By Martin Plaut
Source: Globe and Mail
On a continent that has seen so many false dawns, it was a statement probably made as much in hope as in expectation. Last week, the two sides agreed to a ceasefire that came as a surprise to many. It was an agreement to try to end the bloodiest conflict in the world: the war in the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray. The “permanent cessation of hostilities” agreement was signed in South Africa between the Ethiopian government and Tigray’s ruling party.
“Today is the beginning of a new dawn for Ethiopia,” former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, the African Union’s lead negotiator, said moments after Ethiopia’s Redwan Hussein and his Tigrayan counterpart Getachew Reda signed and shook hands.
But will the deal put an end to the devastation that has consumed the Horn of Africa? To get a sense of its chances, we need to revisit the causes and impact of the war – something not widely known, given that the conflict, despite its severity, has received minimal coverage since both Ethiopia and Eritrea have forbidden journalists from reporting from the front lines. The clues to the future of the region lie in the examination of the long and complex relations between the groups, and their deep roots in Ethiopian history.
The war began on the night of Nov. 3, 2020. This was no civil war: It involved some of the troops of three nations. Ethiopian forces were joined by Eritreans and some Somali soldiers in attacking the Tigrayans. The newsletter Africa Confidential estimated that at least half a million soldiers from the three nations were deployed in the latest round of fighting. The Tigrayans probably had 250,000 troops. While their enemies had the latest Turkish drones, an air force and a ready supply of heavy artillery and ammunition, the Tigrayans only had what they held at the very start of the war, or captured on the battlefield. Each side is estimated to have suffered some 90,000 casualties in the current fighting alone.
Up to 600,000 civilians are said to have been lost during the war. Many have died of disease and starvation, since the region has been sealed off from the outside world, with only a trickle of aid being allowed to enter. Explaining why a deal was vital, Fasika Amdeslasie, a surgeon at the largest hospital in Tigray, said: “Our very survival depends on it. Food and medicine must come in. We have adults and children awaiting their death even as we speak.”
To understand the conflict, we need to take a look back at the region’s history. Ethiopians are able to chronicle their immensely rich and complex history in a way other sub-Saharan African nations cannot, for one reason: Their writing dates to the 9th century BC. It is a narrative of wars and princely kingdoms fighting for control of what was termed Abyssinia. But Menelik II (emperor from 1889 to 1913) transformed the nation, centralizing the government and expanding his rule over vast swaths of territory to the west, south and east of the highlands. He incorporated dozens of peoples. Many of his new subjects were Muslim, with cultures very different from the predominantly Christian Orthodox highlands.
From that moment onward, a tension existed, which is still contested. Is Ethiopia a single, unified state, in which all are equal citizens? Or should the nation rather be seen as a federation of peoples, each with their own distinct culture, who come together of their free will?
The Tigrayans are one minority – just 6 per cent of Ethiopia’s 122 million people. When they seized power in 1991 with allies, they instituted a system of “ethnic federalism” that gave all ethnicities state rights, including the right to secede from Ethiopia. Their critics claimed that behind the scenes the Tigrayans manipulated the ethnic parties and were the real puppet masters. In 2018 – after 27 years of Tigrayan dominance – the “puppets” revolted and the Tigrayans were replaced by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. His resentment toward Tigray’s iron rule was one factor that led to this tragic war.
The other, even more potent factor was the neighbouring state of Eritrea. Its ruthless dictator, President Isaias Afwerki, has loathed the Tigrayans since the 1970s. Although his movement and the Tigrayans co-operated to oust the Ethiopian government in 1991, they had many bitter disputes. These centred on ideology, tactics and strategy, supplemented by visceral, personal hatreds. Relations deteriorated so badly that in 1985 – at the height of the Ethiopian famine – the Eritreans closed the supply route through their territory to Sudan. Two hundred thousand Tigrayan peasants were forced to march into Sudan to survive. Thousands – mainly the elderly and weak – died along the way. Seldom spoken of, it was never forgotten.
Differences festered after Eritrea formally achieved independence from Ethiopia in 1993, leading to a border war between the two nations from 1998 to 2000. That war was estimated to have cost 100,000 lives. When peace finally came, the Tigrayans refused to implement the agreement that they had signed. The contested border was finally designated by an eminent panel of experts, but the Tigrayans refused to implement their findings, since Ethiopia lost important territory. Mr. Isaias concluded that he would not rest until his troublesome neighbours were eliminated.
In 2018, Mr. Isaias and Mr. Abiy were reconciled, for which the latter received the Nobel Peace Prize. They soon began plotting – together with the then Somali president – to reshape the Horn of Africa so that they could permanently remove the Tigrayans as a political force. The leaders mobilized their forces and the invasion of Tigray became only a matter of time.
In November, 2020, the armies of the three countries attacked, supported by Ethiopian militia. By the end of the month the Tigrayans had lost their capital, Mekelle, and were forced to withdraw into the mountains and countryside.
The Ethiopians, with their Eritrean and Somali allies, rampaged across Tigray. Men were hauled from their homes and shot at will. Monasteries dating back to the dawn of Christianity and mosques built at the time of the Prophet were shelled and destroyed. Priests and monks were killed or forced to abandon their sanctuaries and congregations. The most terrible fate awaited the women of Tigray, who were systematically sexually abused. Some were raped while their families looked on. Others, no more than children, were successively violated by men for days.
By June, 2021, the Tigrayans had recruited and trained fresh forces and burst forth from the countryside, taking their opponents by surprise. They went on the offensive, first driving the combined forces out of Tigray and then proceeding southward until – in November last year – they came close to threatening Addis Ababa itself. Embassies rushed to evacuate their citizens from Ethiopia, only to see the Tigrayans go into reverse and retreat back into their state. Quantities of Turkish, Iranian and Chinese drones had helped Mr. Abiy turn the tide.
Since the end of last year, the Tigrayans have remained bottled up, with their population quietly starving and a partial ceasefire in place. It was an untenable situation.
On Aug. 24 of this year, the fighting resumed with renewed intensity. An estimated half a million Eritrean and Ethiopian troops attacked on five fronts. The Tigrayans fell back, but were not vanquished. They resisted with a mixture of conventional and guerrilla tactics, and the Eritrean and Ethiopian advance was unable to capture Mekelle for a second time.
However, the Tigrayans were under intense military and diplomatic pressure. After many diplomatic missions and at least three informal meetings with the Ethiopians, they travelled to South Africa for formal negotiations. The talks, under the auspices of the African Union, were heavily promoted by the United States and the European Union.
The peace deal, which came together after 10 days of discussions, is ambitious in its timeframe and terms. For the Tigrayans it was a humiliating agreement. They were forced to sign as a party – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – and not as a regional government. The terms were close to surrender.
So far, the ceasefire has not held. Since the deal was signed, fighting has continued, with the Eritreans, who were not at the South African talks, attacking on several fronts. It is impossible to predict where this ends. The Ethiopian and Tigrayan military leaders have begun meetings in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, under the auspices of the African Union and its mediators. A communications hotline has been established and there is the hope that in time local commanders might be able to end the fighting.
One possible interpretation of these events is that they might just mark a dramatic shift in alliances. Could the continuing talks see Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy moving away from Eritrea’s President Isaias, and embracing the Tigrayans instead? Eritrean troops are presently deep inside Ethiopia and Eritrean security officers are said to work in Ethiopian cities, including the capital. Might Tigrayan forces, newly reintegrated into the Ethiopian military, help persuade the Eritreans to leave? It seems far-fetched after so much bloodshed but, implausible as it may sound, it cannot be ruled out. The Horn of Africa continually reshapes and reinvents itself: Only its many cultures and social relationships persist.
The suffering all sides have endured has been immense. Tigray is estimated to have lost one in 10 of its population through war, famine or disease. Neighbouring regions have been severely damaged. Ethiopia estimates the cost of restoring the damaged infrastructure could be as high as US$20-billion. The situation in Eritrea is just as troubling. Recruits – some as old as 70 – were herded into the war, to die in their thousands on the battlefronts. Eritrean hospitals are said to be full-to-overflowing.
The war has consumed the Horn of Africa. The African Union has struggled to resolve a crisis on its doorstep. The UN has been shackled by Russian and Chinese threats of vetoes, leaving the Security Council all but powerless. Only if the current fragile peace holds is there any prospect of a reconstruction of the physical and social infrastructure that has suffered so terribly.