Ethiopia’s complicated barriers to peace
Who are the main warring parties and what do they want?
At the start of this year, promising signs began to emerge that the war in Ethiopia might be entering a new phase. After over a year of fighting, hundreds of thousands of deaths, and millions of displacements, it seemed that negotiations might be on the horizon.
The African Union envoy Olusegun Obasanjo met with the main warring parties. The US envoy for the Horn of Africa flew to Addis Ababa. The UN General-Secretary Antonio Guterres optimistically declared that “there is now a demonstrable effort to make peace”.
Since then, there has been some progress. In March, the federal government implemented an indefinite humanitarian ceasefire, which forces in Tigray welcomed. Aid convoys have been allowed into the Tigray region. Some political prisoners have been released.
At the same time, however, movement towards meaningful talks has been slow. Different regional and international peace efforts have lost momentum. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s national dialogue initiative has been criticised for its opacity and exclusion of key parties. Moreover, while fighting with Tigray forces has subsided, the federal government has intensified military operations against the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and recently arrested 4,000 people in Amhara region in a crackdown against the militia group known as the Fano.
Reasons behind the delays in peace talks include mistrust among parties and the complexity of different groups’ demands. Here are some of the key parties to the war and what they want.
Who wants what?
The conflict began in November 2020 after relations between the federal government and the Tigray regional government, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), broke down. Tensions escalated as each party accused the other of illegitimacy, and the war was sparked after Tigray forces attacked the federal Northern Command bases.
Within weeks, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) had taken control of much of Tigray, including the regional capital Mekelle. The federal government imposed a media blackout and a devastating blockade on aid, telecommunications, and banking services. By mid-2021, however, Tigray forces had fought back and retaken most of the region. In November 2021, the TPLF and its allies came within 250 km of Addis Ababa before retreating.
Through the war, the Tigray government has called for peace talks on several occasions, but with preconditions that one Ethiopia security official described as “unrealistic”. The TPLF’s key demand is that Eritrean forces and Amhara militia withdraw from areas they continue to occupy, which is more complicated than it seems for reasons explained below. For their part, Tigray forces have withdrawn from the Afar region.
Since Abiy took office in 2018, Amhara elites have been among the groups that have benefited the most. They supported the prime minister as he side-lined the TPLF and challenged Ethiopia’s federal system. And in the war, Amhara special forces and militias have played a key role in the federal government’s assault on Tigray.
In return, Amhara elites have renewed their claims to certain territories, including Western Tigray. This area has witnessed several crimes against humanity during the war and remains occupied. Amhara leaders insist the territory is theirs – and their backing of Abiy may be contingent on his tacit support for this claim – while Tigray forces say they will fight to regain it and will not negotiate until it is returned. The federal government is additionally concerned about Western Tigray because it borders Sudan and would give Tigray forces greater access to foreign support and weapons if it were back in their hands.
Another issue relates to the Fano, an influential militia group that started as an Amhara nationalist movement and has played a significant part in the conflict. Their soldiers joined federal forces in sweeping into Tigray in 2020 and have come to occupy several neighbouring areas, not just in Tigray but Oromia and Benshangul-Gumuz regions too. In 19 months of the war, the Fano have been accused of several atrocities and were recently alleged to have killed about 27 Oromia police forces.
As relations between the Amhara elite and the federal government have become strained, Addis Ababa has increasingly turned against the militia group. The federal government recently declared that no informal mercenaries should exist and, in late-May, arrested 4,000 people in a sweeping crackdown against the Fano. The federal government said it was acting against “groups involved in the illegal arms trade, looting and destroying property of individuals, killings, and creating conflict among the public”.
The Fano question is likely to test Abiy’s relationship with Amhara elites further. The federal government wants to demobilise their former military allies who they cannot control and who are deepening resentments and instability in parts of the country. But doing so would reduce the Amhara region’s bargaining power and weaken its military strength.
In Oromia region, federal forces have been fighting the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an armed group that emerged out of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Both groups want self-determination or genuine autonomy for the region. While the OLF is recognised as a legal political party, however, Addis Ababa designated the OLA – which it refuses to call by its chosen name and refers to as Shane – a terrorist organisation in May 2021.
The OLA has conducted joint offensives with the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) and is part of a nine-group rebel coalition alongside their Tigrayan counterparts. The federal government has accused the OLA of numerous atrocities, including the killing of 150 people in August 2021. The group denies the charges, which are difficult to verify as no independent body has investigated the matter.
The OLA has been excluded from negotiations and the federal government’s strategy for dealing with the group remains to be to defeat it through militaristic means. It remains to be seen if this strategy is any more viable today than it has been in preceding decades of conflict in Oromia.
The war in Tigray provided an opportunity for Eritrea’s long-standing leader, President Isaias Afwerki, to settle ancient scores with the TPLF and occupy the contested border territory of Badme. Eritrean forces have been involved from the start of the war and helped federal forces take control of Tigray in the early months of the conflict.
Through the war, Tigray’s leaders and international actors have repeatedly demanded that Eritrean forces, who have been accused of various atrocities, withdraw from the region. This is also a condition of the TPLF accepting to enter talks. Eritrea has ignored these calls, likely because it sees Badme as part of its territory and because it fears a resurgent TDF. This has left the federal government in a difficult situation. Firstly, Abiy promised in 2018 that Badme will be transferred to Eritrea in accordance with the 2000 Algiers Agreement. Secondly, the prime minister does not want to risk losing President Isaias’ support.
Possible ways out
The big question is how Ethiopia can transcend such complex problems.
There is, of course, no easy way out, but the federal government can take some productive measures as a starting point. It could repeal the designation of the TPLF and OLA as terrorist organisations. It could end the blockade of services to Tigray. It could release political prisoners and declare a ceasefire in Oromia, as it has done in Tigray. It could also address concerns over the impartiality and inclusivity of the national dialogue to build trust in the process. This would show willingness to listen and an openness to meaningful talks. For their part, rebel movements could express good faith by publicly recognising the legitimacy of Abiy’s government.
The specific disagreements will be harder to resolve but can be done so peacefully. Ethiopia’s House of Federation is constitutionally empowered to resolve inter-regional border disputes and could lead comprehensive discussions over contested territory that take into consideration the wide array of historical, political, economic and social dynamics. This will not be straightforward and will require time, continuous negotiation, and careful navigation.
As things stand, peace in Ethiopia remains elusive. The route to talks appears to have stalled and militaristic rhetoric is ramping up once more. Tigray’s leader Debretsion Gebremichael was quoted on 12 May as saying that diplomacy had failed and that people should prepare for the “final phase of the struggle”, leading the Amhara government to warn of further violence too.
Unless all parties act swiftly and responsibly, Ethiopia might enter another phase of the war, deepening the already devastating humanitarian crisis.