There were two important indications that President Biden is determined not to allow the war in Tigray to precipitate a meltdown in Ethiopia and – by extension – the wider Horn of Africa.
The decision by the president to send Senator Chris Coons, an important allie, to Addis Ababa to speak directly to Prime Minister Abiy on his behalf is an indication of how important this is to President Biden.
As Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made clear – the first priority is for Eritrean forces to end their presence in Tigray.
This was underlined when Britain’s Africa Minister, James Duddridge, who today describes the situation in Ethiopia as “grim” – with the war in Tigray having a profound and devastating impact on the region.
Speaking before a parliamentary committee, Mr Duddridge described the presence of Eritrean personnel in Tigray as “destabilizing” and repeated the British position that Eritrean troops had to withdraw.
He went on to accuse Eritrean forces of blocking access to health facilities and schools in Tigray.
These were not just random remarks – they were well thought out policy statements, which would have been agreed in advance with the United States.
Quite what pressure Washington and London will bring to bear on Addis Ababa and Asmara will only become clear in the next days and weeks, but President Biden has staked his reputation in Africa on achieving a breakthrough.
Biden dispatches U.S. senator to Ethiopia over humanitarian crisis
“Senator Coons will convey President Biden’s grave concerns about the humanitarian crisis and human rights abuses in the Tigray region and the risk of broader instability in the Horn of Africa,” Sullivan said.
Officials in the prime minister’s office and at the foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken this month described acts carried out in the region as ethnic cleansing, an allegation rejected by Ethiopia.
“Nothing during or after the end of the main law enforcement operation in Tigray can be identified or defined by any standards as a targeted, intentional ethnic cleansing against anyone in the region,” it said. “The Ethiopian government vehemently opposes such accusations.”
Coons, who is expected to depart on Thursday, said in a statement that he looked forward to engaging with Abiy and conveying Biden’s concern.
“The United States is gravely concerned by the deteriorating situation in the Tigray, which threatens the peace and stability of the Horn of Africa region,” Coons said.
Ethiopia’s federal army ousted the former regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), from the capital Mekelle in November, after what it said was a surprise assault on its forces in the region bordering Eritrea.
The government has said that most fighting has ceased but has acknowledged there are still isolated incidents of shooting.
Ethiopia and Eritrea have denied the involvement of Eritrean troops in the fighting alongside Ethiopian forces, although dozens of witnesses, diplomats and an Ethiopian general have reported their presence.
Thousands of people have died following the fighting, hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes and there are shortages of food, water and medicine in Tigray, a region of more than 5 million people