US envoy heads to Ethiopia as Tigray crisis marks six months

Washington on Tuesday sent the newly appointed envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, to Ethiopia and Eritrea, as fighting in the Tigray region has entered its sixth month, with almost five million civilians in need. 

The first US envoy to the region will arrive in Egypt on Tuesday and will conduct shuttle diplomacy between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan by May 13.

“Special Envoy Feltman will hold meetings with officials from the respective governments as well as the United Nations and the African Union, the State Department said.”

The purpose of this trip is to advance “sustainable diplomatic efforts to resolve the interlinked political, security and humanitarian crises in the Horn of Africa,” a statement from the department read.

Of particular urgency to Washington is the unfolding crisis in Tigray. Six months have passed since Ethiopia, Eritrea and allied militias launched a regional offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). According to the United Nations, about 1 million civilians have fled their homes due to the fighting, while 4.5 million people are still in trouble. 

The humanitarian organization Oxfam said the conflict, now compounded by a locust swarm, is throwing more than 5 million people into “extreme levels of hunger”.

“Six months after the conflict broke out in Tigray, thousands of farmers did not plant anything before the rainy season, because the locust weather exacerbated the crisis and their farm tools were destroyed,” Oxfam said.

Mr Feltman said that a worsening crisis in Tigray could destabilise the entire region in a magnitude similar to that of the Syrian war.

“Look at what the collapse of Syria and the chaos of the civil war has meant …110 million people live in Ethiopia,” Mr Feltman told Foreign Policy last week.” 

He said that if tensions in Ethiopia escalate to a widespread civil war outside of Tigray, “Syria will look like child’s play by comparison.”

The United States has repeatedly urged Eritrea to withdraw its troops from Tigray, and Feltman is expected to convey this message to Asmara himself. 

Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki arrived in Sudan on Tuesday before Feltman’s arrival. 

MSF and Amnesty International have been accused Ethiopian and Eritrean armed forces of carrying out massacres, extrajudicial executions, rape and torture.

The United States has considered imposing sanctions on Ethiopia and Eritrea unless a ceasefire is declared in Tigray and the Asmara forces do not withdraw. 

Another item on Mr Feltman’s agenda is the growing tension between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the Great Renaissance Dam, which Cairo has called an “existential threat” to its Nile water supplies. 

Egypt and Sudan have warned Ethiopia not to fill the reservoir without a legal agreement, which Addis Ababa has ignored, fuelling a bigger rift with its neighbours.