Ethiopia’s age-old fights over land between ethnic communities could be the reason behind the latest resurgence in violence between Tigray on one side and the national government forces and pro-government ethnic militia on the other.
The resurgence of fighting in Tigray and other parts north of the country is risking chances for a negotiated peace process.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and its allied rebel fighters have been saying that the five-month-old ceasefire had collapsed after Ethiopian government forces ambushed and bombed areas under their control.
Speaking anonymously to The EastAfrican, some UN officials in Addis Ababa explained that tensions between the warring sides had remained high as they bickered over who should mediate the conflict.
They also say that growing sentiments by ethnic groups bordering Tigray that the TPLF had grabbed and occupied their lands was fueling and caused the eruption of this latest violence.
“There are regions which, before the war, were annexed to Amhara region from Tigray. TPLF captured those regions but the Ethiopian and allied forces beat them back,” said one UN agency official in Ethiopia.
“Those regions are important corridors for Tigray because they see them as routes to the outside world via Sudan. TPLF thinks it can enhance negotiation chances by capturing these regions but there are emotional attachments to this land by the people in Amhara,” he explained, saying neighbouring Afar people have expressed similar sentiments against TPLF.
The parts bordering Amhara to the west of Tigray have in the past been known as “western Tigray,’’ even though maps often combine part of today’s Amhara and Tigray. The region is less mountainous than other northern parts, meaning they are not suitable for battle but can be a good conduit for supplies.
On Thursday, the Tigray Defence Force, the militia of TPLF and allied fighters, claimed they had been attacked from Lalibela in Amhara and several other towns in “western Tigray’’ such as Sheraro where it said the “massive offensive” will involve transporting personnel, equipment and shelling.
The historical tussles over land between Amhara and Tigray peoples, explained another official, have always attracted the intervention of Ethiopian government forces to avoid direct confrontation between Amhara and Tigrayan forces and as payback to Amhara because the federal forces owe their success to the support of regional forces such as that in Amhara.
“It is a debt. Amhara forces have fought alongside Ethiopian forces and so when the former is under threat, the people in Amhara expect that the common enemy must be routed,” another UN official told The EastAfrican. So while TPLF is seen globally as a party to peace talks in Ethiopia, locally, it is considered a past land grabber who does not deserve a seat at the table.
The Ethiopian government on Thursday told diplomats in Addis Ababa that TPLF had violated the pledge to negotiate a peace deal.
“Despite the escalating hostilities, the government of Ethiopia is dedicated to achieving peace, in contrast to the TPLF, which continued to impose conditions and disparage the AU-led peace process,” said Demeke Mekonnen, Ethiopia’s deputy prime minister and minister for Foreign Affairs in a briefing to the diplomatic community in Addis Ababa.
TPLF has used all ways to establish and secure the much-needed corridor to the outside world and this Wednesday, when Addis forces shot down an aircraft reportedly carrying arms to Tigray, the Ethiopian ambassador to Khartoum Yibeltal Aemero Alemu was summoned to explain.
Sudan said it was a violation of national security and integrity because the said aircraft shot down on August 24, was in its airspace. Addis counterclaimed that the aircraft was carrying weapons to TPLF and was brought down on Ethiopian soil. TPLF rejected the accusation.
TPLF has rejected mediation by Olusegun Obasanjo, the African Union High Representative for the Horn of Africa, accusing him of bias and have suggested outgoing Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. Their other conditions for talks are a route for Tigray to the world, resumption of electricity supply and telcom communication lines, and banking services which had been shut down since the commencement of war in November 2020.
Adam Kassie Abebe, an advisor on peacebuilding and governance and vice president of the African Network of Constitutional Lawyers says the desire to control land may be distant for TPLF.
“Some think TPLF may want to control land as leverage for contested areas, but this isn't realistic. TPLF may also want Obasanjo out; if so, [I am] not sure if this is worth the flare-up, and crucially, his replacement will delay the peace process. If this is the goal, the skirmish is likely to remain in border areas.
“If escalation is to leverage position in peace process, it'll be confined to border areas. If it goes beyond, expect a full scale war, hate and mistrust, since actors seem unable to imagine living with each other.”
Both TPLF and federal government defied warnings by the African Union and the international community not to start a war because of the threat of famine for “in the interest” of the country.
On Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said both sides must choose dialogue for the sake of the citizens.
“The United States calls on the Ethiopian government and the TPLF to immediately halt military operations and redouble efforts to bring a permanent end to the conflict. We remain deeply concerned at the resumption of fighting and the lives that it puts at risk,” he said.
Ethiopia’s Government Communication Service accused the TPLF of striking first, saying it had “destroyed the truce.”
“Disregarding the numerous peace options presented by the Ethiopian government, the armed wing of the terror group TPLF, pushing with its recent provocations starting 5am today committed an attack,” the service said in a statement.
In spite of pledging dialogue, Ethiopia has yet to lift a terror tag on TPLF.
Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairperson of the African Union Commission warned the renewed fighting raises “deep concern” about the prospects of long-term peace and could affect the country’s focus on other existential problems.
“The chairperson strongly calls for immediate cessation of hostilities and urges the parties to resume talks to seek a peaceful solution,” his office said on Thursday.
The AU said it is committed to work with all parties “in support of a consensual political process in the interest of the country.” The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) also said both sides must cease hostilities.
The new war gives the region a new security headache and also means the country’s efforts to deal with the imminent famine may be diverted.
Last week, a UN situational report showed that more than half of the country’s 110 million people face a risk of hunger, although it is in Tigray region where famine looms large. The country hasn’t had regular rainfall since last year, affecting usual cultivation of grain.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) though says the sharp deterioration in humanitarian conditions in the country are driven largely by the combination of armed conflict, violence, climate shocks, prolonged droughts, disease outbreaks and the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19.
These dire situations are expected to result in continued high needs into 2023. OCHA said relief agencies have been about to serve just 20 million people, three quarters of them are women and children.