ADDIS ABABA - Calling Ethiopia “the critical actor in Horn of Africa stability,” outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Michael Raynor voiced confidence in a strengthened bilateral relationship but warned that violence – especially in the northern Tigray region – threatens the country’s progress.
“We remain concerned about ethnic violence around the country and the threat it poses to achieving the country’s potential,” Raynor said of Ethiopia, speaking at a press conference Monday in Addis Ababa, the capital.
It was Raynor’s final news briefing as ambassador, a post he has held since September 2017. He has focused on Africa for many of his 30-plus years as a diplomat.
Rivalries among some of Ethiopia’s 80 ethnic groups have spawned deadly violence, including the Jan. 12 killings of more than 80 civilians in Metekel, a town in the western Benishangul-Gumaz region, the Associated Press reported, citing information from the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.
Raynor said the U.S. government also is “particularly alarmed by the ongoing situation in Tigray,” where Ethiopian federal forces launched a military operation in early November to put down a rebellion by regional forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Ethiopia’s government said that it had regained control of the region by late November, but reports of extrajudicial killings and other sporadic violence have continued to filter out.
Since the conflict’s outbreak, more than 58,000 have fled northern Ethiopia for neighboring Tigray, the International Organization for Migration reported Monday. While thousands are believed to have been killed and many more internally displaced, numbers are difficult to verify because of limited communications with, and access to, Tigray. The United Nations estimates that roughly 4.5 million people in Tigray desperately need food, medicine and other basics, and U.N. agencies have criticized Ethiopian authorities for blocking humanitarian aid.
“After almost three months, we're still not seeing enough humanitarian assistance reach the most vulnerable areas,” Raynor told journalists. “Much more needs to be done, and urgently, to ensure humanitarian organizations – both Ethiopian and international – have full and secure access to the region to provide lifesaving support to the millions of people who are suffering.”
The U.N’s special representative on sexual violence, Pramila Patten, last week released a statement that she was “greatly concerned by serious allegations of sexual violence” in the region.
Raynor acknowledged that concern, saying the U.S. government continues “to call on all parties to cease any hostilities, ensure the protection of all civilians in Tigray, including refugees and humanitarian workers, and to uphold international human rights and humanitarian law.”
He also brought up the U.S. assessment that soldiers from Eritrea were helping Ethiopian federal forces in Tigray, despite Ethiopian authorities’ denials.
“We continue to be troubled by the activities of Eritrean actors in the Tigray region,” Raynor said, “and we continue to call for an immediate halt to — and independent investigations of — all credible reports of atrocities. sexual violence, human rights violations of all kinds in Tigray and other places.”
Improved bilateral relations
Raynor said that when Abiy Ahmed became prime minister in April 2018, replacing Hailemariam Desalegn after more than five years and introducing an array of reforms, “there was a fundamental reset, a realignment of core values fully in sync with U.S. core values, both in terms of economic opportunity and job creation and in terms of political space and respect for rights. So that formed a strong basis for us to expand our engagement.”
During his tenure as ambassador, Raynor said, the U.S. government “brought well over $3 billion” to support Ethiopia’s governance, development and humanitarian priorities. These range from enhancing the country’s food security and health systems to reforming judicial activities and updating economic policies to encourage private investment.
Raynor also observed that Ethiopia’s ability “to focus on our areas of partnership has been strained by some degree due to the rate of ethnic tensions and Ethiopian-on-Ethiopian violence and certainly the current Tigray crisis. But by and large I feel very optimistic about the trajectory we have been on and that my successor will be able to build upon.”
A successor has not yet been named by the Biden administration.
“This is a pivotal time for Ethiopia,” Raynor said. “What Ethiopia does in the coming months — particularly in promoting democracy, organizing free and fair credible elections this year, protecting basic human rights including freedom of the press and freedom of expression, resolving conflict and addressing ethnic tension, maintaining regional harmony and promoting economic opportunity — will impact this country's prospects for generations to come.”
Correction: Hailemariam Desalegn served as Ethiopia's prime minister for over five years, not 23, as mistakenly appeared in an earlier version of this story.