Ethiopian diplomacy during the Tigray conflict: Authoritarian powers and Abiy’s regime

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The regime of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali in Ethiopia has been locked in a conflict with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) since November 2020. Amidst a recent worsening of the conflict, US President Joe Biden signed an Executive Order permitting the US to impose sanctions upon the Ethiopian government and others perpetrating human rights abuses. Widespread evidence of human rights abuses committed by Ethiopian soldiers, alongside the development of famine conditions in portions of Tigray, has led the US to withdraw technical and economic assistance for Abiy’s regime.

The US exerted further pressure on Ethiopia by dispatching the US Agency for International Development to investigate issues behind aid delivery to Tigray, and to warn Abiy of further punitive measures if his regime continues to hinder humanitarian assistance to Tigray.

The announcement of US sanctions represents the culmination of growing tensions in the relationship between the US and Ethiopia. US-Ethiopia ties had been particularly strong under the EPRDF – in power from 1991 to 2018 – as were US relations with Abiy until recently.

Growing US pressure has resulted in a diplomatic shift in the position of the Ethiopian government. Rather than cave to US pressure, Abiy’s regime has instead further developed its relations with China, Russia, and other authoritarian states such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Turkey. Such engagement demonstrates the limits to which the Biden administration – and other external actors – can meaningfully influence the Ethiopian leadership.

Gaining support from non-democratic actors grants the Ethiopian regime the breathing room to continue to prosecute the war as it sees fit. Support from Russia, China, and others meanwhile represents the latest effort by these external players to make diplomatic in-roads across the African continent by stepping up engagement with autocratic regimes that have experienced declining support from democratic foreign powers.

The discourse of diplomacy

The engagement of the Abiy regime with authoritarian powers has echoed many of the key narratives that it has used more generally to frame the conflict. Indeed, Ethiopia has sought international backing for the narratives that it has developed as well as the material support required to prosecute the war against the TPLF – and to apply international pressure on the US and European to rescind their condemnation.

Abiy’s regime has repeatedly classified the Tigray conflict as a short-term, proportional response to the violence waged by the TPLF, and this narrative has often been employed in discussions with two primary authoritarian supporters; Russia and China. Ethiopia’s ambassador to China, Teshome Toga Chanaka, repeated the mantra that the military operation in Tigray was an issue of ‘law enforcement’, that would be resolved quickly with little impact to external actors like China and Russia.

This discourse has been repeated by Russia and China. Russian ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, with support from China, vetoed UN efforts to produce a statement calling for an end to the violence in Tigray. More recently, Nebenzya has echoed Abiy’s discourse on the conflict, arguing that the Tigrayan conflict is too complex for outside forces to comment upon, and that it is a domestic affair which needs to be resolved by Ethiopia alone.

Russian state media also condemned a ceasefire that was announced in July 2021, claiming that Abiy was forced into accepting this move by US pressure.

China’s approach has been varied. Beijing welcomed the ceasefire, although it reiterated that the conflict against the TPLF is to be resolved by Abiy’s regime alone. Within the UN, China has continued to extoll the importance of sovereignty and international respect for Ethiopia to resolve its internal affairs.

Mobilising this kind of international support is a widely noted tactic used by authoritarian regimes worldwide to withstand pressure by Western governments for political reform. In this instance, Abiy has used the backing and legitimacy provided by Russia and China to continue his operations against the TPLF despite both the European Union and the United States attempting to leverage their economic support via aid suspensions and sanctions.

Most notably, China and Russia’s prominent roles in the UN have given Abiy’s regime even greater diplomatic power, preventing the UN Security Council from condemning Abiy’s actions as a united front.

Economic and technical support

Several of Abiy’s authoritarian have also provided substantial technical, economic, and military support to the Ethiopian regime. China has traditionally played a substantive role in Ethiopian development and economic prosperity, whilst Russia has become an increasingly significant economic partner, with widely reported nuclear power deals struck between the two parties in 2019.

Against the background of mounting criticism in Europe and North America, the Ethiopian regime has pressed forward with deepening this engagement. Deals on technical cooperation have been signed in recent weeks with Russia, while increased weaponry, military technology and further cooperation between branches of the Russian armed forces and their Ethiopian military counterparts have been agreed. Similar deals have been made with China, with security and military development agreements signed, alongside further infrastructural agreements with Chinese companies.

More recently, substantial shipments of military equipment, including drones manufactured in China have been provided to Abiy’s regime by the United Arab Emirates. For its part, Turkey has also signed a military cooperation agreement with Ethiopia. Such agreements are particularly significant given that drone strikes have been reported in Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region, in recent months.

To be clear: such deals are not new, but their frequency and scope appear to have accelerated following the withdrawal of assistance by the US and other democratic states. While it is an oversimplification of speak of a new set of proxy wars being fought on African soil in the manner of the Cold War, it seems clear that the pressure generated by international sanctions has been undermined by Abiy’s ability to turn to his country’s authoritarian partners. 

This has important implications not just for the war in Ethiopia but also for the the direction of politics in Africa more generally. Progress towards accountable and inclusive government has always been driven more by domestic than international factors, but to the extent that international actors can shape domestic processes the growing economic might of authoritarian powers is making the task of promoting democratic rule significantly more difficult.

The Ethiopian side of the process

The interaction between international authoritarian states and Abiy’s regime has resulted in a substantial level of Ethiopian support for Russia, China, and others. Abiy publicly praised Russia and China for their continuing support of his regime during a press briefing earlier in the year, emphasising how strengthening historical ties between these states would lead to further benefits for all.

Beyond this, supporters of Abiy’s regime participated in a mass rally in May 2021, holding placards of Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Russian President Vladimir Putin to underline their appreciation. Such carefully curated public relations exercises are used to highlight how US policy is hostile to Ethiopia, and who the country’s true allies are. By contrast, Chinese and Russian engagement are depicted as leading to Ethiopian prosperity, and to a stronger and more united nation.

Through this complex interplay of Abiy’s rhetoric and international authoritarian support to his regime, the Ethiopian government is capable of withstanding Western pressure – as will other African states, given the considerable and growing economic weight of China, Turkey, Russia, and the UEA. 

Daniel Munday is a PhD candidate in the International Development Department at the University of Birmingham. His research explores the provision of support by non-Western autocracies to African authoritarian regimes.

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