Editors’ Note: On November 2, 2022, after this article was written, a peace deal between the TPLF and Ethiopia was signed. Although the African Union has yet to publish an official copy of the agreement, it is known that combatant forces agreed to complete disarmament of TPLF forces within the next 30 days, the entry of humanitarian aid agencies, and the resumed provision of public services. The deal also sets the stage for Ethiopian forces to enter Tigray’s capital of Mekelle and take control. However, despite the swift peace, Eritrea and the Amhara Regional Government were not included in the talks, which may undermine the truce, particularly regarding the issue of contested land, which was the Amhara Regional Government’s primary reason for involvement. After the ceasefire, their spokesperson stated that without an agreement that awarded them the contested territory, there would be no lasting peace. Although a truce has been achieved after two years of brutal fighting, it is unlikely Tigrayans will welcome Ethiopia in with open arms.
In the midst of grave geopolitical tensions across the world, the crisis in Northern Ethiopia has flown under the radar. After a five-month truce, the conflict, which began on November 4, 2020, continued despite US efforts to broker a crucial peace between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—a party that had held power for almost three decades. The root of the crisis lies in Ethiopia’s system of government. Under the nation’s federal system, Ethiopia is divided into eleven ethnically-defined states. The TPLF was central in setting up this system and was part of a coalition of four parties that controlled Ethiopia from 1991 to 2018. In 2018, however, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in the wake of anti-government protests and relegated the TPLF to the role of a political bystander, only retaining control of the Tigray Region.
Forces resumed fighting in Tigray in August 2022, extinguishing hopes that the brutal conflict would cease. Tensions in the region rose primarily due to a combination of a power struggle, an election, and calls for political reform. As the nation is poisoned by a lethal cocktail of violence, extremism, and political instability, refugees flood into neighboring Sudan. Additionally, all sides of the conflict have been accused of war crimes, including massacres and sexual assault. The international community will remain in horror and the stability of a critical African nation will be in jeopardy if peace talks continue to fail.
Once praised as a regional peacemaker, Prime Minister Ahmed sent troops into Tigray after a series of escalating events: Despite the central government’s postponement of national elections due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Tigray held its own in September 2020. Tensions rose when the government cut off national funding for Tigray and ceased contact with regional leaders in October. The catalyst for war finally occurred when Ahmed accused the TPLF of attacking a federal army base in an attempt to steal weapons. What was originally promised to be a quickly-resolved act of retribution against the TPLF has metastasized into a protracted civil war. Fighting has exacerbated an already dire humanitarian crisis, leaving thousands dead and more than two million displaced.
Ahmed’s Ethiopian forces are joined by Eritrea, which sees the TPLF as its natural enemy, and the Amhara regional government, which wishes to regain territories it lost in 1991. Eritrea waded into the battle because of a decades-long feud with the Tigray government. Originally allies, the two became enemies due to violent border disputes from 1998 to 2000, which left roughly 100,000 dead. Even though the war ended, relations were never repaired, setting the stage for Eritrean involvement in the current conflict.
Of the 5.2 million people in Tigray that need aid, only 13 percent are actually receiving any. A lack of seeds, oxen to plow, and fertilizer has forced peasants to abandon large areas of farmland. Threats from soldiers force the few farmers left to risk their lives by plowing at night with lookouts to warn them of patrolling soldiers. The despicable actions of both sides have sunk the region—classified as “food secure” seven months before the start of the fighting—into a manmade famine. Military forces are burning crops, forcing people to rely on aid that may never come. According to a new UN report, all sides are guilty of summary executions, torture, and rape, and conservative estimates from the UN state that 22,000 survivors of rape will need help after the fighting ends. The opacity of the situation means the international community needs to rely on interviews with eyewitnesses to gather information.
Further complicating the situation is Ethiopia’s severe restriction of journalists and intermittent communications blackouts during the fighting. Even before the war, Ethiopia was one of the world’s most censored countries. Journalists faced Internet shutdowns and were silenced by anti-terrorist laws. Now, Ethiopia is fighting to control the narrative surrounding the war by arresting, expelling, and attacking dissenting journalists. A study by the Committee to Protect Journalists revealed that Ethiopia and Eritrea rank as the worst jailers of journalists. As a result, public discourse has been limited through self-censorship driven by fear.
Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, the Ethiopian government continues to cover up the violence of the war. One such case occurred on November 30, 2021, when Eritrean forces began massacring congregants celebrating the Ethiopian Orthodox festival of Tsion Maryam. Soldiers then went from door to door, forcing mothers to tie up their sons and dragging people outside to be killed. Some people attempted to flee while others hid under dead bodies, desperately trying to be spared. Many of the abuses committed in rural and mountainous areas, reported to be strongholds of the TPLF, have been attributed to the Eritreans. Their presence suggests that Adhmed’s peace deal with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki—for which he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize—foreshadowed the war against the TPLF, their mutual enemy. Still, after the massacre, the Eritrean embassy in London released a statement denying any wrongdoing and suggesting that none of their troops were in Ethiopia at the time.
Recently, fighting has escalated to a new intensity as secret efforts for peace have fallen short, raising fears that fighting will spread to neighboring nations. For the past year, talks led by the African Union have been stymied by arguments over mediators and money, prompting Western officials to step in. For the first time since 2020, beginning in March of 2022, warring leaders came together in three secret, US-led meetings in Djibouti and the Seychelles. However, the latest meeting—taking place on September 9—did not lead to a peace deal.
As the war rages on, critics have been quick to accuse the Biden administration of failing to apply enough pressure. Despite approving sanctions in November 2021, Washington has been dragging its feet on actually applying them, in hopes that Ethiopia will re-emerge as a strong American partner in the Horn of Africa. The proposed sanctions, as per Biden’s executive order, would result in asset freezes and travel bans for individuals and entities from the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, the TPLF, and the Amhara regional government.
Currently, Ethiopia is America’s 84th-largest goods trading partner. In 2019, US exports into Ethiopia totaled $1 billion and imports totaled $572 million. Although Ethiopia is a smaller trading partner, its large population and quickly growing economy make it central to stability in the region. For example, the nation has played a vital role in establishing and maintaining regional blocs like the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. They have also supported the African Union Mission in Somalia, which fostered stability in a country plagued with conflict. Ethiopian action also helps contain hardline Islamic insurgent groups and aids with peacekeeping missions in the region. Applying sanctions would increase pressure on all parties to come to an agreement, but they could also destabilize an already divided country.
With high military build-up and intense fighting on both sides, those suffering the most cannot afford to wait for peace. Drastic action needs to be taken. Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country, with 117 million people in 2021. Along with addressing immediate humanitarian needs, those guilty of violating human rights and escalating the conflict should be brought to justice. For this to be successful, negotiations need to encourage a move away from the current political system that adheres to strict ethnic lines.
Indeed, there is hope that peace can be achieved. In late October, representatives from the Ethiopian government met with rebel Tigray leadership in South Africa for their first formal discussions on how to end the civil war. Originally set for earlier in the month, the negotiations were delayed after Tigrayan leaders accused the mediator, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, of supporting Ahmed. Now, talks are being led by a three-person team of negotiators: Obasanjo, former UN Under-Secretary-General Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, and former President of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta.
Recent developments in the war saw the advancement of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces into crucial towns and toward the Tigray Region’s capital of Mekelle. This change leaves Tigrayan leaders in a weaker position in negotiations, making them less likely to achieve their demands of an immediate cessation of hostilities, unfettered access to humanitarian aid, and the withdrawal of Eritrean forces. Considering Ethiopia’s current position, it is possible that they will seek a surrender from the TPLF, which would end their resistance and demobilize their forces. However, it is highly unlikely that Tigray’s negotiators will accept these terms, casting the talks yet to come in an uncertain light. To achieve success, mediators have the difficult job of promoting a compromise that would force both sides to give up on some of their demands. The peace talks’ success is critical to not only Ethiopia but the whole region. Ethiopia is a linchpin of stability in the Horn of Africa, so there is a substantial risk that continued conflict will compound other crises nearby if negotiations fail and the fighting spreads.