Can Lasting Peace Come to Ethiopia?

The announcement of a so-called “permanent” cease-fire agreement in Ethiopia’s Tigray war sparked optimism among those outside Ethiopia, as well as those clinging to hope inside this beleaguered country. War in Ethiopia’s northern region has continued for nearly two years exactly. There have been ceasefires attempted previously, but none of these efforts lasted because they depended on whichever side felt a halt in fighting suited them at the time, while success on the battlefield made the aggressor at the time less likely to want to halt its momentum.

            After a fragile cessation of hostilities gave hope of the conflict ending several months ago, clashes between the Ethiopian army and forces from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) erupted around Kobo, a border town in the Amhara region to the south of Tigray. 

            At the signing of the current ceasefire in South Africa on 2 November, remarks by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the African Union’s High Representative for the Horn of Africa, expressed the optimism of African officials about this new development:

“Today is the beginning of a new dawn for Ethiopia, for the Horn of Africa and indeed for Africa as a whole. Let me hasten to thank God for this new dawn. We are seeing in practice and actualisation what we have tried to achieve for ourselves over the years – African solutions for African problems. We also see in today’s peace agreement signing exercise the implementation of Agenda 2063 which embodies silencing the guns in Africa,” Obasanjo said.


Unfortunately, BBC News reported that a day after the agreement’s signing, the sound of artillery was still booming over the mountains of Tigray. The source of those guns may not be definitive since the Government of Ethiopia, the TPLF militia, the Amhara militia and the Government of Eritrea all have been engaged in the fighting. Additionally, clashes between the government forces and militants from the Oromo Liberation Army in the Oromia region have led to casualties estimated into the hundreds days after the signing of the ceasefire.


According to al Jazeera, the Ethiopian government and the TPLF have opened a link to directly communicate to stop any new fighting. According to an official familiar with the talks, the news service reported, the hotline will address any flare-up in fighting and coordinate disengagements, with both sides recognizing “the challenge of fully communicating with all their units to stop the fighting.”


But how will that account for Eritrea’s continued intervention since that government was not a party to the ceasefire? While the internal Ethiopian elements may be willing to come to some resolution of the Tigray conflict, Eritrea’s government has long shown its willingness to intervene in its neighbors’ affairs, using military force as in Tigray or supplying dissident elements fighting with neighboring governments.


As I stated in an earlier blog, Eritrea has formed an alliance with Russia that has given this rogue nation access to sophisticated weaponry. This regime is known for instigating conflicts with neighboring countries (Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen) since the early 1990s. The Isaias Afwerki regime has regularly supported armed opposition groups against governments experiencing internal disputes, such as the militant Islamist al-Shabaab in Somalia, and these conflicts have led to the unnecessary loss of lives and instability within the region. The addition of heavy Russian weaponry will only exacerbate an already tense relationship between Eritrea and its neighbors. Absent an arms embargo on Eritrea, the situation will only worsen, incurring an even greater humanitarian crisis and political instability in East Africa.

Eritrean intervention is not the extent of the dangers to the ceasefire’s fragile peace offering, though. In describing the scope of the agreement, AU High Representative Obasanjo laid out a limited scope for this agreement:


“The two parties in the Ethiopian conflict have formally agreed to the cessation of hostilities as well as to systematic, orderly, smooth, and coordinated disarmament, restoration of law and order, restoration of services, unhindered access to humanitarian supplies, protection of civilians especially women, children, and other vulnerable groups, among other areas of agreement. The agreement also takes care of assurance of security for all concerned within and outside Ethiopia,” Obasanjo said at the signing ceremony.

            The longstanding antagonism non-Tigrayans have felt toward the TPLF, which dominated the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front government until Abiy formed a new political coalition two years ago, to which the TPLF virulently objected and held its own elect ions in Tigray when the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali postponed the national elections. Hard feelings against the Tigrayan elite (and hopefully not against the Tigray people) is a real phenomenon that must be accounted for in moving beyond the terms of the ceasefire.


            In a 17 September 2021 letter to U.S. President Joe Biden, Abiy demonstrated the strong antipathy he and his government hold for the TPLF, which sparked the conflict in Tigray that has expanded to surrounding areas.

“As the rest of their peers in the country pursue their studies and lives, our children of Tigray have been held hostage by a terrorist organization that attacked the State on November 3, 2020, exposing them to various vulnerabilities. While the use of children as soldiers and participation in active combat is a violation of international law, the terrorist organization TPLF has proceeded unabated in waging its aggression using children and other civilians,” Abiy wrote.


“The cries of women and children in the Amhara and Afar regions that are displaced and suffering at the hands of TPLF’s enduring ruthlessness continues under the deafening silence of the international community. Unfortunately, while the entire world has turned its eyes onto Ethiopia and the Government for all the wrong reasons, it has failed to reprimand the terrorist group openly and sternly in the same manner it has been chastising my Government.”

Prior to the ceasefire signing, President Biden announced that it would continue its sanctions on the Government of Ethiopia considering the ongoing violations of human rights.


“The situation in and in relation to northern Ethiopia, which has been marked by activities that threaten the peace, security, and stability of Ethiopia and the greater Horn of Africa region — in particular, widespread violence, atrocities, and serious human rights abuses, including those involving ethnic-based violence, rape and other forms of gender-based violence, and obstruction of humanitarian operations — continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” the statement read. 


“For this reason, the national emergency declared in Executive Order 14046 of September 17, 2021, must continue in effect beyond September 17, 2022. Therefore, in accordance with section 202(d) of the National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. 1622(d)), I am continuing for 1 year the national emergency declared in Executive Order 14046 with respect to Ethiopia.”


The U.S. government has appointed three Special Envoys for the Horn of Africa since the Biden administration took office last year, but despite their diplomatic experience, this government is seen by Abiy’s government as biased toward TPLF and therefore ineffective as an honest broker in the governance talks that lie ahead. The United Nations and the European Union haven’t been effective in leading to this point either.


In describing the scope of the agreement, former High Representative Obasanjo laid out the limited parameters of this agreement:


“The two parties in the Ethiopian conflict have formally agreed to the cessation of hostilities as well as to systematic, orderly, smooth, and coordinated disarmament, restoration of law and order, restoration of services, unhindered access to humanitarian supplies, protection of civilians especially women, children, and other vulnerable groups, among other areas of agreement. The agreement also takes care of assurance of security for all concerned within and outside Ethiopia,” Obasanjo said at the signing ceremony.


Obasanjo stated that Africans are now taking over to ensure peace in Ethiopia and the greater Horn of Africa. Hopefully, they will not be as willing as Western governments have been to merely force warring parties into a “unified” government. That hasn’t worked elsewhere, such as South Sudan where elements of the two sides fought even as their leaders sat together at the same table to discuss governance issues.


It remains to be seen whether the TPLF will continue to accept in ongoing negotiations the refusal to acknowledge them as the Government of Tigray. This likely is of little concern to outside actors, but the TPLF was willing to start a war over their desire to control the affairs of this region. Moreover, many of the ethnic groups in Ethiopia – the Oromo, Amhara, the Somalis, the Anuak and others see the TPLF as oppressors from a long history of being denied agency. A neat solution of forming a unified government probably won’t be as possible as outsiders would want it to be. Other ethnic groups – large and small – will look at any agreement giving Tigrayans more autonomy as a signal to press for autonomy for their own regions. Oromo elements, as stated earlier, already have demonstrated their opposition to the current government coalition and their willingness to engage in armed struggle to press for what they consider ethnic majority rights.


Efforts to assign accountability for human rights abuses also could upset the negotiations as all sides have something to fear from investigations into the rapes, murders and forced starvation in Tigray. Assigning blame will be difficult if the investigation cannot prove such human rights violations were ordered by leaders of the various actors. Perhaps a truth and reconciliation process could address such matters without the accountability effort derailing overall peace and security.


Furthermore, the Tigray people shouldn’t bear the burden of the antagonism many Ethiopians have for that ethnic group’s elite. They have suffered more than many others during this war fought on their home ground. Some Tigray living outside the province have been suspected of being TPLF collaborators and jailed. They are a minority whose elite controlled the political and social environment in Ethiopia, and non-Tigray may have difficulty separating most of the Tigray from the victimization brought on by their elites.

            Ethiopia is too important a nation to design a cookie-cutter approach to sustainable peace and governance – not only in the Horn of Africa. It has offered a lot to Africa and the world at large, such as its contributions to peacekeeping. The people of Ethiopia deserve more than a papered-over solution to their longstanding governance issues. One hopes African interlocutors, understanding the complexity of issues Ethiopia faces, will help Ethiopians craft a sustainable way forward.