Ethiopia’s Civil War: Cutting a Deal to Stop the Bloodshed
Source: Crisis Group
October 26, 2021
What’s new? Ethiopia’s devastating civil war has worsened and broadened. Since June, the Tigray region’s forces have turned the tables on the federal military and its allies. Although their offensive has galvanised resistance, especially in the neighbouring Amhara region, Tigray forces have recently made new gains, increasing the pressure on Addis Ababa.
Why does it matter? Continued fighting will further destabilise Ethiopia and could draw in Sudan if Tigray forces seek to reclaim western Tigray from Amhara control. Combined with an insurgency in the Oromia region and economic challenges, the situation could trigger a collapse in federal authority that would roil the Horn of Africa.
What should be done? International partners should back former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the new African Union envoy to the Horn, in seeking a choreographed de-escalation of the conflict and demilitarisation of the flashpoint area of western Tigray. Tigray leaders should freeze their offensive as Addis Ababa unblocks aid and services to the region.
The war in northern Ethiopia grinds on and is likely to worsen. On the back foot since hostilities erupted in November 2020, the Tigray region’s forces recovered, compelling federal and allied Eritrean troops to retreat in June. The Tigray forces then advanced into the adjacent regions of Amhara and, temporarily, Afar, causing mass displacement. They remain set on reclaiming Tigray’s west from Amhara control. Meanwhile, Addis Ababa has renewed restrictions on aid headed into Tigray, deepening famine conditions there, and has also been buying arms, recruiting tens of thousands of fighters and, most recently, launching a new campaign to reverse Tigray’s gains. The conflict could draw in other parties, too. It may embroil Sudan if Tigray’s encircled forces seek an external supply line. Insurgents in Oromia region have allied with Tigray. While the parties are not yet ready to talk, when they are, African Union (AU) regional envoy Olusegun Obasanjo will be best positioned to broker a choreographed de-escalation leading to a ceasefire that can help stabilise an increasingly fragile Ethiopia. Donors, neighbours and others should back his efforts.
There is no end to Ethiopia’s instability in sight. Tigray forces are fighting to reopen aid channels to the region, which Addis Ababa has largely blocked, remove security threats and recapture territory that they have lost in the conflict and not yet reclaimed. The Tigray offensive has uprooted at least 450,000 people in Afar and Amhara. But resistance from local militias and regular forces has thus far stymied some of the Tigray leaders’ plans, including their bid to take back western Tigray, which is administered by Amhara’s government backed by Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers. Moreover, opposition to the Tigray advances has also helped the federal government enlist fresh forces, setting the stage for its own military push in October, although that appears to have sputtered, allowing the Tigray forces to gain more ground in eastern Amhara as they counter-attacked.
Despite probably tens of thousands of fatalities, both sides remain committed to war. The Tigray leadership, emboldened by their military resurgence, and unwilling to accept either the federal blockade of Tigray or occupation of western Tigray by their historical northern rivals, the Amhara, are geared up to keep fighting. For its part, Addis Ababa has procured more military hardware from abroad to better arm and equip its new recruits as they try to regain the upper hand in the conflict. Those efforts seem to be suffering setbacks, however, as Tigray forces advance through eastern Amhara in mid-October, occupying strategic locations and, at the time of publication, threatening to take Dessie and Kombolcha cities.
More combat promises disastrous near-term consequences, increasing instability and exacerbating the humanitarian emergency in the north. Similarly, due to the presence of Eritrea’s military, Tigray’s fighters are unlikely to quickly drive the Amhara and allied forces out of western Tigray, raising the risk of further atrocities there and continuing destructive warfare, with recently armed civilians joining the fray. Meanwhile, an August alliance between the Tigray forces and anti-government insurgents in the central region of Oromia has ratcheted up the likelihood of all-out civil war. That is something that the Ethiopian state, already buckling under an economic crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, would struggle to withstand. In addition, if the Tigray forces start receiving supplies from neighboring Sudan, tensions would heighten between Addis Ababa and Khartoum, possibly triggering an inter-state war. Once the bulwark of security in the Horn, Ethiopia would then become a source of crisis presenting a major threat to the region’s stability.
Given the mass suffering and economic woes inflicted on Ethiopia’s population … a cessation of hostilities and negotiations are more essential than ever.
Given the mass suffering and economic woes inflicted on Ethiopia’s population, as well as the growing risk of regional conflagration, a cessation of hostilities and negotiations are more essential than ever. In pressing the parties to move down that path, the U.S., the European Union (EU) and Ethiopia’s neighbours should throw their collective weight behind the diplomatic initiative led by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the new AU envoy to the Horn. With fighting having ramped up in October, now is not an opportune moment for Obasanjo to make major progress on his new brief. Still, as federal leaders oversee a rapidly deteriorating situation and Tigray faces a famine, it is possible to imagine a time when all parties will see an incentive to take conciliatory steps in order to steer away from ever more disastrous outcomes. Through pressure (including, where appropriate, targeted sanctions) and suasion, outside actors should urge them to adopt this approach.
Obasanjo and others should encourage the parties to embrace a choreographed de-escalation along the following lines: first, both sides should publicly state their desire for a negotiated settlement, with each saying it would be willing to recognise the other’s legitimacy. He should then press for a trade-off that involves Tigray’s forces freezing their advance in Amhara in exchange for Addis Ababa’s full cooperation in expediting humanitarian assistance to the north. It is imperative that the federal government immediately cease blocking that assistance, as millions of Tigrayans are perched on the edge of starvation. But Obasanjo and other international partners can use negotiations to insist that Addis Ababa lift any remaining controls and broaden access, as well as restore services such as electricity, banking and telecommunications. These steps would be accompanied by an Amhara departure from western Tigray, in return for similar Tigray moves in Amhara, and the withdrawal of Addis Ababa’s Eritrean allies from the area, which the federal government and outside actors should demand in unison.
Addressing the situation in western Tigray will pose a particular challenge: any negotiations over how to resolve the conflict there will be particularly fraught due to a longstanding territorial dispute between Amhara and Tigray and the bitterness among both Amhara and Tigrayans at having suffered atrocities at the other’s hands. The Amhara occupation is unacceptable to Tigray’s leaders, who say they will not stop fighting until they regain the area. The Amhara administration, meanwhile, is not about to simply vacate territory that many of its officials and supporters believe was illegally and violently annexed by Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in the aftermath of Ethiopia’s civil war in the 1980s. Still, if the parties can find a way out of the impasse, they could then pursue long-term solutions, including agreeing to jointly administer the area, ensuring minority rights protections or creating an autonomous district.
Should the parties reach the point where they are ready to make peace in western Tigray, and they are looking for a way to secure and demilitarise the area, an international presence may be the best solution. A multilateral peacekeeping contingent, whether UN or AU or a mixture, cannot be a tool to force a settlement: it would only be viable with full support from Addis Ababa, and right now the federal government, and the other conflict parties, for that matter, all seem unlikely to give the go-ahead. Still, that could change. As the fighting continues and war fatigue sets in, the federal government could find itself seeking ways to create space for the negotiations needed to produce a sustainable resolution to the ugly Amhara-Tigray dispute. If the parties are seeking a way out, an international mission could provide the necessary monitoring or security guarantees. With that in mind, the UN, AU and other actors should give early thought to how an international mission might be stood up and sustained.
In the meantime, outside actors should work with the AU envoy in pressing leaders on all sides of the conflict in the direction of de-escalation, ceasefire and dialogue with the goal of defusing a dangerous situation that increasingly threatens the stability of not just Ethiopia but also the region beyond.
II. A Widening War
A. Tigray Conflict Spills Over and Grinds On
Ethiopia’s civil war, pitting Tigray forces against a coalition of federal troops, allied paramilitaries, militias and the Eritrean army, has widened dramatically in recent months, pushing up the death count and driving hundreds of thousands more civilians toward starvation. Since mid-2021, the Tigray forces, overwhelmed at first when the conflict erupted the previous November, have rebounded, scoring major victories over their opponents on the battlefield and capturing thousands of federal troops. The resistance in Tigray was able to recruit en masse and win support among Tigrayans in large part due to widespread revulsion at the intervening forces’ reported atrocities against civilians. In stepping up its military campaign, mainly by moving into Amhara region, the Tigray leadership has been trying to achieve a number of goals.
First, it has tried to pressure Addis Ababa to end restrictions on aid reaching the region. Efforts thus far have been largely unsuccessful: violence is still impeding delivery of humanitarian supplies, while the federal authorities and their allies on the ground maintain a de facto blockade that a senior UN official says is an effort to “starve the population either into subjugation or out of existence”. Roads into Tigray from Amhara are no longer open, partly because the conflict parties (each blames the other) have destroyed bridges over the Tekezze river, which separates central and western Tigray. Taking a circuitous route through the Afar region is therefore the sole option for convoys bearing aid overland to Tigray. Interference from federal and Afar authorities and militias has reduced what arrives in Tigray to a trickle. “There are lots of issues with humanitarian supplies. People are dying. We can’t help it – it is because of blockages, because of the siege. We have very serious problems”, says a top Tigray official.
Secondly, the Tigray leadership aims to recover all the territory it lost in the war’s first phase, including, eventually, the disputed lands of western Tigray, a fertile sesame-growing area that borders Sudan and is now under Amhara control. In June, Tigray forces expelled Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers from central parts of Tigray, taking back most of the region as the administration installed by Addis Ababa the preceding December withdrew. They then reasserted their authority over a southern section of Tigray, known as Raya, which Amhara forces had also seized in the war’s first weeks. They have stopped short, however, of advancing into western Tigray, where significant numbers of heavily armed Eritrean and federal troops back up Amhara paramilitaries and militias.
Tigray forces instead drove south into the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions as they pursued a war of attrition against Addis Ababa and its allies. In mid-July, they advanced across the Tekezze near Mai Tsebri and into the Amhara region’s North Gondar Zone. They also moved, briefly, into Chifra, a town on the Afar-Amhara border around 50km south east of Weldiya town, claiming that they could cut off the Addis Ababa-Djibouti trade route at Mille nearby. In early August, Tigray forces seized Lalibela, a UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site known for its monolithic churches, thereby grabbing international headlines. Then, on 12 August, they occupied Weldiya, a major Amhara transport and commercial hub on the main road to Addis Ababa. They still control the town. Now, after holding off a federal offensive and hitting back hard, they occupy other strategic locations, such as Chifra and, at the time of publication, are poised to threaten two other cities to Weldiya’s south on the Addis Ababa road, Dessie and Kombolcha, and also Mille on the Addis Ababa-Djibouti road.
In September, the Tigray advance had slowed and, in some cases, was reversed. Federal and regional authorities tapped into hostility to the TPLF, the banned ruling party of the Tigray region and the former leading member of a coalition that ruled Ethiopia from 1991 to 2019 with frequent repression, spurring locals to organise into militias to beat back Tigray forces. One former Ethiopian diplomat said the Tigray forces “are facing stiff resistance, massive mobilisation. They will not be facing the military, they will be facing the people”. In August and September, the Tigray forces met resistance to the south of Weldiya near Hayk town, north of Gondar around Debark and Debat towns, and to the west of Weldiya along the route that leads to Debre Tabor town. In addition, they pulled out of almost all the Afar region in September after running into federal troops and Afar fighters around Chifra and in low-lying areas in northern Afar. Tigray’s leaders claimed to have merely paused to regroup and absorb new recruits after capturing materiel and territory.
The Tigray forces’ incursions and the resulting counter-offensives have made the chances of dialogue slim.
The Tigray forces’ incursions and the resulting counter-offensives have made the chances of dialogue slim at present. Instead, amid mobilisation on both sides, Tigray’s leaders look set to ramp up the pressure on the federal and Amhara governments as Addis Ababa and allied parties seek to push Tigray forces back. The political atmosphere in the country remains poisonous, meanwhile, as evidenced by the belligerent and at times hateful rhetoric, particularly from the federal side. Abiy’s office had said negotiations with the TPLF, which federal authorities designated as a terrorist organisation on 6 May, would be possible only after a new parliament reappointed the prime minister. But he did not actually commit to talks, even then, and indeed seems to be in no rush. Abiy was sworn in on 4 October, and there has been no indication since the ceremony that negotiations are on the agenda, while his forces instead went on an unsuccessful offensive in Wollo in Amhara region a week later.
B. Risks of Escalation
Despite the growing turmoil, all parties for now remain committed to war. While there are indications that some in Addis Ababa believe a rethink is necessary, there have also been strong signals that federal authorities are doubling down on the military strategy, including the illegal blockade. Federal arms purchases and the mobilisation of tens of thousands of new soldiers and militiamen preceded an offensive that began on 11 October, after the rainy season tapered off the month before. The Tigray forces are, notwithstanding challenges in September, looking to retake control of western Tigray. Should Tigray forces control the Gondar area, they could push west to the Sudan border town of Metemma and also north as part of an operation to reclaim the contested territory.
As the conflict expands, the costs are set to climb. The mid-2021 fighting has already displaced at least 450,000 people in Afar and Amhara, in addition to the nearly two million who were driven from their homes in Tigray. According to some reports, Tigray forces have also looted aid warehouses, shelled residential areas and killed civilians in neighbouring regions. If they continue to confront recently formed popular militias operating among civilians, “there could be massive casualties, so they have to be very careful”, says a former Ethiopian diplomat. On 18 October, Ethiopia’s ministry of foreign affairs commented on recent fighting by suggesting that Tigray forces had killed only civilians as they advanced into areas south of Weldiya and that continued constraints on aid to Tigray would be the result. On the same day, Ethiopia’s air force bombed targets in Tigray’s capital Mekelle, killing three, with more aerial attacks following on 20 October.
A battle for western Tigray, flat terrain that exposes fighters, could also exacerbate the risks for civilians, who have already suffered in the area. Moreover, it could draw Sudan into the war if Tigray forces move to open up a supply route for aid and arms through the east of that country. Addis Ababa would view any Sudanese assistance to Tigray’s leaders – including the facilitation of aid – as a hostile act, pushing the two countries toward open conflict. Relations between Addis Ababa and Khartoum are already at a low ebb, mainly due to disputes over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that Ethiopia is constructing on the Blue Nile, affecting downstream Sudan’s water supply, and al-Fashaga, the disputed farmlands adjacent to western Tigray, which Sudan occupied in December. If Sudan steps in on the Tigray forces’ side, Abiy might well think that Khartoum supports Tigray leaders in seeking to remove him. For his part, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki might fear that better armed and supplied Tigray forces could eventually muster attacks on the Eritrean military, leaving him exposed.
Should Tigray’s autonomy struggle become a full-blown war of independence … de-escalation will become still more difficult.
Should Tigray’s autonomy struggle become a full-blown war of independence, new risks will emerge, and de-escalation will become still more difficult. As one senior observer put it: “Definitely [the western Tigray issue] is going to spark a regional war if it is mismanaged”.
C. The Connection to Oromia’s Conflict – and Beyond
Meanwhile, conflict is also escalating to the south in Oromia, Prime Minister Abiy’s home region and the country’s most populous, where tensions are running high between the authorities and Oromo nationalists, who allege that the premier has undermined their struggle for greater autonomy and democracy even though it was mainly protesters in Oromia who catapulted him to power. As Tigray’s leaders do, they also suspect Abiy has plans to reform Ethiopia’s ethnic federalist constitution, thereby threatening the region’s autonomy.
At the centre of these tensions is the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), which is operating an insurgency that appears to be gaining momentum after Oromo opposition parties boycotted the mid-June elections. The OLA is a splinter from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a popular yet fragmented party that advocates for Oromia’s self-determination. Abiy’s government sees the OLA as posing a significant threat, in part because it has the potential to choke trade to and from the capital and is already controlling swathes of rural central and western Oromia, including near Addis Ababa. The federal parliament classified it as a terrorist organisation in May. Partly in response, the OLA and Tigray forces allied – striking a military cooperation agreement – in August, with the stated goal of trying to replace Abiy’s cabinet with a transitional administration.
One major factor contributing to the growing violence is that the political situation in Oromia is increasingly fraught. Prior to the pandemic, parliamentary and regional elections in Oromia set for 2020 were expected to be competitive between the allied OLF and Oromo Federalist Conference (OFC), on one hand, and Abiy’s Prosperity Party, on the other. Then came the 29 June 2020 murder of popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa and a ten-month election delay, which upended the country’s politics. Although authorities blamed OLF elements, many Oromo opposition supporters believe he was assassinated for criticising the government. His killing triggered deadly unrest in Oromia and Addis Ababa, including attacks by Oromo mobs on Amhara civilians. Amid the chaos, federal authorities detained Oromo activists, including the popular OFC politician Jawar Mohammed, putting him and others on trial on terrorism charges. Both the OLF and OFC protested the crackdowns by boycotting the rescheduled elections, which took place on 21 June 2021, citing widespread arrests and closures of party offices.
In the wake of the boycott, which handed Abiy’s Prosperity Party a thumping victory in Oromia when polls were for the most part held, the OLA insurgency intensified. Starting on 15 August, for example, the group blocked the main southerly route to Kenya, from Bule Hora in Oromia’s West Guji Zone to the Kenyan border town Moyale, and also clashed around the same date with regional and federal security forces in West Shewa Zone adjacent to Addis Ababa.
As the violence has escalated, historically rooted tensions between Ethiopia’s two largest communities, the Oromo and Amhara, have continued to flare. In late August, locals and officials said OLA fighters killed more than 100 Amhara civilians in East Wollega Zone. The insurgents said all those killed in fighting were government-affiliated militiamen from Amhara. The turmoil relates to a broader political dispute that involves Oromo nationalists classing Amhara settlers as their main oppressor during an imperial era that ended in 1974. Amhara activists argue that innocent civilians are persecuted by Oromo nationalists and other ethno-nationalists as a result.
If the fault line between Amhara and Oromo widens further, it could set in train other destabilising effects. First, these tensions could deepen rifts within the Oromo and Amhara chapters of the country’s ruling Prosperity Party. Secondly, the violence could spill over into another region, Benishangul-Gumuz, which borders Sudan and where armed factions are also operating, imperilling security around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. There, militias from the Gumuz ethnic group have mobilised over the last year, creating disruptions that led to delayed elections in most of the region. The militias, operating largely in Metekel Zone, have killed ethnic Amhara, Shinasha and Oromo people, whom they perceive as settlers, and conducted deadly ambushes on convoys servicing the dam. In April, they also briefly took over one district in Kamashi Zone.
III. Mass Suffering
The situation in northern Ethiopia is dire and set to get worse. Millions of Tigrayans are suffering food shortages, with estimates suggesting hundreds are dying daily of hunger-related causes. Since 28 June, when federal troops and administrators left most of Tigray, around 1,000 aid trucks – bearing only about 14 per cent of the needed aid – have arrived in the region. Aid agencies say government impediments, as well as security incidents, notably the 18 July and 19 August militia attacks on aid convoys in Afar, explain most of the shortfall. A compounding factor is Addis Ababa has cut Tigray off from budget transfers and telecommunications, electricity and banking services, thereby making the population suffer for the federal dispute with Tigray’s leaders. Researchers estimate that, due to the war, only up to a quarter of Tigray’s land will produce “reasonable outputs”, while the UN says Tigray’s crop yields in 2021 may be as low as 13 per cent of normal, raising famine concerns. On 1 October, Addis Ababa expelled seven top UN officials for assisting the TPLF, making it harder for humanitarian actors to do their jobs.
The management of aid flows has become a key factor in the conflict. After Addis Ababa installed an interim administration in Mekelle in December 2020, humanitarian aid into the region gradually started flowing again, but fighting made deliveries to the hinterland difficult and dangerous. Notably, Eritrean and Ethiopian military checkpoints blocked routes into areas where Tigray forces were concentrated. Eritrean troops allegedly also looted medical clinics, food stores and agricultural tools, as well as killing oxen and other livestock. With the TPLF now back in Mekelle, federal authorities are once again restricting aid flows, prompting the U.S. delegation to the UN Security Council to say the Ethiopian government’s obstruction of humanitarian supplies and vital services may amount to war crimes. Addis Ababa has at times blamed the Tigray forces’ offensive for disrupting aid, and it claims to be unable to deliver telecommunications and power services to the region due to Tigray fighters’ attacks on utility company staff.
Although most suffering is inside Tigray, the war’s spread has created its own emergency in parts of Amhara and Afar.
The humanitarian and economic crisis related to the conflict could have devastating effects nationwide. Although most suffering is inside Tigray, the war’s spread has created its own emergency in parts of Amhara and Afar. Afar authorities said more than 140,000 people were displaced by the end of August, and Amhara’s government said at least 233,000 people have fled to Dessie and Kombolcha in South Wollo Zone, an area where Tigray forces have recently been focused. The war is hurting all Ethiopians by further weakening a pandemic-stricken economy marked by an annual inflation rate of 34 per cent in September and a hard currency shortage that limits imports. With the government facing aid cuts, and struggling with debt repayments, there is little sign of relief on the horizon. In February, the International Monetary Fund said it expected Ethiopia’s economic growth to be only 2 per cent in the fiscal year that ended 7 June, due to the pandemic’s effects. Previously, it estimated that the rate would rebound to 8.7 per cent for the 2021-2022 budget year, but now says there is too much uncertainty to make a forecast.
Moreover, conflict dynamics could make things still worse. The country’s economic predicament could grow more serious if the OLA’s insurgent activities increase, pulling Oromia deeper into crisis, and greatly so if the Tigray forces succeed in blocking the main trade route to Djibouti. More broadly, further war means that conditions will continue to deteriorate, with Addis Ababa unable to impose its authority in several regions that have become restive at the same time. If the Abiy government’s control were to keep dwindling, the end result could even be a disastrous fragmentation of the Horn of Africa’s most populous state, especially given that opposition plans for a transitional administration seem unformed at best and that some other political actors are implacably hostile to the notion of a TPLF-OLA-led interim administration. One former senior Ethiopian official – who is not a former TPLF member – believes the federal leadership must reconsider: “If they do not go for talks, the country will collapse – no ifs, no buts”.
IV. Path to Talks
Ethiopia urgently needs a respite from the conflict that could very well pull it apart, even if the parties are not yet ready to think about talks and de-escalation. Through a combination of pressure, diplomacy and forward planning, outside actors should work together to move the parties toward the path of peace.
A. Pressure Increases
Pressure on the conflict parties to find a resolution to the situation in Ethiopia’s north is growing, and it is coming from a range of domestic and international sources. In September, 24 Ethiopian civil society organisations called for a cessation of hostilities and talks to address all the country’s crises. Ethiopia’s worried neighbours have been increasingly vocal about the need for negotiations and are likely to keep lending momentum to the idea of peace talks. Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who is also chair of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the East African regional body, offered on 4 August to mediate the conflict, as he had done before; as with his previous offers, Addis Ababa rebuffed him, partly due to poor Ethiopia-Sudan relations. President Salva Kiir of South Sudan has also proposed trying to broker a peace agreement, receiving no formal response from Addis Ababa.
Other African leaders have also started pressing for dialogue. In New York on 26 August, Kenya, speaking on behalf of the “A3+1” (ie, the three African states on the UN Security Council plus St. Vincent and the Grenadines), urged a negotiated settlement and, among other suggestions, said Ethiopia’s federal parliament should remove terrorist designations from the country’s armed movements to pave the way for talks. While the AU has so far been muted, the chair of the AU Commission, Moussa Mahamat Faki, named former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo as his Horn of Africa envoy. Expectations are that Obasanjo will focus on trying to end Ethiopia’s civil war. When Abiy visited Kampala and Kigali in late August, both President Yoweri Museveni and President Paul Kagame are said to have told him to seek a negotiated settlement. Other African heads of state delivered similar messages at Abiy’s inauguration in early October.
The U.S. government, which has its own regional envoy, has been vocal about the crisis and even taken punitive measures, although with limited success so far. As well as urging talks, the U.S. has enacted sanctions, notably a 23 August asset freeze on Eritrea’s military’s leader. Due to alleged human rights abuses, the U.S., Ethiopia’s top bilateral donor, has also suspended security and some economic assistance to the government. Though it will exempt humanitarian programs from the suspension, much of the $500 million it gives annually for education, health and other projects may not be renewed. Potentially more significantly, the U.S. says it will not support International Monetary Fund and World Bank funds for Ethiopia and warns also that Ethiopian exporters may lose preferential access to the U.S. market due to the government’s alleged rights abuses. Ethiopian officials and pro-government activists have reacted by accusing the U.S. and other outside actors – as well as the Western media, rights groups, UN agencies and humanitarian organisations – of supporting a TPLF return to federal power.
Piling pressure on the Ethiopian and Eritrean parties to end the war, the Biden administration on 17 September issued an executive order setting up a new sanctions regime targeted at what it described as individuals and entities “responsible for or complicit in”, among other things, “actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, or stability of Ethiopia, or that have the purpose or effect of expanding or extending the crisis in northern Ethiopia or obstructing a ceasefire or a peace process”.
Among the sanctions that would flow from this regime are travel bans as well as asset freezes and other constraints on economic activity tied to the U.S. Conversely, the White House also said if there is progress toward negotiations it will help increase economic assistance and consider providing debt relief to Ethiopia. Abiy responded to the sanctions threat with an open letter in which he accused the U.S. of applying “unwarranted pressure characterised by double standards”. Given that federal officials are defiant, and the leadership set on achieving military gains, these measures are not going to elicit an immediate switch in policy. But combined with diplomatic urging from former President Obasanjo amid a deteriorating overall economic and security situation, they may at least boost efforts to convince the Abiy government to change course.
A peacemaking opportunity is most likely to arise if neither side makes decisive gains.
B. A Narrow Pathway Out
With Addis Ababa looking to ramp up its military campaign and the Tigray leadership adamant it will not stop fighting until it removes threats to Tigray, overcomes the “siege” and clears all “enemy forces” from the region, the immediate prospects for peace are dim. Still, they could brighten over time through a combination of internal and external pressure coupled with – more importantly – war fatigue and a deteriorating situation for all belligerents. In particular, a peacemaking opportunity is most likely to arise if neither side makes decisive gains, with Tigray leaders needing to change tack to alleviate a famine and Abiy fearing that his authority could dissipate.
Outside actors like the U.S. and EU, as well as Ethiopia’s neighbours, should help prepare the ground for this moment by throwing their full weight behind AU Envoy Obasanjo as he marshals support from African leaders and presses all the Ethiopian warring parties toward choreographed de-escalation and negotiations. Empowering a credible regional figure to lead international mediation efforts will be key to their success when the moment comes, and it will have the added benefit of promoting coordination among external actors. As for the goals he lays out, Obasanjo should encourage the parties in the following direction.
As a first step to reset the tone and encourage concessions, all sides should announce that they seek a peaceful solution and are willing to recognise one another’s legitimacy. While the federal government should immediately remove its egregious restrictions on humanitarian assistance into Tigray, Obasanjo and others could use the moment to press it to lift any remaining controls, broaden access for donors and restore essential services to the region – such as banking, electricity and telecommunications – that have been cut off. For their part of the trade-off, Tigray leaders could freeze their military positions. Tigray forces might then follow up by withdrawing from Amhara, and Amhara forces by departing western Tigray. Ethiopian parties and international allies would also have to insist that Eritrea bring its troops home from western Tigray, a request that President Isaias is likely to resist.
The long history of grievance between Amhara and Tigray, rubbed raw by the current war’s events, is a major obstacle to untangling the knot of western Tigray and will present a special challenge for Obasanjo. Crisis Group and others, including the U.S. government, have called for the withdrawal of Amhara forces, whose occupation even the federally appointed Tigray interim administrators opposed. But all sides are dug in. The Amhara say western Tigray is historically Amhara land that the TPLF violently seized as it consolidated power in the 1990s. They are disinclined to relinquish control of the land, especially now that Tigray forces occupy Amhara territory, where locals report them committing atrocities. Meanwhile, Tigray leaders are dead set on reclaiming the west. They say the Amhara takeover in the wake of the November 2020 federal intervention was an unconstitutional annexation that led to mass expulsion of Tigrayans – a charge that echoes the historical Amhara complaint.
Over the long term, there are ways that the parties could deal with the western Tigray issue other than perpetual warfare, such as via joint administration, agreements to ensure minority rights protection or creation of an autonomous area. Initial talks could aim toward eliciting Tigray and Amhara region pledges to engage in peaceful consultations to address competing claims and grievances. But to have a chance of reaching a lasting settlement, the parties must first stabilise the area, which would as a first step likely involve reaching a consensus on interim security arrangements for the disputed land. Because they are at war with the central authorities, Tigray’s leaders would be unlikely to accept federal forces as a solution, even on a temporary basis. Nor is Amhara likely to yield control of the territory to an actor it gravely mistrusts.
One solution, unlikely though it may currently seem, may be an international presence endorsed by all the parties.
One solution, unlikely though it may currently seem, may be an international presence endorsed by all the parties. For political, practical and other reasons, this solution could be effective only if it is introduced at a point when Addis Ababa and the other parties are looking for a solution for how to secure western Tigray, and actively support the idea of bringing in international peacekeepers. The motivation for the parties to take this step would be that such a force could reassure both Amhara and Tigray authorities that neither side will try to control territory while grievances relating to western Tigray are being resolved. It would therefore give them the sense of security they need to demilitarise. Peacekeepers would also soothe all sides’ worries about renewed conflict flaring while negotiators are seeking solutions to Ethiopia’s political crisis and outlining Tigray’s precarious future relations with the Ethiopian state.
For the present, there are numerous obstacles in the way of the peacekeeping idea, not least that Ethiopia’s government would vehemently oppose any such suggestion, labelling it as a violation of sovereignty, and that Tigray’s leaders believe they have every right to forcibly end Amhara control of western Tigray. But given the possibility that all sides may at some point see sense in looking for peaceful remedies, the AU, UN and their member states should at least begin considering what would be required to stand up and sustain such a mission.
Coaxing the parties toward and then down a de-escalatory path will be no easy task for Obasanjo, and he will need ample support, starting with a capable team. To this end, the AU Commission and AU member states should provide him with the resources and authority to bring on board the experts he needs, including from the UN system, if he requests them.
While ending the bloodshed in the north must be the priority for all, Ethiopians will also need to come together in a national dialogue – at the appropriate time –to chart the country’s path toward a more harmonious future. The government already plans such a dialogue and Obasanjo should use his broad writ to support this homegrown process where appropriate. To boost its chances of success, the planned discussions should include some of Tigray’s dissident leaders, jailed top Oromo and other opposition figures, and representatives of other armed groups, including from Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions.
Unless all sides in Ethiopia make the necessary concessions to bring about a cessation of hostilities, followed by talks, many thousands more people will die amid conflict and famine. More war would also threaten the federal government’s authority and possibly even the Ethiopian state’s integrity and stability. Its collapse would have disastrous consequences not just for many of Ethiopia’s 110 million people but also for other Horn of Africa nations, all of which border the country. Some federal allegations against the Tigray leaders may well be valid, including that their attitude and actions have helped destabilise the country. But leaders in Addis Ababa are also responsible for the present situation and the Tigray forces have shown that they are formidable and cannot be completely defeated. The leaders who brought about this catastrophe may not be able to erase that part of their legacy, but by taking conciliatory steps they could begin to build a new and better one – as peacemakers and architects of a more stable future for Ethiopia.
Nairobi/Brussels, 26 October 2021