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War in Tigray: Ethiopia’s Nobel ‘peace’ surprise

Was the 2019 award for a peace deal or a war plan?

On 11 October 2019, Berit Reiss-Andersen, Chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, announced that the Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Ms. Reiss-Anderson explained that “Abiy Ahmed quickly worked out the principles of a peace agreement in close cooperation with Isaias Afwerki, the President of Eritrea…when Prime Minister Abiy reached out his hand, President Afwerki grasped it, and helped to formalize the peace process between the two countries.”

Exactly one year later, President Isaias Afewerki concluded one of many official visits to Ethiopia with a tour of the Ethiopian Air Force base in Bishoftu. Twenty-two days later, on 4 November, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that he had authorized military operations in Tigray as a response to Tigray regional forces attacking the northern command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF).

One hundred days since the start of the conflict, Tigray, a region of six million people that was stable enough to hold regional elections in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic, is now in tatters.

Over 60,000 civilians have fled into neighboring Sudan, an estimated two million people are internally displaced, and there is a real danger of population-wide famine at a scale not seen for decades; and ominously there are widespread reports of extrajudicial executions of civilians, looting of private property, destruction of public and historic institutions, and sexual violence.

On one side, the belligerent parties in this conflict comprise the Ethiopian army under Abiy and the Eritrean army under Isaias. On the other side are forces loyal to the ousted Tigray regional government.

The formidable military alliance between Ethiopia and Eritrea has proven to be very effective in overwhelming the forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Tigray’s ruling party. The execution of the military campaign launched by the Ethiopian army from the south of Tigray, heavily supported by the Eritrean army from the north has squeezed the TPLF into a dead-end. Many TPLF leaders have been killed, arrested, or are on the run. Most towns and cities in Tigray are now under the control of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces.

In the eyes of the Ethiopian and Eritrean leadership, this military accomplishment is an important milestone in the journey they had embarked on two years earlier to establish peace. They both viewed the TPLF as the main stumbling block in the resolution of the conflict between the two countries.

The TPLF was openly critical of Abiy’s peace initiative. From the outset, both the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments showed little interest in engaging the TPLF during their discussions, even though Tigray possesses most of the boundary between their two countries.

Moreover, there were clear indications that Abiy and Isaias regarded the sidelining of the TPLF as a prerequisite, if not one of the goals of their rapprochement. As Abiy pushed for the end of hostilities and for normalization of relationships with Eritrea at a breathtaking pace, he was also busy cracking down on veteran TPLF leaders that had overseen key Ethiopian government security agencies for years.

Isaias was far more transparent.

In a rally in Asmara on 20 June 2018, he announced that he was reciprocating the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s call for peace by sending a delegation to Addis Abeba. In that same speech, he declared that it was “Game Over” for the TPLF “although it will require time and efforts to remove the TPLF’s toxic and malignant legacy”. This was his first public pronouncement on the prospects of peace between the two countries and it was delivered while the TPLF was still a major partner in the sovereign government that had just extended the olive branch to his country.

It had been argued that the peace process initiated by Abiy and enthusiastically reciprocated by Isaias lacked transparency and was replete with secret dealings at the highest levels of the executives of both governments. The public platform of the proceedings was consumed around the close personal relationship between Abiy and Isaias.

The peace treaty that it produced was short on specifics, and it did not stipulate for parliaments in either country to ratify the agreement. Two years after the signing, the parties to the peace agreement have successfully executed a military campaign in Tigray through enormous mobilization and commitment of resources by the governments of both countries.

The peace initiative that has brought the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea to sign the Jeddah Treaty just over two years ago and hailed by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee shortly has been revealed as a single-purpose military bond.

 This military alliance against the TPLF is the most concrete outcome of the Jeddah Peace Treaty.

Key stipulations surrounding the peace treaty have been selectively implemented or ignored, resulting in favorable conditions for the goals of the military alliance.

  • After the treaty, international sanctions against Eritrea were lifted allowing Eritrea to reinforce its military capability.
  • The Eritrean forces did not withdraw from the common border between the two countries, facilitating their participation in the current campaign.
  • Demobilization of the Eritrean forces never took place, favoring the preparation for the military objectives of the current alliance.

The peace treaty initiated by Abiy just over two years ago has, in fact, enabled a devastating war in Tigray. The commencement of hostilities was announced in Addis Abeba last November, but the countdown to war may have started two years earlier, when the Ethiopia-Eritrea Peace deal was signed in Jeddah on 17 September 2018. The military campaign in Tigray involving the coordinated mobilization of the bulk of the armed forces of Ethiopia and Eritrea was launched just over two years later.

The timeline of the peace process that led to the Nobel Peace Prize and the detailed military campaign involving the armies of two countries that had been hostile to each other for over 20 years are too close for comfort.

The inescapable question is, of course, whether the peace treaty was a de facto pact of war from the outset. Given the scale of the devastation unfolding in the aftermath of the war in Tigray, it is imperative that this question be answered, especially by those who were influential in the endorsement of the peace agreement.

The Nobel Peace Prize was a public recognition of Abiy’s efforts to reconcile with the State of Eritrea, and, by extension, an endorsement of the peace treaty.

The prize provided Abiy enormous latitude and credibility both within Ethiopia and internationally. Moreover, the acknowledgment of the Nobel Committee afforded valuable integrity to a peace process that was explicitly short on details.

The months following the Oslo recognition saw the Ethiopian Prime Minister receive accolades everywhere he went and the treaty he signed championed as an important milestone in world peace. These same months also saw the build-up towards the Tigray conflict with simmering tensions between Abiy’s federal government and the TPLF-led regional government. The dangerous standoff between the two sides gathering steam while the glow of the Nobel recognition was still shining prompted little to no alarm from Ethiopians or the world at large.

Perhaps the most consequential effect of the Nobel endorsement, however, was the slowness with which the world reacted to the onset of the war in Tigray.

The commencement of the armed conflict was announced by Abiy after forces loyal to the TPLF stormed and neutralized the ENDF’s northern command stationed in Tigray. However, Ethiopia had asked Sudan to close the border between the two countries days earlier, suggesting that plans to engage the TPLF were likely in the final stages even before the strike on the northern command.

This is supported by the rapidity with which Ethiopian and Eritrean forces leaped into action hours following the Prime Minister’s announcement. Moreover, Amhara’s police commissioner said, a month or so after the intervention, “…therefore we have already done our homework, and accordingly deployment of forces had taken place in our borders from east to west. The war started that night after we have already completed our preparations.”

The conflict began with swift and complete isolation of the Tigray region and its inhabitants. The military offensive involved the massive mobilization of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces advancing along wide fronts supported with heavy artillery and air power both from the South and North of Tigray.

The impact on the civilian population was immediate and catastrophic. Yet, it took months for the world to officially confirm and condemn the participation of Eritrean troops in the conflict.

Was the peace treaty between Ethiopia and Eritrea part of a tactical alliance between the two leaders against the common enemy, the TPLF? Did the Nobel endorsement afford enough goodwill to shield the government of Ethiopia from appropriate scrutiny as it prepared to liquidate an armed political rival with dire consequences to a segment of its population?

These are key questions the Nobel Peace Committee will have to grapple with as the horrors of the war in Tigray begin to see the light of day.

The Nobel Institute staffed with technical and academic expertise supports the five members of the Nobel Prize Committee with required research during the selection process for potential awardees. If the research undertaken into the fabric of the peace process between Abiy and Isaias lacked the necessary depth, some soul searching will be inevitable. The implications of the stamp of approval of the Nobel Prize Committee on a Peace Treaty that has laid the foundation for a devastating war on the people of Tigray cannot be dismissed lightly.

In the address to the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, the then Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Francis Sejersted, summarized the Committee’s modern interpretation of Alfred Nobel’s last will. The intention of the committee, he explained, is not “to hand out certificates of good conduct, but simply to reward practical work for peace.”

Over decades, this abstraction of Mr. Nobel’s wishes has served well to shield the Nobel Committee from many legitimate challenges to their choices; the 1973 award to Henry Kissinger and the 1994 choice of Yasser Arafat are some examples. It may be unprecedented, however, that events that transpired so soon after the 2019 award ceremony have raised disturbing questions about whether the recipient was, in fact, involved in the above-quoted “practical work for peace.”

At best, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize may have been awarded without merit and, at worst, it may have afforded cover and legitimacy to a brutal war whose devastating consequences have yet to be fully comprehended.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with four members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee; 10 December, 2019; AFP.

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About the author

Isaias Irgau

Isaias is from Ethiopia and graduated from the University of Bristol Medical School. He is president and co-founder of the Christiana Institute of Advanced Surgery and a practicing surgeon in the US.

19 Comments

  • This is another paper that lacks objectivity and critical analysis of the recent situation in Ethiopia. Typical pro-TPLF apologists writing propaganda journalistic and acrobatic twisted information to defend Weyane mafias and supported by diaspora uncritical masses who used refuge status as Eritreans.

    • Sashu,

      Could you be good sport and rebut every single point argued in the article instead of coming here armed with a heap of bluster and Gestapo type clap trap. Please grace us. We are waiting.

  • You forgot to mention the role of TPLF in this. Abiy was patient for three years when TPLF orchestrated all those ethnic conflicts and massacres in the country. It was the last resort when TPLF attacked the northern command.

  • It doesn’t mean that, because you have got a peace prize, you can not defend your country when some party starts war to overthrow your government. The international community is not so dumb. The Tigrayan Liberation Front is the one to blame for throwing the country to war. PM Abiy did what every leader should do. He had to protect the country.

    • But this was not a war of grown men and soldiers.

      This was atrocity against the feeble, the poor, the women and the elderly and the children.

      Looting. Raping. Starving a whole population, hiding from the world by a complete blackout, targeting children. This was not a war by any ordinary means. Humanitarian and international laws of war were violated. For this I am disappointed…

  • The conflict between the TPLF and Abiy is at core political. It needed a political solution. But, the Ethiopian tradition is to lunge for guns to show off that one is jegna (‘patriot’, actually disastrous macho mentality in the context of internal conflict). It is one of the stupidities ached into the mentality of Ethiopians. The hiring of Eritrea to invade Tigray is unbelievable. But the jegna camp on Abiy’s side are celebrating it as if it’s a second Adwa victory. There is no victory in turning an internal political conflict into a vicious military campaign. Whatever the military outcome of this war Abiy and co have totally lost in the political field. They have antagonized almost every Tigrayan for the foreseeable future. That means the military victory is false. The struggle of the Tigrayan people has no other route but to continue. How can you build a country while demanding an important part of Ethiopia to prostrate forever? It is not the TPLF’s fault or smartness that bestowed it the victory in the political arena. It is Abiy and co that handed the political victory to the TPLF. Had Abiy called an election two years ago he could have won in a free and fair election. Moreover, the probability of TPLF losing an election in Tigray was high. Many Tigrayans were tired of the TPLF. They too wanted change. Now the people of Tigray are left without a choice but rally behind the TPLF for survival and honor. Abiy can thank his smart Ezema advisors, the Eritrean criminal army, and his own desire to be a dictator. Too bad for Ethiopia, a great chance to democratize the country has degenerated into farce, agony and disaster.

    • Walelign,

      Tigray is prosthetic before it was even a substitution for an amputated limb and that is precisely what has unraveled with in the deep seated and frightening psyche of the Ethiopian elites including the man who is holding the mantle of power. The political solution you subscribe is too comforting when the new narrative for good reason—I might add— is to cede from Ethiopia proper not so much a case buttressed by historical underpinnings but a case built on the extraordinary betrayal Ethiopian elites exude when Tegaru mistook them for their own during the last three decades. Extraordinary betrayal!

  • Around December 2019 the Chair of the Nobel Committee Berit Reiss-Andersen sounded somewhat embarrassed when she said that the peace process seemed to have “stalled”. It had become obvious that the stalling was deliberate, then a year later the prize became a false promise of peace that has descended into war crimes and atrocities. A stalled peace that has turned into a tragedy and a travesty.

    • You forgot to mention the role of TPLF in this. Abiy was patient for three years when TPLF orchestrated all those ethnic conflicts and massacres in the country. It was the last resort when TPLF attacked the northern command.

      • ETH

        Abiy was not patient he was just too weak to accomplish his duty as a PM. Abiy was looking for Getachew Assefa for years with all the resources he got and failed to capture Getachew Assefa. Abiy captured Gen. Kinfe Gebremedhin years ago but not yet captured Getachew Assefa.

      • The war on Tigray has its beginnings 3 years ago when things started as a political hysteria created to blame TPLF for everything and anything wrong in the country. There are reports about what happened at the northern command, but not enough is reported about military activities prior to that event. The political tension and animosity went on to degenerate into an armed conflict.

  • The inability of large segments of the Ethiopian elite, especially the diaspora, to transcend ethnic boundaries and unite for a better future for the country is both staggering and tragic. On the one hand living in modern democracies and prospering from the conditions there and at the same time bitterly defending a TPLF that brought nothing good to the Trigayans and is only concerned with itself repels much needed investments. Yes, PM Abiy has thus more problems, but so do the Tigrayans and Ethiopia as a whole. The author is unfortunately no exception to the above dilemma.

  • The deep deep animosity and divisions among the different ethnic scholars of the country is a reflection that Ethiopia is moving fast on a downward slide.

  • The deep deep animosity and hatred that exist among different ethnic elites, coupled with the impulsive nature of the federal leaders, is an indication that the country could not remain one for a long time.After this war Tigrai sooner or later will secede, no question. The country is under attack from outside and inside. And its enemies are savouring its downward trend. Because of extreme poverty, the youth are leaving the country in droves; Ethiopia is in a very tenuous situation, and only wisdom and foresight,not muscle-flexing, will save her from its precarious condition.

  • The author seems to have been suffocated with self induced bias and he found this website to spit out his spite at the website’s readers. He lionized the criminals who massacred the very soldiers who spent 2 decades protecting Tigray against Eritrea. The criminals and their supporters massacred innocent civilians in May Kadra and the author chose not to mention it. In fact, the author failed to mention anything bad that the TPLF committed.

  • Isaias Irgau:

    It is telling (as in it tells you are a TPLF apologist) that you describe the massacre of Ethiopian Federal Army units stationed within Tirgrai by TPLF criminals as:

    “…forces loyal to the TPLF stormed and neutralized the ENDF’s northern command stationed in Tigray.”

    You should be truthful about what happened. The above quote should be changed to:

    “…forces loyal to the TPLF massacred unsuspecting units of ENDF’s northern command stationed in Tigray in the middle of the night. In doing so the entire border area with Eritrea was left defenseless opening the gates of hell on the people of Tigrai especially those closest to the Eritrean border.”

    The catastrophie that has fallen Tigrai is not a result of Abiy Ahmed Ali or Isayas Afeworki. TPLF is singularly responsible for unleashing this hell on Tigrai. The reckless gamble that TPLF leadership made on Nov 3/4 2020 is unforgivable. It has set Tigrai back by at least 50 years.

    You better face the reality and start dancing to the tunes soon … time is running out. RIP TPLF.

  • how about not murdering soldiers that were helping the fight against locust in their sleeps? the thing you so callously described as “…forces loyal to the TPLF stormed and neutralized the ENDF’s northern command stationed in Tigray.”
    You can spin all the conspiracies you want — and you and the likes of you are doing exactly that — but facts don’t change. TPLF murdered soldiers in their sleep to take over 80 – 85% of Ethiopia’s armaments and to have more firepower than the federal government. After doing that it stated that it’s on par with the federal government and in order to avoid bloodshed the only way out was for the so called “federalist forces” to negotiate a new political structure that would place it back at the helm. When that didn’t work, it started screaming “genocide genocide” — funny enough even in the 2005 election all it said was genocide — whilst committing genocide itself, when that didn’t work it tried to internationalize the confilct, and when that didn’t work it fired rockets on Gondar, BahirDar & Asmara and threatened to do the same on Addis Ababa. When all this failed it paraded — on TV no less — kids with RPGs & AKs and bragged that it’s forces can not be defeated. It also insulted the rest of the ethnicities in Ethiopia by saying they have no history, moral or organization to be able to defeat the central government whilst Tegaru at truly the exceptional bunch just like Israel as they kept saying.
    Keep trying to re-write what we lived through, it won’t work cause we will never forget.

    On that note http://chng.it/Lgxh7DRKgW

    • Its true their last resort is to claim “genocide” after all their moves have failed.
      They should have thought of that before starting the war, not now.

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