ADDIS ABABA — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken walked a careful line during a visit to Ethiopia on Wednesday, calling for “accountability” for atrocities during the country’s recent civil war without singling out his host, Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed, or his adversaries in the country’s northern Tigray region.
Mr. Blinken arrived in the rainy Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on Tuesday night, the latest in a parade of Biden administration officials courting the continent amid rising competition for influence with Russia and China.
Ethiopia’s civil war was fought mainly between Mr. Abiy’s central government and forces in the country’s northern Tigray region, where in November 2020 a simmering feud between Mr. Abiy and Tigrayan leaders exploded into a sweeping conflict that threatened to tear the country apart.
An agreement this past November ended the fighting, which the U.S. government estimates left 500,000 people dead and millions more displaced. But many Ethiopians as well as foreign observers fear that the peace is fragile.
Mr. Abiy’s government was furious last year when the United States expelled Ethiopia from a regional trade pact, citing “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” by the Ethiopian government, although it also blamed other parties for the violent two-year conflict. Mr. Blinken did not repeat such condemnations in Addis Ababa on Wednesday, however, instead focusing on what he said was progress in the agreement to cease hostilities.
U.S. officials said Mr. Blinken’s goal was to help shore up the peace agreement and to reset America’s relationship with Ethiopia, a nation of 120 million that is the headquarters of the African Union and until recently was a pillar of American security policy in the region. But the war badly strained that relationship.
On Wednesday, Mr. Blinken said that Mr. Abiy, along with Tigrayan leaders with whom he also met here, “should be commended” for bringing a halt to the violence, though he cautioned that more work was needed to carry out the agreement.
Understand the War in Ethiopia
He also suggested that the U.S. bore some historical responsibility for Ethiopia’s civil strife by remaining silent when abuses were carried out.
“For our part, the United States acknowledges human rights violations and repression committed during the past few decades, actions which sowed the seeds of future conflict,” he said, in an apparent reference to a period when Ethiopia was a major American counterterrorism partner and its government was run by a Tigrayan-dominated coalition. “We and others were insufficiently vocal about these abuses in the past.”
Ethiopian officials seemed keen to restore their good standing with Washington. Sharing a cup of Ethiopian coffee with Mr. Blinken for the cameras before a private meeting, Ethiopia’s foreign minister, Demeke Mekonnen, noted that their two nations “have longstanding relations, and it is time to revitalize them and move forward.”
Mr. Blinken later held a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with Mr. Abiy, in which the men discussed the continued implementation of the November agreement, the need for humanitarian assistance to the conflict area and “the importance of accountability for the atrocities perpetrated by all parties during the conflict,” according to a State Department summary of the meeting.
Mr. Blinken also announced $331 million in new U.S. humanitarian assistance for Ethiopia, which he said in a statement would support people displaced and affected by conflict, drought and food insecurity.
American reporters were granted no access to Mr. Blinken’s meeting with Mr. Abiy.
Mr. Blinken’s trip, his third to sub-Saharan Africa as secretary of state, is part of a recent U.S. focus on Africa, a continent often neglected by Washington policymakers. In December, President Biden hosted a U.S.-Africa summit in Washington. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen; the first lady, Jill Biden; and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United Nations ambassador, have all paid visits to the continent this year. Vice President Kamala Harris is scheduled to visit Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia this month.
Elizabeth Shackelford, formerly a U.S. diplomat to Africa and now a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said that Mr. Blinken should be skeptical toward Mr. Abiy, whose heroic image as a 2019 Nobel Prize winner — for ending years of war with neighboring Eritrea — had been eclipsed by a ruinous civil war for which he bore much responsibility and during which his forces and allied troops from the neighboring country of Eritrea were accused of massacres, sexual assault and ethnic cleansing in Tigray.
“My hope is that the war has changed our approach to the Ethiopian government and made us buy Abiy’s lines less readily,” Ms. Shackelford said.
But American fears of ceding more ground to strategic competitors in Africa, led by China and Russia, could increase pressure for a hasty normalization with Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most-populous country, she added.
Molly Phee, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said in a briefing for reporters last week that the U.S. relationship with Ethiopia could not quickly revert to “normal” given the “earth-shattering” civil war.
“So what we’re looking to do is refashion our engagement with Ethiopia,” she said, adding that Mr. Abiy’s government must “help break the cycle of ethnic political violence” that has plagued the nation for decades.
But whether Mr. Abiy can deliver on stability is unclear, given the plethora of conflicts he faces in several parts of the country.
One central question for Mr. Abiy’s government is whether the U.S. might agree to reinstate Ethiopia’s participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which provides sub-Saharan African countries with duty-free trade access to the U.S. market. The U.S. Trade Representative’s office suspended Ethiopia’s participation in January 2022 over atrocities in the civil war, dealing a blow to the manufacturing sector.
Mr. Blinken was noncommittal on that question, saying that America’s ability to advance its “economic engagement” with Ethiopia would depend on continued reduction in hostilities and “making sure there are no ongoing violations of human rights.”
The civil war also disrupted the region’s economy, deterring investors concerned about human rights abuses, said William Davison, the senior Ethiopia analyst for the International Crisis Group.
In that climate, more important to Ethiopia than trade may be a potential loan from the International Monetary Fund, which would require the Biden administration’s support.
Mr. Blinken plans to travel on Friday to the West African nation of Niger, which lies in the center of a region where Russia has made substantial inroads in recent years, mostly led by fighters from the Wagner mercenary group. U.S. officials said Mr. Blinken’s visit to the country would be the first by a sitting secretary of state.
Michael Crowley reported from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Declan Walsh from Nairobi, Kenya. Abdi Latif Dahir contributed reporting from Nairobi.