The West is unlikely to intervene in Ethiopia’s civil war even with the expulsion of United Nations officials from the country and the worsening humanitarian crisis, according to an Africa expert.

The decision to expel the seven officials comes as U.N. agencies speak out against the federal blockade of Tigray, a northern region of Ethiopia and home to the ethnic Tigray minority. Less than 10% of necessary humanitarian supplies are being let into Tigray by federal authorities and the region is on the brink of famine, according to recent U.N. reports.

“The situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon,” says Pierre Englebert, a professor of International Relations at Pomona College. “The African Union never acts on its own, and there isn’t a Western power with strong geostrategic interest in Ethiopia.” 

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government announced the expulsion on Sept. 30 of the U.N. officials working for three agencies. Abiy’s government demanded that the officials leave the country within three days “for meddling in the internal affairs of the country.”  

This is among the largest expulsions of U.N. officials in recent history. One of the officials works for the United Nations Children’s Fund, another for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, and five are with the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Abiy’s government has been at war with the northern region of Tigray since last year. Federal forces launched an offensive against the region after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which controlled the central government before Abiy took power, allegedly raided government military bases in Tigray.

Abiy accused the TPLF of killing army officers and seizing weapons from the facility. Federal forces immediately launched an offensive on Tigray last November. The conflict has led to thousands of deaths, 1.7 million people displaced and widespread allegations of ethnic and sexual violence against Tigrayans by Abiy’s forces and their Eritrean allies.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres wrote in a statement that he was “shocked” by Abiy’s decision and that “All U.N. humanitarian operations are guided by the core principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence.”  

The federal government has been blockading Tigray for three months, even as 5.2 million people — 90% of the population — need urgent humanitarian assistance. The man-made humanitarian crisis “is spiraling out of control,” U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths told Reuters last month.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki condemned the expulsions of the U.N. officials Saturday and warned that the United States will impose sanctions on Ethiopian government personnel. The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden unveiled new sanctions earlier this month that could be applied to Ethiopia. However, even if the sanctions are imposed, Englebert predicts that they will not have a significant impact on the civil war.

“Sanctions are a step in the right direction,” Englebert said in an interview, “but Tigrayans need relief from hunger and violence immediately.”

(Written by Rya Sara Jethi, Oct. 6, 2021)

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