On 2 November 2022, a peace deal was signed between the Ethiopian Federal Government and the Tigray People Liberation Front in Pretoria South Africa facilitated by the African Union and chaired by the former head of state of Nigeria and Kenya. But, as Samuel Ayele Bekalo writes, so far, the details of the agreement are unclear and there remain concerns about the deal’s implementation and if it will address the core issues which triggered the conflict in the first place.
In early 2021, when the conflict between the Ethiopian Federal Government (EFG) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was raging, I shared my thoughts and concerns in this forum about the urgent need to stop the conflict to avoid wider socio-political and economic devastation. Since then, the war in Tigray spread into and affected not only the adjacent Amhara and Afar regions of Ethiopia, but also into the neighbouring countries of Eritrea and Sudan. Over a million combatants and innocent civilians are believed to have been killed since the war began. Ordinary people’s livelihoods have been destroyed and many have been displaced both internally and externally. For the peace to hold, the underlying causes of the conflict, the consequences of the last two years of violence, and the increased tensions in other parts of Ethiopia will all need to be addressed.
Conflicts within Conflicts
There are several key players and pressure points, which can positively or negatively affect the peace deal. The Amhara and Afar regions representatives and armed groups, who have border disputes and an ongoing conflict with the TPLF appear to be neither officially nor formally included in the peace deal. Similarly, the neighbouring Eritrean authorities were not officially included in the negotiations. The same seems to apply to influential diaspora and lobbying groups who are based overseas. They are increasingly confused about the seemingly never-ending chain of events and disillusioned about what to believe about the peace process. To further complicate matters, there is an under-reported conflict between the EFG and Oromo armed groups such as OLF-Shene, which has the potential to negatively impact the peace deal and Ethiopia’s domestic security.
Achieving lasting peace requires, amongst other things, confidence building measures: Ensuring that one party or group will not be viewed as an existential threat to the other. One of the contentious issues which fuelled the Tigray conflict was the land dispute with the neighbouring Amhara region over the Welakit Tegene sub-region. The Amharas claim that the sub-region was added to Tigray, without the consent of local people, when the TPLF seized central power over two decades ago. The local people, who know about their ancestral land better than anybody else, should have a say in resolving this for good. The same applies to Ethiopia’s disputed border with Eritrea in the Tigray region. If these issues are ignored or not addressed, I fear that conflict will quickly reignite.
For the new peace deal to succeed, all the aforementioned groups’ concerns need to be simultaneously considered and fairly addressed. The Tigrayan/TPLF problems cannot be fully resolved in isolation since it is directly or indirectly related to the other disputes. All of this requires careful attention to detail, as well as fair and bold decision making backed by actions, which ultimately advance the interests and security of local people. Reverting to the former status quo cannot be the way forward.
The Political Question
At the time of writing, I hear different views and positions within diaspora communities both for and against the peace deal. The general public in Ethiopia also seems to have little trust or confidence in their political leaders, given their previous failures and numerous U-turns, which have perpetuated the war and the suffering of citizens. As a result, perhaps not surprisingly, there is caution in all camps and questions in people’s minds about whether the peace will hold.
Some observers have questioned whether the same leaders and decision makers who allowed the conflicts to rage under their watch are genuine in their desire and capable in their abilities to solve the problems. Perhaps because of war fatigue and diminished military and human resources, the old guard finally realise that the way out of this self-inflicted mess is peace. In any case, they are the only ones currently available to agree a peace deal. Any peace initiatives deserve support.
Ethiopia like many other African nations is a vast country with huge untapped resources. If the human and natural resources are properly utilised, there is enough to advance the prosperity of all its people. From what I have observed, most of the disputed land and territories in the Northern part of Ethiopia are also vast and rich. They can accommodate the Amhara and Tigrayan people as well as the Eritreans and others. On a positive note, beyond the military and political leaders, ordinary people in the region do not hold any deep-seated animosity towards each other, nor see any major differences amongst themselves. They share a similar socio-linguist culture and religion. They are intermarried and have lived in relative harmony for centuries. Rightly or wrongly, they see the war as a failure of the political leaders and so-called activists, which put them unnecessarily in harm’s way.
Ethiopia urgently needs restoration and confidence building between its politicians and the wider public. The reintroduction of essential public services and unhindered access to humanitarian aid for the Tigray people and the adjacent Amhara and Afar regions would be a good starting point. This needs to be followed up by genuine participation and action of all the concerned parties towards peace. Despite the treaty, the country is at a dangerous crossroads, being weakened by the costly internal war as well as by the impacts of the global economic downturn and environmental degradation. The dangers are very real, the potential collapse of Ethiopia, which is the second most populous country in Africa, would inevitably trigger a new wave of refugees and lead to regional instability. In this context, even an imperfect peace deal is better than no deal.