The Ethiopian government stated it had accepted an invitation from the African Union (AU) to hold peace talks with rebels in the Tigray region after another escalation of fighting in the nearly two-year war in the north. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s National Security Advisor Redwan Hussein wrote on social media that the government “has accepted this invitation which is in line with our principled position regarding the peaceful resolution of the conflict and the need to have talks without preconditions.” According to a letter written by AU Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, both sides (Ethiopia and Tigray) have been invited to South Africa for talks. The statement said that the AU had set “both a date and a place” for the talks, but did not specify when.
However, there was disagreement over the negotiators who would be present at the talks and resolve all points of contention between the parties. So far, the “three negotiators”, comprising High Representative for the Horn of Africa Olusegun Obasanjo, former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and former South African Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, have been reported. Earlier, the warring parties had disagreed on who should mediate in the talks, with Abiy Ahmed’s government insisting on Obasanjo and the Tigrayans wanting Kenyatta to mediate the dialogue. They also argued over the restoration of basic elementary services to the population, such as electricity, communications and banking. Tigray believes that this is their key condition for dialogue and they are not backing down on their demands. The region of eight million is facing severe shortages of food, fuel, medicine and other essentials, and the UN World Food Programme warned of rising malnutrition even before the latest fighting halted aid deliveries.
It is interesting that the United States, the chief “peacemaker” who has not resolved a single conflict, instantly announced that its Special Envoy Mike Hammer would make his second visit to Ethiopia in recent months to supposedly bring about a “cessation of hostilities”. The Department of State said Mike Hammer will visit Kenya, South Africa and Ethiopia as early as this month. The visit, which will include meetings with representatives of the Ethiopian government and the African Union, was said to be part of US efforts “to achieve an immediate cessation of hostilities in northern Ethiopia and support the launch of African Union-led peace talks.” Yet somehow, after all these visits of the special envoy and senators, the Ethiopian conflict is not resolved, but only escalates, causing irreparable damage to both the country and the people. But all this does not interest distant Washington, and it continues to create new conflicts, where it actively throws weapons. A prime example of this “peacebuilding” activity is the Ukrainian conflict, which is only being fueled and continues to gain momentum thanks to the efforts of “peacekeepers” from the US and the NATO “defensive” bloc.
The war that broke out in Africa in November 2020 killed untold numbers of civilians and caused a deep humanitarian crisis, and all parties to the conflict have been accused of grave abuses against civilians. The Tigrayans dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition for decades before Abiy came to power in 2018. After months of growing tension, he sent soldiers to Tigray to overthrow the government of that northern province, saying the move came in response to attacks on federal army camps. In the end, however, neither side won an uncontested victory, and it now appears that Ethiopia and Tigray are forced to sit down at the negotiating table in the hope of at least buying time to regroup their military units, if not reaching an agreement.
It is necessary to recall the reasons for the conflict between Addis Ababa and Tigray and to explain why the leadership of this northern province is so hostile to the current president personally. For three decades, the Tigrayans controlled the state, society and the military in Ethiopia through their leadership of the armed struggle against the Mengistu Haile Mariam regime (1974-1991), toppling it after several years of famine and civil war. In the past, some 36% of army and security officers were Tigrayan, although they make up only 7% of the population. They also controlled the offices of the civil bureaucracy, the local trade network and international aid. This, in turn, contributed to the collapse of the army when Abiy Ahmed tried to marginalize the Tigray when he came to power in 2018, prompting the government to use the Amhar and Afar militias to confront the Tigray and their well-trained military forces. Against this background, the Tigrayans cannot accept being on an equal footing with the rest of the ethnic groups. The facts on the ground indicate that they cannot manage other groups as they have done in the past. Incidentally, other Ethiopian ethnicities will not accept Amhar’s rule either, especially in the absence of promises of equality. These are some of the reasons why Ethiopia is at a critical stage of uncertainty, poverty and degradation.
Since the war began, the government has isolated Tigray from the rest of the world, and according to UN agencies operating in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, during the blockade the mountainous region, home to eight million people, is threatened with famine. The UN reports that the Horn of Africa region, which includes Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan, faces food security challenges that will threaten many tens of millions of people. In this context, the UN has called for a ceasefire and invited the warring parties to start negotiations to establish a sustainable peace and to open routes for the delivery of humanitarian aid to the millions of affected people.
Ethiopia’s renewed civil war has dashed the cautious hopes for peace that had been inspired by the truce signed by both sides in March this year and the subsequent preparations for negotiations between Addis Ababa and Tigray. But the conflict is not the only cause of hostilities and tensions in this multi-ethnic country, which is home to more than 80 ethnic groups, most of whom have their own Liberation Front and are demanding greater autonomy, if not independence. According to government sources, a number of farmers from Amhara have been repeatedly attacked by the Oromo Liberation Front. The Oromo tribe is the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, accounting for 34% of the population. The Amhara are the second largest at 27%, followed by the Tigrayans and Somalis, who make up six to seven per cent of Ethiopia’s 110 million population.
Addis Ababa itself is located in the Oromo region, where periodic clashes take place between the Oromo and Amhara communities. The current president, Abiy Ahmed, is the son of an Oromo father and an Amhara mother. Politically and culturally, he leans more towards Amhara, causing enmity and tension among the Oromo. Despite their relatively smaller numbers, the Tigray people have long played a key role in Ethiopian history. Two centuries of cultural, religious and social unity between the Amhara and Tigray peoples since the late 18th century have created the modern state of Ethiopia. Tigray reached the height of its glory when it defeated Italian troops in 1898 at the Battle of Adwa, which is located in the Tigray region. They then played a pivotal role in liberating the country from Italian colonial control in the 1930s, when Italy was ruled by dictator Mussolini and his fascist party. Perhaps because of their central historical role, the Tigrayans have long felt unfairly treated in the modern state of Ethiopia, where the Amhara control the state and Amharic is the official language. Because of their large numbers, the Amhara manage the Ethiopian church, the army, the government bureaucracy and the treasury. The discontent of the Tigrayans culminated in several large-scale uprisings against the country’s last Emperor Haile Selassie, then against the socialist military rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam, and today against Addis Ababa to throw off Amharic control.
The Ahmed government and the Amhara militia allied to it have failed to defeat Tigray in more than 18 months of fighting. Since the start of the war, Tigray has allied with other regional militant fronts such as the Oromo Front (based in central Ethiopia), the Gambella Force (from the Gambella region near the border with South Sudan) and the Benishangul Force (based near the border with Sudan in the Benishangul Gumuz region). Moreover, although the Tigrayans have alliances with other ethnic groups, each has its own agenda. These fragile alliances are not fighting as one state, but rather to secede and create their own independent states. Nevertheless, many doubt that Tigray will be able to topple Ahmed’s government. The current situation in Addis Ababa cannot be compared to the late Mengistu Haile Mariam rule, as Ahmed is still popular among Amhara as well as some Oromo, while Mengistu lost his legitimacy and became highly unpopular by the end of his rule.
The conflict is also a source of concern for the international community. Ethiopia is surrounded by six other countries, two of which are involved in civil wars. In Somalia, the central state collapsed three decades ago, while South Sudan, the world’s youngest state, has experienced only a brief period of relative stability and calm since independence (from 2011 to 2013). According to UN agencies, a major famine could break out in these six countries by the end of this year, affecting tens of millions of people.
Eritrea has also largely cut itself off from the rest of the world, and is referred to in the Western media as “Africa’s North Korea”. The situation became a little clearer when Ahmed initiated a rapprochement after coming to power in 2018. Sudan is beset by a host of difficulties, including the struggle for political power following the October 25 coup last year, ongoing civil wars in the Blue Nile region in the south and Darfur in the west, and massive flooding affecting tens of thousands of people in central, eastern and northern parts of the country. In Kenya, Ethiopia’s southern neighbor, nerves are strained amid controversy over the results of the recent presidential election. Some fear that tensions could escalate into inter-communal violence and spiral out of control.
Ethiopia’s neighbors are concerned that unrest in the country could bring refugees to their borders, adding more problems to those states. Sudan has already received tens of thousands of refugees from Tigray and Benishangul because of the civil war, straining already overstretched Sudanese government institutions and their resources. But the most alarming scenario is the explosion of Ethiopia itself, as the consequences would inevitably extend beyond the country’s borders, possibly threatening the unity of some of its neighbors.
The numerous conflicts in the Horn of Africa once again hark back to a time in history when it was dominated by colonial powers that divided African territories at their own discretion. There is a revision of these colonial maps now, but it is often done on the battlefield rather than at the negotiating table. This further distances these countries from a just and peaceful solution to the many problems of long-suffering Africa.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”