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Pretoria deal gives Ethiopia a chance at lasting peace

On 2 November, Ethiopia’s federal government and leaders of the country’s northern Tigray region agreed to end two years of devastating war. The welcome deal, brokered by the African Union (AU) in Pretoria, was a triumph for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as Tigray’s embattled leaders assented to disarm their forces and restore federal authority in the region. 

In exchange, the Ethiopian military and Eritrean troops who had been fighting alongside federal forces halted their advance toward Tigray’s capital of Mekelle and Addis Ababa said it would end its de facto siege of the region. 

In follow-up talks, Tigray authorities secured an additional pledge that Eritrean forces would withdraw. Fighting between the two sides has stopped. Yet the fragile calm could shatter, especially with thorny questions outstanding and Tigrayans already backtracking on commitments. Both sides need to honour their pledges while keeping up momentum in talks. External actors must seize this moment to coax the parties toward consolidating peace and insist on immediate unrestricted aid to Tigray.

The conflict, among the world’s deadliest, erupted in Africa’s second-most populous country in late 2020, as Ethiopia struggled to navigate a complex political transition. Abiy rose to power in 2018 after three years of protests partly against the rule of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had dominated Ethiopia for almost three decades and had created a repressive system that brought development gains but bred discontent. The TPLF believe that Abiy’s government sidelined them, cutting them out of a rapprochement with their former comrade and then archenemy, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, and singling out Tigrayans for prosecution for corruption and human rights offences. 

For their part, Abiy’s allies argue that the TPLF never accepted losing power, blocked reforms and sought to sabotage the new authorities. As the power struggle simmered, Mekelle’s leaders proceeded in 2020 with regional elections in Tigray. This was in defiance of federal authorities who had postponed the vote due to Covid-19. The constitutional crisis escalated when the federal and Tigray governments cast each other as illegitimate.

The standoff soon boiled over. On 3 November 2020, saying they feared an imminent federal military intervention, Tigray’s forces attacked the national army command in the region while some Tigrayan federal officers sided with the regional forces. Addis Ababa promptly launched an offensive in Tigray, blocking all roads into the region, starving it of food and other supplies and cutting off telecommunications, electricity and banking services — an approach that left almost all of Tigray’s roughly six million people in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. 

In the war’s first few months, the neighbouring Amhara region took control of Western Tigray, which it claims as historical Amhara territory, in a campaign that rights groups described as ethnic cleansing. Eritrea also joined the battle on the federal side, with Isaias seemingly hoping to deal a decisive blow to his old foe, the TPLF.

Momentum seesawed over the course of the war. At the outset, Ethiopia’s military, backed by Eritrean troops and foreign drones, captured Mekelle and forced the TPLF into the mountains, only to hastily retreat as Tigray insurgents (motivated in part by atrocities committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers against civilians) retook the regional capital in June. Citing the continuing blockade, Tigray’s forces marched southward to Addis Ababa, occupying towns and committing their own atrocities along the way. With supply lines stretched, they withdrew to Tigray in December 2021 after a federal counteroffensive gained pace, with mass mobilisation and drones purchased from Turkey playing key roles.

An uneasy lull in fighting then settled in. In March, the federal government declared a unilateral humanitarian truce, speeding up delivery of food and medicine to Tigray. The TPLF also held its fire. But efforts to start formal peace talks foundered, partly because Mekelle said Addis Ababa must first end its blockade by restoring services to the region and allowing trade.

The war tipped decisively in the federal government’s favour after the truce broke down on 24 August, and full-scale conflict re-erupted. Ethiopia rapidly assembled a large number of troops to attack Tigray on several fronts, moving in with Eritrean forces from the north west and leading an offensive with Amhara allies from the south. By all accounts, there were huge casualties in spectacularly bloody infantry warfare, with sources close to both sides estimating that more than 100 000 died on the battlefield in a two-month span.

Though Tigray’s fighters stood their ground at first, the allied forces broke through their lines in October in key locations, capturing the northern cities of Shire (a strategic crossroads), Aksum and Adwa, as well as the southern towns of Alamata and Korem. On the back foot militarily, Tigray’s leaders then called for another truce, lowering their conditions to unfettered aid access and the withdrawal of Eritrean forces, leading the AU to convene the two parties in Pretoria.

Tigray’s negotiators went to South Africa desperate for a pause in fighting, and reaching that goal came at a high price. Indeed, the deal’s terms reflect the heavy military pressure Tigray’s forces were under in the face of Eritrean artillery and superior federal logistics, troops and firepower, including in the air. In the deal, the TPLF committed to laying down arms within 30 days and allowing federal forces to re-enter Mekelle in order to restore constitutional order and take control of federal institutions. 

The deal also stipulates that, once Ethiopia’s parliament has lifted its May 2021 designation of the TPLF as a terrorist organisation, the TPLF and the federal government are to appoint an “inclusive” interim administration to govern Tigray until elections. This provision represents a significant concession, as it implies that Tigray’s September 2020 regional polls, which the TPLF won in a landslide and which helped spark the civil war, lacked legitimacy. For its part, the federal government agreed to halt its offensive upon Mekelle, while also promising to restore services to Tigray, as well as allow unfettered aid deliveries.

None of the parties has come out of the war with credit. For Tigray’s negotiators, the extent of concessions offered to secure a truce illustrates the scope of the predicament they found themselves in, besieged on all sides by determined adversaries, including two national armies. While both sides share blame for starting the conflict, the TPLF miscalculated — at a cost of countless lives — first by escalating its feud with Abiy after losing power, next by underestimating its opponents and plunging into war and then by erecting obstructions to peace talks during the autumn lull in fighting. 

Tigray’s leaders appear to have eventually realised that ending the conflict is the best way to ease the Tigray population’s suffering. As for Addis Ababa, it has rightly attracted international opprobrium for its methods, including what UN investigators found to be the use of starvation as a tool of war against Tigray’s civilians. In the end, though, Abiy’s government also chose peace, opting to halt an offensive that appeared to be on the brink of forcing the TPLF from power again and instead advance federal objectives through talks.

The parties showed early commitment to the Pretoria pact, a positive sign. Most importantly, the two battle-exhausted sides have stopped fighting, although unconfirmed reports continue to filter through of serious abuses in and around Axum and Shire by Eritrean and Amhara forces. Addis and Mekelle also followed through on a commitment for top military commanders to meet within five days to negotiate how to put the Pretoria accord’s security provisions into effect, producing a follow-up agreement on 12 November in Nairobi. 

That subsequent deal maintained critical momentum but also created more uncertainty and diluted disarmament plans. Instead of the ambitious and perhaps even unrealistic original 30-day timeline, the Nairobi deal gave Mekelle more breathing space, splitting disarmament into two phases and, crucially, tying it to the withdrawal of foreign and other non-federal forces. For the Tigrayans, the pull out of Eritrean troops — the foreign forces the deal refers to, even if not explicitly — is a core demand that was less clearly addressed in Pretoria. That deal said, for example, the parties would cease “collusion with an external force hostile” to the other. 

The military commanders agreed Tigray would give up “heavy weapons” (presumably tanks and artillery) as non-federal forces withdraw from the region, while punting the timeline for relinquishing small arms to talks due to conclude on 26 November. The parties also agreed to disengage their front-line forces in four distinct zones by 23 November (thus far this appears incomplete), after which Addis Ababa is to restore basic services to the region, while assuming its federal “responsibilities”.

The Nairobi agreement, however, included no precise terms as to how or when Tigray’s leaders would meet their commitment to facilitate the federal military’s re-entry into Mekelle, suggesting that they also won some reprieve from honouring that pledge. Tigray leaders now insist privately that this step might entail a limited security escort for returning federal officials, which would be a far cry from the triumphal procession that the Pretoria accord seemed to envision. With no progress made so far at re-establishing the federal presence in Tigray’s capital, this issue requires further negotiation.

For all the positive developments, the situation thus remains fragile, demanding extreme vigilance from all actors. There are signs that Tigray’s leaders are wavering on the Pretoria accord’s critical terms. Hesitation on their part would, perhaps, not be surprising, given the deal’s lopsided nature, but it would nonetheless be alarming. It is far from clear that Tigray is planning to hand over all its arms even if Addis Ababa meets its obligations. 

Further, in a 13 November statement, issued the day after the Nairobi agreement, Tigray’s leaders publicly backtracked on parts of the Pretoria deal, including by explicitly rejecting its effective removal of the existing regional government from power. It is unclear if they are posturing to deflect internal criticism of their initial concessions in Pretoria or to position themselves for future negotiations. But regardless, the statement suggests willingness to renege on a key part of the accord, namely that Tigray’s authorities would step aside for an interim administration negotiated between the TPLF and the federal government.

A man reacts as he stands near a ditch in the outskirts of Mai Kadra, Ethiopia, that is filled with more than 20 bodies of victims that were allegedly killed in a massacre on November 9, 2020. (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP)

Despite the odd unhelpful comment from his allies, Abiy has publicly welcomed the deal and stressed that more war would be futile. Such remarks are welcome, as sustained provocations from both sides otherwise risk undermining the frail accord by emboldening hardliners, perpetuating the deep mistrust and making a return to war more likely. For example, should the federal government move slowly on lifting all aspects of the blockade (perhaps in response to Mekelle’s backtracking on some of Pretoria’s terms), Tigray’s leaders could stall on disarmament, especially if the Eritrean army or Amhara forces linger in Tigray. That, in turn, would lead Addis Ababa to refuse to fully reconnect and reopen Tigray, creating conditions in which any spark might ignite yet another round of disastrous large-scale hostilities.

A further concern is that the two sides do not yet appear to share compatible visions for how a settlement will emerge, making clear how delicate the process will be. Tigray’s leaders want Abiy to pivot away from his alliance with Isaias. Yet it seems safer to assume that Addis Ababa will want to avoid ruffling the feathers of either the Eritrean leader or Amhara allies. Both Abiy and Isaias could well choose, at least for now, to keep their forces ready for renewed hostilities, thereby keeping Tigray’s authorities boxed in militarily.

Further, Tigray’s leaders hope that the federal government will eventually allow much of their military force to join the federal army or re-hat as regional security forces. Whether Abiy will pursue integration is a matter of conjecture, however. Some think he could do so to help rebuild the Ethiopian military, while others suggest he will prefer to keep Tigray forces that have just tried to oust him out of the national army. Continuing to make incremental progress at the negotiating table along with tangible measures on the ground will thus be key to preventing the rickety process from falling apart.

Abiy faces an especially thorny balancing act with regard to Eritrea, a key partner in the war that may be satisfied only by Tigray’s almost complete disarmament. Indeed, it will be difficult if not impossible for Abiy to accommodate both Asmara’s insistence that the TPLF be defanged and, on the other hand, Tigray’s security demands. It remains unclear if Eritrea will fully disengage its forces or withdraw, even if Abiy asks it to do so. 

Should Abiy move to let the TPLF continue as a dominant force in Mekelle, allow Tigray to retain a strong regional force, or integrate large numbers of Tigray’s perhaps 200 000 fighters into the federal military, Eritrea could react defiantly. More than two decades after the last Ethiopian-Eritrean war, new hostilities remain possible if Abiy and Isaias fall out, an additional factor showcasing just how complex the peace process could prove.

Abiy will also need to tread carefully in relations with Amhara political leaders, his other major ally in the war — and an important domestic constituency. The Nairobi accord appears to require Amhara regional forces and militias (the other “non-federal forces” that it cites), which have been fighting alongside the Ethiopian army, to also withdraw from Tigray. Yet Amhara regional authorities will be keen not to lose out in the peace process.

The complicating factor is Tigray’s loss of territory to Amhara during the war. Amhara forces captured Western and Southern Tigray, which many Amhara refer to as Welkait and Raya, respectively, in asserting historical claims to the territories. Addis Ababa and Mekelle are unlikely to see eye to eye on the withdrawal of Amhara forces from what the Pretoria agreement called “contested areas” (without specifying which areas these are), a major dispute that could gum up disarmament negotiations.

An Ethiopian refugee who fled the Tigray conflict prays during Sunday Mass at an Ethiopian Orthodox church building built by former Ethiopian refugees, at the village next to Um Raquba refugee camp in Gedaref, eastern Sudan, on December 6, 2020. – Some 400 Orthodox Christian believers attended the biggest mass at Jibreel (Gabriel) Church since it reopened its doors just over a week ago to refugees at Um Raqouba camp near the Ethiopian border. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

What is clear is that the process for addressing these competing territorial claims will need to be central to further political dialogue, as envisaged in Pretoria. One approach could be for the federal government to assert control over the areas, paving the way for the return of displaced people and political processes to adjudicate the disputes. Such a move would infuriate Amhara leaders and activists while failing to placate Mekelle, which would doubtless argue that returning to the constitutional order means restoring Tigray’s pre-war borders. 

An initial assertion of federal control, if that can be done peacefully, may be the most pragmatic option for the time being. Ideally, Tigray and Amhara leaders would over time recognise the need to resolve their differences through dialogue, including through provisions for administering the areas that navigate the competing claims and complex local identities. 

Should the peace agreement hold, the parties will also need to negotiate on the make-up of Tigray’s administration. Addis Ababa is in a strong position to dictate the political terms in Tigray, but that would be risky given the region’s historical attachment to autonomy, which long predates the federal era. To foster stability, federal leaders should strive to ensure that Tigray’s rights to self-rule under the constitution (which offers considerable regional autonomy and even legalises secession) are respected as constitutional order is restored. Thus, Addis Ababa should avoid imposing an interim administration that is likely to breed continued resistance. 

For its part, the TPLF needs to accept that a new regional government will be formed in line with the Pretoria deal, which will mean the dilution of its authority. Some Tigray nationalist opposition parties that will demand a governing role have offered stinging criticism of the TPLF’s Pretoria concessions and aspire to independence, a sign of how difficult it will be to create a balance within the interim government and reintegrate Tigray into Ethiopia after such a divisive war.

To keep the fledgling peace process on track, the AU and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a Horn of Africa regional body, need to continue coordinating efforts with African governments and other outside actors like the US, UN and EU. Collectively, they should urge Tigray’s leaders and the federal government to uphold their commitments in the peace deals, working first to ensure Eritrean troops’ withdrawal lest Tigray uses their continued presence as a reason to delay disarmament. 

Should verified withdrawals start to occur, they must then stress to Tigray’s leaders the need to begin handing over their tanks and artillery. While remaining clear-eyed about the challenges, the US, UN and EU envoys and other partners should constantly remind their Ethiopian interlocutors that they have chosen the path of peace as there is no route to outright military victory. A return to war would have terrible consequences for civilians and corrode Ethiopia’s stability for years to come.

The AU and regional officials have an especially vital role to play in trying to ensure that the truce does not break down. The AU’s high representative, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, and co-mediators former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and former South African deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, as well as key IGAD officials now face a tall order. They will need to keep the parties progressing toward fulfilling their promises, while also ensuring that talks maintain forward momentum. 

Given the lack of trust between the parties, an AU team of experts should immediately start monitoring the truce, as agreed in the Pretoria deal. Foreign governments should provide as much support as possible to what on paper looks like a severely under-resourced monitoring mission.

All international actors should push in unison for immediate unrestricted humanitarian access to Tigray, even as initial indications give reason for modest optimism. To further hold the parties accountable, donors, the UN and NGOs should be transparent about whether or not the federal government and its regional allies are still choking humanitarian access, and insist also on services being comprehensively restored. They should also speak out if Tigray’s authorities divert humanitarian supplies to their forces, as occurred just prior to the last round of fighting when Mekelle seized World Food Programme tankers, saying the agency had not returned fuel Tigray had loaned it.

The US, EU and other outside actors also need to carefully weigh how to keep encouraging progress through their actions. To make the dividends of peace more concrete, the US and EU should pledge donor conferences to help rebuild a peaceful Tigray as well as adjacent parts of Afar and Amhara affected by the war. 

They should take care to balance the need to continue protecting the budding process with the urgency of providing assistance to Ethiopia’s suffering economy. In particular, they should resume substantial non-humanitarian financial support to Addis Ababa only after the peace process has made clear, tangible progress. That means waiting until Eritrean forces withdraw behind the internationally recognised border, the federal government restores services to Tigray, aid flows freely and political talks with Mekelle get under way.

Despite the difficulties of roping Eritrea into a constructive peace process, the AU and other African intermediaries should reach out to Asmara to urge it to withdraw from Tigray, support the Pretoria and Nairobi agreements, and pursue any of its demands through dialogue. It is also high time Ethiopia settled its long-running border disputes with Eritrea, which helped spark the catastrophic 1998-2000 war between the two countries and remain central to Asmara’s narrative of grievance. 

Addis Ababa should reiterate its intention to implement in full the 2002 UN border commission ruling, which identified some key disputed areas as Eritrean. Ideally, even if they appear to be in no position to object at the moment, Tigray’s leaders would play their part in this decision as their exclusion was a key defect of Abiy and Isaias’ 2018 rapprochement that promised a definitive resolution of the border dispute.

Cementing peace will require courageous political leadership from both Abiy and his Tigrayan counterparts. In particular, Abiy should continue speaking about the benefits of peace and act generously toward his erstwhile foes. Mekelle, meanwhile, should recognise the futility of a renewed armed insurgency, and the extreme peril it holds for both the TPLF’s own future and for Tigray’s population. 

That message should also be heeded by Tigrayans who criticise the Pretoria agreement. This includes both those living in Tigray and those in the diaspora, with the latter acknowledging that Tigray’s leaders made painful political concessions in part due to their sober assessment of the fighting’s human toll and their battlefield prospects. In sum, all parties should remain patient. They should focus on making incremental progress that will gradually build the trust needed to find an eventual settlement.

The halt in hostilities and agreement to end the war could help Ethiopia and Ethiopians turn a page on this tragic chapter. The brutal two-year conflict inflicted vast human suffering. Tigray’s immiseration bears witness to its leadership’s miscalculations, even as the conflict has set a frightening precedent with the tactics employed by Addis Ababa and Asmara against their adversaries. 

Mekelle should now stick to its responsible decision to stop fighting, while Abiy should choose magnanimity over vindictiveness and be pragmatic about the region’s disarmament and gradually seek a sustainable settlement with Tigray that can begin to heal the conflict’s deep wounds. All parties should put their efforts into giving peace the chance it deserves.

The International Crisis Group is a conflict prevention organisation based in Brussels.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.



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