Even if there is a military victory for one side, it will be a loss for the country.
It has now been more than a year since the civil war in Ethiopia began. The suffering continues unabated. The war has consumed tens of thousands of lives, destroying some of the country’s limited infrastructure and breaking its social fabric.
The balance of power among the warring parties keeps shifting.
Initially, the federal government and its allies, including the Eritrean military, gained the upper hand and controlled most of Tigray. Since late June, Tigray forces have retaken the region, and then expanded the war into neighboring Afar and Amhara regions, and were advancing towards the capital, Addis Abeba.
In recent weeks, federal forces and allies have repelled the advances of Tigray forces and have now recaptured all territories outside of Tigray.
Many in the international community and in Ethiopia, including some in the corridors of power in Addis Abeba, have been saying that there can only be a political solution to the conflict. This would start with reaching a cessation of hostilities that then leads to political dialogue. They assert that both parties must accept to coexist, stop fighting, and agree on a roadmap for dealing with complex issues such as contested territories and accountability through negotiation.
But, so far, diplomatic efforts to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table have not been successful.
Negotiated peace requires a ‘ripe’ moment and momentum. That moment has been hard to find in this war. Both sides thought, and perhaps still think, that they will win and have kept mobilizing while expressing a rather disingenuous willingness to negotiate. This has both cultural and practical reasons.
From a cultural perspective, Ethiopia has an inherently defective, yet entrenched, winner-takes-all political culture that operates as a zero-sum game. The romanticization of sacrifice and the desire to annihilate the enemy still lives on as the primary preference of political adversaries.
In his Medemer book, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was, rather ironically, critical of such culture, writing: “It is our vicious culture to destroy our adversary by full force and push them out of the game in our Country. Unless it is on the graves of our adversaries, we do not think we will ensure victory. We create war to become heroes, and losers to be regarded as winners. We have seen repeatedly in our history that this process will only cause poverty and pain on us.”
From a practical angle, there is a desire from both sides to negotiate from a strong position. Negotiation is ripe in periods where the conflict is in a stalemate and combatants are fatigued to the extent that a political solution offers a way out. These are rare periods in any conflict, let alone in one where both parties prefer to destroy the other by any means necessary and at whatever price.
Still, there have been some such periods during this brutal war.
There was the time after federal forces controlled Mekele in November 2020 or following the exit of federal forces from Mekelle in June 2021. Other such moments included the period after Tigray forces took Weldiya and following the establishment of a new federal government when Abiy had a strong mandate for a pivot to peace.
But, in all such periods, one of the sides succumbed to the temptation of trying to win it all.
I believe the current period presents another opportune moment for dialogue. The Tigray forces were saying it was a matter of weeks, even days, before they would take Addis Abeba, but are now back inside Tigray.
The federal government—which called on every citizen to mobilize and had Abiy head to near the front line—has said it will halt its operations, after capturing many of the places that were under the control of Tigrayan forces in Amhara and Afar.
Both sides have lost, but not totally. Both sides have gained, but not fully.
Of course, the parties, or at least elements within them, will still not see it that way. From the perspective of the federal government and its allies, some might consider dialogue unacceptable because the momentum has shifted in their favor and any such process is an attempt to resuscitate the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The Tigray side is saying it has not lost but made strategic territorial readjustments and is still on course to achieve its objectives.
However, besides the posturing, military victory is not as imminent as the parties are trying to make us believe as a symmetry of sorts has been created.
The federal government and its allies used their huge potential for continued remobilization and regained momentum recently. But the Tigray forces have the experience and potential to regroup. Many battles remain before one side can claim total victory, if there even is such a thing.
But, the fact that the war is far from over is not the only reason why this is a moment for dialogue. There are other, more urgent reasons to avoid a scenario in which one party achieves an outright military win.
An outright victory would create a scenario that risks state collapse and more atrocities.
While the possibility has diminished for now, Tigray forces marching to Addis to topple the government was not only undemocratic but also a great risk to the Ethiopian state as it could lead to perpetual instability.
Abiy’s government is accepted by many and was recently voted into power through an election, however imperfect that process may have been. TPLF no longer has the political capital to galvanize support from other political forces to gain some sort of legitimacy to rule, if it had any intention to do so. The party is increasingly unpopular in the rest of the country, and possible allies, such as marginalized ethnic groups, have been mobilized against it.
Furthermore, there was no politically viable group in the Amhara region that would have been willing to work with the Tigrayans if they took power at the center. This would mean continued fighting with one of the largest ethnic group in the country.
The other option they might have taken, as propagated by the more radical wing of the Tigrayan nationalist camp, is weakening or even dismantling Ethiopia, which they perceive as an oppressive empire. A strong Ethiopian center is considered a security risk to Tigray and, therefore, by empowering ethno-nationalist groups—groups that are likely to continue fighting amongst each other—a strong center could not be forged, and instability would continue.
On the other hand, the risk in the federal government and allies achieving decisive victory is a continued insurgency in the region. The historical record, including during this war, shows the difficulty in an Ethiopian center trying to rule over Tigray by proxy or by force—it has been tried and failed numerous times.
The conflict has become, in part, an ethnic civil war, as both Tigrayan and Amhara political elites have been pushing civilians to join the battlefront to fight for what they believe is a just cause. Leaders from all sides have equated their political survival with the survival of the people they claim to represent. They have worked hard to make sure their constituency internalizes such thinking.
Tigray’s government has repeatedly said that the war is not only against the TPLF but also against the people of Tigray, and that their struggle is against chauvinist forces—particularly the “expansionist Amhara elite”.
The Amhara regional government did the same in mobilizing its people, saying the Amhara people must rise up against the “invading Tigrayan forces”. This has transformed a war fought by trained armies into a war between ill-trained and ethnically motivated recruits, increasing both its cost and the atrocities.
Attacks on civilians and other war crimes are already a consistent characteristic of the war and the increased ethnicization of the conflict has intensified the atrocities. The recently published joint report by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights found that all parties to the conflict have committed serious atrocities that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The federal government and its allies have made the war, in rhetoric and practice, a war against Tigrayans, or at least they have stopped making a clear distinction between Tigrayans and the TPLF following territorial gains by Tigray forces between July and December. Hate speech, including by those in high office and public media, has become common.
The atrocities committed in Tigray during the initial operation is evidence that the same could be done if federal troops and allies re-enter Tigray again, this time with even more cruelty and vengeance. What is to come if Tigray is controlled again is much graver and scary than what has passed, partly due to the crimes committed by Tigray forces during their recent offensive.
Thousands of Tigrayans are interned across the country on suspicion of moral support and collaborating with Tigray forces, or for fear of potential future collaboration. Many of them have been arrested, intimidated, and harassed for nothing more than their ethnicity. The war has moved to neighborhoods, where everyone is told to watch out for strangers and suspicious activities.
Ethiopia is too divided, too polarized, and too deep into war to solve its own problems.
The domestic capacity to press for dialogue or a negotiated settlement barely exists. Social and religious institutions and respected personalities are drawn to the war on one side or the other. The State of Emergency has silenced all other voices and the loudest ones are calling for more war until the other side is destroyed.
Serious international intervention is needed to find a peaceful solution and exert pressure to seize the moment for dialogue. However, except for the humanitarian efforts, the response from the international community in terms of finding a peaceful solution to the war, stopping the suffering, and implementing the Responsibility to Protect doctrine has been ineffective, and even counterproductive.
At this stage, international pressure and intervention must focus on three things: seize the moment now to get parties to agree a ceasefire and come to the table; help find creative solutions to sticky issue; and help enforce the ceasefire and any deals made in the negotiation process.
Achieving a ceasefire will not be easy. There could be resistance from both sides, but the clear challenge is with the ascendant federal government and its Amhara allies. As has been the case throughout this war, the side with momentum will be tempted to refuse dialogue and continue their offensive. This being the case, pro-government forces may be compelled to fully re-enter Tigray and ‘finish the job.’
For now, the federal government has decided to halt operations and not fully re-enter Tigray. This is good news and exemplifies a growing pragmatism on the government’s side to not repeat last year’s mistakes.
Such sentiments must be capitalized on as there will be intense pressure from parts of Abiy’s support base who will object to showing such restraint, especially after the damage Tigray forces have done in Amhara and Afar. That is why negotiations must start now.
The issue of territories is one of the most difficult issues to address. The contested areas in western Tigray that are now under the control of Amhara and federal forces are the biggest challenge to a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement.
The way forward in this regard is for the Tigray side to accept not having control over the territory until a permanent solution is found. In return, the federal government could agree to finding a permanent solution without legitimizing the de facto control by the Amhara regional government, and, instead, find a way to administer the area through some transitional arrangement.
Tigray forces want to retake western Tigray not only because of the territorial claims but also as it opens a corridor to the outside world via the Sudan border. On the other hand, the government has the legitimate worry that this corridor could be used for bringing in military equipment.
This worry could be addressed by the government allowing an internationally monitored humanitarian corridor to facilitate the movement of people and goods, mainly humanitarian aid. This way, the Ethiopian government would ensure that access is not used for transporting arms and military equipment, and the Tigray side would have some access that does not completely depend on the will of its adversaries and so could be closed anytime.
The same goes for southern Tigray. As a contested area, it shall be subject to the same process of determination as western Tigray.
Concerning the long-term solution to these territorial disputes, finding an adjudicated verdict through a credible litigation process is better than conducting a referendum, as is the practice under Ethiopia’s constitutional arrangement.
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Referendums are difficult in western Tigray given that there has been a widespread and still ongoing displacement and resettlement. Holding a referendum would only encourage such action to continue. As such, any attempt to hold referendum in that context will likely restart armed conflict.
The international community should offer a border dispute adjudication mechanism. International mechanisms may not be commonly used to solve domestic territorial issues, but nothing in this conflict is common and solutions need to be creative.
Furthermore, such a process could be accepted by all parties. For the Amhara side, this process would offer a legal mechanism to legitimize its historical claims. The federal government might also accept an adjudication mechanism because it would prevent a precedent by which regional states take territories from each other by force.
The Tigray side would also get a neutral platform that is not set up or controlled by its adversaries, such as a federally mandated commission of boundary experts or the House of Federation.
Issues such as ending the federal government’s blockade on Tigray, restoring humanitarian aid and basic services to Tigray, and recognizing each other’s legitimacy—including the revoking of the terrorist designation placed on the TPLF and Oromo Liberation Army—may be easier to achieve, as they only require political decisions.
Another related but more complicated issue is the federal government’s desire to disarm the TPLF and a potential demand by the Tigray side for secession by invoking Article 39 of the constitution. But, these issues ought to be treated as long-term ones that could be addressed only after negotiations get traction, trust is established, and political bargaining starts.
In the short-term, however, the federal government must accept the new arrangement that Tigray is a unique regional state in the federation with some unusual powers, including to engage in international relations. While that would be technically extra-constitutional, this is the new dispensation on the ground that the government ought to pragmatically accept.
The international community should commit resources to monitor deals and enforce a ceasefire if necessary, including through the use of force. This could take the form of a no-fly zone and enforcement-mandated peacekeeping mission. This is crucial because of the multiplicity of actors that are very unlikely to respect a ceasefire or any other agreements that is reached.
However, with or without a ceasefire, the international community must not neglect its responsibility to protect civilians from atrocities. Because the risks of atrocity crimes in this war are increasing, outside actors need to establish proper monitoring and enact sanctions to try and prevent the situation from devolving into an even more disastrous human catastrophe.
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Main photo: Prime Minister Abiy on the front line with military commanders; BBC; December 2021.
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