The prospects of a peaceful conclusion to the 19-month war between the government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) appear to be inching closer. Speaking to members of parliament this week during a Q&A session this Tuesday Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) disclosed the formation of a committee tasked with identifying negotiation topics ahead of potential peace talks between the government and the TPLF. A day later the TPLF announced that it would take part in a peace talk with the government of Ethiopia and other parties subject to certain preconditions without specifying who these parties are. Underscoring the importance of peace to Ethiopia and the imperative to pay any price for peace, the Prime Minister rubbished speculations that his administration had been engaged in any talks with the TPLF. However, the High representative of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission for the Horn of Africa, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, had been shuttling between Addis Ababa and Mekelle in a bid to start negotiations between the two. In his latest remark about his effort, Mr. Obasanjo indicated that the prospect of negotiation was better than it was months ago.
Akin to any nation riven with a deadly civil war that has sown devastation in much of the country’s north, killed tens of thousands, uprooted and left facing acute hunger millions, and dealt the economy a heavy blow, taking a stab at arriving a negotiated political settlement to bring the war in northern Ethiopia to a close is fraught with extreme difficulties. After months of changing fortunes on the battlefields the federal government and TPLF leaders have changed their rhetoric towards the exigency for compromise in realization of one fact: total military victory is simply unattainable. Although all the parties involved in the war have not formally declared a cessation of hostilities, the declaration in March 2022 of a humanitarian truce by the Ethiopian government and the improved flow of humanitarian assistance into Tigray has made conditions ripe for peace. Nevertheless, the presence, within the ruling elite of both sides, individuals still clinging to the belief that the only available course of action is to rout the enemy is liable to defeat any peace initiative even before it begins.
Other challenges to a negotiated resolution abound. First, fighting did has not died down despite the retreat of the forces of TPLF to Tigray after a push back by the Ethiopian National Defence forces as well as regional special forces and militias. TPLF forces continue to control parts of the adjoining Amhara and Afar regions even as it launches sporadic attacks on federal and regional forces. Secondly, Amhara forces are loath to relinquish the territories they wrested away from Tigray immediately after the war began in November 2020, arguing they were forcefully incorporated under Tigray in 1991. The TPLF, however, has set the withdrawal of the areas as a precondition for any talks. Furthermore, the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments also remain unwilling to allow Tigray’s forces access through those areas to an external supply line to Sudan. Lastly, the federal government insists that Tigray forces must lay down their weapons its forces while TPLF leaders, who claim the region faces an existential threat from its neighbors, reject any such suggestion.
Going forward it is incumbent on the warring sides to take a number of measures aimed at getting negotiations underway. Priority should be given to agreeing to a cessation of hostilities deal as soon as possible. Likewise, the talks can proceed if the federal and Tigray governments extend a good-will gesture by accepting the legitimacy of each other. Moreover, the negotiations need to be genuinely participatory and involve all the actors in the war, including the Amhara and Afar regional governments, the communities which have borne the brunt of the conflict, and the Eritrean government. The issue of whether the TPLF can take part in the national dialogue process, due to commence in the months ahead, if the proposed negotiations lead to a settlement, must also be clarified if the process is to culminate in sustainable peace. The international community on its part needs to play a constructive role by nudging the parties towards talks without the kind of bias it had displayed so far.
As one Ethiopian observer put it seizing the fragile momentum for peace requires a shift away from the reflex to assume the worst of one’s rivals and towards recognizing the legitimate fears and grievances of others. Though it may well-nigh be impossible to eliminate ingrained animosities and distrust, Ethiopians have no option but to do everything to give peace a chance. Needless to say the negotiations, if they ever get off the ground, must be conducted in a transparent manner and deliver not only accountability of the persons who have committed atrocities, but also redress for traumatized communities. In view of the political roots of the destructive civil war, each and every protagonist in the conflict should display the courage to end the fighting– even if that means offending some of their allies. If Ethiopians cannot overcome our collective failure of imagination and put paid to one of the darkest chapters in our history through dialogue, it will only portend a dire future for the country and, potentially, the Horn of Africa as a whole.