Ethiopia is balancing on the precipice – continued war or the beginning of peace talks? The withdrawal of the Tigrayan forces back to their home region has opened a window for political talks, but it is still unclear whether the Ethiopian government and its allies will seize this opportunity to pursue genuine peace negotiations. The alternative might be a prolonged and devastating guerrilla war that would risk driving the country to the brink of political and economic collapse.
The Ethiopian civil war is entering its second year of intense fighting. The Ethiopian war theatre – involving federal and regional government troops and militias, irregular Amhara militias (Fano), Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF), Tigray Defence Force (TDF), and the Ormo Liberation Army (OLA) as the key belligerent parties – was the largest armed conflict in the world in 2021. Tens of thousands of combatants have perished on the battlefields, thousands of civilians have been massacred, and rape and famine have been weaponized in a desperate battle for supremacy.
After being driven out of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, by the Ethiopian federal forces in November last year, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which constitute the elected government of Tigray, regrouped in the rugged mountainous interior of the region. There they re-strategized and recruited thousands of volunteers to the all inclusive resistance movement TDF to launch an armed struggle against the federal government. From March until November, their counter offensive against Ethiopian and Eritrean forces was initially remarkable successful – what started as a small insurgency group, evolved into a professional and conventional army battling two of Africa’s biggest military nations.
When TDF regained control of Mekelle and the majority of Tigray territory in June, Ethiopian authorities instituted a total siege of the region, cutting power supplies, telecom, internet, banking services, and blocking travel and humanitarian aid to be delivered – concomitantly as declaring unilateral cease-fire. Due to the imposed siege, the Tigray government did not trust the sincerity of the cease-fire declaration, called it a ‘sick joke’, and decided to advance on the capital Addis Ababa, allegedly to pressure the government to peace talks and lifting of the humanitarian blockade of their famine struck population. If that did not work, the aim appeared to be to topple Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and institute a transitional government.
The TDF’s steady march on Addis surprised many observers. When the strategic towns of Dessie and Kombolcha fell in their hands by end of October, it created widespread concern of a possible collapse of federal authority, as a nationwide State of Emergency was declared. A month later at end of November, the combined TDF/OLA forces stood in Debre Sina, a town only 220 km north of Addis Ababa, as the diplomatic community scrambled to evacuate their citizens and Addis Ababa authorities implored residents to take up arms to defend the city. In response to the imminent threat, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared a ‘total war’ against the rebels and wowed to go to the frontlines to lead the fight himself. And, with that, the tide of war shifted.
Reasons for Tigrayan withdrawal
In early December, TDF started what they called a tactical retreat of its forces on the southern frontline, easing the pressure on the capital Addis Ababa. By calling it a ‘tactical’ retreat, it signalled that the strategic objective of their struggle remained unchanged, but the military tactics to achieve them had to be revised. Subsequently, on 20 December, the Tigray government suddenly announced that it was withdrawing all forces from Amhara and Afar regional states and moving them back to Tigray.
What motivated this radical shift of strategy by the TDF?
It appears that there are three key reasons for this decision, rooted in military, political, and diplomatic concerns. First and foremost, it seems clear that the military balance on the battlefield tilted in Ethiopia’s government’s favour. A key factor for this change is the massive arms purchases undertaken by the Ethiopian government over the last six months, acquiring among others highly effective combat drones. The extended TDF supply route from Tigray to the southern front was in particular vulnerable for drone attacks, which took out lorries that had been supplying the fighting units. Furthermore, the extended and strained rear of the TDF offensive made their flanks vulnerable from attacks on the east by Afar units and on the west by Amhara forces.
At the same time, one should neither underestimate the effect of PM Abiy’s call for a total war and encouraging civilians to join him on the frontline. This created a surge of national fervour among his supporters, willingly sacrificing themselves in combat. Although Tigrayan officials claim they have their fighting army intact as they pulled back without engaging in battle, it seems plausible that such a sustained high attrition rate would be difficult to carry for the comparatively smaller recruitment base of the TDF.
As alluded to by Tigrayan officials, however, there were diplomatic and political concerns too, which also compelled them to withdraw. Politically, a coherent and consolidated agreement on a possible transitional government with their ally OLA and representatives from the ‘federalist alliance’ seemed to be wanting. The TPLF has been clear that it has no interest or ambition to come back to the centre to rule Ethiopia, perhaps in part because it understands that, following this brutal war and the anti-TPLF propaganda machine created by the Ethiopian government, that do to so would be unfeasible. The responsibility to lead a possible transitional government would thus rest on a broader Oromo political opposition, which has yet to be consulted due to the political context in the country.
A more important factor in stopping the final offensive on Addis Ababa, however, was the diplomatic pressure put to bear on the Tigray government. In particular, the United States administration, through its special envoy Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, has been unequivocal in its messaging to TPLF, declaring in November: “We oppose any TPLF move to Addis or any TPLF move to besiege Addis.”
The TPLF leadership are – perhaps be a bit paradoxically – astute internationalists who put great efforts into maintaining and balancing international relations, and thus were hesitant to continue an advance on Addis in the face of a broad-based international opposition. Speculations to whether there is a confidential agreement between the US and Tigray government on a peace deal with Ethiopian government is ripe, however none of the parties have confirmed this.
A window of opportunity for peace talks?
Will the TDF withdrawal create an opportunity for political dialogue between Mekelle and Addis Ababa? To be possible this first requires agreement on a mutual cessation of hostilities that may lead to ceasefire agreement, paving the way for comprehensive and inclusive peace negotiations to find a durable solution to Ethiopia’s intrinsic political challenges.
In a letter to UN Secretary-General Guterres on 19 December, the Tigray regional president Debretsion Gebremichael notably proposed without any preconditions “an immediate cessation of hostilities followed by negotiations.” In the letter, however, the TDF leader lists a set of issues which ought to be addressed by the UN Security Council and solved as integral to any peace process. The list included restoring the full legal authority of the Tigrayan government over all its territories and lifting of the siege. The Ethiopian government has yet to officially responded to the call, and has according to TDF spokesperson Getachew Reda continued its military operations against Tigray targets, including by reportedly bombing Mekelle.
The Ethiopian state minister Redwan Hussein, on the other hand, promises an inclusive national dialogue and constitutional revisions to find a lasting solution to the internal conflict. He did not utterly reject TPLF’s inclusion in such a dialogue, although he claimed that there are other actors that could represent the Tigrayan people and stressed: “It’s not for me to tell, but if TPLF hands over its arms, and some of its criminal entities within, there are many possibilities.”
This seems unlikely, however, as there is little prospect that the TPLF leadership will surrender.
If not peace negotiations, then what?
For the time being, the Tigray Government is tacitly supporting an active Western (US and the European Union primarily) international effort at peace diplomacy directed at encouraging the Ethiopian government to accept talks. However, President Debretsion informed this author in a satellite conversation last week that the window of opportunity is brief: “We have a huge army intact and cannot sit idle to watch our population starve to death.”
The Ethiopian government, on the other hand, is interpreting Tigray’s call for cessation of hostilities as a sign of military weakness and may question why they should give concessions to a defeated enemy. Concomitantly, Ethiopia has obdurately rejected what they term neo-imperialists interference into their sovereign matters and has called out US and EU as supporters of TPLF’s agenda. It is therefore questionable how effective Western pressure upon PM Abiy Ahmed will be.
An additional element of concern is the obvious fact that PM Abiy Ahmed does not have authority over all of his alleys in the war against Tigray. It seems equally doubtful that President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea or the Amhara leadership will accept a peace process which, for instance, entails accountability for Eritrean atrocities in Tigray, or for Amhara to return west Tigray back to the control of Mekelle. So even if Abiy Ahmed hypothetically may be interested in settling the dispute with the Tigrayan leadership, he may not be allowed to do so by his “brothers in arms”.
If not peace talks, Ethiopia will have two options going forward: either a containment strategy designed to grind the Tigrayan people and leadership into submission, for example by forced hunger/starvation – or a continued military engagement aimed to recapture Mekelle, destroy the TDF and capture or kill the TPLF leadership. For the time being, the jury is still out on which option it would choose. Likewise, the TDF cannot sit idle for long if the siege of Tigray is sustained, because this risks inviting internal opposition to the Tigray government itself. Their only option will thus be to re-engage militarily in order to try and shift the balance of power on the battlefields once again.
An Ethiopian colleague at Addis Ababa University used to claim that “Ethiopia never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity” when it comes to ensuring genuinely democratic political transitions. It was missed in 1974 with the fall of Emperor Haile-Selassie; it was missed in 1991 following the toppling of Mengistu Hailemariam’s military junta; and the opportunity seems to be lost yet again with the change of government leadership in 2018.
If this window of opportunity for peace talks is missed, the Ethiopian civil war(s) will likely continue to be the world’s biggest armed conflict in 2022, and beyond.
Kjetil Tronvoll (@kjetil.tronvoll) is Professor of peace and conflict studies, Oslo New University College.