Conflict Has Returned To Ethiopia, Devastating A Five Month Truce

Renewed fighting in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray has disintegrated the fragile ceasefire that lasted in unsteady balance for five months. Both warring parties — the Tigrayan rebels and the Ethiopian government forces — have accused each other of starting the fighting. The former accused government forces of launching a large scale offensive on southern Tigray on Wednesday. The latter accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of striking first. Neither of the competing claims can be substantiated as access to the northern region is highly restricted. Notwithstanding the inability to identify who struck first, the implications of revived violence are certainly grave for a nation that is currently suffering one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. 

In a statement published by Yahoo News, Eurasia’s Africa analyst Connor Vasey predicts that “amid a resurgence in fighting, neither party will be willing to reduce their leverage for future talks by compromising on key issues. Rather, they will likely aim to use the next phase of fighting to bolster their negotiating positions.”

In light of Vasey’s prediction it is worth noting that the conditions necessary for constructive political dialogue have been impaired for months. While the conflict that began in 2020 had calmed into a wary stalemate — both sides have been unable to resolutely overpower the other — peace talks have been contentious with neither the TPLF, the Ethiopian government, nor foreign mediators in alignment with what will be necessary to ensure a more sustainable peace. 

There is disagreement over the conditions for peace. On behalf of the Ethiopian government, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s spokeswoman accused Tigray authorities of “refusing to accept peace talks.” On the other hand, Abiy is accused of halting efforts to end the starvation blockade that would allow humanitarian aid to flow — a critical Tigrayan demand — because of separate obligations to powerful rival forces that are determined to crush Tigray.

There is further disagreement over who should mediate peace negotiations. The Abiy government favours the African Union’s Horn of Africa envoy Olusegun Obasanjo. But through his lack of intensity and peculiar complacency, Obasanjo has proven that he is unable to bring about any discussions with the vigour necessary to ameliorate a conflict of this scale. The TPLF prefer Kenya’s outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta to broker dialogue. But that preference is similarly fraught with issues. Vice President William Ruto, in a now disputed election, won the Kenyan presidency against Raila Odinga who was endorsed by Kenyatta. With Kenya potentially facing renewed post-election conflict and destabilization, it is unlikely that any Kenyan leader can really assist with Ethiopia’s dilemma before ensuring their own does not become uncontrollable.

Fundamentally, Tigray has reached catastrophe. As many as 500,000 of its six million people have died in this war, nearly half of its population is suffering from a severe lack of food,  and civilian structures (including hospitals, schools, factories, and businesses) have been destroyed. Ethiopians need peace. The current approach has not led to any substantial change, which means that to stop this war a larger and more forceful cohort of international actors will need to be truly resolute in their commitment to fostering negotiations. Anything less will only result in further suffering.