There Is a Path to Peace in Tigray
Ethiopia can end its civil war by upholding its constitution.
Source: Foreign Policy
March 5, 2022
In the eyes of the people of Tigray, there is a clear route to peace, but it will require tough decisions, starting with a willingness to accede to the people’s most essential demands.
The suffering of the people of Tigray and neighboring regions is well documented. This war is now strangling the region with what the United Nations calls a “de facto blockade,” a U.N. euphemism for a brutal siege that prevents food aid and medicine from getting to those people—including children—who need it the most.
With 5.2 million out of 6 million people in desperate need of food aid, nearly 83 percent are food insecure, 40 percent are facing extreme lack of food and 900,000 live in a “famine-like” situation. The death toll from this famine, used as a weapon of war, could exceed thousands. Banking and communications services have been shut down. Medicine and other medical supplies are scarce, even for patients needing critical care.
Nor are Tigrayans outside Tigray spared Ethiopian state-led attacks. They face widespread discrimination, persistent threats, and mass incarceration. While some have been released from detention, many, including former peacekeepers and military personnel, are still being held incommunicado. Tens of thousands are in refugee camps in Sudan and other countries, and more than 1.8 million are internally displaced and living in makeshift shelters.
Tigray wants, first and foremost, an immediate end to the siege. It wants humanitarian aid to reach the vulnerable people dealing with the horrors of this war. Public services such as transport, electricity, telecommunications, and banking, as well as deliveries of fuel and other items, are indispensable for survival. As a matter of urgency, authorities need to facilitate humanitarian access to all areas of Tigray where there is a need to deliver humanitarian assistance. Mediation should begin now with a humanitarian commitment to a cessation of hostilities by all warring parties to save lives.
Once the humanitarian blockade is resolved, attention can then return to the matter at the heart of the conflict. In the past few years, particularly the last 15 months, Tigrayans have confirmed that Ethiopian and Eritrean armies, as well as Amhara regional forces, are waging a genocidal war against communities demanding greater self-rule.
As the war began, the narrative that dominated foreign news outlets was Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s claim that the war was declared in response to Tigrayan forces attacking a federal military post in Tigray on the night of Nov. 4, 2020. Tigrayan authorities, on the other hand, present it as preemptive or anticipatory self-defense to the military buildup that was reportedly going on around the state.
While the trigger of the war remains a subject of much debate, the drums of war were banging loudly two and a half years earlier. Commentators had also clearly forewarned that war was imminent. Prior to November 2020, a massive Ethiopian and Eritrean military deployment was reported in areas surrounding Tigray state. The war drew closer with Tigray’s decision to conduct its regional elections and when the federal government slashed the budgetary allocation to Tigray.
Central to the conflict is the current populist nationalism with imperial ambitions that relies on ethnic majoritarianism to monopolize power by whatever means available.
Central to the conflict is the current populist nationalism with imperial ambitions that relies on ethnic majoritarianism to monopolize power by whatever means available. When convenient, populist nationalism and ethnic majoritarianism invoke constitutional norms such as elections and referendums; when necessary, they use unconstitutional, brutal, and oppressive means, including war on those who resist.
Tigrayans view the federal government as an enemy that sided with ethnic Amharas (who claim and currently occupy western and southern Tigray). Even more deplorable, the federal government worked with Eritrea’s dictatorship against its own people—a regime that longed for revenge on Tigrayans, particularly the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), an arch-foe of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, and to take over disputed areas that were under the control of Tigrayan authorities, particularly Badme and Irob.
The 1995 Ethiopian Constitution has proved incapable of safeguarding communities from ethnic majoritarianism, populist nationalism, and invasion by the Eritrean army.
Repeated pleas from the government of Tigray, including a memorandum in May 2020, to the pan-African and international communities to help prevent the war were ignored.
Tigrayans learned the disappointing truth that no Ethiopian federal system, no pan-African mechanism, and not even the international community will save Tigray from atrocities. Its populace was left to fend for itself while dealing with the massive military, diplomatic, and economic wars imposed on it by both internal and external forces. And so, the war on Tigray gave birth to a resistance that turned civilians into combatants. Many young Tigrayans rallied around the resistance and flocked to the battlefront to join the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF). With an experienced military leadership and its tight command, control, and communication, the TDF came within 100 miles of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
For Tigrayans, security is a survival issue, and the TDF is the sole guarantor of their security. Many Tigrayans believe the TDF halted the atrocities inflicted on them and will ensure they do not recur. It is highly unlikely that the people of Tigray will accept security provided by any force other than the TDF. To put it plainly, any agreement for peace must keep TDF troops as the main force in Tigray in an internationally-guaranteed security agreement.
Needless to say, Ethiopia and Eritrea still view the TDF as a grave threat to their national security. The Ethiopian government wants the TDF disarmed or militarily defeated. But Tigray will refuse and resist. To address the concerns and aspirations of all sides, the warring parties need to declare a joint cessation of hostilities and agree on a transitional security arrangement where the TDF is charged with maintaining peace and security in Tigray. Such a transitional security arrangement could coordinate the provision of security, facilitate humanitarian aid, and fast-track the return of displaced people both within the country and outside it.
It would also enable warring parties to begin a negotiated political agreement on a transitional process in Ethiopia, including a nationwide comprehensive and verifiable permanent cease-fire, and preparations for a referendum on the future of Tigray as per Article 39 of the 1995 constitution.
For Tigrayans, security is a survival issue, and the TDF is the sole guarantor of their security.
For the TDF to take over the security of Tigray, all external forces must leave the region. The Eritrean army has annexed some territories in Tigray with the approval of the Ethiopian federal government, despite promises for its total withdrawal. Similarly, Amhara forces should return to their deployment lines before the war.
A withdrawal from some areas, particularly western Tigray, will not be popular in some parts of the Amhara region or for the Eritrean regime. The Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara forces all consider western Tigray the military chokehold in Tigray’s containment. The Eritrean and Ethiopian governments believe that withdrawing from these western territories will enable the TDF to gain access to external assistance, including military and other supplies through Sudan.
However, these forces’ continued presence in Tigray could lead to the resumption of fighting at the slightest provocation. Any aggression is likely to degenerate into a dangerous waiting game with protracted direct and proxy wars in border areas. In such an event, the popular will to fight, cohesive military and political leadership, resources, and numbers will eventually determine the winner.
Ethiopia’s current woes are the result of political gridlock, and the country is desperately in need of a genuine political resolution. Spilling over into all corners of the country, this war, like the wars before it, is rooted in the nature of the Ethiopian state. Since its formation as a centralized nation-state, Ethiopia has faced a “war of visions” about its future.
Embodied in the current constitution is a vision of a loose multinational federalism made up of confederative elements where power rests in the hands of constituent units, not the center. Article 8 of the 1995 constitution states that the constituent units are its “Nations, Nationalities and Peoples.” In the same vein, Article 39 of the constitution stipulates diverse cultural communities of Ethiopia bear the “unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession.”
Ethiopian multinational federalism is a vision that demands not only greater devolution of power and more autonomy but also genuine self-rule and shared rule, confederal arrangements, self-determination, and even, where necessary, independence. As seen with the Tigrayan popular forces and resistance from the Oromos and others, this vision is entangled with a war of survival, for self-determination and self-rule, in defense against a predatory state. Historically, Ethiopia has mismanaged popular resistance wars, as seen in the 1961-1991 Eritrean war of independence, which caused the fragmentation of the Ethiopian state leading to the secession of Eritrea.
The Marxist-leaning Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), with the TPLF at its center, came to power in 1991 and became a dominant ruling political party that exercised state power as a monopolistic hegemon. The EPRDF became viscerally hostile to accountability and the rule of law. While short on popular legitimacy, the EPRDF’s Ethiopian developmental state relied on its delivery capability to recoup political support. Democracy was relegated to a secondary order of importance and often even lower than that. The delivery of social goods brought about stability and impressive economic performance; however, it failed to serve as a substitute for constitutional democracy.