Vandalised and looted health centre in May Kuhl. Tigray, Ethiopia, March 2021. Picture: MSF

Addis Abeba, May 08/2021 – The war in Tigray is now in its 6th month. The human and material damage is yet to be fully assessed, but is expected to be exponential. Mounting reports of atrocities and war crimes committed by the warring parties are coming public every day. The human suffering is unimaginable – and it remains unabated.

The war remains active and only few substantive suggestions have been put forward on how to bring an end to it. There seems to be a shortage of analysis and recommendations, especially from Ethiopian experts who were rather excited to comment and debate on a wide range of issues after PM Abiy assumed office in 2018. There could be many reasons for that including support for the war, fear of reprisals or being labeled, one way or another; or feeling that no one will listen.

But a solution must be sought and found, and options must be put forward. Not only to stop this catastrophic war and end the suffering, but also to suggest a viable way forward. This article is a humble attempt to do that.

Military solution no longer viable

At the end of the first month of the war, the Federal government declared victory. It was a considerable boost to the declining legitimacy of PM Abiy leadership. Glory speeches were made and the PM declared it was time for reconstruction whilst hunting down ‘remnants of the junta’ leadership. However, to this day there is active fighting in many areas of the region and no actor to the conflict has fully achieved its objectives.

The federal government laid down four objectives for its military operations in Tigray. Disarming the TPLF, establishing legitimate administration in Tigray, enforcing law and order; and bringing TPLF leaders to justice. None of these objectives are fully achieved, yet. Instead, new problems and issues have emerged complicating the conflict dynamics.

Key political and military leaders of TPLF are still at large and there are strong indicators that the movement has morphed into a more sophisticated insurgency. The appointed interim government is struggling to operationalize government offices even in the capital Mekelle, let alone reconstruction, humanitarian access to deliver food and other essential aid is severely constrained. There is no control or regulation against the Eritrean and Amhara forces that are controlling much of the Northern and Western Tigray respectively.

On the other side, TPLF’s objective at the start of the war was not really clear. Its mantra for the past year or so has been “Meket” which translates into resist. It was explained to be about defending the constitutional order and the federal structure from ‘centrist’ and ‘chauvinist’ forces.

…the war is not yet over and no party to the conflict has achieved its objective or is likely to achieve it anytime soon

Some argued that TPLF’s objective was to come back to power at the federal level, but they never publicly said so. Once the war broke out and TPLF was in the run, the objectives became freeing Tigray from invaders and ensuring the self-determination right of Tigrian people.

It is therefore, clear that the war is not yet over and no party to the conflict has achieved its objective or is likely to achieve it anytime soon. Instead, actors with different, and even contradictory objectives were added, complicating the situation and with it the chance of a military solution to end the war.

What other options are there to end the war?

Most modern day conflicts end with some negotiations or dialogue by the conflicting parties. So far TPLF has shown some willingness for dialogue by laying down an 8 points condition for negotiations. One could consider the list ambitious and maybe unrealistic, but it is a start. The reaction on that from the other side, including the federal government has been silence.

The case against dialogue has no merit

Federal government and its supporters in the war seem to be against negotiating or having any dialogue with TPLF and they present many arguments for that.

The first argument is that there is no need to negotiate because TPLF is already defeated and federal government and its allies won. However, in reality the war is not over and the movement is becoming a viable insurgency. PM Abiy has publicly said the initial victory took only 3 weeks but the guerrilla war is becoming tiresome, long and draining.

There are many reasons why it could become a prolonged and viable insurgency from the Tigrian side. Involvement of Eritrean forces, annexation of areas under Tigray region administration into Amhara region, atrocities committed during the war, and ethnic targeting of Tigrians all over the country has pushed many Tigraians to the edge and created a feeling that the war is not against TPLF but the Tigrian people. That coupled with the long history of resistance, experience of struggle, geographic convenience and strong popular (including) diaspora support makes for a successful insurgency.

The other reason is the fear that dialogue with TPLF emboldens others to defy the central government. However, that is already happening in many parts of the country with various actors operating with impunity. A political solution can only contribute to solving these problems, not exacerbate it more than it already is.

Another argument is the claim that any call for dialogue is a call for TPLF to come back to power and extend its lifeline. This is strongly echoed by ardent opponents of TPLF, including Eritrea and the Amhara elite, who believe TPLF shall not only be ousted from power but must be destroyed. They fear that if TPLF is retained in one way or another it will strike again – even forcefully.

What these groups of actors fail to understand is that TPLF was/is principally a popular party of the Tigrian people and if it must be destroyed, it can only be destroyed by the Tigrian people

What these groups of actors fail to understand is that TPLF was/is principally a popular party of the Tigrian people and if it must be destroyed, it can only be destroyed by the Tigrian people. Many people from Tigray still support TPLF, some because of history and some for ideology. Many Tigrians have sentimental attachment to the organization as they have lost family members to the struggle and so on.

While other nationalities in Ethiopia are administered by ‘parties of their choice’ putting an ultimatum such as this one on a society as cohesive and politically organized as Tigray will not be accepted and is inherently undemocratic. Such a rigid position, especially when civilians are continuously being targeted can only result in more support for TPLF. It not only extends the lifeline of the insurgency, it also risks the creation of an extreme form of nationalism that makes any settlement within the Ethiopian framework impossible. Because the fact is, TPLF might have weakened but Tigray nationalism is on the rise.

That said, TPLF needs to reorganize to become a new all-inclusive political organization, taking steps that will help it in the process of finding a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Transforming the organization into something new will create an entity that its adversaries could be willing to negotiate with.

The hegemonic approach of TPLF of being the only actor in Tigray, disempowering the youth and the opposition had cost Tigray the democracy it deserves

It also has a strategic benefit. There is a strong need to ensure the creation of an national organization for Tigray which is inclusive of different actors that have joined the struggle. The hegemonic approach of TPLF of being the only actor in Tigray, disempowering the youth and the opposition had cost Tigray the democracy it deserves. TPLF officials themselves are already claiming that the struggle now is way beyond TPLF and has become a popular Tigrian struggle. It is joined by members of opposition parties, artists, journalists, civil servants and former TPLF members expelled from the party. The Military wing is now referred to as Tigrian Defense Dorce (TDF).

It is incumbent upon TPLF and the Tigrian elite to envision a post TPLF political organization for Tigray. That could take a form of a Tigrian National Congress composed of all political actors and individuals taking part in the struggle to establish an inclusive organization representing contemporary Tigrian nationalism. After all, its mistakes, actions and miscalculation should have consequences.

Ceasefire, dialogue and reconciliation

Ceasefire, dialogue and reconciliation are the only ways forward that could put an end to this senseless war with some chance of sustainable peace. The way things are going, it is unlikely this will end anytime soon, no one will come out of this clean, and if we have any chance of co-existence, it is better if the war situation ends sooner than later.

There are many reasons for that.

No moral high ground to keep fighting

The federal government built its moral authority for the war on the attack of the northern command. It claimed that the war was forced upon it and no Government worthy of its name should stand idle when its military is attacked.

That seems to have worked, domestically. It helped the government to control the narrative and mobilize support and resources through its propaganda machinery, bureaucracy and political power. It portrayed itself as a victim giving space for supporters of the war and shaming the opponents into silence. It was able to isolate not only the TPLF but also the Tigrian people from the rest of Ethiopia.

However, that moral ground is not there anymore. The first reason for that is the increased case of atrocities committed in Tigray by Ethiopian military, Eritrean and Amhara forces. Reports of horrific incidents of civilian massacres, looting and destruction are coming out everyday. Especially for international actors, the situation in Tigray is very worrying as it’s a case of a minority being attacked by groups with extreme feelings posing a clear risk of atrocity crimes being committed, including genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

At no time in Ethiopian history has such thing happened, own government inviting a foreign force to defeat one of its internal political rival, with no control of what they are doing and how

The involvement of Eritrea is also another reason for losing the moral high ground. If not for their military involvement inside a country that prides itself of resisting foreign involvement and aggression, but for allowing them to operate the way are doing – committing heinous crimes against civilians and undertaking widespread looting and destruction of Ethiopian public and private property.

At no time in Ethiopian history has such thing happened, own government inviting a foreign force to defeat one of its internal political rival, with no control of what they are doing and how.

To the contrary, the moral high ground now has possibly shifted to the Tigrian resistance. From their point of view, civilians are being killed, a property looted and destroyed, war is ongoing, humanitarian situation is dire and the federal government could not protect civilians from either Eritrean or Amhara forces. It has not gotten better in the past six months and people might feel joining the fight is much better than being killed at home. After all, the bushes might even be the safest place in such times.

A chance for a stable Tigray

It is not clear what the federal government assessment was on what winning the war could mean in the context of Tigray. Does TPLF military defeat automatically result in a stable Tigray where people become willing to accept, whoever is assigned to administer them? Can Tigray be administered through proxy, even temporarily? Will de-registering TPLF and labeling it junta, or even a terrorist, help garner support from the Tigrian people?

How things went has clearly shown that administrating Tigray with some degree of effectiveness is equally, if not more, challenging than winning the war. In a society with thousands of years of history of self-governance and political culture, it requires a very careful military operation underpinned by strict discipline and political co-option to win semblance of acceptance by the people with some willingness to cooperate.

That was not the case. The war was dirty and destructive. The interim government established by the federal government is struggling to form functioning administration. There is lack of cohesion from within the interim administration demonstrated through resignations and contradictory public statements.

Many Tigrians, even with some distaste for TPLF are not willing to join the interim government, some as a matter of principle. On the other hand, many sources indicate that Tigrian youth are joining the resistance in numbers, ensuring the resistance has no shortage of fighters.

Therefore, it must become clear by now that any chance of stable Tigray requires a political solution to put an end to the war and a process by which Tigrian people are given a chance to be ruled by leaders they consider legitimate. And that political solution requires a ceasefire, dialogue and reconciliation process.

At the same time, the designating TPLF as a terrorist organization will make the chance of dialogue more difficult and should carefully be reconsidered. Politically, it could do more harm than good. The designation will give the federal government a reason to refuse dialogue, which means, as things stand, a prolonged war. Designation might serve some purpose in controlling remote support for TPLF, but very unlikely to change realities on the ground. To the contrary, the discretion that comes with it will open a room for ethnic or political targeting, which is likely to be abused, contributing to the insurgency.

That does not mean TPLF leadership should be off the hook. There must be accountability, and some amnesty and pardon. Some of the decisions it made and actions it took, no matter how justifiable they could be politically, are to the minimum criminal acts. The leadership shall consider that as the necessary price to pay for the mistake it committed and the suffering of the people.

Another path of long and bitter struggle will be both unwise and enormously costly for Tigray. If the war continues, even as a low level insurgency, it would mean long term state of instability and destruction. Tigray, as it stands, is encircled by adversaries in all sides. These adversaries are big actors, with much better resources to continue fighting. The TPLF leadership must be willing to sacrifices itself, if it needs be, to stop this suffering and contribute to a stable Tigray.

A stable Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s stability has always been precarious, with contending nationalism, poor democratic culture and lack of functioning institutions. The war in Tigray has exacerbated that situation.

Even without it, the risk of instability was growing with empowered, emboldened and opportunistic political elite fighting for survival, power and rent all over the country. We are witnessing frequent attacks on civilians everywhere with increased cases of atrocity crimes and armed confrontation. The way things were going the risk was obvious. The escalations and confrontations between and among political forces risked a civil war, increase the risk of atrocity crimes and backsliding of the democratic transition. Unfortunately, all that has happened and a bigger crisis is unfolding.

The war in Tigray, even confined to that territory, poses a huge risk to the country’s stability

The war in Tigray, even confined to that territory, poses a huge risk to the country’s stability. The armed confrontation with Amhara region on the contested territorial claims is likely to continue unless it is formally settled. Eritrea and Sudan’s involvement will also internationalize and complicate the situation.

One of the underlying causes of the war in Tigray is the difference on the multi- ethnic federalist system, which has been the country’s main political battleground for quite some time. It is this similar tension that is beneath all other security clashes in the country. We have armed groups in Oromia, Benshangul and many other places led by contending nationalist groups that fundamentally disagree on state (nation) building- past, present and future.

Government contends TPLF has a hand in security problems everywhere else. But that cannot be valid now when TPLF’s capacity to incite violence elsewhere is reduced to a fight for its own survival. What that means is that, the underline political difference on nationalism will continue to be a point of contention, TPLF might have been a stronghold of the nationalities camp, but it is not the only one.

The major contradiction on nationalities is contested even within the ruling party. It’s a major political issue that cannot be addressed through force – that has been tried and failed. Negotiation with TPLF or a legitimate Tigrian political organization alone might not solve that, but the counter factual will certainly not. Ethiopia’s stable future rests on addressing this issue through a political process involving dialogue, bargaining and even reconciliation, not by force, not in Tigray, not in Oromia or anywhere else.

Ceasefire, dialogue and reconciliation; How?

How a ceasefire, dialogue and reconciliation could happen in Tigray is an even more difficult question than why it should happen. The conflict dynamics has complicated how a path like this could be implemented. Different actors with different objectives are involved, making it hard to get an agreed course of action.

But there is ample experience, globally, on how dialogue and reconciliation in such context could happen. An appropriate experience could be adopted and that might not be difficult. The most difficult thing, may be convincing the actors to the conflict to agree to this path and enforcing that agreement.

Domestically, the Ethiopian elite need to wake up and put pressure on the federal government to find alternative solutions other than war

This is where national and international pressure need to build up – to convince the actors to come to agree to this course of action. Domestically, the Ethiopian elite need to wake up and put pressure on the federal government to find alternative solutions other than war. True, we are too polarized and our collective moral equilibrium is lost. But, the warmongering and hate has only gotten us this far and we should wake up before it is too late.

International pressure, especially on Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, is beyond crucial, as national pressure may not have momentum due to the division. It may be that Ethiopia is too deep into war to solve its own problems.

African institutions have proved ineffective throughout the conflict with not a single concrete contribution or pressure to find a peaceful solution or stop the unfolding human suffering. So long to silencing the guns, the AU has once more proved it is for power than the people.

Clearly, the international response must get better than expressing grave concern and asking for restraint. The Tigray conflict is one with high risk of atrocities and unimaginable human suffering, with clear implication to regional stability. It needs much more concrete and serious steps.

There are at least two concert steps the international community can and must take to convince and enforce a process of ceasefire, dialogue and reconciliation either bilaterally or through multilateral arrangements. One is to put in place an accountability mechanism for Eritrean withdrawal. As it stands, Eritrea is the biggest challenge to any peaceful resolution of the conflict. If the Ethiopian government is genuine about their withdrawal and could not enforce it because it does not have the capacity, international pressure will only help with that regard. If the Ethiopian government promised withdrawal for diplomatic purposes but want Eritreans to stay, then those measures are the only way to ensure withdrawal.

The second concrete measure the international community must take is deploying an international peace keeping mission to Tigray

International actions could range from close monitoring of withdrawal to taking diplomatic measures including wide range of sanctions. But Eritrea is used to that and may not flinch, so there needs to be an option of some targeted military operations against Eritrean military assets. After all they have overstayed their welcome and their atrocious actions should be stopped.

The second concrete measure the international community must take is deploying an international peace keeping mission to Tigray. This is very crucial because of the multiplicity of actors that are very unlikely to respect a ceasefire by their own. Without it, no effective ceasefire can be implemented, which is a basis for dialogue and reconciliation.

Peacekeeping is less costly and less disastrous than either an ill-planned humanitarian intervention or a full blown humanitarian crises. It will give the international community the presence and access to guarantee that parties to the conflict honor their agreement. AS


  • Editor’s Note: The names of the authors of this opinion are withheld upon request.
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