Ethiopia’s reformed leaders, under the headship of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, are grappling with the harsh reality of ethnic politics, that is nearly three decades in the making, and a diplomatic stand-still with the Nile’s downstream riparian over its flagship project, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). In an effort to mitigate the Coronavirus pandemic, Ethiopia postponed its 6th General elections from August of 2020 to early June of 2021 and has made significant logistical and security preparations. In rejection of the new timeline, the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), members of the ancéan regime, opted to institute a novel regional election board and subsequently held elections on September 9th of 2020. Labeling the TPLF leadership as rogue militants, the Federal Government was forced into a law and order operation in the Tigray region which has come at a high human cost, infrastructure damage, as well as looting which has left the region in a fragile state of severe food-insecurity. In addition, armed ethnic extremists in parts of Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions continue to harass, expel, as well as kill minority populations which adds to public discontent, further heightening the risk for electoral violence.

In April of 2019, many were quick to praise Ethiopia’s political reform and normalization of relations with the neighboring state of Eritrea, deeming it the conflict-resolution success story of modern history. The Nobel Committee also acknowledged the Prime Minister’s role in expanding political rights and participation through rigorous legislative and institutional reforms. In hindsight, it has become abundantly clear that the cycle of political violence that historically accompanied political transitions in Ethiopia was not avoided, rather, it was delayed. Shortly after the TPLF attack on multiple bases of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) in Tigray- the Prime Minister revealed that, in the backdrop of his Nobel accolade, his safety and that of his family was under threat by the TPLF controlled security apparatus. The start of open hostilities in November of 2020 marked the official end of multiple attempts at mediation. According to a TPLF spokesperson, Sekko Ture, the TPLF indeed declared a preemptive attack on Ethiopia’s Northern Command, likening the assault on sleeping service members to a lightning strike.

Seeing that the Ethiopian Army has left its post due to the abrupt start of hostilities in Tigray, Sudanese forces moved to occupy large swaths of land in the disputed al-Fashaga territory. Sudan’s move not only violates Ethiopia’s territorial integrity but also risks derailing decades of work to arrive at a peaceful resolution through existing regional mechanisms. Though Ethiopia was quick to denounce the move as an opportunistic land-grab, Sudan barely received the proverbial slap on the wrist from the European Union, the United States, and the United Nations organs. As Ethiopia juggles between these domestic and regional challenges, international and non-government organizations, along with friends and allies of Ethiopia were quick to offer prescriptive measures to both the potential insurgency in Tigray as well as GERD negotiations. However, the response of the United States, the European Union, international media houses (both private and state-affiliated), have largely been reactionary and inconsistent with customary international law. The principle of sovereign equality of nations detailed in the Article 2 of the United Nations Charter, a cornerstone for the conduct of nations vis-à-vis international organs, all member states,“… shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.[1]” Sudan has instead doubled down on its military actions with identitarian claims of the resident population of the disputed area. Despite multiple protestations by Ethiopian officials, the deafening silence from the international community has emboldened Sudan to make further claims on swaths of Benishangul-Gumuz where the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is, rather conveniently, located.

With the recent memory of Myanmar’s hostile military takedown of the civilian government, it is highly unusual that the United States and the European Union would opt to liaise with Sudan’s military leadership, particularly during a rapidly escalating border dispute with Ethiopia. Although the United States asserts its commitment to working with the civilian-led government, the increased isolation of Prime Minister Hamdok in domestic and regional affairs indicates the contrary. Having had its own attempted insurrection in January, the United States has persistently called on the Ethiopian Government to negotiate with its own insurrectionists so as to avert further casualties. In an interview with Foreign Policy, the new US envoy to the Horn of Africa Jeffery Feltman expressed concern that Ethiopia may be headed toward a path of disintegration, likening Ethiopia’s current trajectory to that of Syria. Setting aside the envoy’s outlook of Ethiopian affairs through a Middle East lens, the concerted effort at normalizing and rehabilitating the TPLF’s public image has angered Ethiopian officials as well as the larger public. In addition to Mr. Feltman who eulogized the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a core member of TPLF’s central committee, current and former officials like Susan Rice, Michelle Bachelet, Karen Bass continue to exploit existing ethnic cleavages and muddying the waters by perpetuating a narrative of an ethnically-motivated government-response; some even demanding the withdrawal of regional forces fighting alongside the ENDF.

Many in the international community have adopted a unitary strategy of pressuring the Ethiopian government to act against its national interest in both the trilateral GERD talks and the turmoil in Tigray. Prominent global players, international media and humanitarian agencies included have largely been fanning the flames of ethic-contention, and clear favoritism in horn affairs, making evident that international norms have increasingly become subject to interpretation and selective application. After multiple rounds of failed negotiations, and President Trump’s withholding of aid and threats that “Egypt will have to bomb the dam,” it is evident that Ethiopia’s downstream counterparts were in search of formidable intermediaries who can coerce Ethiopia into a binding agreement, making all future projects on the Abbay River contingent on Egypt’s blessing. This begs the question: is the goal of these talks to subdue Ethiopia’s real developmental concerns in favor of the status-quo? Egypt’s unrelenting threat of “unimaginable chaos” to the horn and Sudan’s continued encroachment into disputed territories undercuts the international community’s continued call for a diplomatic solution; in reality, defiance is rewarded with silence, or worse- distortion. It is crucial that Ethiopia be considered an equal and autonomous stakeholder with its regional partners, and although the Horn’s latest envoy does not believe the GERD dispute to be “inherently irreconcilable,” this sentiment alone does little to restore hope that the United States can be an honest broker.

Studies have shown water to be a key factor in 45 current conflicts and is predicted to be a major cause of conflict and displacement in the foreseeable future. With the worsening trend of global water security, a thorough consideration for the concerns and vulnerabilities of all parties is crucial in reaching a collaborative and mutually beneficial outcome. It is for this reason that all parties need not approach the issue as a play of great powers at tipping the scale. The European Union, United Nations organs, as well as the United States must endeavor to encourage the current African Union led process so as to expand the proverbial pie, instead of bickering over the crumbs.