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The Conflict in Ethiopia and Next Steps

February 8, 2022

Africa Insight
Pounded daily by a steady barrage of tragic news–each report even more gruesome than the last—many Ethiopians could not help praying for a respite from a calamitous war which was visited upon them through no fault of their own; yet, when the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) recently declared a halt in the fighting and announced preparations for national dialogue, many supporters were either underwhelmed by this news, or skittish about a negotiation process shrouded in mystery and preceded by the stunning headline that high-profile political prisoners, who had, directly or indirectly, contributed to the horrid quagmire which Ethiopia has been stuck in for over fifteen months. To understand why these two scenarios are not as contradictory as they might appear, one needs to delve into the chain of events which preceded the present state of befuddlement in the minds of most Ethiopians.


When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali took power in 2018, there was a palpable sense of optimism in the air, galvanizing unprecedented numbers of Ethiopians in and out of the country to come out and swell the spontaneous outpourings of support for the reforms his ascension heralded, and to celebrate the end of 27 years of brutal Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF)’s rule. Yet, notable in its absence during those intoxicating days, was clarity about the specific dimensions of the reform agenda, and the people’s giddy expectations would soon exceed what was achievable. The state of euphoria brought on by the tantalizing promises of transformative change would blind most of us to the sad fact that there was an intense power struggle brewing under the surface, and that this did not constitute a tangible transfer of power from the TPLF to the new ruling elite–now called the Prosperity Party. TPLF, far from wholeheartedly supporting the transition process, hunkered down in Tigray, licking its wounded pride and biding time until the opportune moment when it would descend on the upstarts who had the audacity to push it off its perch. Inevitably, on Nov. 3rd, 2020, TPLF preemptively attacked the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF)’s Northern Command, in so doing igniting a bloody conflict which has convulsed Ethiopia for over 15 months. This heinous attack was preceded by a prolonged campaign to foment inter-ethnic strife in the cynical guise of fighting for minorities’ rights.

In the first few weeks following the outbreak of hostilities, it appeared that TPLF had lost decisively in the battlefield, and it quickly vanished from Tigray’s urban centers—including from Mekele. Misreading the actual state of affairs, the Ethiopian federal government appointed an Ethnic-Tigrayan provisional administrator and allocated a considerable sum of money for stabilizing and rebuilding the recently conquered region. Soon, however, it became clear that the government had missed the fact that TPLF was merely playing dead, while secretly plotting to strike back, with the interim administration giving it political cover–overtly, or covertly. The counter-attacks that did come completely blindsided the ENDF and soon forced it to leave the entire region in disarray–primarily due to lack of support from Tigrayan civilians, who had been bombarded with massive TPLF propaganda via Tigray TV. As a fig-leaf for its hasty exit from Tigray, ENDF claimed that it relocated voluntarily, mainly to give peace a chance, and to enable farmers to tend to their plots and prepare for the next harvest. However, this claim fooled hardly anyone, and it was quickly discredited when TPLF, having fully secured Tigray-proper, made it clear the whole of Ethiopia was fair game. Using sophisticated military hard-ware it had purposely buried in the jagged mountains and scorching valleys of Tigray for decades, it ventured further from its borders and started ravaging the contiguous Afar and Amhara regions.

TPLF’s next plan for consolidating power had the preliminary objective of either toppling the federal leadership or forcing it to submit to TPLF’s dictates. Either route had the ultimate goal of allowing TPLF to prepare for the next chapter in Tigray’s history: to declare regional autonomy, with the borders it had drawn–which over-rode the country’s historical boundaries. With that in mind, it set out to plunder occupied regions, disrupt trade routes to Djibouti, and eventually capture the Capital, and/or secure access to the outside world through the Sudanese border via the Welkait zone. Unable to penetrate into Welkait, it soon launched a coordinated thrust deep into Afar and the Wollo zone of the Amhara regions. In pursuit of this delusional strategy, TPLF would soon commit unspeakable crimes, massacring defenseless civilians, raping helpless female captives of all ages, shooting domestic animals at point-blank range, trashing badly needed health facilities and education centers, desecrate revered houses of worship, and so on.

Meanwhile, as the TPLF pressed toward the capital city, and was on the outskirts of Debre Birhan, PM Abiy called upon citizens to step forward and defend Ethiopia. Many groups, including Fannos, as well as Amhara, Afar, and other regional Special Forces, answered the call and pledged to fight alongside the ENDF. For their part, diaspora patriots took to social media and campaigned tirelessly, in the process unleashing the ”#NoMore (በቃ)” protest movement, and they declared that they would tolerate no interference in the country’s right to shape its own destiny. At this juncture, the Prime Minister himself chose to confront TPLF in the battlefield–rather than accept the “golden parachute” reportedly dangled before him by unspecified Western powers, who were confident that TPLF would soon occupy Addis Ababa, just as it had done in 1991. However, now that the flood of volunteer fighters had been outfitted, equipped and trained, the coalition forces were ready to begin the coordinated push which would drive TPLF back to where it was when the ENDF suddenly vacated the scene months earlier. Sure enough, the re-organized and beefed up coalition forces quickly dislodged TPLF from the many rural and urban centers of the Amhara and Afar regions it had ravaged for several months.

Suddenly, in a move which stunned supporters big and small, the government—despite the momentum in the ENDF’s favor—ordered its troops to pause their counter-thrust, and forbade them to enter Tigray. While this decision infuriated supporters, it would be endorsed enthusiastically by the Western powers. Following this, the Abiy government declared that his forces had gained the upper hand at the battlefield, and signaled his readiness to negotiate with all opposition groups, including TPLF. This decision, too, would prompt many supporters to scratch their heads in puzzlement, uppermost being what the bases for the negotiations will be, and why an olive branch is being extended to TPLF–which is not only not fully defeated but is, in fact, still harassing and ravaging large swaths of the Afar and Amhara regions. Notwithstanding this, the government compounded the state of consternation by declaring that it had released not only prominent political activists like Eskinder Nega and Jawar Mohammed, but also top TPLF figures, like Sibhat Nega, the “godfather of TPLF”. These decisions have already stoked a great deal of opposition. Long-time activists like Tamagn Beyene, Neamin Zeleke and Andargachew Tsige–all three of whom traveled to Ethiopia to boost morale against TPLF as it marched towards the capital–have lambasted the decision to release TPLF leaders and negotiate with it while the war it sparked is still raging and have characterized it as treason. These activists argue that TPLF has committed unspeakably awful crimes against Ethiopians, brought the country to its knees and uses negotiations only as a ploy to buy time for its latest nefarious designs. Meanwhile, the diaspora’s #NoMore movement has gone moribund even as other Africans–young and old–are embracing the battle-cry. Moreover, Amharas are demanding the un-equivocal recognition of Welkait and Raya as having always been part of Amhara.

Release of Prisoners and Negotiations with TPLF

The Ethiopian government is dealing with multiple crises, including the conflict with TPLF and OLA, the border dispute with Sudan, and the stalled negotiations on the equitable use of the Blue Nile with Egypt and Sudan. Given that some international powers are heavily involved in the affairs of various Horn of Africa nations, and in light of the fact that Prime Minister Abiy’s government has not made its negotiation platform public, Ethiopians cannot help worrying that the regime may buckle under pressure and make costly concessions to TPLF, Sudan and Egypt. As noted above, supporters of the Ethiopian government, who had been relaying and amplifying the government’s contention that all issues pertaining to Ethiopia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are the purview of the elected Ethiopian government, were completely blindsided by the news that negotiations would begin in the not too distant future. Their unease stems primarily from the fact that there is no clear indication about the preconditions for the dialogue, and they are in the dark as regards what steps the government plans to take locally and internationally to ensure that Ethiopia’s vital interests are not compromised in any way.

In any negotiation, one principle that either side cannot ignore is absolute clarity regarding its bottom-line—the line(s) in the sand, as it were–beyond which that party would not compromise. TPLF’s minimum demands are clear, among these being the return of the liberated Welkait sector—which, in fact, it forcibly and illegally annexed in 1991. TPLF and OLF are also adamant that all vestiges of their dreaded foes, the Fanno volunteers and the Amhara Special Forces should be dismantled forthwith. Judging by its track record, the Amhara Prosperity Party (APP), which has been tainted by its long-standing TPLF-affiliation baggage, cannot be regarded as a reliable champion of Amhara rights. It’s interesting to note that, in his recent wide-ranging question-and-answer session with reporters, PM Abiy’s response to one question struck some observers as something of a Freudian-slip, when he said that he has an excellent relationship with the APP leadership, and that he is never more at ease than when he is interacting with this group. It’s this kind of cozy relationship with PM Abiy and the leadership of the Oromo Prosperity Party (OPP) which makes Amhara supporters queasy. For instance, soon after OPP Vice-President Shimelis Abdissa’s infamous “confused/convinced” speech was broadcast all over the social media, the APP, far from distancing itself from the author of such an offensive statement, actually invited him to Bahir Dar, where he was lionized as if he had ushered in the millennium for the long-suffering Amhara people. Yet, this appeasement has not helped stop the unhindered ethnic cleansing of Amharas from the Wollega area of the Oromo Regional State. In short, the APP still has a lot of baggage it should jettison, and a long way to go before gaining the Amhara people’s trust. The onus is on its current leadership to prove to the valiant Amhara people that it cannot take their support for granted!

Negotiations with Egypt and Sudan:

The multi-billion-dollar Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project (GERD), is finally approaching successful completion, and it has even already test-generated electricity. This would bring Ethiopia closer to realizing its century-old aspiration to benefit from the bounty of the Blue Nile. However, Egypt has made no secret of its desire to sabotage the Dam at every stage. It has used diplomatic, economic and military threats to dictate its terms, and It insists on a binding treaty which guarantees it a set amount of water-flow per year. Ethiopia has justifiably resisted such an unwieldy agreement, since no nation can guarantee water volume, which fluctuates from year to year, depending on the often erratic amount of rainfall. It has stood its ground and taken tough steps–including walking away from US-mediated negotiations in favor of an African solution. However, there are worrisome signs that the regime might be softening on accepting US participation in the talks on the Dam’s final filling and operations. Given the partisanship the US has demonstrated, Ethiopians are fearful that all efforts to date will have been in vain. Social media abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of tangible assurances from the government that it would not make concessions inimical to its sovereignty and territorial integrity, it has given rise to a great deal of wild speculation. This is not to suggest that all 117 million Ethiopians be allowed to engage in arm-chair diplomacy, but a plea to keep at least trusted group leaders in the information loop–without adversely impacting the ongoing process.

Sudan, for its part, initially welcomed the GERD’s construction, since its completion would benefit it in many ways. However, after the fall of President Omar al Beshir, the new military-led government aligned itself with Egypt and engaged in making highly provocative statements and participating in joint military exercises, among other things. The new leaders not only opposed Ethiopia over the GERD, but they also slyly invaded parts of Gondar province while Ethiopia’s attention was diverted by the conflict in Tigray. Still, Ethiopia has chosen not to respond in kind, hoping that Sudan’s leaders would come to their senses. Meanwhile, Arab leaders, especially UAE’s Crown Prince–with his close ties to PM Abiy Ahmed–is rumored to have offered his help in the negotiations. Overall, many Ethiopians cannot help being uneasy about the talks, since they do not know what PM Abiy’s bottom-line is in this regard. Amharas, in particular, resent the impasse vis-à-vis continued occupation, and they are dubious about the outcome of such talks.

Amhara Popular Forces (Fanno)

In the nail-biting October-November days of 2021, when TPLF was advancing towards Addis Ababa unimpeded, the government complained that TPLF was using human-wave attacks, a relic of World War I tactics, which could not be repulsed by the ENDF alone, and it called up on all citizens to come to the defense of their nation. Among the many forces which responded to the call, the Fanno, a traditional Amhara citizens-army that unfailingly emerges in times of war with its own arms and supplies, was notable for its contributions, and the huge price it has paid in the process. Fanno believes the Amhara people have put up with atrocities meted out by TPLF for too long, and they resent the fact that this criminal organization still occupies portions of the Amhara region, murdering indiscriminately, raping women and ravaging the environment. Hence, Fanno wants TPLF to be taught a decisive lesson, rather than be invited to participate in the proposed round-table negotiations. One important fact to underscore is that Fanno is unique among most of the other armed groups in the country; it is one of the few groups in Ethiopia which speaks TPLF’s and OLA’s language fluently—guerrilla warfare—which is why these terrorist groups dread it and are using every tool at their disposal to have it disbanded. There is thus widespread apprehension among Amhara patriots that Fanno is in the government’s crosshairs and slated to be disarmed, and its leaders to be persecuted. As the government prepares to negotiate with TPLF and others, the Amhara have made no secret of their discomfort with such a possibility.

Whatever the truth in any such speculation might be, it is worth noting that, in many people’s minds, there is a glaring disconnect: On one side, there is Fanno–most of whose members come from different walks of life, mostly farming—which always steps forward anytime the nation finds itself in dire straits. This time, just as in the past, Fanno came to Ethiopia’s defense when its leaders were in their darkest hour. In contrast, TPLF, a group labeled a terrorist group by Ethiopia’s parliament itself, almost succeeded in toppling the government, and even after its southward-march was finally halted, it continues to occupy Afar and Amhara land. Likewise, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), which controls the Wollega area in the Oromo Regional State, has enjoyed free rein to rob banks, train batch after batch of fresh combatants, and carry out ethnic cleansing of Amharas through massacres and mass displacements. Despite this sharp contrast between Fanno and the terrorist groups, the government treats Fanno as some kind of necessary evil, while this same government discreetly negotiates with TPLF and OLA, which have been massacring civilians. Some observers fear that the government will not address the concerns of the Amhara people and that it would ride rough-shod over Fanno. In other words, the government may be simply taking a preemptive action against Fano on the fear of potential resistance over unacceptable outcomes to Amharas. In view of this disparity, we contend that fierce opposition and prolonged disorder will ensue if the Ethiopian government awards Welkait and Raya to TPLF, cedes the occupied territories to Sudan, or enters into an unjust treaty with Egypt over GERD or accepts a lopsided apportionment of the Blue Nile’s water.

Ethiopia is going through a rough transition period, marked by a civil war which has inflicted unspeakable human suffering, claimed countless lives, devastated property, and threatened the very existence of Ethiopia. Thanks to the bravery of its citizens, the various security forces–the ENDF, Fanno and the regional Special Forces of Amhara and Afar–Ethiopia have been spared dismemberment. The financial cost of the war and the wanton destruction of property and infrastructure will take a long time to recover from. However, sustainable recovery and development require peace, justice, and good governance. A national dialogue would usher in these. The list of the 42 individuals nominated as candidates for the 14-member Commission which will oversee the dialogue is encouraging, except, perhaps, that the glaring paucity of female candidates needs to be rectified. Whoever ends up on the list, it is imperative that the proposed Commission aim to prevent conflicts, by addressing the roots of endemic ethnic tension. The current constitution should be modified, and the ethnic federalism which has bedeviled the nation for three decades should give way to a non-ethnic arrangement. The bases for negotiation should be clear to all stakeholders and the regime should not reward criminal gangs who raised arms to destroy the very nation extending an olive branch to them.


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