Ethiopia’s Cessation of Hostilities: Winning the War, Losing the Peace?  

Cessation of Hostilities
A dozen civilians are buried in this grave in Hawzen – photo on 6 June 2021. Photo by Yan Boechat/VOA

By Lovise Aalen

Cessation of Hostilities

In an unexpected diplomatic breakthrough, the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed on November 2nd an agreement on a permanent cessation of hostilities (CoH), signalling a first step in ending a two-year war in the Ethiopian northernmost region, one of the least known, but most deadly armed conflicts in the world. Mediated by the African Union, the deal came as a result of the Ethiopian federal forces and its allies’ recent military advances and a TPLF under severe pressure of defeat.  This led to an agreement totally on the terms of the victor, leaving out critical issues and making it hard for the losing part to defend the deal in front of its constituencies.  In this way, the win in the war may undermine the chances of the successful implementation, increasing the risk of losing the peace.

The key content of the deal is that the TPLF will be disarmed within thirty days, the Tigrayan regional administration dismantled, and federal authority reinstalled in Tigray.  The large elephant in the room – the role of neighbouring Eritrea and Amhara militia and regional forces fighting along Ethiopian federal forces – are not mentioned.   Other major issues such as transitional justice, accountability and contested territories are not dealt with in depth, making it difficult for the losing part to trust and accept the deal. In the week following the signature, reports indicate that Eritrean forces are still active on the ground, and only a limited amount of aid has been reaching a starving Tigrayan population, pointing at fundamental deficits in the implementation so far.

Why did the war erupt?

The war that erupted in November 2020 started as a military confrontation between the old and the new power holders in Africa’s second most populous state, as a biproduct of a transition gone bad. During the two year’s duration, the war has however evolved into an extremely deadly conflict involving the use of sexual violence and between 300.000 and 800.000 civilian casualties, and forces fighting on the federal government side accused of waging a genocidal campaign against Tigrayans.

The TPLF, the old elite representing the third largest ethnic group in the country, was gradually cornered by the new elite led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, coming to power in 2018.  The TPLF had governed the country since 1991 through a sophisticated form of divide and rule, a combination of centralised party rule and an ethnic based federal system, implementing decentralization reforms in order to consolidate central power. Instead of deepening democracy, the party used its reign to deepen autocracy, introducing a range of draconian laws and shrinking the space for opposition parties and civil society. This, together with privileging members of its own party in economic and political life, led the TPLF to become more and more unpopular among Ethiopia citizens, leading to protests and finally a decisive crack in the ruling party.

Abyi Ahmed, one of the leaders of the Oromo section of the ruling party, was selected as party leader and Prime minister in April 2018 by the help of resilient youth dominated popular protests and a realignment and alliance between the leaders of the country’s two largest ethnic groups, the Amhara and Oromo, within the ruling Ethiopian Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). He soon addressed popular discontent by releasing political prisoners, welcoming exiled opposition back home, revising suppressive laws, and even reapproaching the age-old enemy, neighbouring Eritrea. This all earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

In the wake of these reforms, some kind of showdown between the new administration and the TPLF was expected. While first accepting Abiy Ahmed, the relationship strained when the government pushed corruption charges against members of the Tigrayan elite and hunted former intelligence officers of the TPLF. The alienation of the TPLF took a major step further when Abiy Ahmed replaced the EPRDF with the non-ethnic Prosperity Party in 2019 – the TPLF being the only former member who refused to join. The tension escalated when the TPLF decided to hold regional elections in September 2020 despite a federal decision to postpone the polls all over the country due to Covid-19.

On the late evening of the American elections, on November 3rd 2020, it was reported that the federal military base of the northern command in Tigray had been attacked by TPLF forces. Although the circumstances behind the first armed confrontation are contested, it led the federal government to start what they termed a ‘Law Enforcement Operation’ to restore federal authority in Tigray. The TPLF, on its side, was quick to argue that their armed resistance was about ‘what Ethiopia should be’ –  in defence regional autonomy and the right of ethnic groups to self-rule against centralization and disregard of ethnic diversity. This narrative, though largely in contradiction with TPLF’s own practice of centralization and dominant party rule when in power, has turned out to be a powerful asset in the mobilization of support among Tigrayans at home and abroad and in the international community.

The Deficits of the Deal

Abiy Ahmed promised in 2020 that the ‘Law Enforcement Operation’ would be over in a matter of weeks.  But federal forces faced several humiliating defeats against the TPLF and the recently founded Tigray Defence Forces, including a wider group of Tigrayans, turning the regional capital of Mekelle back in the hands of the TPLF in June 2021. In October 2021, the TDF expanded its combat to the northern parts of Amhara and Afar, and at one point, TDF forces gained control of Amhara towns only 400 km away from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. By the help of drones and air force, the federal  government managed to retake control of the areas outside Tigray, leaving TDF to withdraw to Tigray.

As early as November 2020, the TPLF claimed that they were in active combat with Eritrean forces, Amhara region special forces and militia and irregular armies of Amhara Fano fighters. It took however more than a year before the Prime Minister admitted the presence of Eritrean forces on Ethiopian soil. The alliance with President Issaias Afwerki now appeared as a military pact against the common enemy, the TPLF, and not as a peace settlement, which had first earned Abiy Ahmed the Nobel Peace Prize.

Eritrean forces are seen as particularly aggressive in the war. They are accused of being behind many of the massacres and assaults on civilians and for widespread use of rape as a weapon of war.  Despite this, the Eritrean withdrawal  is not mentioned in the  CoH signed in early November this year. In a follow up meeting between military leaders on November 12, it was however guaranteed that disarmament of heavy weapons from the TPLF will be done concurrently with the withdrawal of foreign and non-federal forces.  Still, the reports of Eritrean presence and attacks on civilians also after this date gives little hope that the Eritreans, as non-partners, are committed to the new peace deal.

Another issue not addressed in the recent peace deal are the contested borderlands between Amhara and Tigray regions, administered as West Tigray under Tigray since 1991, but historically claimed as Welkayit and Humera by the Amhara.  In this area, Fano fighters and Amhara special forces and militia have been accused of ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans. Since they took control of these territories in the first months of the war, thousands of Tigrayans have been detained, killed or forcefully chased away, displaced either to Tigray or across the border to Sudan.

While the agreement mentions that contested areas should be solved by constitutional means, it leaves in the air whether it should be solved by a constitutional committee, or that it should return to pre-war territorial arrangements, which were defined in the 1995 constitution as under Tigray. It remains unclear how internally displaced Tigrayans should be handled, and how the Amhara’s forceful occupation will be treated. Amhara political forces, including the regional administration and its special forces, the Fano, and the radical Amhara diaspora are likely to reject any return of the area to Tigray.  If Abiy Ahmed is negotiating a return of the areas to Tigray, a violent backlash from Amhara political forces is expected.

Losing the Peace?

For the Tigrayan civilian population, the most serious deficit with the agreement is probably the lack of guarantee for their security during the period of TPLF disarmament and after federal authority is reinstalled. With little or no mechanisms for holding perpetrators of war crimes to account, it is difficult for civilians to trust the federal forces, who have been complicit in massacres and rape as a weapon of war.

Seeing photos from the apparently pleasant negotiations leading to the deal in early November, we are reminded that the individuals sitting opposite each other as enemies were in fact part and parcel of the same regime less than five years ago. The fact that the agreement leaves out so many critical issues, while leaders on both sides hail the deal, tells the tale of a war that could have been avoided. What is different from previous elite conflicts and deals is that the civilian loss in this war is immense, and that civilians have been deliberately targeted. So the wounds are deeper and will take longer time to heal, if at all possible, and the trust in the political leadership on both sides will not be easily rebuilt.

The war in Tigray is also not the only violent conflict going on in Ethiopia. In Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest region, the government is waging a counter-insurgency against the Oromo Liberation Army, using drones, severely affecting civilians. This is again an indication that a broader national peace process is necessary, where all sides, especially the government actors, are held responsible for atrocities committed.

Lovise Aalen is a senior researcher at CMI, the Chr. Michelsen Institute for Science and Intellectual Freedom, in Norway. Her research interests and publications include politics in Ethiopia and the wider the Horn of Africa-region and on institutional solutions in post-war multiethnic states.

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