On September 17, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an Executive Order outlining a new sanctions plan against Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Tigray and the Amhara region.

This decision was taken following the steady deterioration of security conditions in the Tigray region, where, despite repeated appeals by the international community, clashes continue between the Tigrayan forces of the TPLF and the military units of the federal government, Eritrea and the Amhara region.

The continuation of the clashes has led to an unsustainable crisis from a humanitarian point of view, which adds to the increasing number of reports of violence, rape and looting, requiring a more incisive action in order to force the parties to respect the ceasefire announced last June.

The provisions of the Executive Order signed by President Biden authorize the Secretary of the Treasury to impose sanctions against anyone identified as responsible for or complicit in the violence perpetrated in any capacity in northern Ethiopia, whether individuals (and their relatives), institutions, parties, agencies or organs of state or individual regional governments.

The specific sanctions foreseen instead include the freezing of assets in the United States of all the subjects potentially affected by the sanctioning provisions, the prohibition for any individual or public or private entity in the United States to have relations with the sanctioned individuals or entities, the extension to the top management of each of the sanctioned individuals or entities the obligation to comply with the specific sanctions and, more generally, the freezing of assets and transactions on a wide scale and the prohibition to enter the United States.

These sanctions are very wide-ranging and susceptible to a level of implementation in fact capable of involving the very top management of both the government of Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as those of the regional administrations of Tigray and Amhara.

The sanctions set out in the Executive Order of September 17, 2021 are in fact executable with immediacy by the U.S. government, which has, however, issued an ultimatum to the parties involved in the conflict, reserving the right to apply them in full if the violence does not cease within the next few days.

These sanctions are very flexible but at the same time potentially decidedly invasive, capable of compromising the personal capacity of the Ethiopian and Eritrean state leaders and affecting at the same time the institutions and top personalities, determining a total isolation of the countries and entities involved.

It is not, in essence, a simple blocking of the possibility of interaction with the United States, but – as the example of sanctions against Iran has taught – a much wider range of coercive maneuvers capable of involving all countries, entities and companies that have economic relations with the United States. A network of isolation potentially capable of tightening capillary around the institutional leaders of the two countries, determining consequences hitherto unimaginable.

Added to this is the possibility of excluding Ethiopia from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which allows duty-free imports and is worth about 100 million dollars a year for Addis Ababa.

The United States has deliberately delayed the application of the new sanctions while waiting for the appointment of the new Ethiopian government, which should be formed after October 4, thus giving Abiy Ahmed a last window of opportunity to find a solution for the management of the conflict and the effective application of a ceasefire.

Well aware of the difficulty of lifting sanctions once they have been imposed, the United States has set up an adoption plan linked to the actual evolution of the crisis in Tigray, offering both Ethiopia and Eritrea the possibility of effective action towards the cessation of hostilities and the full capacity of humanitarian organizations to distribute humanitarian aid in Tigray.

This will probably determine a window of opportunity of a few weeks, setting the actual deadline for the possible full adoption of sanctions from the first days of next November.

Nevertheless, the plan for the implementation of an effective negotiation strategy seems at the moment rather complex and laborious, due to the contextual position of the Tigray government, convinced of being able to achieve military results on the ground capable of inducing Addis Ababa to a greater flexibility in negotiations.

At this stage, the Ethiopian government maintains a position of caution, fearing the adoption of new sanctions, but also trying to evaluate the possibilities of circumventing them, especially by evaluating the intentions of three major international players potentially interested in countering the effectiveness of Washington’s sanctions.

China, Russia and Turkey, in fact, maintain an ambiguous profile on the Ethiopian crisis, declaring themselves interested in fostering dialogue but also evaluating the option of achieving results through the boycott of the US sanctions. This position is clearly perceived by Addis Ababa, which in this way gains time considering the option of a strategy oriented to achieve a last practical result at a military level before the concrete threat of US sanctions imposes a real commitment in the pursuit of a truce and a negotiation path with Tigray.


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