Federal forces have recorded gains in recent weeks but Ethiopia’s brutal civil war may well grind on without a winner. Addis Ababa must let more aid into blockaded Tigray and the region’s dissident leadership should recognise the federal government’s legitimacy pending detailed ceasefire talks.
Ethiopia’s civil war has taken another turn. After months on the back foot, federal troops and allied militias launched a counteroffensive in late November, retaking several towns in Amhara and Afar regions. Tigray forces, which had come within a few hundred kilometres of the capital, halted their advance and withdrew north. Tigray leaders say the setback is temporary. For his part, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, having staked so much on the Tigray resistance’s defeat, is also committed to keep fighting. But given the popular support and mobilisation on both sides, neither is likely to deliver a mortal blow to the other. More war will lead only to greater suffering. To save countless Ethiopian lives, the parties would be far better off inaugurating peace talks. That would require Tigray’s leaders acknowledging the government’s legitimacy and Addis Ababa ending its de facto blockade on Tigray, which is causing mass starvation. The parties should follow up by entering detailed ceasefire talks pending an inclusive national dialogue. Absent these steps, Ethiopia may be in for years of war.
The last few weeks have seen the pendulum swing once more in Ethiopia’s brutal, costly conflict, which has caused an unknown number of fatalities, numbering at least in the tens of thousands. Tigray’s forces, overwhelmed when war broke out in November 2020, rallied in 2021 to drive federal and Eritrean troops out of the region in June. Leaders were able to muster support thanks in part to the fury among Tigrayans at the massacres and sexual violence that federal troops, along with those from the Amhara region, which neighbours Tigray, and Eritrean soldiers, had perpetrated against civilians during the initial campaign. After moving into north-eastern Amhara in early November, Tigray’s fighters, who forged an alliance with a growing insurgency in Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populous region which surrounds the capital, captured the strategic cities of Dessie and Kombolcha. From there, they advanced south on the main road, and were poised for an assault on Debre Berhan, 130km from the capital.
A major federal counteroffensive then stopped Tigray’s forces in their tracks. Reportedly with support from drones provided by China, Iran, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, federal and allied forces pushed back on several fronts, with the aerial threat wreaking havoc on Tigrayan supply lines. In early December, federal troops attacked from the east, initially at Chifra on the Afar-Amhara border. That assault came after a failed Tigray bid in November to capture the strategic town of Mille, to the east of Kombolcha on landlocked Ethiopia’s main trade route. Federal forces also attacked near Kombolcha in an effort to isolate Tigray fighters farther south. Around the same time, federal and Amhara forces pushed their opponents from Gashena, which lies to the west of the crossroads town of Weldiya. Tigray’s commanders responded with a major withdrawal to areas around Weldiya and parts of Amhara to the north. At the time of writing, the sides are fighting around Weldiya.
In addition to acquiring more drones, federal and regional authorities met the opposition’s advance with calls for popular mobilisation, which now look to have paid off with overwhelming manpower playing a role in the resurgence. In an extraordinary step, Abiy on 22 November said he would head to the conflict zone himself. On 31 October, the leadership of the Amhara region announced it would set aside all government resources for the struggle.
Despite the latest shifts, it is unlikely the civil war will end soon as both sides can sustain campaigns. Tigray’s leadership enjoys the support of many in the region, who are livid at the excesses of the military incursion in late 2020 and demand guarantees that will foreclose the possibility of a repeat. Together, these people compose a large army of committed fighters who view their cause as existential. The Tigray leadership will not accept federal and U.S. demands that they withdraw to Tigray as they believe that step would leave Tigray vulnerable. They would accede only in the face of a total defeat. Besides, they still aim to achieve the ends they outlined in launching their offensives in July: reconnecting Tigray to aid, trade and services; regaining disputed territory in the strategic Western Tigray region that they lost to the Amhara in the war’s early months; and removing what they view as security threats. A retreat to Tigray would likely mean shelving their territorial claim in western Tigray and leaving Tigray open to attack by allied forces its leaders consider bent on the region’s subjugation.
Surging threats against Tigrayans outside Tigray have compounded Tigrayan concerns. Following the Tigray forces’ capture of Dessie and Kombolcha, some opponents of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – which parliament classified as a terrorist organisation in May – directed hate speech at Tigrayans. One activist called explicitly for genocide. A journalist demanded that all Tigrayans be placed in concentration camps, in part due to a belief that civilians in Dessie collaborated with Tigray fighters. On 2 November, the federal government enacted a national state of emergency, under which thousands of Tigrayans and Oromos have been detained without due process on suspicion of supporting the TPLF or Oromo rebels. As the war continues, increasing anger might trigger more mob violence and state repression of Tigrayans. Tigray forces have also been accused of abuses. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch found that they committed war crimes in Amhara. After the recent Tigrayan retreats, reports surfaced that they had looted medical and aid supplies.
Just like Tigray’s leadership, authorities in Addis Ababa have little appetite for seeking a negotiated settlement. The prime minister is emboldened by the recent battlefield successes and, in any case, is not minded to make concessions to armed opponents. Indeed, even as Tigray forces took up positions near Debre Berhan, and seemed to be threatening the capital, his administration rejected all their demands and third-party entreaties for negotiations. Abiy is likely to double down now that federal forces have retaken Dessie, Kombolcha and the world heritage site of Lalibela. One of his generals said federal forces will return to Mekelle, if necessary, in order to defeat the TPLF.
That type of stance has plenty of popular support, with many Ethiopians – especially in Addis Ababa and Amhara – agreeing with Abiy that the war is a struggle for the nation’s survival. Antipathy for the TPLF, which helmed a coalition that ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist from 1991 to 2019, is widespread in the capital and elsewhere. Many Amhara also point to alleged abuses by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), including a number of reported massacres of civilians in recent months and before the war’s onset, as illustrating the dangers they might face should the armed opposition prevail.
Yet the alternative to negotiations – continuing conflict – would spell further disaster for Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous state and the linchpin of the Horn. The lesson from hostilities in the past year is that both sides are locked in a devastating, essentially unwinnable war. In November 2020, the prime minister promised a quick, surgical “law enforcement operation”. But despite early victories, federal troops and their allies suffered spectacular reversals when Tigray’s forces pushed them out of Tigray, taking thousands of prisoners and significant materiel. Months later, Tigray’s forces appeared to be knocking at Addis Ababa’s door before the federal side rallied and drove them back, a pattern that may continue.
To avoid a long war, Tigray and federal authorities need to reconsider their stances. When they were ascendant, Tigray’s leaders stated they wanted to replace Abiy’s government with a transitional administration. That destabilising goal looks unattainable for now. Instead, to build trust and kick-start a peace process, Tigray’s leaders should recognise the federal government as legitimate. Since October 2020, they have denied the government’s legitimacy, claiming that federal authorities extended the Abiy administration’s term unconstitutionally by postponing elections. In reality, the extension, made on the grounds of the COVID-19 pandemic, was not unreasonable, and the decision-making procedure was constitutional. Moreover, if TPLF officials want to soften the antipathy they inspire among the public, they would do well to reiterate explicitly that they want to be part of an inclusive process in which all constituencies shape Ethiopia’s future. They should stress their interest is in securing Tigray and its self-rule, not re-establishing themselves as the dominant power nationwide.
For its part, Abiy’s government, which faces a tanking economy and a protracted war that has come with a huge reputational cost in Western capitals, has ample reason to shift course and try bringing fighting to a close. A number of measures would serve this end. First, authorities should immediately allow unhindered aid access into Tigray as a first step to rebuild trust but also to avoid a tide of preventable Tigrayan deaths that would poison the environment further, rendering a settlement even more unreachable. At times, Ethiopian officials have suggested that they are blocking supplies only so that Tigray’s leaders cannot divert them toward their own military campaign. Regardless, the restrictions are a violation of international humanitarian law and many Tigrayans and others, including former UN humanitarian coordinator Mark Lowcock, cast the policy as an attempt to starve the region into submission.
Addis Ababa can take practical steps, including removing bureaucratic restrictions imposed by all tiers of government on relief convoys using the route from Semera, Afar region’s capital, to Tigray’s capital Mekelle. Although ending the de facto blockade on the region is indeed an obligation for federal authorities and should not be part of negotiations, getting food and medical aid into Tigray would address one of the region’s forces main reasons for fighting. Hostilities in Amhara and Afar have also displaced hundreds of thousands, making it essential that all parties – the UN accuses Tigray’s forces of looting food stocks in Kombolcha – help get humanitarian assistance into those areas as well as into stricken Tigray.
Secondly, federal lawmakers should remove the TPLF’s terrorist designation and the government should then restore federally provided telecommunications, banking and electricity services to Tigray. At present, the classification serves as a legal impediment to restoring services to Tigray – even if the federal side wanted to do that – as Addis Ababa considers the region to be governed by a banned group. Parliament should also lift the May terrorist designation of the TPLF’s ally, the OLA, which many of the 40 million-strong Oromo consider to be fighting a just insurgency in defence of Oromo autonomy. In exchange, the OLA’s leaders should agree to participate in peace talks and the democratic process.
Thirdly, in order to reset a derailed transition, federal authorities should enact a comprehensive amnesty for all top jailed political leaders such as the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress’ Jawar Mohammed and Balderas leader Eskinder Nega. An amnesty may help convince the armed opposition that the federal government is interested in the type of inclusive national dialogue that they say they would facilitate if they took power. The federal government should also release the thousands of Tigrayan and other civilians detained under the state of emergency, cease further arbitrary arrests and prosecute instances of hate speech. Exchanges of prisoners of war by both sides could further build confidence.
Absent such conciliatory action from all sides, months – possibly years – more war is likely, leading to more economic deterioration amid worsening and widening insecurity. For now, Addis Ababa and its allies will press their counteroffensives, but total defeat of two armed movements that enjoy considerable support among their constituencies is unlikely. Instead, if they can, Tigray and Oromo forces will likely renew their efforts to overthrow the federal government. Prospects for that happening now appear slim, but were those efforts to succeed, the breakdown of government authority and possibly even state collapse would be on the cards. For one thing, much of Amhara region would likely go into open revolt. A number of other regional governments might refuse to cooperate with a transitional government comprised heavily of TPLF figures, especially if allied forces seize power by unseating a constitutionally elected administration.
Even if they can agree on a truce and get to talks, Ethiopia’s duelling elites would still face formidable challenges in achieving sustainable peace. Addressing Amhara opposition to removing the terrorist designations would be an initial one. Getting to a lasting ceasefire that involves Tigray’s forces’ withdrawal to their region and agreeing upon the future of those forces would be particularly thorny. So, too, would the western Tigray dispute: Mekelle considers its return to Tigray to be non-negotiable, but Amhara is dead set against it. As Crisis Group has argued, preventing open-ended instability in the area requires both sides to make concessions that so far they have been unwilling to entertain. The potential for growing Tigrayan secessionism, given their suffering at the hands of allied forces, could overshadow any national dialogue. An independence bid – which would be constitutional if federal authorities classed Tigray’s government as lawful – would supercharge the western Tigray dispute and could bring Tigray into another confrontation with its arch-enemy, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s military.
Still, forbidding long-term challenges notwithstanding, the critical task now is to ameliorate grave immediate risks by making incremental trust-building concessions. Battlefield dynamics now indicate a drawn-out war. Ethiopia’s leaders need to act in a magnanimous, conciliatory and far-sighted fashion to address all parties’ concerns and so improve the country’s prospects. In time, that means an inclusive national dialogue to address the deep fault lines. Ethiopians have paid a colossal price for this war in human and economic terms. More conflict will only increase the devastation and prolong the pain. Stopping the fighting now might give the Horn of Africa’s pivotal state a chance to start stitching itself back together.