, where China and Russia have been stepping up influence.

It is the highest-ranking US visit to the country since war broke out in late 2020 between Ethiopia's government and Tigrayan rebels, fraying the US relationship with Addis Ababa as Washington alleged crimes against humanity.

Blinken is expected to meet Wednesday in Addis Ababa with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed -- a Nobel Peace Prize winner once seen as at the vanguard of a new generation of forward-looking African leaders, but who quickly turned into a near pariah for Washington over the war.

The violence broke out when the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which once dominated Ethiopian politics, attacked military installations, setting off a major offensive by Abiy's government with backing from the country's erstwhile adversary Eritrea.

The TPLF briefly came close to marching on the capital but, beaten back by pro-Abiy forces, agreed to disarm under a November 2 accord negotiated in South Africa's capital Pretoria by the African Union with US participation.

Molly Phee, the top US diplomat for Africa, said that Blinken's visit would aim to "help consolidate that peace" but cautioned that the US-Ethiopian relationship was not ready to go "back to normal."

She said that Ethiopia needed to take steps "to help break the cycle of ethnic political violence" if it wants to put the US relationship back on a "forward trajectory".

"The conflict that Ethiopia just endured was earth-shattering," she told reporters before departure.

"It involved terrible atrocities by all parties and was extremely disruptive to the country's stability and to its economy, which is also facing historic drought conditions."

 Calls for accountability 
The United States during the war suspended Ethiopia's participation in an accord that offered duty-free access for most of its exports, an issue sure to be raised by Abiy's government.

Abiy has pledged to restore basic services in Tigray, which has seen dire shortages during the war, although it is impossible to assess the situation on the ground due to restrictions on media access.

Sarah Yager, Washington director at Human Rights Watch, said that Blinken's visit was "a crucial opportunity to put the warring parties on notice that the US will press for all sides to be held accountable for their crimes."

"Without justice, the cycle of violence and impunity will undermine efforts to promote the human rights of the Ethiopian people," she said in a statement on Tuesday.

Even after the Tigray ceasefire, violence has flared elsewhere in the diverse nation and the government has faced new international condemnation for restricting internet freedom in the wake of a dispute inside the powerful Orthodox church.

The United States has estimated that the two-year conflict has claimed 500,000 lives -- higher than the death toll in Russia's invasion of Ukraine which has drawn far more global attention.

Russia has gone on a diplomatic offensive in Africa, including in Ethiopia, since the war, hopeful that the continent will stay neutral rather than join Western sanctions.

Russia's efforts follow years of inroads in Africa by China, which similarly has offered relationships with Africa that are openly transactional and free from Western pressure on human rights.

Soon after Blinken's visit -- his third to sub-Saharan Africa -- Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia, three countries seen as committed to making progress on democracy.