One year into Ethiopia’s internal war in Tigray region, there are no signs of a ceasefire.
And sources privy to the ongoing efforts to end the war say the crisis is prolonged due to mistrust between the federal government in Addis Ababa and the leadership of the TPLF, a divided international community as well as who actually should be at the table to negotiate a peace deal.
This week, President Uhuru Kenyatta visited Addis Ababa to prevail upon Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and local leaders to pursue dialogue to pave the way for humanitarian access in Tigray.
“President Kenyatta deals with this issue as a friend and as a neighbour of Ethiopia. We believe in the potential of Ethiopia to find a resolution to this crisis. We believe that a ceasefire is possible. We believe that the other conditions regarding humanitarian access are possible,” said Raychelle Omamo, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs, at a joint press conference with visiting US Secretary of State Antonio Blinken on Wednesday.
But Ms Omamo quickly added that Africa was banking on Ethiopian’s own “wisdom” to get a solution, a hint that the conflict is being treated as an internal matter.
“What we must do as neighbours is to support, counsel, hold hands, to point in the right direction, to ensure that this crisis, when it ends, and we believe it will end, will leave Ethiopia a stronger nation.”
This is Kenya’s promotion of the AU’s “African Solutions for African problems.” It was also the first time Nairobi has tried to explain President Kenyatta’s efforts to broker peace in Ethiopia. But it also reflected on the shortfall of Africa’s bid to win over Ethiopian parties to the conflict.
Since November last year, Ethiopia’s National Defence Forces have battled with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), after the TPLF attacked a Northern Command of the federal army. By this week, more reports of humanitarian crisis were coming in: More than 200 infants have died from starvation in addition to atrocities committed by either side, a humanitarian blockade was still on and thousands of people have been affected.
The war has since spilled from Tigray to neighbouring regions of Amhara, Afar and Oromia whose rebel factions of the Oromo Liberation Army have been said to have formed alliances with TPLF.
Yet even as the parties fight, just who should be at the table? Not TPLF, if you asked the government of Dr Abiy. And not Dr Abiy, if you asked the TPLF.
“The real and present threat to peace in Ethiopia and Horn of Africa Region is the continued belligerence and aggression of the TPLF. We reiterate that the international community's reluctance to condemn destabilising roles of the TPLF has emboldened the terrorist group,” Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry said after Washington imposed sanctions on Eritrean military and only political party in the country for taking part in Tigray war.
“Mr Abiy has done a great job of dismembering Ethiopia. If there is going to be a slim chance to avert Ethiopia’s irreversible disintegration, it certainly means Abiy’s departure and soon,” responded Getachew Reda, advisor to TPLF leader Debtretsion Gebremichael.
With the war expanding, and roping in other smaller players beyond Tigray, new interests could emerge, making it harder for parties to negotiate.
In Nairobi, Mr Blinken warned that there could be no long-term peace if everyone with an axe to grind is not invited to dialogue. Mr Blinken said the US recognises PM Abiy Ahmed as the formally elected leader of Ethiopia, but admitted that had been negated by continual violence.
“It is very important that the differences, the conflicts be resolved by people sitting down at the table, talking, discussing, negotiating,” Mr Blinken told a joint press conference in Nairobi on Wednesday.
“And that needs to be done, in my judgment, pursuant to the constitutional order, including with the duly elected leaders of the country, Prime Minister Abiy, but at the table with all who have grievances and concerns that unfortunately everyone, and tragically, everyone has chosen to express through military means as opposed to using the political process," he said.
Though Washington says it supports efforts by the African Union, and especially the mediation effort by special envoy Olusegun Obasanjo, Washington’s recent public stances on Addis Ababa, including threats for sanctions has miffed Abiy’s government.
When, last week, the US sanctioned Eritrean forces and the ruling party for participating in atrocities in Tigray, Addis Ababa responded by urging Washington to cancel the sanctions, warning that they had been imposed based on inaccurate facts. Addis Ababa wants TPLF penalised instead.
On Wednesday, Mr Blinken later met with Dr Workneh Gebeyehu, the Ethiopian diplomat who now heads the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad).
“The Secretary underscored the need for an immediate cessation of hostilities in Ethiopia and stressed the need for all sides to enter into talks,” Ned Price, Mr Blinken’s spokesman said on Thursda
This week, Abiy’s government launched a public campaign at what it calls disinformation on Ethiopia, invoking pan-Africanism and lampooning Western media. Yet there has been little President Obasanjo, the AU High Representative, has achieved. On Sunday, he admitted Ethiopia’s conflict is profiting from “failed politics.” The rebel groups though had expressed little confidence in Mr Obasanjo, even though the TPLF leaders hosted him earlier this month in his fact-finding trip.
Ethiopian politics is mostly a loose federation. When Mr Abiy came to power, he tried to centralise his power by merging individual parties into one Prosperity Party, even though federal state regions continued with their autonomy. The TPLF, which dominates Tigray and had been a member of the ruling national coalition, rebelled and went ahead to conduct elections, which had been cancelled by Addis Ababa countrywide because of Covid restrictions.
“The question of the right balance of power between the centre and Ethiopia’s states has bedevilled Ethiopia for centuries. It lies at the heart of the current conflict,” observed Murithi Mutiga, Horn of Africa Project Director for the International Crisis Group, an international think-tank on security issues.
“Given its size and cultural diversity, it makes sense for Ethiopia to be governed in a reasonably decentralised fashion but the key protagonists do not agree on the degree of decentralisation. All of them accept the idea of a federalised Ethiopia but conceptualise its mechanics very differently,” he said.
To solve that, leaders may require a national dialogue, which Premier Abiy had agreed to in an earlier speech, as long as it doesn’t include what sees as criminals.
In his previous attempts, President Kenyatta proposed a ceasefire and discussions on how to include the disgruntled armed groups into formal politics. Sources told The EastAfrican that TPLF’s past history of atrocities against other ethnic groups remained a stumbling block. Everyone supporting PM Abiy is determined that the group doesn’t gain any political power.
But TPLF is still militarily powerful, a source explained, making the conflict complicated. Experts say neither side can enjoy a victory from war. Neither side, they argue, can also win easily through military means.
“It is highly unlikely that a military victory for any side will bring peace. Absent a settlement between the main belligerents, you are more likely to witness a multi-sided civil war as various armed actors try and carve political space for themselves,” Mr Mutiga warned of potential splintering of parties or an emergence of new ones, demanding a stake in the conflict.