Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Let’s not go back to square one!

The abrupt eruption of fighting between government forces and militants of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) along the border of the Tigray region this Wednesday has left Ethiopians apprehensive and disheartened. The resumption of active hostilities shatters the months-long relative calm that has been prevailing in the northern part of Ethiopia following the federal government’s announcement in March of a truce to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to Tigray. Predictably the warring sides have blamed each other of provoking the hostilities. The Ethiopian government has accused the TPLF of striking first, saying it had “destroyed the truce”. In a statement it issued on the same day the Government Communications Service said, “Disregarding the numerous peace options presented by the Ethiopian government, the armed wing of the terror group TPLF, pushing with its recent provocations, today committed an attack” around southern Tigray. The TPLF though has said government forces and their allies had launched a “large scale” offensive towards southern Tigray early Wednesday after a months-long lull in fighting, adding its forces were defending their positions in the southern front.

The lead up to the current round of conflict portended the escalation of the now 21-month civil war. War drums were repeatedly being beaten with all the sides in the conflict issuing statements pointing to the outbreak of an impending war. The TPLF said on several occasions that the peaceful path to resolve the situation was not working and that it was considering “other options.” The government of Ethiopia on its part accused the TPLF of engaging in extensive military mobilization in preparation to restart the war and called on the international community to condemn the terrorist-designated organization and dissuade it from its ill-fated move. The government of neighboring Eritrea, whose troops have been operating in Tigray since the war began, also pointed the finger at TPLF for plotting to launch attacks on the country to reclaim lost territory.

Since November 2020, the bloody war has exacted a heavy humanitarian toll and ravaged the nation’s economy. In addition to the tens of thousands killed and injured, millions more were displaced, psychologically traumatized and left needing emergency food assistance. Social and economic infrastructure has been totally or partially damaged, including schools, universities, health institutions, and other facilities in the Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions. The economy has taken and continues to take a battering. Its growth, which stood at around 10 percent annually before the conflict, has contracted by half; scores of industries have been damaged while some investors have suspended or totally quit operations, resulting in a surge in unemployment; the undoubtedly huge sums of foreign exchange the war has eaten up has contributed to its dearth at levels rarely seen before and to driving inflation higher. Although it’s difficult to quantify the true cost of the war, the destruction is sure to have cost Ethiopia billions of dollars.

The renewed conflict comes as efforts underway since June following the establishment of a government-appointed committee tasked with starting peace talks hit a snag. The government’s announcement in late July that it was ready to hold talks with the TPLF “anytime, anywhere” and the TPLF’s expression of its willingness to ending the war through peaceful means raised the prospects of peace. The apparent readiness of the two parties to engage in peace talks was hailed as an important initiative locally and by the international community. However, both sides have laid down preconditions that they say must be met prior to the commencement of talks—the declaration of a formal cessation of hostilities in the case of the Ethiopian government and the resumption of basic services to Tigray by the TPLF. They also disagree on who should lead negotiations, with the government demanding that the African Union oversee the process but the rebels insisting that outgoing Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta should chair it. While we are not apportioning blame here it’s disappointing to say the least that war has broken out again due to the inability of political leaders to do whatever is necessary to prevent it.

War is generally regarded as something that cannot guarantee a win-win solution to political conflicts. This said some contend that war is not necessarily the worst option as long as it fulfills certain considerations that lend it moral acceptance. Critics, however, argue that all war is essentially indefensible regardless of how justifiable the cause behind it may be. They also attempts to justify a particular type of war as being just serve to rationalize violence instead of constraining it. Philosophical differences aside, many agree war is a failure of imagination. Ethiopians have had enough of the internecine conflicts that they have endured for centuries. The blame squarely lies with political leaders and elites bereft of the desire to settle differences through constructive dialogues. In any kind of armed conflicts it is innocent civilians who bear the brunt, not their architects. That’s why the Ethiopian government and the TPLF need to immediately stop fighting and thrash out a durable peace accord at the negotiating table. Let’s not go back to square one!

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