Geopolitics Global Agenda

Peace talks may end bloody war in Ethiopian Tigray region

Pavol Beblavý

Delegates of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) met in Pretoria, South Africa on October 25. According to preliminary reports, they agreed to a ceasefire. Peace talks brokered by the African Union began shortly after the Ethiopian-Eritrean offensive overran large parts of the Tigray region. Their goal is to negotiate a mutually acceptable peace agreement that would end the bloody war in the Ethiopian region of Tigray. It has claimed up to 800,000 lives in less than two years.

Background of the conflict

Ethiopia is a country that consists of a large number of smaller and larger ethnic groups. The most important ethnic groups are the Oromos, Afaris, Amharas, Somalis and Tigrayans. After the end of the Ethiopian civil war in 1991, the country was transformed into an ethnic federation in which each ethnic group had its own state. The federal government was in the hands of a broad coalition of ethnic parties that governed all of Ethiopia. The greatest power at the federal level was held by the TPLF and the Tigrayan ethnic group. The Federal State of Tigray is located in the north of Ethiopia and borders Eritrea. The state of Tigray has long-standing disputes with Eritrea, and the Tigrayan-led federal government waged war against Eritrea from 1998-2018.

In 2018, Abyi Ahmed became, as the first member of the Oromo ethnic group in the country’s history, the new prime minister of Ethiopia. This was the beginning of the gradual decline of the TPLF’s dominant influence at the federal level. One of the new prime minister’s first steps was to visit neighboring Eritrea, which led to the end of the 20-year border conflict. Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but the TPLF, which continued to reject reconciliation with Eritrea due to territorial disputes between Tigray and Eritrea, defected to the Ethiopian opposition in protest.

In 2019, Ahmed unified Ethiopia’s ruling coalition into the Prosperity Party, which espouses pan-Ethiopian rather than ethnic nationalism. The TPLF lost the country’s parliamentary elections, was expelled from the federal government and settled in the Tigray state. This act started the long sovereignty dispute between the TPLF and the Federal Government in the Tigray State. In March 2020, the federal government postponed the election due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The TPLF refused to comply and held regional elections in the Tigray state on September 9. The federal government refused to recognize the legitimacy of these elections and cut the Tigray state off from federal funding.

War in Tigray

The Tigray war began when the TPLF launched an armed attack on a federal army base in the Tigray state capital Mekelle on November 3, 2020. Ahmed subsequently sent the federal army into Tigray, which was able to quickly occupy most of the region. Eritrea also joined the offensive, entering the region in cooperation with the Federal Government of Ethiopia. The TPLF was however able to mobilize and in a counteroffensive almost reached the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. In the end, however, it was forced to withdraw back to Tigray under the pressure of federal troops. In August 2022, Ethiopia launched a coordinated military offensive in cooperation with Eritrean troops, which resulted in the occupation of a large part of Tigray. Both sides subsequently agreed to peace talks in Pretoria, South Africa.

Combat drones, which the Ethiopian army was gradually able to deploy against the rebels, played a decisive role in the defeat of the TPLF. Ethiopia purchased drones and other weapons mainly from Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and China. The United Arab Emirates played a big role in the war, and several air attacks on Tigray were even carried out by the Emirati air force from bases in Eritrea. Ethiopia and Eritrea are also supported diplomatically by Russia, which is Eritrea’s long-time ally. The US has been cooperating with the Ethiopian government for a long time in the war on terror, but during the Tigray war, it maintained a neutral stance.

Effects of the conflict

The conflict has catastrophic humanitarian consequences. All parties to the conflict have systematically committed war crimes and a blockade has been imposed on Tigray, leaving the region facing a serious threat of famine. Millions of Tigrayans have been forced to leave their homes and are currently refugees either in other regions of Ethiopia or in neighboring countries.

Armistice agreement

Both sides of the conflict are extremely exhausted and pressured by their populations and allies to end the fighting. This is also why, after 10 days of negotiations, a breakthrough agreement on a cease-fire was reached. It also includes a plan to make humanitarian aid accessible in Tigray, the reintegration of the regional Tigray government under Ethiopia, and a declaration that the Ethiopian National Defense Forces will be the country’s only official armed force. However, the implementation of the agreement will be difficult mainly due to the involvement of a number of different armed actors in the conflict, especially on the Ethiopian side. The risk is mainly the deployment of Eritrean and ethnic Amharic militias alongside the regular Ethiopian army. They harbor considerable hatred towards the Tigrayans due to long-term mutual conflicts and may thus be willing to sabotage the peace process, especially in a situation where the Tigrayan forces are pushed on the defensive. In addition, the current situation on the battlefield is clearly showing concern to the central Ethiopian government, which may feel that it can additionally enforce much tougher conditions, such as the complete disarmament of the TPLF. The situation is also complicated by the bad humanitarian situation and the economic crisis. If this happens and fighting resumes, it would mean the continuation of one of the worst conflicts of our time.

Photo credit: Brett Sayles, Pexels

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