By: Biruk Haregu (PhD student in Public Policy and Political Economy and a Pre-Doctoral Fellow at James Madison University in the U.S.)

On October 3rd, 2023, the European Union (EU) dithered and officially backed the dictatorship of Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia.  No matter what preconditions were put forth by the continental body, it is now clear that EU has turned its back on citizens seeking justice and accountability over the horrific two-year long civil war in Northern Ethiopia, and the ongoing civil war that Abiy is waging against the Amhara.  More broadly, the EU’s decision is a grave disservice to Ethiopians across the country that are currently resisting the Abiy regime’s incessant chaos, division, conflict, and tyranny.

Through its International Partnerships Program, the EU has pledged 650 million euros over 4 years (2024-2027) in “conditional budget support” to a regime, which according to UN human rights experts is responsible for “war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.”  Furthermore, the EU’s appeasement occurs at a time when Abiy is waging an unjust war of aggression against the Amhara.  According to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, “in the context of this conflict, the Abiy regime is engaged in i) targeting innocent civilians with drone strikes; ii) carrying out extrajudicial killings; and iii) arbitrarily detaining civilians without due process.”  Notwithstanding the miscarriage of justice that the EU is facilitating, it is unconscionable to provide a regime that has proven to be so callous and cruel in killing its own citizens with additional financing during an active armed conflict.

Why would the EU— crusaders of good governance and human rights— support a regime with a zero-sum approach to governance and routinely perpetrates gross human rights violation?  The answer is multi-faceted and encompasses evolving Ethiopian domestic politics; the EU’s desire to support the flawed Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) that ostensibly brought the Tigray civil war to an end; and ultimately, the EU’s willingness to overlook tyranny and fascism in favor of the short-sighted goal of wielding influence over Ethiopia’s politically inept and vulnerable leader through conditionality.

Dynamics of Ethiopia’s Domestic Politics

A key driver for the EU’s sudden decision could be to provide budget support to Abiy and is tied to rapidly evolving Ethiopian domestic politics, namely a desire to prop-up the beleaguered Abiy regime and the fragile Abiy-TPLF alliance forged through the flawed peace agreement that did not even mention the questions of the Amhara vis-à-vis its security concerns and historical lands— illegally annexed by the TPLF in 1994.

In Ethiopian domestic politics, Abiy’s regime is encountering sustained resistance from citizens across the Amhara, Afar, Gurage, Gambela, and Somali, Sidama regions of Ethiopia.  In other words, there are clear signs that Abiy’s politically and economically fragile regime is crumbling under the moral and political weight of concerned citizens and their power.  Such an outcome is being precipitated by the two-fold political and economic crisis the regime is simultaneously encountering.  More significantly, its legitimacy in the eyes of citizens has been severely eroded, if not entirely depleted. 

At the same time, in Tigray, the TPLF’s ability to administer the region is increasingly fraught with political and security challenges.  Opposition parties, public discontent and demonstrations are increasing even as the TPLF attempts to suppress the legitimate questions and grievances of the people of Tigray.  Compounding the discontent in Tigray is the lack of full budgetary support from the Abiy regime that faces significant resource constraints.  In this context, a collapse of the fragile détente between Abiy’s regime and its former foe, the TPLF, is a real possibility.  Hence, the EU stepping-in to provide the much needed “budget support” to both parties.

TPLF has always and continues to enjoy unconditional support from the EU.  For instance, the EU Ambassador to Ethiopia, Roland Kobia is more engaged with TPLF and its de-facto leader Getachew Reda than anyone else in Ethiopia or the entire Horn of Africa (HoA).  In essence, the EU demonstrates a great desire to not only solidify the TPLF – Abiy détente; but in so doing, and perhaps most importantly, ensuring TPLF’s political survival.  But at what cost? 

At the very least, the EU’s decision undermines its supposed values of democracy, human rights, justice, and the rule of law.  In addition, the EU has elected to facilitate the miscarriage of justice and engage in blatant hypocrisy to prop-up a beleaguered authoritarian regime that lacks capacity and is teetering on the verge of collapse— an eventuality that is inevitable.  At a time when the EU is fully engaged in countering Putin and Russia’s aggression and armed conflict in Ukraine.  Why a different policy vis-à-vis aggression and conflict in Ethiopia?  Ultimately, in the Ethiopian context, the EU’s short-sighted and unprincipled decision excuses aggression, enables aggressors to evade justice, and emboldens armed conflict and tyranny.  It’s a very high price to pay.

In Addis Ababa, since the signing of the CoHA in November 2022, the glib yet insincere and deceitful Abiy, has worked to charm EU and US policymakers.  In Europe, the focus has been on Italy, Germany, and France, with Abiy lobbying his counterparts to encourage EU member states to lift financial restrictions and provide his regime with budgetary support.  This appears to have worked.

At the same time, Abiy’s charm offensive directed at Washington, in particular President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Mike Hammer appears to have been, appropriately, rejected.  The US has taken a principled position by extending Executive Order (EO) 14046 initially signed and implemented in September 2021, against the backdrop of the war in Northern Ethiopia.  EO 14046 was renewed on September 7, 2023, and will be in effect for at least 1 additional year.  The question that remains is: to what extent and how long will Washington continue to maintain a principled position and hold Abiy’s regime accountable, particularly considering the recent revelation that the Abiy regime has been spying on the US Departments of State and Justice.

Ethiopians, and indeed Africans that have been calling for consistent and principled engagement from the US and EU recognize the diverging approaches taken.  The US approach will be viewed much more favorably.

Amhara Under Attack

Since Abiy’s ascension to power in 2018, Amharas have faced persistent and widespread violence, forced displacement, ethnic persecution, and ethnic cleansing under his regime.  While the epicenter for these ethnic pogroms against Amharas is the Oromia region; shockingly, it has recently extended to the Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa.  Rather than engage in political dialogue and genuinely address the safety and security challenges facing citizens, Abiy has doubled down on his targeting of Amharas by launching an armed conflict against the Amhara region under false pretenses.

True to his track record, Abiy is nefariously working to consolidate his power by waging war on Amhara— his once most reliable allies.  In this regard, he has launched a senseless armed conflict in a futile attempt to disarm and demobilize the Amhara regional forces and by extension the Amhara region— a force and region that he fears is a threat to his authoritarianism. Unsurprisingly, the haphazard and unjust policy decree has been met with a widespread popular resistance movement and insurgency throughout the Amhara region and beyond, led by Fano and Amhara Popular Forces.

Amharas view the deployment of federal forces into the Amhara region as an attempt to subjugate the people and the region to the whims of Abiy and his Oromo Prosperity Party. Members of this cabal, including the President of the Oromia region incessantly refer to Amharas as their “enemy” to incite violence against Amharas.  Moreover, Abiy’s attempt to disarm the Amhara region exposes the region and its people to security threats emanating from other armed groups, namely the TPLF, Oromo special forces, and Oromo Liberation Army.

In this context, the EU’s untimely and unprincipled backing of Abiy neglects the real and present danger facing Amharas.  This has been documented by international and domestic media as well as human rights organization.  Why they have elected to overlook the ongoing crimes being committed by Abiy and his Oromo Prosperity Party against Amharas is something that EU official must answer.  And it is something that history will record.

Abiy Goes from #NoMore to Conditionality

During the conflict with the TPLF, the Abiy regime used an array of rhetorical tactics to rally support for its war effort, both domestically and from the diaspora.  One example is the #NoMore movement.  In essence, #NoMore posed as an anti-neocolonial movement that espoused: “#NoMore: paternalism, conditionality, and economic sanctions.”  Using this #NoMore cudgel Abiy railed against the West, specifically the US and EU.  Ironically, ten months later, Abiy is begging the US and EU to provide him with a lifeline to save his political fortunes.

To make matters worse, Abiy incessantly speaks of “prosperity”, “Ethiopia exporting surplus wheat”, and consequently, “there is neither want nor need of handouts from the West.”  Not only has he held out his hands for EU aid, but with conditionality.  Conditionality that has yet to be disclosed to the Ethiopian public.  Sadly, this isn’t a surprise as Abiy is neither transparent nor honest with the public.  And through its decision, the EU is providing him with political cover to continue to deceive and oppress Ethiopians.

To compound matters further, the EU supported the termination of the UN mandated investigation into human rights violations in Ethiopia, known as the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE).  This at a time when the ICHREE report makes clear that investigations should remain open as the Abiy regime is neither willing or able to conduct credible investigations or lead a credible transitional justice process.  In the words of the ICHREE, “our report shows that the overwhelming majority of risk factors for future atrocity crimes are present in Ethiopia, including ongoing serious violations, widespread violence and instability, and deeply entrenched impunity.”  ICHREE also highlights that mass atrocities being committed against Amhara by the Abiy regime is intensifying.  In other words, while armed conflict is ongoing and UN human rights experts recommend an extension of investigations, the mandate was not renewed and the calls for justice and accountability denied.

During a time when the EU has accused Putin of aggression and tyranny against Ukraine and imposed strict sanctions on his regime, why have they capitulated to appease Abiy— who idolizes and attempts to emulate the autocrats in Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey?  Why such the blatant double standard?  Why the betrayal of a people seeking accountability and justice, while at the same time fighting for their rights and freedoms?  History will frown upon such hypocrisy and the great injustice enabled by the EU.

The Need for Transparency

Notwithstanding the great injustice being committed against the Ethiopian people at the hands of the EU and Ethiopia’s political elite, namely Abiy Ahmed and TPLF, the Ethiopian people demand transparency.  Specifically, the conditionality attached to “budget support” should be made clear to the Ethiopian public.  This is critical as Abiy’s beleaguered regime could jeopardize Ethiopia’s long-term interests in favor of its short-term goals and its need for political survival.  Moreover, with Abiy’s track-record replete with deceit, delusion, and cruelty, it is critical that an independent mechanism be established to ensure that any budget support is directly allocated for the intended purposes, including post-war reconstruction and humanitarian assistance throughout Northern Ethiopia.

The more principled approach, however, would be for the EU to reverse back to the status quo ante until the situation on the group markedly improves and there is independent verification of that. This verification should include the regime’s adherence to international law and human rights. Considering the uproar this hasty decision has caused, it would behoove the EU to listen to Ethiopians across the political spectrum who largely find this decision appalling.

Irrespective of what policy direction the EU pursues, Ethiopians will take heed in the fact that the aspirations of the people to overcome Abiy’s injustice and tyranny won’t be deterred.  History, and in particular, Ethiopia’s rich history teaches us that.

Biruk Haregu (PhD student in Public Policy and Political Economy, and a Pre-Doctoral Fellow at James Madison University in the U.S.)