Ethiopia: what peace for the deadliest conflict in the world?


On November 2, in Pretoria, South Africa, representatives of the Ethiopian federal government and leaders of the Tigray region signed a agreement negotiated under the aegis of the African Union which interrupted two years of a devastating war. This conflict, which would have almost half a million dead, is probably the deadliest in the world since the turn of the century.

Will the guns be silenced for good? While the Pretoria agreement is undeniably good news in itself, many questions still hang over its application.

Two years of bloody conflict

The conflict erupted in late 2020, as Ethiopia faced a complex political transition.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has seized power in 2018 following three years of increasingly virulent protests against the People's Front for the Liberation of Tigray (FPLT), a party born out of the rebellion which had ruled the country since 1991 and was made up mainly of representatives of Tigray, a province of about 7 million inhabitants (out of some 115 million Ethiopians) which is in the north of the country, bordering Eritrea.

FPLT leaders initially supported Abiy's accession to power, until the latter initiated a series of political reforms that resulted in their party's exclusion from the ruling coalition. They then organized regional elections in Tigray, in defiance of the directives set by the federal authorities who had postponed the ballot, officially due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Amid rising tensions, as both sides branded each other as illegitimate, the FPLT attacked one of the federal forces' bases, and the government retaliated by launching an offensive in Tigray.

During these two years of fierce fighting, the Eritrea of ​​President Afeworki who, since the conflict who opposed her in 1998 to the FPLT, considers the latter as its main enemy, has provided significant support to the Ethiopian federal forces. In 2018, the rapprochement between the Ethiopian Prime Minister and the Eritrean President had allowed a temporary reopening of the border between the two countries, and had earned the first of receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Shortly after launching their first offensive, the federal forces also received support from Amhara militias who wish to annex certain areas of western and southern Tigray which adjoin their own region.

This coalition initially progressed rapidly, taking control of Mekele, the regional capital. The government then blocked all roads leading to the region, depriving it of food aid, and cut off all access to telecommunications, electricity, and banking services. Shortly thereafter, however, the Federal forces lost their initial advantage against the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans who joined the resistance organized by FPLT cadres.

From the summer of 2022, the conflict underwent a new reversal, and the government regained lost ground, in particular thanks to the drones provided by Turkey.

A fragile agreement

It was under these conditions that the negotiations took place in Pretoria. The Tigrayan negotiators had to make major concessions to get the government to stop the fighting. This agreement allowed the cessation of hostilities, but does not define the conditions for a lasting peace. Above all, its implementation could come up against significant obstacles.

The question of withdrawal of Eritrean troops and Amhara militias is a first possible stumbling block. Following the agreement signed in Pretoria, the belligerents continued their talks in Nairobi, and the representatives of the Tigrayan forces then obtained that the application of some of the provisions of the agreement be conditional on the withdrawal of “foreign and non-federal” troops. But at this stage, it is unclear whether Eritrea will disengage its forces, even if the Ethiopian government asks it to.

Similarly, it is unlikely that the Amhara leaders will agree to withdraw their forces from the "disputed areas". Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed will likely be careful to avoid any action that could damage his alliance with these leaders, knowing how much he needs their support to preserve his own political status.

The Pretoria agreement also provides that the Tigrayan forces are disarmed. The Tigrayan leaders accepted this principle, because of the military setbacks that their forces had suffered in recent months, and above all to put an end to the blockade imposed by the government. Already a year ago, 40% of Tigray's population faced extreme food shortage. Famine has probably gained ground since then.

The difficult conditions of disarmament and demobilization

The implementation of disarmament may, however, pose difficulties. If the Tigrayan forces lay down their arms, they will no longer be able to protect their region against any subsequent attack that Eritrea might launch, especially since they would probably not benefit, in such a case, from the military support of the troops. Ethiopian governments. But as long as this disarmament will not be effective, it is likely that the Eritrean president will refuse to withdraw his troops from the areas they occupy.

Tigrayan rebels claim to have disengaged 65% of their fighters from the front line, but that does not mean that these fighters are ready to lay down their arms.

Discussions between military officials in Nairobi have allowed some flexibility to be introduced into this process, by dividing disarmament into two phases. During the initial phase, the Tigrayan forces will return their "heavy weapons" (presumably tanks and artillery), while the withdrawal of light weapons is postponed to a later phase.

There is also the question of the conditions under which the demobilization of combatants would take place. The Tigrayans will probably favor a solution that would allow the integration of their 200 fighters into the federal army. But the prime minister will not necessarily favor the absorption by the federal army of troops who fought to overthrow him, and Eritreans may also oppose this solution.

Progress on other fronts could help create the conditions for real demobilization, but the implementation of other key aspects of the agreement is also lagging. The federal government has pledged to restore access to electricity, telecommunications and other basic services in Tigray, and above all to end any impediment to the delivery of humanitarian aid. However, in December, no timetable had yet been set for the restoration of these accesses. Only Mekele was partially reconnected to the electricity grid.

German United Nations agencies have not yet access to all areas of the region. According to the World Health Organization, medical aid still does not reach all Tigrayans who need it. Similarly, the World Food Program has stated that its access to parts of the region remains limited. Until these restrictions are lifted, the conflict will continue to claim victims in Tigray.

The agreement also provides for the Ethiopian Parliament to cancel the motion passed in 2021 designating the FPLT as a terrorist organization, so that the FPLT and the government can working together to create an "inclusive" interim administration who would govern the region until the elections.

This provision represents an important concession, as it implies that the September 2020 regional elections in Tigray, won hands down by the FPLT, lacked legitimacy. At this stage, the leaders of the FPLT, who still govern Tigray, do not yet seem ready to honor this element of the agreement and give up their place.

End impunity

The emergence of conditions allowing a lasting stabilization does not depend only on the evolution of the governance of Tigray, but of that of the whole country. It requires continued negotiations between adversaries despite their different plans for the Ethiopian state. These negotiations cannot succeed as long as the regime continues to favor military or police solutions to the political problems it faces.

However, even if, since the beginning of the conflict, it remains difficult to obtain reliable information on the behavior of the belligerents and on the way in which they treated the civilian populations, we know that the United Nations have denounced possible war crimes and against humanity, committed "to varying degrees" by all parties involved. The abuses committed by the Amhara militias have been described by human rights organizations as practices of “ethnic cleansing”. Federal and Eritrean forces massacred civilian populations on several occasions in different cities of Tigray. Hundreds of people were victims of rape and sexual slavery, practices used by government forces and their allies as a weapon of war. And, we said, the starvation was used to demoralize people supporting the Tigrayan resistance.

The Tigrayan rebel forces have also committed abuses when they occupied areas outside their own region. Victims and survivors deserve to have these crimes documented. Some may suggest that insisting on investigative work and a justice process being undertaken could damage a truce that remains fragile. However, we cannot create the conditions for a lasting peace by choosing to ignore the crimes committed, and by opposing stability to the mobilization of the mechanisms of international humanitarian law. If the alleged perpetrators of these crimes do not account for their actions, they risk repeating themselves. Without justice, brutalized communities cannot be reached to recognize the legitimacy of a power that conceals the violence they have suffered.

Marine Gassier, Researcher, conflict specialist and the Horn of Africa, Sciences Po

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.


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