Explained: Why chances for peace in Ethiopia's Tigray conflict look dim

Published : November 06, 2021 17:02 IST

In mid-October, Ethiopian army special forces were still confident of victory. Photo: Seyoum Getu/DW

A national dialogue that could provide a way out of Ethiopia's intensifying impasse appears to be a distant prospect.

"The situation in Ethiopia is currently very perilous. This is probably the most dangerous moment in the country for decades," Murithi Mutiga, International Crisis Group Project Director for the Horn of Africa, based in Nairobi, Kenya, told DW. "The primary issue is that all sides have decided that they can settle this conflict militarily." According to the analyst, the Tigrayan forces have gained strength: "They seem determined and try to make a decisive move that could either lead to the end of the siege in Tigray or to the collapse of the Abiy government," Mutiga said.

For its part, the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has stepped up its war rhetoric. Facing a possible advance on the capital, Addis Ababa, it is calling for a general arming of the people, as well as for all civilians to join the fight. According to observers, there have been busloads of forcibly recruited teenagers and clampdowns during which Tigrayans still staying in the capital were arrested. In the meantime, the U.S. special envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, has arrived in Addis Ababa. "I think it is essential, that he, the A.U. and possible neighbors, at least get all parties to give talks a chance," Mutiga said.

Abiy 'can flee and go into exile'

The Ethiopian Army and troops from Tigray siding with the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) party have been battling for the region in the north of the country for exactly one year now. Voluntary fighters have joined both sides. In the meantime, the TPLF has received reinforcements from the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and claims to have made territorial gains in the course of its advance on the capital.

On November 5, TPLF and OLA announced the formation of an alliance along with seven other opposition groups — with the aim of reversing "the harmful effects of the Abiy Ahmed rule" and precipitate a "safe transition" for the country. Abiy, who was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize as a reconciler at the Horn of Africa, imposed a state of emergency on November 2. He labeled TPLF leaders as terrorists, "a cancer," or "weeds." His Facebook post that called on people to "bury" advancing fighters was deleted by the social network on November 4.

Is there any chance for negotiations between the arch enemies? Norwegian peace researcher Kjetil Tronvoll believes there isn't: "There is no negotiated takeover of power. We can expect an ongoing conflict," he told DW. The TPLF, he added, had no interest in assuming power in Addis Abeba through political means, "but they want to topple Abiy (and achieve) a transitional agreement." Abiy's political career, Tronvoll said, was over: "He can flee and go into exile."

The will to win

The current fight was no military challenge for the troops of the Tigray regional government — they could reach Addis Abeba within a week, Tronvoll believes. But why is the TPLF campaign so successful? Abiy, Tronvoll explains, made a mistake when he dealt with the national army, which had long been dominated by Tigrayans. "He arrested 17,000 soldiers and officers in the chain of command (of the government army) when he came to power. He incapacitated his own army. Being from the Oromo ethnic group, he could not trust them." Today, there was a lot of infighting in the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), Tronvoll added.

The troops from Tigray, Tronvoll emphasizes, have a stronger fighting morale and the will to win. There is discipline in TPLF troops, who are "highly educated people, not peasants as in the resistance war. Now they are recruiting doctors and high school graduates, and they believe in their course." In addition, the survival of their families is at stake. In the face of a situation like this, international efforts came too late and, worse still, most diplomats are unfamiliar with the complexity of Ethiopia, with the people, with the sentiment of the parties, according to Tronvoll.

Diplomacy has failed

Bayisa Wak-Woya, a former U.N. employee from Ethiopia, also mentions a setback in diplomacy: Many diplomats, he said, do not know enough about the different traditions and cultures of the country and were, therefore, failing in their mediation efforts. "It is very difficult to know what is happening at the war front in Ethiopia now. Transparency is a rare commoditiy in that country."

One thing, however, is certain, he believes: "Civil wars are different from wars of aggression." In the former, maintaining the state's sovereignty is a non-argument: "What are human rights violations for some is maintaining law and order for others. This makes it difficult to design a dignified exit (from the fighting) for the parties involved."

What, then, is the way forward? "External powers (…) should refrain from taking sides and putting pressure on the parties in the conflict. So far the diplomatic talks failed to bear fruit, because the international community started to condemn parties. Not a good start," Wak-Woya says, who, nonetheless, is still hopeful that peace can be brought to the region.

Inner balance in disarray

Considerable efforts are being made to prepare international negotiations, according to people familiar with the situation. But discretion is of the essence here, so as not to jeopardize the prospect of successful talks. The inner balance of Ethiopia's immature political system has been in disarray for decades, ethnohistorian Wolbert Smidt, an expert on Ethiopia, tells DW.

That disarray, Smidt says, originated in the late 19th century, an era which saw Ethiopia massively expanding into neighboring regions, which were organized in completely different ways with regard to languages, ethnic groups and cultures. Today's conglomerate of regional states is lacking equality on the political level; there are extreme differences in education, wealth, access to power and recognition, accoring to Smidt.

Realistic offers to advancing troops

One symptom of those long-lasting marginalizations is the current civil war. "Talks must clarify whether there's any common ground left," Smidt says. The government is holding on to its autocratic tendencies, he believes. Now, however, clarity about the military situation is paramount, instead of forcing through reforms.

African partners believe that Ethiopia is tearing itself apart because of these internal contradictions, Smidt says. "We must now make realistic offers to the advancing troops." According to Smidt, the only formula for peace is a national dialogue involving all ethnic and regional-political groups. At first, however, the guns must remain silent. "No reform, no matter how idealistic, can work if you don't integrate stakeholders of central importance."

That political process collapsed years ago. "That means that in the short term, we only have the option of stopping the war, so that a transitional government can be established. It is only on that basis that a longer civil process can be set in motion."