In an unexpected turn of events in what the Ethiopian government describes as a law enforcement operation against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that had been ongoing for nearly eight months in response to the latter’s attack on the Northern Command of the national defense forces based in the Tigray regional state at the beginning of November 2020, the government on Monday declared a unilateral ceasefire and immediately withdrew troops from the regional capital Mekelle. The abrupt decision was taken has left Ethiopians perplexed as to what prompted the government to take it despite the explanation it provided in a statement. The entirely contradicting narratives of the government and the TPLF regarding the decision have not helped clarify matters either.
Initially the government said the ceasefire was intended, among others, to allow the farmers of Tigray to proceed with crop planting and facilitate the delivery of food and other aid. Later, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) remarked that soldiers were pulled out because Tigray had ceased to be a “center of gravity for conflicts”. Another government figure said the army could return in weeks if needed. The TPLF though rejects this characterization and claims the government was forced to flee Tigray because it had suffered military defeat. It said it “would stop at nothing to liberate every square inch of the Tigray region all invading forces”. For a country which has been in the throes of deadly conflicts for over five years now the prospect of an endless fighting between the defence forces and rebel forces does not bode well for everyone.
The conflict in Tigray has taken a terrible toll on several fronts for Ethiopia and its people. Aside from leaving thousands dead from both warring sides it has displaced millions from their homes and pushed hundreds of thousands towards famine. On the political side it threatens to cause the balkanization of Ethiopia with the TPLF vowing to establish an independent Tigray and “destroy the enemy” by entering the neighboring Amhara region as well as Eritrea – whose forces have been supporting the Ethiopian army. Moreover, it has given rise to an unprecedented level of pressure by Western governments and international rights organizations as well as a continuous stream of negative coverage by major media outlets. The economic impact of the conflict has been significant as well, forcing the federal government to allocate over USD 2 billion in humanitarian assistance.
The Tigray conflict has been playing out in the backdrop of a slew of challenges Ethiopia has been facing for some time now. Ever since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ascended to power, the country has been riven with internecine strife that he said have been occurring on average once a week. These conflicts have resulted in the death of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, the displacement of millions more and the destruction of both private and public property worth billions. Consequently, the fabric that holds Ethiopian society together and the very survival the nation have been tested like never before. The unrelenting rise in the cost of living and the COVID-19 pandemic have also made life an ordeal for the vast majority of Ethiopians. Furthermore, tensions among Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over the filling and operation of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) continue as has the attempt by Western governments to arm-twist Ethiopia into accepting the demands of Egypt and Sudan.
At this critical juncture in Ethiopia’s history peace, stability and democracy remain ideals that still elude Ethiopians. These ideals cannot be realized without a concerted effort aimed at forging national consensus. Should all stakeholders on the political scene exhibit commonsense and commit themselves to a constructive dialogue underpinned by mutual respect and adherence to the principle of give-and-take, the ensuing dividends for citizens are bound to be manifold, including fulfilling the basic needs of the public and prevent Ethiopia’s historical enemies from inciting its people to engage in deadly intercommunal conflicts. Failure to undertake measures aimed at enabling the people realize their aspiration is sure to subject them to a life of misery. That is why it is incumbent on both sides of the Tigray conflict as well as civil society organizations, religious leaders, elders, intellectuals and the media to realize that they are duty-bound to act responsibly in finding a political solution if they truly have at heart the interest of the people they claim to stand for. Ethiopians are at a crossroads. Either they do whatever is necessary to be at peace with themselves and tread the path to development or they engage in senseless conflicts and hasten a mutually assured destruction. The choice is up to them.