Since earlier times, Ethiopia has experienced alternating periods of peace and conflict. Most conflicts have their roots in divisions based on ethnicity, religion, or regional identities. Nonetheless, conflicts where one or both parties rally along ethnic lines are the most lethal and prevalent form of violence. Indeed, the country’s 60-year political discourse has been divisive and controversial.
After the Derg regime fell, the TPLF-led EPRDF introduced a new constitution in 1995, naming the country the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and explicitly endorsing ethnic groups’ rights to self-determination and secession without restriction. This was done in response to the diagnosis that Ethiopia’s main conflict problem stems from “mismanagement of diversity.”
This radical approach was anticipated to lessen violent conflict in Ethiopia. However, that has never happened. Instead, it mostly resulted in a crisis that seriously weakened the state and its institutions, the social order, and peaceful coexistence.
Due to extreme ethnocentric positions, political actors continue to be divided on important national narratives. Our efforts to construct a cohesive nation and state have been seriously hampered by this.
We have lost our humanity and our sense of balance. People are being burned to death. These are among the most significant manifestations of the disease that has to be treated. The current state of affairs makes national dialogue and reconciliation necessary in Ethiopia.
In Ethiopia’s modern history, we Ethiopians have missed a number of historic opportunities to engage in systematic national dialogue and reconciliation. We have met with critical junctures in our history where we could have employed national dialogues to transcend our lingering political and societal rifts. We can mention at least three examples of those missed opportunities in the recent past.
The first major political crisis in recent Ethiopian history that could have been resolved through discussion and reconciliation was the civil war under the Derg regime. On September 12, 1974, the Derg staged a coup d’état and removed Emperor Haile Selassie I. The military junta immediately rebranded Ethiopia as a Marxist-Leninist state and installed a transitional administration.
Instead of attempting to resolve the country’s political crises through inclusive negotiation and reconciliation, the regime adopted an exclusionary politics and a strident stance. Consequently, as soon as the Derg came to power, a variety of opposition political and armed groups with ideologies ranging from Communism to anti-Communism, from ethnically based armed or unarmed political groups to unionists, evolved.
In response, the Derg again used military operations and the QeyShibir (Ethiopian Red Terror) to repress dissenting voices and the rebels, rather than creating a forum for a national dialogue. The opposition forces also used mechanisms ranging from conventional war to terrorism to counter terrorism. Ethiopia has been embroiled in a terrible struggle for seventeen years.
The second squandered opportunity was during the interim period following the overthrow of the Derg dictatorship. After the coalition of rebels (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) overthrew the Derg in 1991, they did not even dream of the agenda of national dialogue.
Instead, the EPRDF hurried to dissolve the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia and swiftly arrested nearly all of the most important Derg officials, as well as ordinary people who were suspected of having ties to the Derg. Because of their national nature and since they did not support the political agenda of the time, multinational organizations were excluded from the July 1991 peace conference.
Moreover, critics allege that important participants were left out of the 1995 constitution-making process and that there was inadequate public discussion or debate. Little was accomplished by the EPRDF’s leadership to advance political discourse or extend public discourse on constitutional concerns and reach a consensus. This one has also turned into yet another missed opportunity.
The third wasted opportunity for long-term peacemaking and democratic development was the 2005 national election and its immediate aftermath. Election manipulation by the EPRDF led to a series of increasingly serious political crises in Ethiopia after the 2005 election, which were eventually resolved by the vanguard TPLF through forced political change.
Jon Abbink, an Ethiopianist researcher correctly described the post-2005 election situation as a “discomfiture of democracy.” Tens of thousands of Ethiopians were detained nationwide as a result of widespread public protests against voting irregularities and election results, and numerous protestors were killed by live gunfire.
Many political parties and intellectuals advocated for inclusive government, national dialogue, and reconciliation as alternatives to punitive measures, but none of their suggestions were ever followed.
So far, the three political crises mentioned above show a failure to at least attempt to resolve political differences through dialogue. Had we used those opportunities, we could not have been talking about this very agenda of national dialogue today to heal Ethiopia from its old problems.
The issue is particularly ingrained in our political culture, which emphasizes dominance and the winner-takes-all mentality. The earlier attempts were only token processes that showed the government’s lack of commitment. The dialogue and peace conferences were regulated by those who wielded power over the state apparatus, who also determined how they were carried out and what came of them.
Efforts for a National Dialogue Since 2018
The political transition since 2018 has offered another opportunity to settle our political divisions that imped the country’s progress towards a better future. Ethiopia’s new government has been committed to encouraging national dialogue that many have earnestly demanded for several decades now.
Conscious of this, since the 2018 political reform, the government has been relentlessly working on managing tensions, polarized discourses, and active conflicts by way of unleashing the networks, systems, and values within our social capital.
The government has also registered a significant paradigm shift in its conception of peace and security. It decoupled state security/regime survival from its political vernacular and prioritized human security.
The discourse shifted from negative peace to positive peace, and the government constituted the Ministry of Peace, one of its kinds, to institutionalize and mainstream positive peace throughout the Ethiopian state and society.
However, the violence in the north has put these and other recent political shifts to the test. The North War, although it was technically started earlier, is a current civil war that started on November 3, 2020.
The crisis in Tigray has persisted for almost two years. There has been a great deal of destruction, and we now face an existential threat.
The Parliament designated the TPLF as a terrorist group before the war, and it has repeatedly shown that it actively works with Ethiopia’s enemies both inside and outside the country. Residents of the Tigray state, especially, have been severely starving and cut off from the rest of Ethiopia for almost two years. Both Amhara and Afar, two nearby regions, experienced significant suffering.
Since the start of the war, there have been some attempts to reach an agreement. For example, as Olusegun Obasanjo addressed the AU Peace and Security Council on November 8, 2021, the leaders of warring parties had agreed to resolve the political situation through discussion. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Gutierrez, has praised this development as well.
However, the intended peaceful solutions to the situation have never materialized. It is a major mystery why the parties who jointly controlled the country under one party for three decades were unable to reach a compromise. They are the groups that have jointly led Ethiopia during the previous 28 years, all affiliated with the same party.
Besides, in the 2018 change of leadership, the conflicting parties came to an agreement over the transfer of power. At the party level, the EPRDF party and its partners voted jointly to pick Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister. He was unanimously elected by the parliament.
So far, the federal government has made a number of moves to end conflict in the north. For instance, its decision to halt military takeover and advance in the Tigray region is a significant sign of its desire for peace.
Following that, a few well-known TPLF alleged criminal inmates were also freed, among them Sebehat Nega, a former leader and important player in the group. They are among 20 senior TPLF officials accused of creating an illegal group to subvert the constitutional order, including attacks on the Northern Command and the assassination of several Defense Forces members.
The decision was made, according to the administration, to foster peace and long-term political stability. The Ethiopian government has also consented to the creation of an international commission of Ethiopian experts to look into claims of abuses and violations of human rights by all parties to the war, as suggested by the Human Rights Council. Above all, it established an Inclusive National Dialogue Commission in February 2022 to find common ground on critical national divisive issues.
Another key action taken by the government is the declaration of an indefinite humanitarian truce on March 24, 2022, to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid into Tigray, much to the pleasure of the Tigrayan forces and the international community.
Since the Ethiopian government declared a humanitarian truce in March 2022, thousands of trucks carrying aid have been transported to the Tigray region of Ethiopia, but many of those vehicles never made it back. Since the conflict began, one of the trickiest issues has been the manipulation of humanitarian aid by the TPLF.
Until recently, the TPLF, on the other hand, did not adequately reciprocate any of these progressive measures taken by the federal government to end the war. The TPLF announced an agreement for dialogue under the AU, which marks a considerable shift.
In a remarkable departure from the past, Redwan Hussien (Amb.), the Prime Minister’s security adviser, declared that the administration is prepared for negotiations with the TPLF “anytime, anywhere” and without preconditions.
On the government’s side, a high-level committee led by the deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Demeke Mekonen, has been named. It has been reported that the TPLF forces also carried out the same actions.
In order to support the beginning of negotiations between the Federal Government of Ethiopia and the TPLF under the aegis of the African Union, the respective EU and US Special Envoys for the Horn of Africa, Annette Weber and Mike Hammer, embarked on their first joint mission to Mekelle, Tigray, on Tuesday, August 2, 2022.
On August 4, 2022, Olusegun Obasanjo, the AU’s High Representative for the Horn of Africa, traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The High Representative met with the newly formed Peace Committee members during the visit to discuss important developments and preparations for the upcoming peace negotiations between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF. Additionally, western diplomats and aid convoys have been permitted entry into the Tigray province.
All the above-mentioned measures are extremely audacious steps that could pave the way for a peaceful solution to the crisis. They offered a strong reason for optimism about peace. Yet, issues that put doubt on the dialogue efforts are already emerging. For instance, Ethiopia’s disappointment with the US and EU’s stance on the leader of Tigray casts doubt on the prospects for peace talks.
Redwan claimed that senior western diplomats are engaged in supporting the TPLF’s demands rather than putting pressure on them to make a clear commitment to peace negotiations.
In July 2022, Debretsion Gebremichael, the president of Tigray regional state, stated that if the federal government was truly prepared to make peace, it would have resumed basic public services in the region. This is in contrast to the federal government’s declaration that it is ready to resume negotiations without preconditions. However, progress toward fruitful discussions has been sluggish.
Similarly, Getachew Reda, Member of Tigray’s Central Command and Head of the External Affairs Office, criticized the federal authorities. On August 17, 2022, he tweeted that the government’s so-called Peace Committee is engaging in its usual game of obfuscation to deceive the international community while its forces actively provoke government forces on multiple fronts. They have openly ignored their oft-repeated promise to take actions to establish a favorable context for peaceful negotiations, such as ensuring unrestricted humanitarian access and restoring Tigray’s services.
Getachew went on to say, “If anything, the Abiy Ahmed regime has made it abundantly clear that it has no appetite for peaceful negotiations except as a delay tactic before it can unleash yet another round of genocidal campaign against the people of Tigray. This madness needs to be stopped soon!”
This is a war-drum-like speech, implying that war is unavoidable. Before getting down and discussing the problem, they got into a vicious verbal battle. The peace committee stated in its press release on August 17, 2022, that a ceasefire deal must be reached as soon as possible in order to enable the continued provision of humanitarian supplies, facilitate the return of basic services, and terminate the crisis amicably.
The federal government has already directed service providers to carry out the essential activities for the fulfillment of these directives, according to the Main Peace Committee.
And right now, it seems like the federal government’s talks with the TPLF will fall through again. Now, why they couldn’t agree is the key question. Why were they unable to resolve issues through conversation?
These concerns have to be addressed. In my view, there are two primary causes of the problem.
The first stems from a domestic issue caused by warring parties’ mismatched agendas and uncompromising opinions. The second is inappropriate intervention by neighboring countries, as well as the aligned rivalry of geopolitical actors in the region, which stems from their own strategic interests. How can future negotiations become effective in this aspect? What might be the roadblocks to peace?
There are several facets to domestic problems in our country today. There are four major inter-related controversial issues that could be potential barriers to peace, with some features quite complex and difficult to isolate.
The first and most contentious issue that could jeopardize the peace effort is the border dispute between the Amhara and Tigray regions. In the past, conflicts between the two regions have mainly centered on the Wolkait and Raya regions.
This argument has strong opinions on both sides. Although the House of Federation is considering the matter, it seems dubious that they will come to a consensus.
The problem is not just one of ownership and identity, but also one of honor. The forced occupation of the land by the TPLF since 1991 was a problem that greatly infuriated the Amhara people. In relation to this, the main demand of the TPLF is the withdrawal of Amhara militia and Eritrean soldiers from the territories they continue to hold.
Moreover, the federal government’s peace committee does not include any Amhara region delegates. This could be another factor that influences both the negotiation process and the outcome.
This, however, is more complex than it appears for a number of reasons. Another significant non-state entity that contributed significantly to the violence in Tigray during the conflict with the TPLF is the Fano militia organization, which has strong feelings for the territory in western Tigray.
Tigray forces say they will battle to retake the territory and will not engage in negotiations until it is returned, while Amhara officials insist the region is theirs and their support for Abiy may depend on his implicit endorsement of this claim. The Amhara elites advocate redrawing the region’s borders.
The Wolkayit debate extends beyond the Amhara-Tigray boundary dispute. Former Ambassador Simon Henshaw of the US indicated that the Welkait-Tsegede issue is a crucial strategic gateway that the TPLF desires to have access to. Because of the TPLF’s hostile behavior, the area also serves another national strategic purpose.
The government is worried about Western Tigray since it borders Sudan and would allow Tigray forces more access to international assistance and weapons if it fell into their hands. Another concern is that there is a ton of evidence that the TPLF is backed by Egypt and the Sudanese military government, and that they may utilize the western Tigray region as a conduit for smuggling weapons and TPLF soldiers who have had Sudanese training.
Sudan also supports the Tigrayan insurgency by either giving its leaders a military base of operations or, as it did in the 1980s, allowing them to import supplies through eastern Sudan.
The second most significant impediment to peace is Eritrea-related concerns. The TPLF and EPLF have a long history of conflict. As a result of the 2002 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the TPLF and EPLF have already developed mistrust and deep hostility, which could stymie future talks.
The controversy over Bademe following the Algiers accord has yet to be settled. This is also another major prerequisite for the TPLF to agree to start negotiations. These calls have gone unanswered by Eritrea, most likely because it considers Badme to be a part of its territory and because it worries about a resurgent Tigray Defense Force.
The federal government is now in a challenging scenario as a result of this. In 2018, Abiy first pledged that Bademe would be transferred to Eritrea in compliance with the 2000 Algiers Agreement. The PM also does not want to run the danger of losing President Isaias Afeworkis’ support.
The third prominent issue to be considered is the ambition of the TPLF to dominate the federal government again through the use of force. Previously, the TPLF agreed to give up its power in a very peaceful manner, but afterwards regretted it, changed its mind, and now wants to reclaim it. It seeks to usurp federal authority in a different way.
The main one is leveraging the networks of its former clients to sow unrest around the nation. In an effort to foment instability around the country, it has collaborated particularly closely with extreme ethno-nationalist organizations. Particularly with reference to the Gumuz and OLF-Shene militants, it encourages protracted fights with them, trains them, provides them with weapons, and compels them to conduct attacks. Since the change in government in 2018, these have been put into motion.
Finally, it has declared an open war against the federal government by attacking the Ethiopian National Defense Forces since October 2021. As a result of this assault and brutality, the populations of Amhara, Afar, and Tigray were severely ravaged. If the plan to dominate federal power is not fulfilled, the TPLF openly threatens to dismember Tigray from Ethiopia. This is essentially a dangerous type of suicide mission that jeopardizes the peace process.
This ambitious goal is supported by the TPLF’s move for an illegal election, which was held in defiance of federal authorities. Tigray held state elections in September 2020, despite the federal government’s pledge that they would be delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The election was held without the approval of the government, and hence there is no legal basis for or acceptance of the results.
The TPLF may demand as a condition that the federal government disburse the annual budget that was granted to it and that the Tigray region’s government be recognized as a legitimate administration. It is highly challenging, but not impossible, to reach consensus on these two topics.
As a result, it would be impossible for the government to acknowledge the region’s illegitimate administration because doing so would be against the law of the land. An illegal armed force and an elected federal government will be the subjects of discussions. There are even strong arguments that the Tigrayan leaders must be overthrown and their army disarmed before negotiations can start. Because it would be unlawful to start negotiations with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front while it is still designed as a terrorist group by the House of People’s Representatives.
The fourth obstacle could be a result of the TPLF’s obstinate position. The TPLF particularly has a pronounced political culture of intransigence. Regardless of how it has acted up to this point, the TPLF is not prepared to give up what it believes to be its own interests.
The TPLF has never before dealt with issues through conversation. It only uses it to buy time before taking more action. A win-win solution may be significantly hampered by this problem.
It is constantly striving for an edge. It appears to assume that their best chance of victory is in conflict, not in peace. Because of this, it consistently presents challenging preconditions for negotiation. In addition, there is a lack of trust between the federal government and the TPLF. The parties involved in the conflict have no common allies and do not trust one another.
Likewise, the political elites of the Tigray and Amhara communities have fostered considerable ethnic enmity toward one another. Even the founding manifesto of the TPLF referred to the Amhara people as a fierce enemy of the Tigray people. It is also a potentially harmful barrier to the success of the negotiations. The politics of peacemaking are made more difficult by Ethiopia’s toxic and chauvinistic digital landscape.
A significant and underlying problem is foreign interference. Certainly, external factors have contributed significantly to the conflict. There are two ways to look at this. The involvement of neighboring countries comes first, followed by influence by geopolitical powers with entrenched political interests.
To start with, Egypt and Sudan have meddled in the current northern Ethiopian crisis. They have a history of backing proxy conflicts in the country. Sudan had provided military and other sorts of support to the TPLF during their tenure as guerrilla fighters. Due to the problems surrounding the dam, Egypt has historically and currently supported anything that lessens the power and capability of the Addis Ababa government for geopolitical reasons.
Meddling of the neighboring nations on border and Nile dam issues is quite visible. In particular, Egypt is making every effort to restrict the Nile dam in any way. They openly support the TPLF financially, militarily, and diplomatically.
To mention a few, the TPLF and the OLF-Shene squad were equipped with weapons, trained, and given financial support in order to accomplish this mission. It is said that, taking advantage of the continuous struggle between the TPLF and Ethiopian forces, Egypt and its ally, the United States, advised neighboring Sudan to invade border regions that were under the control of the Ethiopian government.
From this point of view, Egypt must ensure that talks between the government and Tigray are unsuccessful. According to reports, Cairo and Khartoum generals are now collaborating with the TPLF against the federal government.
Simo Parviainen, a former Finnish diplomat and international relations expert, warned in an exclusive interview with ENA, the Ethiopian state media, that “TPLF is now desperate and finding partners in Sudan and Egypt to launch another catastrophic war.”
It should be noted that Abiy’s administration alleged that foreign soldiers were fighting alongside TPLF fighters. Sudan shares the same position. In addition to the Nile dam, Sudan has also utilized military force to occupy a substantial piece of agricultural land under the pretense that it is its ancient homeland. It is also being used as a training site and recruiting center by the TPLF, Gumuz militants, and OLF-Shene.
A fundamental obstacle to ending the war, however, is the worldwide struggle for influence in one of Africa’s most important nations in terms of both economic and military power. As they compete for control of the Red Sea in the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, Western Europe, and the Far East are not silent on the issue.
Foreign governments, however, have so far been more of a problem than a solution. There are several irrefutable signs that the Tigray issue is being used by the West to exert control over the area and restrict China’s influence. To bring Ethiopia to its knees, they are exploiting the Tigray problem and the Grand Renaissance Dam as major weapons.
Since the battle started in October 2020, the US and EU have both taken sides in the dispute in favor of TPLF. In an additional effort to assist and defend its longtime ally, the TPLF, the US has also brought up the Tigray Region matter before the UNSC.
The TPLF spokesperson revealed that they were given advice to seize Addis Ababa by abandoning the Tigray Region, exposing US interference in Ethiopia’s internal affairs.
The West employs threats and punishment to impose its will on Ethiopia, blindly supporting the TPLF. The application of sanctions against Ethiopia is one instance of how the US has transitioned from being a spectator to a power broker in the Grand Renaissance Dam and the Tigray case.
The US has threatened to stop subsidizing Ethiopia’s growth if a resolution to the dispute and an agreement are not found. In the Middle East, countries have likewise been divided into two to govern the Horn of Africa.
As a result, negotiations are quite challenging. Because of its unyielding attitude and the assistance of westerners, the TPLF is able to assert more and demonstrate more stubbornness and assertiveness. Besides, there is also disagreement on who should broker a deal between the conflicting parties.
Not all of the contending parties support the AU peace initiative. The TPLF favors other parties above the AU, despite Ethiopia’s insistence that the AU is a good venue for resolving Africa’s issues. The international community has not given the AU its full and passionate backing. This represents yet another risk that prevents the start of talks.
The Way Forward
Based on prior experience and what we are currently witnessing, the federal government and the TPLF (Junta) dialogue effort do not appear to be making any progress. Internal intricacy and outside interference are both contributing factors to the dilemma.
In particular, the blind support offered by foreign nations renders the TPLF unfit for negotiations. It is made worse by the involvement of international parties. If this cannot be avoided, it is ridiculous to think that a deal will be made.
Such a failure will cause us to engage in yet another fatal conflict. So, the main concern is how Ethiopia can solve such complex challenges. Ethiopia entered a new phase of the conflict, aggravating the already severe humanitarian situation if immediate and responsible action is not taken by all sides. Further violence, devastation, and eviction are not something we can afford.
The following may be viable solutions to achieving lasting peace in Ethiopia in general and to dealing with the Tigray crisis in particular.
The negotiations need to include more political forces in Ethiopia. The federal team’s negotiating delegation consists solely of federal government representatives. In particular, representatives from the Amhara regional state should be included in the dialogue team because it will affect deals over contested territory between the Amhara and Tigray regions.
The TPLF must also be prepared to abide by local laws and ordinances in order to address this issue. It should also accept the African Union as a platform. Due to its constitutional authority, Ethiopia’s House of Federation might facilitate thorough deliberations over disputed territory that take into account a variety of historical and contemporary political dynamics. Yet, the best thing for lasting peace is that the boundary problems must be resolved using a win-win or lose-lose strategy. For instance, we could create a separate regional state for the contested territories.
Both parties must also avoid unrealistic preconditions for dialogue. Prerequisites not only impede but also slow down the peace process. The two parties are, after all, citizens of the same nation.
It is necessary to stop interference from outside forces, which has so far influenced the peace process negatively. The solution to Africa’s problems should be African solutions. The AU’s platform is helpful in addressing Ethiopia’s problems. Therefore, both domestic and foreign international organizations must acknowledge the AU’s leadership in the negotiations.
Lastly, continue with the current momentum in the national dialogue, including the TPLF.
(Seyoum Mesfin (PhD) is a lecturer at Addis Ababa University.)