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German-Ethiopian ties suffer over Tigray

Daniel Pelz
February 22, 2021

Germany would like a good relationship with Ethiopia, but the Tigray crisis is straining ties. Berlin has relied on diplomacy to push for peace, yet some say that is not enough.

Abiy Ahmed and Angela Merkel
When Ethiopian leader Abiy Ahmed visited Berlin in 2018, all were smiles, but the Tigray conflict has changed thingsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

A call from German Chancellor Angela Merkel is bound to be about something important. When she called Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in early February this year, for example, she stressed how vital it was to find a peaceful resolution to the Tigray conflict, according to her spokesman, Steffen Seibert. The German leader also said civilians caught up in the fighting must receive humanitarian assistance.

Merkel's call was the biggest indication of Germany's concern about the crisis so far, though in late November, just  weeks after fighting began, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas met with his counterpart in Berlin to discuss what was happening in Tigray. At the time, Maas called the suffering "shocking" and demanded that "crimes against the civilian population be investigated and those guilty of them held accountable."

Humanitarian catastrophe

None of these appeals has so far helped deescalate the conflict. On the contrary, the situation in the crisis region has deteriorated further. What began in November 2020 as a short military intervention against the Tigray  People's Liberation Front (TPLF) has since developed into a protracted regional conflict.

Alice Nderitu, the UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, accuses all parties involved in the fighting of grave human rights abuses, ranging from executions to sexualized violence and lootings. Some 60,000 civilians have fled to neighboring Sudan. The UN says that more that 2 million people need urgent humanitarian assistance, yet Ethiopia's government is not letting it through.

Things were once very different, with Germany turning on the charm with Ethiopia when Abiy was elected the country's leader in 2018. He released political prisoners, promised free elections and sought reconciliation with Eritrea. For these latter efforts, he subsequently received the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, along with international praise, including from Germany. Foreign Minister Maas and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited his country, and Abiy travelled to Berlin, where he received an enthusiastic welcome. His country was admitted to the Compact with Africa (CwA) initiative, a scheme launched by Germany that is designed to promote foreign investment on the continent. 

Abiy Ahmed shaking hands with people in a crowd during his visit to Germany in 2018
Abiy received a rapturous welcome in Germany in 2018Image: DW/T. W. Erago

Development aid as possible lever

Now, all enthusiasm has waned for the time being. According to Annette Weber, an Ethiopia expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), the Ethiopian Red Cross has warned that 80% of people in Tigray are cut off from humanitarian support . "This emergency brought about by the war, and not properly dealt with by the government, has strained ties," says Weber. The Ethiopian Red Cross says it lacks the resources needed to help those in need. After the country's government temporarily blocked foreign aid agencies from the area, the UN has now struck a deal whereby the UN World Food Programme (WFP) will boost its relief efforts in the region. Even so, the Tigray conflict remains unresolved.

Chancellor Merkel's government has backed diplomatic efforts by the African Union (AU) to broker peace. Merkel herself has also adopted an increasingly assertive tone in calling for a cessation of hostilities. Other European leaders, along with Washington, have also exerted pressure on Ethiopia, at least verbally. "Western states are in agreement what should be communicated to Abiy," Weber tells DW. "Germany's voice carries significant weight in this context."

Weber says Germany could also use development aid as a lever to push for peace.  Ethiopia is a major recipient of German development assistance. In 2019, Germany made a new pledge of almost €353 million ($428 million) to the country. Ethiopia is also one of Germany's so-called reform partners: countries with whom Germany works together particularly closely because they are seen as having a credible reform agenda.

German Development Minister Gerd Müller  in Ethiopia
German Development Minister Gerd Müller at an Ethiopian textile factory: Ethiopia is a major development partnerImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K.Nietfeld

The EU responded to the Tigray crisis by freezing almost €90 billion ($109 billion) in budget support payments last December. Germany could take similar steps. A spokesperson for Germany's Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) told DW that funds for reform projects would be paid out depending on political developments in Ethiopia. This, the spokesperson said, "includes [launching] a political process to resolve the Tigray conflict and holding credible parliamentary elections."

Ethiopia reliant on Europe

Eva-Maria Schreiber, a lawmaker with Germany's Left Party, believes that none of these efforts suffice. Schreiber, who is specialized in development aid, says the German government should not completely stop its development collaboration. But she is of the opinion that it should strip Ethiopia of its status as a "reform partner."

"A country classified as a reform partner must be democratically governed and respect human rights," says Schreiber. "[Ethiopia] under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's leadership meets neither criterion."

Women and children in a camp for refugees in eastern Sudan
Many Ethiopians have fled to Sudan from the Tigray conflictImage: Ashraf Shazly/AFP

Moreover, Schreiber wants Germany to cut its economic cooperation with the African country. According to its website, the BMZ works together with more than 100 Ethiopian companies in the textile industry alone. The ministry argues that economic cooperation of this kind helps developing countries reduce environmental pollution and create jobs.

Germany could thus use this economic cooperation as a lever to push for peace. Ethiopia, a huge country with a population of more than 100 million, urgently needs such help. SWP analyst Weber confirms this fact.

"The government in Addis Ababa knows it has no chance of advancing its planned economic development and political reforms without support from the US and, above all, Europe," she says.

This article has been translated from German.