Slim hopes of negotiation for the war in Tigray
The rivalry and war of words between the central government and the regional government in Tigray led by the Prosperity Party and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) respectively have been going for more than two years to finally culminate in military confrontation. Many individual experts as well as institutions have been calling for dialogue to resolve the political differences between the TPLF and the Prosperity Party so that it won’t escalate into a full-fledged war. As it turned out, all these efforts and calls as well as shuttles made by peace brokers between Addis Ababa and Mekelle were in vain.
It has been 12 days since the war in Tigray began. After midnight of Tuesday, November 3, 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) appeared on national television to announce that he ordered the Ethiopian Federal Defense Forces (ENDF) to take military measures against the TPLF forces. He explained that the government’s decision followed attacks by the Tigray region special forces on the Northern Command of the ENDF and their attempts to loot artillery from depots.
A lot has been said since the PM’s announcement and the war has been raging in various parts of Tigray since that night. Artilleries of the Tigrian forces that include tanks, rockets, and missiles with a range of 300 kilometers were said to be destroyed by airstrikes and remote control from the center. In the meantime, the House of Federation decided for federal intervention in Tigray and the establishment of a caretaker government.
PM Abiy announced on Thursday, November 12, 2020, that Western Tigray was successfully put under the control of the federal forces and members of the defense forces were providing the public with humanitarian and health service supports.
Officials of the Tigray region, on the other hand, say that they will stand to defend their sovereign rights. Getachew Reda, member of the executive committee of the TPLF, told the regional television station that the air defense wing of the regional forces downed a war aircraft.
The war of words has also continued. PM Abiy placed the phrase “greedy junta” in the mouths of federal officials, the military as well as state media while officials and members of the TPLF call PM Abiy “autocrat” and “dictator in the making.”
Within this situation, the federal government vowed that it won’t think of any other means of resolving the problem in Tigray before perpetrators of the attack on the military are brought to justice. Through regional TV stations and a letter to the international community, on the other hand, TPLF signaled that any differences they have with the federal government could only be resolved through an inclusive dialogue.
Redwan Hussein, spokesperson of the State of Emergency Command Post, stated in a press conference he gave on Tuesday, November 10, 2020, that the government will only consider negotiations after the objectives of “law enforcement efforts” are met.
According to the government, the operation up in the war-ridden Northern part of the country has three objectives; destroying or arresting artilleries in the hands of the TPLF, bringing the perpetrators of the attack on the Northern Command to justice as well as restoring constitutional order.
In a letter addressed to the Chairperson of the African Union, the President of Tigray regional government, Debretsion Gebremichael (PhD) pleaded with South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa for an all-inclusive negotiation.
PM Abiy, in his reply to calls for negotiation, reiterated that “criminal elements cannot evade rule of law under the guise of seeking reconciliation and a call for dialogue.”
However, the ongoing war between the federal government and the TPLF in Tigray has become concerning for many. Some see that both of them should embrace dialogue while experts point out that, although dialogues are important, there are challenges to doing it.
Adane Tadesse, President of the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), points out that his party and the coalition of parties EDP belong to - Abronet (Togetherness) - have been saying that the feud between the federal and Tigray governments as well as between PP and TPLF would eventually make the country pay the price. He indicates that they have been calling for dialogue and negotiations rather than opting for force to resolve the differences. He further notes that they even offered to broker peace between the two. “But our call was ignored by both of them and we have entered a very sad war that could impact the political landscape as well as threaten the country’s existence,” he remarks.
This is an unnecessary war that the two sides are fighting, he observes. In the advanced 21st century, the two sides should have opted for negotiation to resolve their differences as no one gains by killing one other except for plotting resentment and scar that could create a contentious historical ground for upcoming generations. “If we are good enough, we can still reverse this through dialogue and negotiation. We don’t believe that problems would be resolved by labeling peace preachers as traitors. That is what has filled the air now,” he reflects.
Adane raises the history of the world and wars in recent times in Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen to make his point that even after a prolonged war, they culminate in dialogue and negotiation. For him, the ultimate solution is dialogue and negotiation. He also asks what a different political problem the country faced not to resolve its problems through dialogue and negotiations. “If this generation is to win, it has to break away from the vicious cycle of war and practically show that it can resolve problems through dialogue and negotiation. Victory is resolving problems through dialogue,” he stresses.
For now, he sees two options to break out of this vicious cycle of war: first to design a strategy that would end the war quickly and bring the perpetrators of the attack on the military to justice. “If they have done this, they should be tried in front of the world for war crimes,” he says.
And second, there is a need for working to resolve the problem side by side through dialogue. “There needs to be a serious caution to avoid involvement of any foreign forces in the negotiation,” he advises, as weaknesses within the inside, make the country prone to foreign interests.
“Many countries have gone into war and lost the way out. At least, we have to work on how we could get out of this vicious cycle of war. I don’t believe Ethiopia’s problems would get solutions out of a gun's nozzle,” he stresses.
But for Yeshitila Wondimeneh (PhD), a researcher in conflict resolution and instructor at Addis Ababa University’s College of Development Studies, although a ceasefire is immediately required, there are various challenges for negotiation between the two sides.
Yeshitila points out that the current political crisis is not something new. He raised the unsuccessful efforts to resolve differences between the administration in Tigray and the federal government, the recent attacks on a federal institution, looting of properties as well as undermined sovereignty as challenges for any intentions of sitting to negotiate. “One of the challenges for the negotiation is the attack on the federal government; its institutions have been attacked, looted and people killed. Hence, the measures by the federal government are retaliatory. This in turn escalated the crisis,” he explains.
While the government says it is taking retaliatory measures to enforce the law because its institutions have been attacked, its properties were looted and its military personnel killed, the Tigray regional government wants to negotiate and resolve their differences through an all-inclusive dialogue, he contextualizes.
“The government did not rule out all the chances of negotiation. But it placed preconditions. If an entity genuinely wants negotiations, it should accept these preconditions without any hesitation. Because, what the government asked is the restoration of its loss,” Yeshitila asserts. “If they are determined they would fulfill the demands by the government.” For all these things to materialize, Yeshitila states, hostilities should end without any precondition.
In negotiations, Yeshitila states, there is a question of capacity involved about the negotiators who would sit around the table. There are winners and losers of conflict and negotiation are carried out according to the terms of the winners because the purpose of the negotiation is to contain any further damages, he indicates. Now, it is too late for the two to sit under equal capacity and hold discussions to resolve their problems in a win-win situation. The balance of capacity matters. Before the war broke out, the federal government was willing to sit and negotiate, despite mustering more power and leverage. But the other side was not interested.
“Now the biggest challenge to this is the damage the federal government sustained because of the attacks on its institutions. Its properties have been looted and its sovereignty transgressed,” he stresses.
Yeshitila assesses that the federal government seems to have the upper hand; therefore, rather than resolving the problem through negotiation, it might want to end up victorious. But, because of the current international pressure, the potential regional consequences, and the probability of prolonged conflict, the federal government could take the road to negotiation as it also has responsibility, he adds.
“If they really want to stop the crisis, prevent loss of more human lives, as well as reverse the country from the brink of failure, the party leadership has to sacrifice itself and redeem itslef to be remembered in history. They will be remembered forever as this is a heroic deed,” he speaks of the TPLF leaders. “The Tigray area is war-ridden. Although it started to see some development over the past two and half decades, the majority of the people live under the poverty line. War would reverse whatever was gained from the prevailing peace. After all, it is the public that gets affected.”
He also agrees that the decision by the House of Federation to allow federal intervention in Tigray and establish a caretaker government as well as the “null and void” decision of the election held in Tigray could be additional challenges for negotiation. “The government has announced that the election in Tigray is illegal. So, with whom is it going to negotiate?” he asks.
Although Tigray also called the federal government illegitimate, the federal government exploited all its institutional dispositions to delegitimize the Tigray election. Again, it is the mandate of the federal government to declare that a regional government is illegitimate, not the reverse. The immunity from prosecution of TPLF leaders has also been lifted. So, there is a question of with whom the federal government would negotiate.
EDP’s Adane is of the view that the government’s objectives and decisions must not destruct it from negotiations. “Even if these forces stay in power or not, the government is going to sit for negotiation with other stakeholders in the community. Hence, the government has to carefully think about this, he says. As the war gets prolonged, it could also pose a serious challenge to the country’s economy,” he indicates. He further notes “there are no losers and winners in negotiation. It is war that creates winners and losers. In negotiation, national interest comes first.”
For Adane, what should be in place first is a ceasefire. Then, the leadership must look into the matter in a calm and collected manner. If possible, it is important to conduct the negotiations without the involvement of foreign interests because this could complicate the matter. Hence, the elderly and the Aba Gadas could play roles in this. But the extreme stands from both sides should come to the middle. The governmental stance to evade negotiations stands on the way of the prosperity and democracy it aspires to bring, he recaps.
“There is nothing Ethiopia could profit out of this war; it is the country’s property that is being destructed and the ones dying are out brothers,” concludes Adane.
Yeshitila also agrees on the significant role local elites could play in the negotiation. He says that the academic elites, the political elites, the business elites, as well as the traditional elites should discourage violence and further escalation.
Similarly, Yeshitila believes that foreign involvement would complicate the matter. “After local elites create agreement between the two parties to discuss, foreign entities like the African Union and the Inter Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) could be involved, if there is a need for a good office. But these are not stakeholders by any means,” he emphasizes.
He concludes that this is a problem created by the elite and it could be resolved by the elites too. The local elite could also prove their independence, hold dialogue among themselves, and approach the government as better candidates for the proposed caretaker government, he concludes.
While the possibility of negotiation seems untenable because of the strong opposition to it by the federal government, the humanitarian crisis in Tigray is mounting and thousands are reportedly fleeing their residence.