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Can Ethiopia finally cut its Gordian knot?

Current Affairs

Can Ethiopia finally cut its Gordian knot?

Following the stunning reversal of fortune when Ethiopian national forces stopped the advance of the Tigray militia and turned them back, can we now realistically expect to see concrete moves towards a ceasefire and get the combatants to the negotiating table? James Jeffery looks at the various scenarios that can now unfold in Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian government was on the edge of a cliff last November. Its increasingly embattled-looking Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, was calling on citizens to arms themselves and to prepare to defend Addis Ababa.

Tigrayan forces had captured the strategic towns of Dessie and Kombolcha, opening the way to Ethiopia’s capital, 250 miles further south. Tigrayan commanders spoke confidently about transitioning to a post-Abiy regime following the soon-to-come final victory.

But that stunning Tigrayan comeback – following the defeat of the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) in November 2020 as federal forces seized control of Tigray – has now given way to another stunning reversal of fortune, this time in the government’s favour. Now Dessie and Kombolcha are back in the hands of federal forces. The TDF have returned to Tigray, far to Ethiopia’s north. 

The military pendulum having swung completely the other way, Abiy appears to have the upper hand. For now, though, the Ethiopian government appears to be biding its time, acutely aware of the risks of pushing into Tigray.

The government also knows the 14-month-long conflict has resulted in enormous levels of bitterness throughout the country. Never has so much been on the line for Ethiopia since its creation as a federal democratic republic in 1994.

“Rarely can the prospects of any nation have imploded so spectacularly as those of Ethiopia,” commented David Pilling, the Financial Times’ Africa editor, in his recent article, ‘Ethiopia is a tragedy for the whole of Africa’. He compared events in Ethiopia with the stunning developments in Afghanistan as Kabul fell to the Taliban, noting that the tragedy in Africa’s second most populous country has “unfolded with Afghan-like velocity”.

Now that that velocity has been checked – and Addis Ababa hasn’t fallen – what happens next could not be more crucial: but the present window of opportunity could easily be squandered like the others that preceded it.

“Negotiated peace requires a ‘ripe’ moment and momentum – that moment has been hard to find in this war”, notes a recent article at Ethiopia Insight, a news website focusing on under-reported issues and in-depth coverage of Ethiopian affairs.

The piece, written by an anonymous author due to concerns about repercussions, highlights how at each of the previous key moments during the conflict when there was a chance of negotiating peace – when federal forces captured Mekele in November 2020; the exit of federal forces from Tigray in June 2021; the establishment of a new federal government following elections in July, giving Abiy a strong mandate for a pivot to peace – “one of the sides succumbed to the temptation of trying to win it all.”

However, there are signs that this time could be different, evidenced by growing pragmatism on the government’s side. At the beginning of January, the government freed several opposition leaders from prison, while announcing it would open dialogue with political opponents.

Those released included senior political leaders from Oromia such as Jawar Mohammed, founder of the Oromia Media Network, and from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the party leading the TDF.

“The key to lasting peace is dialogue,” remarked a recent statement released by the government communications office. “One of the moral obligations of a victor is mercy.”

That sort of conciliatory statement is a far cry from the previous belligerent rhetoric proclaimed by all sides. When the TDF was closing in on Addis Ababa, Abiy had a Facebook post deleted due to violating the platform’s policies against inciting violence.

Will Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst for International Crisis Group, told Reuters that the announcement was “the first sign in some time that the federal government is looking to take serious actions towards political reconciliation.”

Pitfalls of continued conflict

That said, both sides have plenty of disincentives against continued warfare. The setback for the TPLF is clear, having lost all the gains and momentum that took its forces so close to Addis Ababa. Not to mention the other disadvantages its leaders can’t ignore:

“The party is increasingly unpopular in the rest of the country… with possible allies, such as marginalised ethnic groups, having been mobilised against it,” says the Ethiopia Insight piece, noting that because there is no politically viable group in the Amhara region willing to work with the Tigrayans, if they had seized power this would have meant “fighting with one of the largest ethnic groups in the country”.

Another option for the TPLF could be secession for the Tigray region. The idea has gained traction during the conflict, but it is no less perilous a commitment. 

“The case for independence is spearheaded by political and economic elites using their media influence to advance the cause,” Getachew Temare, an Ethiopian lawyer and activist focused on human rights, writes in an article for Ethiopia Insight. “While there are many possible future paths, what seems certain is that people in Tigray will always yearn for peace and security.

“The political, economic and socio-cultural promises provided by hot-blooded secessionist groups are short-sighted, and fail to acknowledge the massive risks involved.”

Despite the government’s strengthened position, Abiy is aware of the possibility of a prolonged insurgency even if an ostensibly decisive victory is achieved.

“The historical record, including during the war, shows the difficulty in an Ethiopian centre trying to rule over Tigray by proxy or by force – it has been tried and failed numerous times,” the anonymous Ethiopia Insight author notes. Yet while both sides know the pitfalls of continued conflict, getting them to the negotiating table still remains a massive challenge.

“Yes, there is some fatigue on both sides and also something of a stalemate,” Davison says. “But the major obstacle to overcome is the broader context: both sides consider this an existential struggle.”

Need for outside intervention?

Other commentators argue that Ethiopia is too divided, too polarised and too deeply mired in conflict and recriminations now to solve its own problems. Hence the calls for external involvement that have attended the conflict for some time.

“The international community and regional players should exert maximum pressure to save this country from further mayhem by insisting on the immediate cessation of hostilities and encouraging Ethiopia’s political forces to resolve their differences through an all-inclusive national dialogue,” Jawar Mohammed wrote in a letter smuggled out of prison in November 2020.

“One can defeat the other on the battlefield, but neither side would be victorious in building a peaceful and sustainable political order. We are poised to lose the country if we keep insisting on advancing our particular interest through the use of force.”

In terms of the present situation, the Ethiopia Insight author argues that pressure to seize the moment for dialogue must come quickly because “there will be intense influence from parts of Abiy’s support base who will object to showing constraint, especially after the damage Tigray forces have done in Amhara and Afar.”

Martin Plaut, a long-term commentator on the Horn of Africa and a fellow of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, notes that many Amhara are “incandescent with rage” about developments such as the government releasing those political prisoners.

“The international community should commit resources to monitor deals and enforce a ceasefire if necessary, including through the use of force,” the Ethiopia Insight writer argues. “This could take the form of a no-fly zone and enforcement-mandated peacekeeping mission.”

But while this may sound a sensible suggestion, the record on international enforcement and even peacekeeping missions elsewhere has been very poor. In countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, external intervention has compounded and worsened the situation.

Meanwhile, there is a general consensus that one of the most important issues that must be addressed, if a ceasefire and negotiated settlement is to succeed, is the contested territory of west Tigray, now back under the control of Amhara and federal forces.

Resolving this would need to address the conflicting interests of the TPLF, which wants to retake western Tigray not only because of territorial claims but also because it opens a corridor to the outside world via the Sudan border; this conflicts with the government’s concerns about the corridor being used for bringing in military equipment.

This conundrum could be addressed, the Ethiopia Insight piece notes, “by the government allowing an international monitored humanitarian corridor to facilitate the movement of people and goods, mainly humanitarian aid.” This would assuage the government’s concerns about arms while reassuring the Tigrayan side that the access it needs does not depend on the whims of its adversaries.

But even if Abiy agrees to the idea, getting the Amhara and Eritrean military on the ground to cooperate is another matter, notes Will Davison of International Crisis Group.

For a genuine long-term resolution over west Tigray, the Ethiopia Insight piece continues, some sort of regional border adjudication by the international community might be needed: “International mechanisms may not be commonly used to solve domestic territorial disputes, but nothing in this conflict is common and solutions need to be creative.”

Others urge caution regarding foreign assistance-cum-intervention given the precariousness of Ethiopian foreign relations, which – especially with the US, one of Ethiopia’s most important backers – have deteriorated during the conflict.   

“A handover to a new US special envoy for the Horn of Africa may present an opportunity for some subtle shifts in US engagement, and give the Ethiopian government cover for a shift in the tone of its engagement with Washington,” says Jason Mosley, a senior researcher for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

“However, the large Ethiopian diaspora population in the US, many of whom hold American citizenship, complicates relations – particularly via Congressional efforts to engage with Ethiopia’s crisis, which may not align with the foreign policy messaging that the executive branch is trying to craft.”

Mosley concludes that US leverage remains limited: “However, renewed engagement and a de-escalation of the propaganda war from the Ethiopian government could help to facilitate peace.”

And yet. The great conundrum remains of untangling the Gordian knot that has bedevilled Ethiopia’s politics since the country existed as Abyssinia and that still lurks at the heart of the conflict and drives on its participants: profound disagreement over the nature of the modern Ethiopian state and whether it should exist as a centralised nation versus as a federation of semi-autonomous regions.

“There is no in-between, the viewpoints are irreconcilable,” says Plaut. “I think we will see more war. I hope I am wrong.” So do all Ethiopians, Africans and those that wish this great African nation well.  

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