U.S. Priorities in Eastern Africa

Ethiopia: The Imperative

No regional issue is more urgent now than ending the war in Ethiopia’s Tigray province. The United States lauded the November 3 peace agreement between Ethiopia and Tigray mediated by the African Union. However, a just and durable settlement is still far from certain. between Ethiopia and Tigray mediated by the African Union. However, a just and durable settlement is still far from certain.

Tigray has essentially agreed to disband its armed forces and submit to the authority and administration of Addis Ababa. Ethiopia has promised to allow humanitarian access and restoration of basic services to Tigray’s suffering civilians. Negotiations to codify and sequence this transition are continuing.

Neighboring Eritrea’s intentions are unclear. Its forces still occupy parts of Tigray, where they have terrorized civilian inhabitants. Another concern are demands by the Amhara community, whose militias fought alongside Ethiopian forces, for the return of parts of Tigray which the Amhara claim. Fearful Tigrayans worry their leaders may be rounded up and their communities subjected to collective punishment for a rebellion that nearly succeeded.

Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed may be tempted to impose a “victor’s peace” in Tigray as a warning to other Ethiopian ethnicities not to follow Tigray’s example. If he does, peace will not return to Tigray, nor will other restive provinces be brought to heel.

The United States should focus now on two urgent priorities. First, get Eritrean forces out of Tigray. That is President Abiy’s responsibility, and the United States and the African Union should insist he undertake it without delay.

Second, open Tigray to unhindered international access and emergency humanitarian aid. The presence of recognized international aid agencies and peace builders is in Ethiopia’s interest, both as a way of establishing Ethiopia’s bona fides and of calming Tigrayan anxieties. The United States, with its unmatched capacity for delivering humanitarian assistance in conflict zones, could play a role in this effort.

Washington’s stance on Ethiopia should be clear and unequivocal: it should support a peaceful reassertion of Ethiopia’s authority over its sovereign territory but insist on a just and sustainable peace in Tigray.

Somalia: The Gambit

Somalia has struggled for decades to attain cohesion, security, and autonomy as a sovereign state. It survives today as territory loosely held together by foreign military forces and infusions of international emergency and development assistance. Somalia’s chronic instability has repercussions throughout the Horn of Africa and beyond.

Somalia’s new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has vowed to restore unity among Somalia’s competing clans and defeat an entrenched al Shabaab insurgency that has raged for 15 years. Somali forces, aided by African peacekeepers and U.S. air power, have recently pushed al Shabaab jihadists out of some rural strongholds. These are encouraging gains but could be easily reversed. Al Shabaab has proved to be a patient and resilient adversary.

Both al Shabaab and Somalia’s elites are accustomed to stalemate and endless war. Al Shabaab bides its time confident that, as in Afghanistan, foreign armies will eventually tire of the dysfunctional government they are supporting and go home. Somali elites assume the opposite: that regional neighbors and the United States will never allow al Qaeda-linked extremists to control Somalia. 

The United States and Somalia’s other backers should insist President Mohamud move beyond the stalemated status quo. With military momentum now on his side, he should test the notion of a negotiated settlement with al Shabaab. Chances of success are poor, but Somalia has nothing to lose by challenging al Shabaab to state its case. If talks ensue, violence might be reduced and more aid could reach suffering populations, many now facing famine. If al Shabaab rejects the overture or scuttles talks, President Mohamud’s appeals for continuing foreign assistance will carry greater weight.

Kenya: The Opportunity

Newly elected Kenyan president William Ruto is seeking closer economic relations with the United States. Washington should welcome this overture.

Kenya is Washington’s most capable and trusted security partner in East Africa. 

It is also a robust multiparty democracy with a free press, vibrant civil society, and a respected and independent judiciary. In a hotly contested election last August, Ruto defeated President Kenyatta’s preferred successor by a razor-thin margin. Kenyans peacefully accepted the result.

Pre-pandemic Kenya was a fast-modernizing economy with an advanced high-tech sector, an inside track to a rapid conversion to renewable energy, and an expanding and well-educated entrepreneurial class. These and other asserts are intact, awaiting a post-pandemic boost.

Ruto, however, already faces headwinds. Inflation and the war in Ukraine have sent the cost of living sky-high for ordinary Kenyans. An epic drought has left four million Kenyans without access to food or clean water. Tough conditions on a include tax increases, higher electricity fees and an end to food and fuel subsidies. Kenya is currently struggling to service a $2 billion Eurobond debt due in 2024.

Ruto has asked voters for another year to deliver on his promises and turned to the United States for help in repositioning Kenya on its pre-pandemic growth track.

In response, the United States should act on many fronts: (1) conclude a free trade agreement with Kenya before expiry of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) in 2025, (2) move quickly to operationalize the U.S.-Kenya Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership agreed on this July, and (3) facilitate U.S. investment in projects to develop Kenya’s renewable energy sector and help Kenyans adapt to and mitigate the impact of global warming.

Enhanced trade with and investment in democratic and modernizing partners like Kenya is a strategic win for the United States in Africa.

William Mark Bellamy is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.