It is almost a year since the war in Ethiopia’s northern state of Tigray broke out. It all begun with a “pre-emptive strike” on the North Command of the federal army by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front on the 4 November 2020. The central government responded with what it described as a brief “surgical operation” to bring to justice the Front’s leadership. Since then, the war has expanded outside Tigray to Afar and Amhara regional states.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is safe to conclude that this war was riddled with miscalculations and strategic blunders. It was a blunder for the TPLF to think it would gain the military upper hand by decapitating the Northern Command – the most equipped branch of the national army. Its act of provocation, however, generated national condemnation and an even more forceful reaction from the government.
On the goverment’s side, the belief that its counter-offensive would be brief was a significant miscalculation. Prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s government underestimated the strength of its foe and the unpredictable nature of war.
The results have been tragic. Ordinary people are paying the heaviest price. They face unlawful executions, rape, displacement, and uncertain futures. In recent weeks, schools have been destroyed, hospitals and health-care centres looted and civilians are executed. Those displaced because by conflict face starvation of biblical magnitude.
The Ethiopian rainy season has ended with the start of the Ethiopian New Year. Ethiopians are craving for a more hopeful new beginning. However, the improvement of the weather and dry roads might open up yet another opportunity for a further bloodshed. Calls for ceasefire and dialogue have so far fallen on deaf ears. The big question is: Why?
In June, the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew its troops from the regional capital. The Tigrayan forces used the opportunity to expand the conflict to Afar and Amhara regions – two regions that share a border with Tigray. Their goal is either to open a corridor to Sudan through Amhara region to get supplies in, or block the Djibouti–Addis Ababa road in Afar – an important economic life-line to Ethiopia.
This shows that the TPLF’s ultimate goal is to choke the economy and target the governent’s ability to govern. The ultimate aim would be regime change in Addis Ababa.
On the other hand, the central government’s position is to defeat the TPLF once and for all. In practice, this is extremely complicated as the enemy is an entity which is, for better or worse, ingrained within the people of Tigray. In other words, so long as the people of Tigray are willing to embrace TPLF, any effort to eliminate the TPLF is bound to pit the central government against Tigrayans.
Rather than seeking peaceful ways out, both sides have entrenched their positions as the conflict has progressed.
There are a number of important factors at play. In Abiy Ahmed’s case, the population is solidly behind him over his firm stance on the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam. Public sentiment was strongly in favour of their leader standing up to Egypt and its international backers who oppose the project. The prime minister did not blink in the face of significant diplomatic pressure.
The war in Tigray is another political event that helped him garner support.
There was popular hesitation in the build-up to the war because of fear that internal conflict would put unnecessary strain on the already weakened social fabric and economy. However, TPLF’s attack on the North Command dramatically shifted popular perception and entrenched a feeling that defeat was a necessary measure to save the nation from a potential balkanisation.
The Prime Minister, therefore, seems to carry the burden of demonstrating that he is made for leadership in such difficult times by defeating the TPLF. His recent speech explaining to the nation that fighting TPLF is just a preparatory exercise for more formidable enemies confirms that ceasefire and dialogue with TPLF is not in his mind.
On the TPLF side, their support was waning even among the Tigrayan following their ouster from the centre of power in 2017 after three decades in power. Tigrayans paid a heavy price in the civil war that deposed the communist regime headed by Mengistu Hailemariam. However, there was a growing feeling that the leaders they put in power have lost their sense of service to their people.
It is the current war, therefore, that helped the Tigrayan elite to regain their position as the voice of the Tigrayan people. However, if they have to opt for ceasefire, it might create a condition where they might face some difficult questions. They would also be under pressure to map out a political future the people deserve and deliver services. And that would be a mammoth task to tackle after immense loss and destruction.
That’s why, instead of opting for ceasefire, the TPLF might decide to prolong the conflict as a means of keeping itself relevant to Tigrayans until they find a favourable orientation.
What must be done
Can peace be achieved? In principle, most conflict ends with peace negotiations. In Ethiopian situation, it is a matter of when, not if. Prolonging the war, however, comes with heavy human cost and economic burden. For the antagonists, cutting the human cost requires a dramatic mindset shift from ego-driven politics to a politics that puts people at the centre.
People in Tigray are facing severe starvation. Citizens in Wollo and Gondar of Amhara region and Afar are facing unlawful killings and mass displacement. If the leaders are hell-bent on ignoring the plights of the suffering, they also need to be accountable for loss and destruction.
The question is, where should the process of the restoration of peace start?
I would argue that peace efforts should be two pronged. At the high political level, African countries – especially, South Africa, Rwanda and Ghana – should play a role in securing ceasefire and dialogue. There are a number of reasons these three countries are best-placed to play this role.
The leaders of all three have strongly spoken against the perpetuation of Africa’s dependence on outside forces. They also supported the revitalisation of the African agency both economically and politically. In addition, they are more likely to play a mediator role that doesn’t involve inserting their own political interests. Lastly, they have a better understanding of cultural and political nuances of the conflict compared to western counterparts.
At the grassroots level, traditional elders, religious leaders and civic organisations should be equipped and empowered to work on improving people-to-people relationship. This should not be limited to Tigray, Afar and Amhara regions.
The sanctions imposed by the West are very unlikely to yield a positive result in restoring peace. Instead, they might be used by both sides to galvanise their support base. Even if the US manages to secure ceasefire through sanctions, it is almost doomed to fail because it cannot generate conviction and trust between the warring sides.
Peaceful culture is created by those who are humble enough to listen from both sides, not by those flex their muscles.