Blinken to assess Ethiopia peace drive on top US visit since war

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will tell Ethiopia next week that it needs to move forward on a fragile peace process if it wants to restore once warm ties when he pays the highest-level US visit since the brutal civil war, officials said Friday.

Blinken will also pay the first visit by a top US diplomat to Niger to discuss security cooperation in the Sahel, where Russia has been making growing inroads through its Wagner mercenary force.

Blinken will arrive Wednesday for talks in Addis Ababa with the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who transformed from a close US ally to near-pariah over the two-year war in the Tigray region that has left more people dead than the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Molly Phee, the top US diplomat for Africa, said the Tigray war was “earth-shattering” and that there could not be an immediate return to normal with Ethiopia, even though the United States valued its historically strong partnership with the continent’s second most populous country.

“What we’re looking to do is refashion our engagement with Ethiopia,” Phee told reporters.

“To put that relationship in a forward trajectory, we will continue to need steps by Ethiopia to help break the cycle of ethnic political violence that has set the country back for so many decades,” she said.

Blinken will also meet Tigrayan officials, civil society and humanitarian groups to discuss the November 2 accord, which was brokered in the South African capital Pretoria by the African Union with US participation.

Under the deal, the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) promised to disarm in the face of an onslaught by the government, which agreed to restore basic services in a region that has suffered dire shortages.

But access remains heavily restricted, making it impossible to assess the situation on the ground, and violence and rights concerns have flared elsewhere in Ethiopia.

The United States has put the death toll at 500,000 while former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who negotiated for the African Union, put it as high as 600,000, which would make the war one of the deadliest of the 21st century despite the greater spotlight on Ukraine.

Blinken has alleged crimes against humanity in the course of the war, angering the Abiy government which has warned that a UN-backed probe into abuses would undermine the peace process.

– Incentives for peace –

Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize for making peace with historic rival Eritrea and was once seen by the United States as part of a generation of dynamic new democratic leaders in Africa.

The war and allegations of abuses — including the withholding of food — have badly strained relations with the United States, which suspended Ethiopia’s right to duty-free exports under a key trade pact, although Abiy participated in December in President Joe Biden’s Africa summit in Washington.

Cameron Hudson, an Africa expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there was an active debate within the Biden administration on whether to patch up with Ethiopia or to prioritize human rights.

“This is a bit of a fact-finding mission. There is this debate happening within the administration and I think Blinken needs to see for himself,” Hudson said.

“What Addis is looking for is whether Washington is willing to say, enough has been done and we can normalize the bilateral relationship -– and that means turning on the financial spigot by restarting international lending assistance and assisting with the country’s increasing debt crisis,” Hudson said.

Abiy ordered the offensive after the TPLF, once Ethiopia’s dominant power, attacked military installations.

Authoritarian Eritrea intervened against its longtime TPLF foes. Phee said the United States believes that Eritrean troops have largely withdrawn.

The Biden administration has been looking to boost its influence in Africa in the face of a growing presence by China and increasingly Russia, which is seeking diplomatic support in the developing world against Western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine.

Niger has offered key US support through a base for drone strikes against Islamist militants. In the capital Niamey, Blinken will meet President Mohamed Bazoum as well as young people from conflict zones.