Ethiopia’s devastating civil war recently began its second year. The conflict between the federal government and the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) has spread beyond Tigray, intensified old hostilities between Tigray and Amhara, and drawn to armed groups from Oromia, Benishangul and Afar, deepening identity-based fighting over Ethiopia.
These days, the fighting is moving ever closer to the capital Addis Ababa and threatens a catastrophic escalation. On November 2, the Ethiopian government declared a nationwide state of emergency and there are widespread reports that civilian Tigrayans have been arrested without reasonable cause. Governments around the world, from the United States to Turkey, advise their citizens to leave the country immediately.
At the same time, northern Ethiopia is facing a worsening humanitarian crisis, with more than eight million people in urgent need of help. In Tigray, at least 400,000 people are believed to be living in starvation conditions. Two million people have been displaced internally and there are more than 60,000 refugees in Sudan. No humanitarian convoys have entered the region since mid-October, despite the need for at least 100 trucks a day to meet the most basic needs of the local population.
A joint inquiry by the UN and the Ethiopian Commission on Human Rights (EHRC) and a subsequent report by the EHRC have revealed the widespread abuses, torture and sexual violence against civilians perpetrated by the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and Tigrayan, Amhara and Eritrean forces during various phases. of the conflict, including some that may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The Tigray advances – but the playoffs are unclear
Ethiopian government forces have been on the back foot in recent months. TDF has conquered significant territory, including major cities and towns such as Weldiya, Dessie and Kombolcha. The Tigrayans also formed an alliance with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), which has conquered territory in many parts of Oromia that faces limited resistance from the ENDF and its allies.
Joint forces are within 200 km of Addis Ababa. In Afar, the rebels are trying to cut off the main supply route to Addis Ababa from neighboring Djibouti, which would allow them to impose a blockade on the capital and potentially open a crucial supply line to Tigray.
But the playoffs for the Tigrayans are still not clear. They have not yet formulated a coherent political plan or formed a coalition that has a chance to gain national legitimacy.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and OLA recently established an alliance with seven smaller groups demanding the formation of a transitional authority, but the details of the agreement, which does not include many legitimate stakeholders, are still unclear. It is still uncertain whether the TPLF-TDF is fighting to conquer the whole country, to secure Tigrayan’s autonomy in a Confederate Ethiopia, or to secede.
For his part, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed remains bullish and committed to military victory, after declaring that he would lead the army from the front lines and urging citizens to take up arms against groups his government has designated as terrorists. He has significant support in Addis Ababa, but the federal government is no longer the only power base in the country. Regional administrations lead their own forces and prioritize their own ethnofederal agendas – fighting not only to protect and expand their territory but also to create favorable positions for themselves in any future political dispensations. A self-sufficient logic of violence risks being established.
Limited international leverage
Neither side seems willing to listen to external calls for peace. Prime Minister Abiy seems to believe that the international community wants to remove him and that his only option is to pursue a winner who takes everything. The TPLF / TDF also sees little value in negotiations, especially after its recent progress. Both sides perceive the other as an existential threat.
The European Union and the United States have exerted some pressure by stopping aid, and the latter has also barred Ethiopia from the African Growth Act and opportunities to try to bring the conflict to an end. Sanctions against Ethiopian actors have been withheld, at least for now, to allow time for fruitful negotiations, but targeted action has been taken against Eritrean officials and institutions because of their destabilizing role in the conflict.
However, these efforts have so far had little success and the punitive measures taken by external actors have been instrumentalised to arouse nationalism and mobilize resistance.
Mediation will be crucial in resolving this conflict – but there is no single actor who can effectively implement it. The African Union (AU) representative for the Horn of Africa, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, is engaged in shuttle diplomacy, but his team needs more support and resources to make meaningful progress. US and EU envoys also play an important role in talks with domestic and regional actors.
AU is in a sensitive situation. Its headquarters are located in Addis Ababa and its decision-making model requires consensus, which makes strong measures, such as shutting down Ethiopia, highly unlikely. The regional bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), is similarly devastated by the post-coup revolution in Sudan, the current president. And even before the coup, deteriorating relations between Khartoum and Addis Ababa, and the ties between IGAD’s Ethiopian executive secretary and Prime Minister Abiy, have made it difficult for the bloc to act as a mediator.
In the absence of feasible institutional mechanisms, the commitment of regional leaders such as Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is crucial. Kenya, currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, has protected Addis Ababa from sanctions (along with China and Russia), and instead insists on an African-led solution to the conflict. But it has also spoken out about the humanitarian crisis and called for an end to hostilities. Following talks with Prime Minister Abiy in Addis Ababa, the President of Kenya has also discussed ways to resolve Ethiopia’s conflict with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Go towards genuine dialogue and reconciliation
A roadmap for sustainable peace in Ethiopia can only be drawn up after a ceasefire has been reached. For downsizing to take place, both the federal government and the rebels must recognize each other as interlocutors. This would require the federal government to revoke the appointments of the TPLF and OLA-Shene as terrorist groups and for the rebel groups to accept the legitimacy of the federal jurisdiction. The government and federal states would also need to allow humanitarian aid to reach Tigray as an urgent matter. In the meantime, an independent monitoring and evaluation commission with a UN mandate can be set up to monitor the ceasefire.
All sides would then need to realize the overarching need to find a new political solution and address Ethiopia’s deep – rooted structural problems. They would need to start working to reconcile their conflicting historical narratives, agree on a division of power between the center and the regions, deal with demands for ethnolinguistic self-determination, and resolve territorial disputes.
To move forward peacefully, Ethiopian leaders will need to find a way to meet competing ideological perspectives and build a vision for consensus governance. This can only be done through national dialogue and an inclusive transition process.
For this purpose, a dialogue platform has been established by the Ministry of Peace and several local organizations. To strengthen this emerging process, the government should be an equal partner – together with civil society groups and others, with peace-building and reconciliation efforts strengthened.
The transition process should include the federal government, rebel movements and senior opposition party leaders – such as Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba and Eskinder Nega – as well as civil society groups, religious leaders and prominent personalities.
Such an inclusive process could lead to an interim government of national unity recognized by all stakeholders. This government, which would have a short, predetermined term of office, could implement institutional reforms to strengthen the federal project and enable real decentralization, paving the way for national elections that meet local expectations and international standards.
A transitional strategy for justice – crucial for societal healing and for holding perpetrators of atrocities accountable – should also be developed. In addition, stakeholders should agree on a process for managing autonomous regional security forces and reuniting the national army. Addressing the economic drivers of conflicts, including by ensuring the distribution of peace at the local level, will also be an important part of any long-term solution. International partners could support this process with resources and technical expertise.
For all this to happen, both sides must accept some difficult truths.
Prime Minister Abiy will have to admit that his government’s legitimacy is so tainted by the atrocities committed during this brutal civil war that it cannot continue to rule the country on its own after the end of the conflict. The Tigrians, for their part, must accept that deep complaints from their long period of dominance in Ethiopian politics remain, and that most Ethiopians will not agree to lead the federation again. Both sides can strive to win the war, but neither can hope to win peace alone.
The civil war in Ethiopia has caused unimaginable anxiety and brought the country to the brink of collapse. Now is the time for the elite to put their self-interests aside and start working to reach a political settlement that addresses the country’s persistent complaints and build a new social order based on mutual understanding and inclusion.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial position.