November 2 marks the one-year anniversary of the Pretoria Agreement that ended one of the world’s most deadly contemporary conflicts. The cessation of the violence between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) bought time for the leadership in Addis Ababa, but the country’s fragile stability is still at risk. U.S. efforts were instrumental in supporting the parties to enter into the Pretoria Agreement, but its continued engagement remains crucial. With its relationship with Ethiopia on the mend, Washington must prioritize supporting movement toward sustainable peace.
The respite the Pretoria Agreement has provided, while welcome, is only partial. The postconflict reconstruction and reconciliation needs in northern Ethiopia are immense and remain largely unmet. Meanwhile, the government is grappling with multiple compounding crises.
In Ethiopia’s two largest regions, Oromia and Amhara, the government is facing increasingly deadly conflict with armed groups. Violence erupted in Amhara after the government announced plans to absorb special forces in all regions of Ethiopia into the federal security apparatus, a move seen by Amhara elite as undermining their security at a moment when TPLF’s demobilization remained incomplete. Tensions had already been rising, as the local political elite blamed the government for ignoring Amhara interests, including the status of contested territories in western and southern Tigray that they believe belong in the Amhara region. The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) insurgency continues to destabilize increasingly large portions of Oromia, a diverse region of approximately 35 million people that was the locus of the 2014–16 protest movement. This violence also distracts from the deeper drivers of instability, which include intra-Oromo political competition and grievances of political and economic marginalization. The conflicts in Amhara and Oromia have fueled polarizing ethnic politics that have begun to deteriorate societal relations between Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups.
Ethiopia’s struggling economy will require substantial reform to unlock an IMF deal that could help with stability. Humanitarian needs due to conflict and climate shocks are at historic highs, with more than 20 million requiring assistance with food, shelter, medical care, and more. Corruption and other governance deficiencies are rampant, as evidenced by a vast aid diversion scheme that led to the halting of U.S. food aid in May—a pause that remains in place, except for assistance to refugees. Ethiopians continue to suffer the physical and psychological wounds of war as well as economic hardship.
Ethiopian Government’s Approach
The Ethiopian government’s central concerns are maintaining territorial integrity and regime stability, enticing foreign investment to revive its homegrown economic reform, and expanding its regional and global role. In response to its internal security threats, the government has proven unable to adequately respond to violent movements that are rooted in historic grievance, marginalization, and fundamental disagreements over the distribution of power and the structure of the state.
In response to nonstate armed groups such as the OLA, the government has prioritized an over-securitized response, executed with impunity. Security operations often result in human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, civilian casualties, and arbitrary arrest. They have reportedly employed the use of drones and also enact blanket internet and electricity shutdowns in areas affected by conflict.
The Ethiopian government has opened the door to dialogue to address political differences underpinning these conflicts, with little success. The Pretoria Agreement and the implementation of several key components indicate the government is capable of pursuing political solutions. Whether it is willing to pursue a similar path to resolve the conflicts in Oromia and Amhara remains unclear.
The Long Path to Peace and Democratic Reform
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s rise to power in 2018 brought high hopes for democratic reform among Ethiopians and external observers. But those changes may never have been on the table. At its core, the change in guard in 2018 was an elite-level political deal, despite its origins in a years-long protest movement. In the same vein, the Pretoria Agreement was the result of an elite-level bargain after one side lost in a brutal war.
But the 2018 leadership change did create space for reform-minded actors inside and outside of the government to push for a more peaceful and democratic Ethiopia. Women’s associations have become more political, engaging in peacebuilding initiatives, and were among the first to reach out to their Tigrayan counterparts to address the wounds of war. Nongovernmental organizations collaborated with the government to advance a framework for dialogue that helped to establish the Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission. Human rights organizations expanded their investigative work and are more public than ever with their findings. Nongovernmental groups bravely came out publicly with a call for peace when the government was rallying the country to mobilize against the TPLF advance in 2021. These actors understand the long path ahead for Ethiopia, and they have welcomed U.S. support in their journey.
Ultimately, Ethiopia will need systemic change informed by national level conversations about Ethiopia’s past and future to advance peace and democracy. The country has launched processes with transformative promise, such as transitional justice and national dialogue, but they have yet to produce tangible advances, as they lack sufficient political will from the government and buy-in from Ethiopia’s diverse political elites. Moreover, viable political processes to resolve conflict in Oromia and Amhara are needed to give space for national dialogue and transitional justice to take root.
The Need for Engagement
Sustainable peace in Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa, is critical to President Joe Biden’s administration’s goal of elevating African nations to bolster the continent’s ability to solve global problems through partnership. Instability in the region, notably in Sudan and Somalia, further raises the importance of Ethiopia’s trajectory both for itself and its more stable neighbors such as Kenya, who look on nervously. The path Ethiopia takes from here will also be an important lesson for countries across the Global South on how to manage internal security threats, maintain regime stability, and remain relevant in the era of shifting global alliances. China is courting countries such as Ethiopia in a geopolitical tug-of-war, and Ethiopia’s long-awaited BRICS invitation increases its relevance in the great power competition calculus. Ethiopia may leverage the BRICS invitation for a more favorable bargaining position with the IMF and World Bank as it urgently seeks economic assistance.
The U.S. Role
There are limits to what the United States can do to influence the Ethiopian government, as its ability to influence is predicated on having a relationship to begin with. In this respect, U.S. policy toward Ethiopia raises a major dilemma: how to ensure Washington does not abandon democracy and human rights values while expanding engagement with a significant regional player that continues woeful violations of democratic norms and basic human rights.
Doubts about U.S. reliability is another obstacle. Some Ethiopian elites perceive that the United States sided with the TPLF during the war and that the pause on U.S. humanitarian assistance is unfair. Yet the United States remains Ethiopia’s largest development and humanitarian assistance provider and has made substantial steps to normalizing the bilateral relationship since last November, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Addis Ababa in March 2023.
As the United States continues to chart out its way forward—particularly under a new ambassador—it should emphasize four priorities.
First, Washington should maintain the fine balance between normalizing relations while pressing for genuine progress on human rights and inclusive dialogue. Policymakers seem to have learned from the past, when the United States willfully ignored human rights abuses to secure security guarantees in the war on terror. Now, it is proving it can pursue multiple objectives simultaneously—but that balancing act can be difficult. It will require concerted effort from policymakers to push for peace and improvements in human rights while avoiding downplaying further backsliding.
Second, the United States should double down on support to Ethiopian-led efforts to end internal conflict. The years since Ethiopia’s historic political transition have been a process of negotiating and fighting over how power is distributed and how to effectively manage political competition, which have turned violent. Sustained levels of conflict are one of several indicators that the Ethiopian government’s strategy is not working. The groups the government now faces are insurgencies or small armed groups with fragmented command and control. These groups can disrupt Ethiopia’s stability for years to come. U.S. policymakers should continue to carefully track local conflicts and their impacts, appeal to all sides to end violence, and step up assistance and diplomatic support for pursuit of peaceful means for addressing these conflicts.
Third, the United States should invest more in working with Ethiopians to advance human rights. Washington should continue to apply pressure on Addis Ababa to advance accountability while supporting local human rights professionals, financially and otherwise. True reform can only come from Ethiopians working to advance the cause from within their country. A combination of U.S. public and private pressure on the government, combined with robust support and partnership with local government and nongovernmental entities, is the right formula.
Finally, the United States should adopt a long planning horizon while leaving space for short-term adjustments. Ethiopia faces major obstacles on its path toward political stability and internal peace, let alone democratic reform and economic growth, and U.S. diplomatic and assistance horizons need to be adjusted accordingly. Such strategic patience means listening to local partners about their long-term strategies. U.S. officials should expand visits throughout the country to engage with Ethiopians’ visions and solutions. Washington should also use its convening power to listen to and amplify the diverse voices seeking peaceful, inclusive solutions and find out how best to help them. This strategy will also require stepped-up engagement with the U.S. Congress. However, while thinking long-term, the United States must also apply resources in a timely manner—given that momentum on peace talks and political reform is often unpredictable, and seizing it is crucial to locally led endeavors.
The Pretoria Agreement ended Ethiopia’s biggest war, but struggles remain on multiple fronts as Abiy seeks to position Ethiopia as a leader of a continent ripe for economic expansion. Ethiopians know they need functional institutions and a path to an equitable and just society to ensure longevity and secure such economic growth. With the right strategy, the United States can be an effective partner in that journey, provided the journey is one the government of Ethiopia choses to take.