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Ceasefire in Tigray: Is Peace Possible?

15 Jul 2021
By Fionn Parker
Soldiers walking in the desert. Source: Adobe Stock.

After the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) retook the regional capital of Mekelle from Ethiopian government forces, Addis Ababa declared a ceasefire. With neither side likely to achieve a comprehensive military victory, competing visions of Ethiopian governance are the primary obstacle to peace.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that the ceasefire will last until the end of the harvest season in September, ostensibly to support the 400,000 Tigrayans now in famine and the 1.8 million on the brink. The rebels, after initially treating this offer as a “joke,” have provided an extensive list of demands to be met if the ceasefire is to be respected. In the wake of this surprising offer, and amid a rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis, is there finally an opportunity for peace in Tigray?

Historical Context

The Tigrayan conflict is the product of deep-seated ethnic and political tensions. The TPLF ascended to the apex of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition after overthrowing the Soviet-backed dictator Haile Mengistu in 1991. They initiated a system of ethnic federalism which devolved power to nine federal states based on ethno-linguistic identity. This system emphasised ethnic differences and protected Tigrayan hegemony, despite Tigray constituting only seven percent of Ethiopia’s population.

After over 25 years of political repression and disproportionate power, Abiy Ahmed’s 2018 election on a ticket of reformation and reunification heralded a new political dawn. Ahmed reshaped the ruling coalition to provide more equal representation and centralised rule. He removed corrupt TPLF leaders and formed the Prosperity Party, which TPLF politicians have refused to join. In 2019, Abiy received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to foster peace with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.

The TPLF saw Abiy’s reforms as a deliberate assault on their sovereignty. Tensions boiled over in September 2020, when the TPLF defied government orders to postpone the scheduled election.  According to the election organisers, TPLF won 98 percent of the regional vote and 100 percent of the contested seats. Addis Ababa subsequently with federal funding from Tigray.

Fighting broke out on November 4, after the TPLF seized a national military base in central Tigray. Abiy’s government enlisted Eritrea and the neighbouring state of Amhara to support what they called a “law enforcement” operation to defeat the “terrorist” TPLF. The Ethiopian army captured Mekelle on November 28, and intense guerrilla warfare continued for over six more months. In this time, all sides were accused of human rights violations, including ethnic cleansing and widespread sexual violence. Due to the government enforced media blackout, such reports have been difficult to corroborate, providing shelter from international admonishment. On June 28, the TPLF reclaimed the capital and drove out the Ethiopian army, who subsequently declared a ceasefire and left the region.

Dangers of an Ongoing Conflict

The persistence of civil war threatens stability across the Horn of Africa. Only three years ago, Ethiopia was one of the fastest growing African economies and stood as a beacon of hope for stability and democracy amongst the conflict-plagued Horn. However, if conflict continues, ongoing border disputes with Sudan will escalate, the thinly spread Ethiopian national forces providing an opportunity for Sudan to seize more territory. Furthermore, deepening racial tensions and a weakening central government have coincided with mounting intercommunal killings in the Benishangul-Gumuz region, and political discontent in the region of Oromia.

However, the primary danger of an ongoing conflict is the exacerbation of an already disastrous humanitarian crisis. Over two million people are displaced internally. 60,000 Tigrayans have fled to neighbouring Sudan. More than two million citizens lack food security, with severe climate events, a locust storm, and COVID-19 endangering the harvest for a second year running.

Furthermore, the government has restricted aid as a political weapon to reduce support for the TPLF amongst starving Tigrayans. The Tekeze River Bridge, which lay along a key aid supply line, was intentionally destroyed by the government to prevent TPLF pursuing their retreat. At least 15 aid workers have been killed since the conflict’s beginning.

Key Barriers for Achieving Peace

Unfortunately, peace appears a distant possibility, given Ethiopia’s social and political climate. The Tigrayans are a proud people with a distinct cultural identity, possessing a strong political and military powerbase. The TPLF enjoys widespread support within Tigray for their protection of Tigrayan autonomy. Despite the government’s attempts to sew discontent, support for the TPLF does not appear to be waning. Similarly, the government’s actions are popular in much of Ethiopia, as Abiy has successfully portrayed the TPLF as enemies of an equality-focussed domestic political order. The widespread support enjoyed by both sides, a result of successful “othering” campaigns, reduces the incentive to work towards peace.

Another barrier to peace is the intervention of the Amharan and Eritrean forces, whom the Tigrayans consider to be illegitimate occupiers even more so than the Ethiopian Army. Amhara has claimed stakes of Tigrayan territory as its own, and the rumoured atrocities committed by Eritrean and Amharan armed forces have only built further resentment. The TPLF have demanded the withdrawal of Eritrean and Amharan forces as a precondition for ceasefire discussions. Until the seized land is returned and there is accountability for their alleged war crimes, peace is highly unlikely. However, even if Addis Ababa wanted to fulfill these demands, it is unclear how much control it has over its allies.

The most fundamental challenge for achieving peace is the highly contrasting visions for the future of Ethiopia held by Abiy’s Prosperity Party and the TPLF. The TPLF have demanded that they be recognised as the legitimate government in Tigray and be granted autonomy over the region. If Addis Ababa were to cede to this request, the government would effectively be admitting defeat, opening the door for the other ethnically distinct regions of Ethiopia to rebel.

Abiy does not need to just resolve this dispute over Tigray’s autonomy. He must unify the nation around a balance of power between central and regional authorities, clarifying the role of ethnicity in the federal system and dissolving resentment and racial tensions. This is no easy feat. After losing Mekelle, he now must negotiate from a position of weakness with a vindictive and ambitious TPLF. If he caves to all TPLF demands, he risks losing legitimacy and authority across the rest of Ethiopia. Establishing a working compromise from such an adverse position would truly vindicate his Nobel Peace Prize.

What are the Feasible Next Steps?

With peace a nigh-on impossibility, both parties can still take steps towards reconciliation. Firstly, the Ethiopian government should permit unrestricted aid access and restore basic services such as internet and electricity. Allowing Tigray to return to a liveable state will encourage stability. Furthermore, the government should encourage Eritrean and Amharan forces to withdraw, and it should establish an independent enquiry into the rumoured atrocities. The TPLF can begin by respecting the ceasefire, allowing the people they claim to be liberating to re-establish their livelihoods. Since it is unlikely that the government will respect the call for Tigrayan autonomy, the TPLF should remove this as a term of the short-term ceasefire arrangement.

If, somehow, the ceasefire manages to hold, then there may be an opportunity for dialogue between the two parties. If such lines of communication can be established and compromises made, then Ethiopia just might be on the road to peace.

Fionn Parker is a third-year student at the Australian National University studying a double degree of Politics/Philosophy/Economics and Law. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Amazon best-selling educational title Catch Up With Top Achievers. He has a passion for academia and research, particularly in the context of international development. Fionn is currently an intern at the AIIA National Office in Canberra. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.