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Cautious Hope in Ethiopia's Tigray War 

An analysis by William Davison

Cautious Hope in Ethiopia's Tigray War 
 William Davinson
Senior Analyst for Ethiopia at International Crisis Group 

Since 2018, Ethiopia has been in a highly unstable political transition, which began with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed taking power at the head of a de facto Amhara-Oromo coalition. Political and ethnic rivalries in the country exploded into violence in November 2020, with forces commanded by the formerly dominant Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) attacking federal military bases in Mekelle, stating it was facing imminent federal military intervention following a constitutional dispute. The attack was met with a full-scale military operation by Ethiopia's and Eritrea's armed forces and their Amhara regional allies. Ever since, the country has been trapped in a large-scale war, concomitant with a severe humanitarian crisis, particularly inside a besieged Tigray. Then in November 2022, the African Union oversaw an unexpected breakthrough, facilitating a cease-fire agreement. We asked William Davison, Senior Analyst for Ethiopia at International Crisis Group, to discuss the conflict and what the Pretoria deal means for Unresolved Crises. His piece follows our analyses of Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria

How has the conflict in Northern Ethiopia evolved since its instigation in November 2020, when Tigray forces attacked the federal military? Could you walk us through the most recent developments leading up to the Pretoria deal of November 2, 2022? 

The conflict in Ethiopia is the result of very long-existing political disputes within the country, notably between the TPLF and Eritrea's leadership, some of which go back into Ethiopia’s imperial period, along with more contemporary issues. The TPLF dominated the federal system of governance since its instigation in 1995 until protests against their dominance of a ruling coalition in 2018 led to a reduction in their power and their replacement by an Amhara-Omoro alliance led by new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Ever since this power transition, from the dominance of one ethnic-based political party to an alliance of ruling politicians from the country’s two largest groups, political disputes increased until eventually culminating in war in November 2020 after a constitutional dispute over delayed elections. So issues of autonomy and identity are behind this war, but also so are power struggles and political rivalries between different factions, including leaders from the Amhara region, which have their own disputes with the TPLF. 

Issues of autonomy and identity are behind this war, but also so are power struggles and political rivalries between different factions.

We can identify several phases in the war. First, from late 2020 through to June 2021, when the federal government and its allies (mainly Eritrea’s military and Amhara forces) acted in concert to remove the TPLF from regional power and established a new Tigray administration after Tigray forces attacked the federal military. During this period Amhara forcefully took over a large portion of Tigray, in the west, which they said was part of their historical territory. Even though initially defeated, the TPLF and other Tigray leaders managed to regroup in rural areas of the region.

The brutal nature of this war, where Tigray was blockaded and the intervening forces committed atrocities, contributed to considerable popular support from Tigrayans for what turned out to be a successful insurgency. It ultimately resulted in the federal and Eritrean military withdrawing from Tigray in late June 2021. From that point on, the TPLF took back regional power. 

The second phase was in the second half of 2021 when the Tigray forces went on the offensive, and notably tried to get the capital Addis Ababa and remove the current federal government from power. They fell short of that objective for various reasons and were forced to retreat to Tigray in December 2021. 

The third phase was one of reduced fighting from January to August 2022, with a unilateral humanitarian truce formalized in March. There was an increase in humanitarian assistance delivery, speeding up the delivery of food and medicine to Tigray, but large parts of the blockade were still in place and the region was not reconnected to basic public services provided by federal utilities. Amhara kept control of Western Tigray, while Eritrean forces remained in the north of that area. This is important as it prevented the Tigray leadership from creating a supply line via neighboring Sudan, therefore remaining encircled. 

Despite limited progress, there was a failure to reopen and reconnect Tigray, which would have been a significant development as it could have built trust between the federal and regional authorities. Instead, Tigray's leaders refused to begin formal talks until this occurred. The standoff led to tensions surging in late August. A clash occurred - the US said Tigray forces were the aggressors - in one of the frontlines in northern Amhara on August 24, which escalated into renewed fighting on multiple fronts, with the most notable development being the re-entering of the Eritrean military into the conflict and consequent heightened pressure on Tigray's leadership. 

The renewed war exacerbated the humanitarian situation inside the region, as aid operations were cut off again. Tigray's defenses were ground down and in late October, the federal and Eritrean forces made significant gains by capturing key cities. This paved the way for the commencement of formal peace talks overseen by the African Union, something that both sides opposed at different times. 

The renewed war exacerbated the humanitarian situation inside the region, as aid operations were cut off again.

The Tigrayans had refused to begin formal talks in 2022 with the blockade in place and said the AU leadership was biased toward Abiy's government. In 2020 and 2021, the federal government had said the war was strictly an internal law enforcement matter but later stated that it was ready for talks with the TPLF under the AU's auspices.

The Pretoria process culminated in an agreement on November 2 that showed the disadvantageous military situation the Tigray side faced. The deal made it clear they were very eager for a cessation of hostilities - which they got - but in return for significant political concessions, such as their own disarmament and the undermining of their constitutional claims. This triumph for Abiy's government in Pretoria was followed by military-to-military negotiations 10 days later in Nairobi focused on security arrangements. The resulting deal stipulated that the Tigray side would disarm its heavy weapons concurrent with the withdrawal of Eritrean and Amahara forces from Tigray. This showcased the emergence of a more balanced agreement between the two parties. 

What have been the spillover effects of the war in the volatile Horn of Africa region? To what extent did this conflict compromise Ethiopia's role in providing diplomatic support for Sudan's fragile transition to democracy? 

Ethiopia is the dominant country in the Horn of Africa and has been a major contributor to peacekeeping operations there via its role in Somalia and South Sudan-Sudan along with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD - a Horn of Africa regional body). This role shifted when the country underwent its political transition: the government deprioritized IGAD as a forum of collective security, and with the outbreak of civil war its capacity to influence regional matters was greatly reduced. First and foremost, this is because the war began with a breakup of the country's military, as a significant Tigrayan section of the armed forces sided with the regional government in the constitutional dispute, and attacked the federal military command in Tigray. We then saw most of the rest of the Tigrayan members of the military being suspected of supporting the regional government. The splits in the military were a big blow to Ethiopia's hard power. In addition, Ethiopia's diplomatic status was diminished by the brutal and controversial nature of the war.

Ethiopia's diplomatic status was diminished by the brutal and controversial nature of the war.

The refusal of the federal government to countenance any negotiated settlement for a long period and its framing of the conflict as one of domestic law enforcement was detrimental to the government's reputation and relations with various foreign actors, reducing Ethiopia’s status and influence in regional affairs. Compounding this was Ethiopia's refusal to allow any external actor to try and mediate a cease-fire. 

The war consequently had both material and political effects in terms of Ethiopia's regional role. The first involved redeploying some troops from Somalia, while there was a deterioration of relations between Addis Ababa and Khartoum for various reasons, including a major border dispute in addition to their longstanding failure to agree on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. This has hindered Ethiopia from playing a more constructive role in Sudan’s political transition. In the past, Ethiopia had shown significant support (including very much from the TPLF-dominated government) for the federal system in Somalia, before a reorientation towards Mogadishu. While the 2018 rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea was welcomed by almost everyone (the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Abiy Ahmed primarily for his efforts to resolve the long-running border disputes with Eritrea), the re-legitimizing of Eritrea also led to a delegitimizing of collective security approaches as Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki generally opposes multilateralism. This impacted Ethiopia's international and regional status, with Isaias' Eritrea, formerly a pariah state, playing a prominent role in its civil war. 

The November 2 deal is a significant first step toward peace but many have underlined its fragility. In your opinion what are the biggest obstacles to upholding it and guaranteeing security? Do you see any immediate potential for violent reescalation? Finally, what can the international community do to sustain attention?

There are several major components that will determine peace and security in and around Tigray, which are interlinked in important ways: humanitarian needs and access to services, disarmament and the question of Eritrean and Amhara withdrawals from Tigray, and the restoration of federal authority in the region, along with the political arrangements there and the relations between the regional and federal government. 

One of the most pressing issues is the humanitarian one. Most of Tigray's 6 million people are in need of assistance, and so are people in the neighboring war-affected regions of Afar and Amhara. This is crucial not just for the suffering civilians but also to build trust between the federal government and Tigray's leaders - and also for the former to demonstrate that its strategy of asphyxiating the latter as part of its military campaign has come to an end. 

The Nairobi agreement includes a federal pledge to restore humanitarian access to Tigray and establish a limited number of checkpoints for that purpose. However, it is all about implementation. One of the important things is that the federal government has shifted from its blockade strategy, and is no longer making delivery of life-saving commodities and services conditional on political progress. This is crucial for building trust, on which cooperation between the parties is dependent. When it comes to service restoration, we see the linkages between some of the aforementioned components. Tigray's leaders and many in the international community have said throughout the conflict that the federal government is obligated to provide basic services to the people in Tigray even despite the Tigray leadership's armed resistance against the central state.

One of the important things is that the federal government has shifted from its blockade strategy, and is no longer making delivery of life-saving commodities and services conditional on political progress.

However, the federal government has instead conditioned this on the security arrangements. A deal has finally been struck at the turn of the year with Federal Police and federal institutions' officials and technicians returning to Mekelle as part of the peace process. The fact that the federal government has been willing to start to open up and reconnect Tigray to trade, aid and services, shows that it is focused on peace and letting go of its siege strategy. This will also build trust. 

So far, we also have good progress on other humanitarian issues. Aid operations have restarted, though most of it initially was going in federally government-controlled areas. While humanitarian operators still need federal approval, that system seems to be working fairly smoothly. Building on the Pretoria agreement was the idea that the initial peace process would be the concurrent withdrawal of foreign and non-federal forces (Eritrean and Amhara) and the giving up by the Tigray leadership of its heavy weapons. However, the specificities of this arrangement have not been detailed. One of the big issues of this process is that the two main parties (the federal government and the TPLF) negotiated the deal without some Amhara leaders and the Eritrean government. If the latter were not willing to withdraw, would that mean Tigray would not disarm? While this remains a critical and volatile issue, there has been significant recent progress with the AU overseeing the TPLF government handing over its heavy weapon to the federal military on January 10, 2023.

Additionally, a committee has been formed, in part to discuss the Tigray forces giving up their light weapons, but plenty remains to be negotiated. So far it’s not clear to what extent the Tigray force is going to be transformed into a regional security force or merged into Ethiopia’s military. If there was a successful integration of the Tigray fighters into the armed forces, what would Eritrea think? That is a sensitive issue and there are also other balancing acts, such as the issue of Amhara forces in Western Tigray. That could lead to the assertion of federal control there or there could be the return of Western Tigray to Tigray's administration, along with that of hundreds of thousands of displaced Tigrayians from Western Tigray; but, this latter option will not be to the liking of the Amhara authority and people, while a federal takeover would please neither region. The Western Tigray remains tricky and volatile. 

Inevitably, there will be further setbacks and delays in this process - and so much depends on how committed the Tigray and federal leadership are to ensuring large-scale war does not return. 

What would justice look like for the victims of the conflict? 

In the agreement, the restoration of federal authority and the disarmament of the Tigray forces were more prominent than the restoration of humanitarian access and the end of the siege strategy. Justice and accountability were even more downplayed. Throughout the war, the Ethiopian government insisted that there was no need for international processes, institutions, or investigators to handle issues of justice and accountability, as it was able to do them alone. This view has been adopted in the agreement. There is therefore a concern, especially from many Tigrayans, that there isn’t going to be a thorough, objective and independent investigation of the crimes committed in Tigray and elsewhere.

Maybe the best to hope for would be that as part of political negotiations, discussions about, for example, Tigray's future, Ethiopia's future as a federation, and Eritrea's role in the conflict would pave the way toward processes of truth and reconciliation that would serve as some sort of justice for the victims in terms of exposure and acknowledgment of the crimes committed. Still, the main task, for now, is ensuring there is no return to war, and although many serious challenges remain, the steps taken since Pretoria, especially in recent weeks, are encouraging. 



 Copyright image: Amanuel Sileshi / AFP

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