U.S. Secretary Of State Pushes Eritrean Pullout From Tigray

On April 26th, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed to withdraw Eritrean troops from the war-torn Tigray region “immediately, in full, and in a verifiable manner,” according to a statement by U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price. This exhortation comes a month after Abiy admitted that Eritrean soldiers had been fighting alongside pro-government forces in the conflict and announced the Eritrean forces’ agreement to retreat from the region. Despite growing pressure from American and other international bodies, all signs indicate that Abiy and his Eritrean allies have failed to keep their word.

After denying the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray for months, Abiy finally admitted to their involvement following a meeting with Eritrean president Isais Afwerki. According to The New York Times, Abiy announced on March 26th that both parties had agreed to remove Eritrean forces from the region. However, it seems no action has been taken since then, prompting Blinken to urge Abiy once more to commit to the withdrawal.

The Secretary reiterated his “grave concern” about Ethiopia’s ongoing “humanitarian and human rights crisis,” noting that Eritrean and Amhara regional forces in Tigray are “contributing to the growing humanitarian disaster and committing human rights abuses.” The growing risk of famine in Tigray and ongoing insecurity in other parts of the country were listed as major sources of concern. All parties to the conflict must end hostilities, Blinken stressed. Eritrea’s immediate withdrawal is imperative.

War has ravaged the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray since November 2020. Prime Minister Abiy has aimed to unify the country since coming into power in 2018, pursuing centralization by increasing the federal government’s authority and reducing regional governments’ autonomy. Having dominated Ethiopia’s politics for nearly three decades, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (T.P.L.F.) has openly resisted this agenda. Tensions erupted when the T.P.L.F. blatantly defied the federal government by proceeding with regional parliamentary elections, which had been postponed in other parts of Ethiopia due to the coronavirus pandemic. Abiy responded by sending government forces to detain and disarm T.P.L.F. leaders.

Since then, thousands of people have died. The destruction is extensive. According to The New York Times, over 2,000,000 people have been displaced, with many fleeing to neighboring Sudan.

The T.P.L.F has “long been an archenemy of Eritrea,” Reuters says. After Eritrea separated from Ethiopia, the neighboring nations fought a war between 1998 and 2000 under T.P.L.F. rule. Abiy won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in resolving this conflict. Now, it seems he is falling into what the Financial Times calls “the curse of the Nobel Peace Prize.” Abiy has seemingly exploited Eritrea’s rivalry with Tigray to mobilize its support in his military offensive. Like other political leaders who have won the Nobel, only to go on to sanction violence and conflict to maintain power, Abiy has revealed that peace is ultimately less than paramount in his political agenda.

Accordingly, Al Jazeera reports that the United Nations has seen no proof of the promised pullout. At a closed-door Security Council meeting, top U.N. humanitarian official Mark Lowcock cast doubt on Abiy’s claims that Eritrean troops will be retreating soon. “Unfortunately, I must say that neither the U.N. nor any of the humanitarian agencies we work with have seen proof of Eritrean withdrawal,” he told the council.

“The humanitarian situation in Tigray has deteriorated,” Lowcock said. A majority of Tigray’s six million people is “completely or partially inaccessible” for humanitarian agencies, he added, and reports of systematic rape and sexual violence were “especially disturbing and alarmingly widespread.”

Despite mounting pressure from foreign governments and international bodies – Blinken’s being only the latest appeal – Abiy has clearly reneged on his promise of Eritrean withdrawal. Civilians are still in the line of fire. The reported atrocities the government and its allied forces in Tigray have committed, including targeted violence against civilians and using sexual violence as a weapon of war, are inexcusable. Abiy’s vows are both empty and dangerous.

An Eritrean pullout is no panacea for the horrific atrocities committed against Tigray. Nonetheless, it is a crucial step in reducing casualties. Abiy and his allies must withdraw Eritrea’s forces from Tigray.