The depredations of the last eight months, the toll in human lives and the derailing of the country’s development achievements means the chance of reuniting the country may be slim, but it is vastly better than any of the alternatives. The outcome in Africa’s second most populous country will resonate across the region and the continent.
On all sides, wise counsel argues that the only way to resolve the Tigray crisis is by crafting a political solution. There is a brief hiatus in which to launch a dialogue that could address how best to run Ethiopia: as a federation, a confederation of regions, a unitary state or some hybrid configuration.
The two protagonists – the federal government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front/Tigray Defence Forces – could use the pause offered by Addis Ababa’s unilateral ceasefire of 28 June and the announcement of the Prosperity Party’s victory in the 21 June elections.
Despite outward appearances, neither side is monolithic. Aside from the humanitarian imperative, both sides have an interest in shoring up their current legitimacy, holding their constituencies together and opening substantive talks.
There are plenty of regional organisations, such as the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the African Development Bank and international organisations such as the UN and World Bank which are keen to facilitate such negotiations.
As envisaged by its Ethiopian supporters, this dialogue would have to stretch across all of the country’s regions and chartered cities. It would be the most thoroughgoing political revamp since the fall of the Derg regime in 1991.
Away from ethnic federalism?
Abiy may have been boosted by the sweeping success of his Prosperity Party that many see as moving away from the ethnic federalism of the last 30 years towards establishing a unitary state.
But there are plenty of caveats in the Prosperity Party’s win. About a fifth of the country, including many constituencies in Harar, the Somali and all of Tigray, didn’t vote last month. And in Oromia, the country’s largest region, the opposition parties boycotted the elections.
Merera Gudina, leader of the Oromo Federal Congress, some of whose militants have been detained, strongly backs calls for an all-inclusive national political negotiation. The Oromo Liberation Army, now listed along with the TPLF as a terrorist organisation by the government in Addis, was accused of attacking polling stations in the region
Abiy’s Prosperity Party should have been on firmer ground in Amhara region, which has strongly backed the federal side in Tigray. But the National Movement of Amhara, which put up 500 candidates nationwide has been disputing some of the election results.
Other opposition groups such as Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (Ezema) and Balderas for True Democracy led by detainee Eskinder Nega (who contested the election from his gaol cell) lambasted the Prosperity Party’s tactics and policies.
‘Plenty of logistical and bureaucratic problems’
Although the Election Board under former dissident Bertukan Mideska has won some plaudits for improving on the performance of its predecessors, there were plenty of logistical and bureaucratic problems layered on top of the country’s deep political differences.
Activists complain about the derailing of the reforms introduced by Abiy in 2018, when long-term dissidents were welcomed back from exile and opposition media turned up the volume.
That sense of derailment is overwhelming in Tigray where over 400,000 face famine, as another 1.8 million are desperately short of food, bordering on famine.
Two weeks after Addis Ababa’s unilateral ceasefire and the withdrawal of the federal troops and interim administrators from Mekelle, Tigray’s regional capital, the TPLF leaders Debretsion Gebremichael and TDF commander Tsadkan Gebretensae face some stark choices.
The first, requiring vast reserves of good faith, would be to go along with the calls from the UN Security Council, the US and the European Union for a general and indefinite ceasefire, which would include the withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara forces from Tigray and a process to bring to account all those responsible for rights abuses and atrocities.
Addis Ababa insists its “unilateral ceasefire” came out of humanitarian impulses not military compulsion. Implementing a general ceasefire, without effective international monitoring, would be highly problematic.
“After the defeat of Abiy’s forces we are saying ‘Let’s have a negotiated ceasefire’,” Tsadkan told Maggie Fick of Reuters by satellite ‘phone.
“We are restraining ourselves for a realistic political solution to the whole problem …But if there is no other choice the next choice will be: to try to resolve it militarily.”
Security experts say that both Tigray and Addis are gearing up for another round of fighting. After the federal government withdrew its administrators and troops from Mekelle, say UN and other international officials, Tigray faces a siege in which officials in Addis obstruct convoys of food and medicines for the regions as far as possible.
Strategists in Tigray such as Tsadkan will want to maximise their strengthened military position and not wait for their foes to regroup. There are reports that Eritrea’s troops have moved north towards or beyond the national border and Ethiopia’s Federal troops moved eastwards and southwards out of Tigray.
After a brief interregnum to reorganise, both forces could charge back into Tigray. And the latest reports suggest that fighting is continuing on in western Tigray between Amhara militia forces and the TDF.
That area which includes the border with Sudan is of strategic importance. After 1991, the new government recognised it as part of Tigray but now the Amhara regional authority is disputing that and moved some of its forces into the territory since last November.
In the absence of a national ceasefire, controlling that area would be critical for the TPLF/TDF: it would also allow them to bring in supplies via Sudan, breaking efforts to enforce a blockade against them.
As the Brussels-based International Crisis Group argues, the prospect of widespread fighting across Western Tigray could worsen the border dispute between Sudan and the federal government, raising the risks of other countries being dragged into the vortex.
For those in Addis Ababa wanting to mitigate the human and diplomatic losses, that risk reinforces the case for comprehensive political negotiations. At the same time, economic pressures, as the West’s most significant leverage, are mounting on Addis Ababa as Abiy’s team calculates its next move.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has imposed sanctions on Addis Ababa, urging the IMF and the World Bank to suspend their financial programmes there. That threatens Ethiopia’s efforts to restructure its financial obligations under the G20’s debt relief plan.
The latest IMF estimates show that Ethiopia’s GDP growth rate has fallen to 2% a year, due to a combination of the pandemic and the war in Tigray. GDP growth had averaged around 9% for the past decade.
Ethiopia’s birr has fallen 12% against the US dollar since the beginning of the year and yields on its $bn of Eurobonds have hit their highest point in two years, reports Bloomberg News.
The government is ploughing ahead with its privatisation programme, starting with a limited offer on the telecoms but the uncertainties caused by the conflict in Tigray and the rumbling political uncertainties across Oromo and Somali provinces are likely to cut bidding prices.
The threat of another round of all-out conflict, most likely in Western Tigray along with the risk of dragging in Sudan, together with a national economic unravelling, should make the option of national negotiations a clear preference for all parties.
Tragically, there is little sign that those Ethiopians making those calls are being taken seriously.
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