Africa’s second most populous country is in the midst of an increasingly rocky political transition that began in 2018, with the ascent of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. At first, the change seemed to hold great promise, but fissures have grown, partly between and among the country’s numerous ethnic groups. At stake is the state’s stability and the post-1991 ethno-federalist system, which many Ethiopians support as guaranteeing local autonomy, and many others oppose as sowing division and undermining effective central government. War between the federal and Tigray governments broke out in the northern region in late 2020 as these tensions came to the fore. Through its research and advocacy, Crisis Group works to end the fighting and ward off similar conflict elsewhere, with the long-term goal of encouraging comprehensive and inclusive national dialogue about the country’s political future.
Ethiopia’s federal and Tigray regional governments are finally gearing up for direct negotiations. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert William Davison discusses why the feuding parties are edging toward peace and what the main obstacles are to achieving it.
Violence left hundreds of civilians dead in Oromia; amid ongoing food crisis, Tigray leadership and federal govt announced readiness for peace talks. After almost six months without major confrontation between Tigray and federal forces, Tigray President Debretsion Gebremichael 14 June said his govt was ready for talks; federal govt 28 June announced creation of seven-member committee to hold peace talks, chaired by Deputy PM Demeke Mekonnen. UN humanitarian agency 16 June said 1,200 aid trucks had arrived in Tigray since 1 June, almost half of total since 1 April; 27 June however said over 13mn people still in need of food assistance in northern Ethiopia, compared to 9mn in Nov. EU official 21 June said fuel shortages were hampering aid deliveries to Tigray, which federal govt 23 June dismissed as “myth”. Ethnic violence escalated in Oromia region amid ongoing fighting between Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and govt forces, notably in West, East and Kellem Wollega Zones, East and West Guji Zones, and West Arsi Zone. Regional govt and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission accused OLA fighters of 18 June killing hundreds of ethnic Amhara civilians in Gimbi district of West Wollega Zone; OLA denied responsibility and blamed govt. Violence spilled into neighbouring Gambella region, where OLA and Gambella Liberation Front rebels 14 June attacked govt forces in regional capital Gambella; 40 including 28 rebels reportedly killed. In Southern Nations region, mob 4 June stoned nine ethnic Oromos to death in Burji district amid rumour that Guji Oromos had killed ethnic Burji; Koore ethnic militias and govt forces early June reportedly clashed with Derashe ethnic militias in Derashe district, leaving five dead. In Benishangul-Gumuz region, clashes between Gumuz People’s Democratic Movement rebels and regional forces 1 June reportedly killed 19 in Kamashi Zone. Meanwhile, fighting late June erupted between Ethiopian and Sudanese forces in disputed al-Fashaga border zone. Khartoum 26 June accused Ethiopia forces of executing seven Sudanese soldiers and one civilian after abducting them in Sudan 22 June, which Addis Ababa denied. Sudan 27-28 June fired heavy artillery into al-Fashaga and claimed control of Jabal Kala al-Laban town.
The combatants in northern Ethiopia are digging in for a long fight, despite high fatalities and famine conditions for civilians. The war looks set to worsen. Outside powers should back the African Union’s new envoy in urging the parties to move instead toward a ceasefire.
In mid-December, Sudanese troops moved into al-Fashaga, an agricultural area on the frontier with Ethiopia, expelling Ethiopian farmers and building fortifications. Fighting threatens to escalate. With assistance from outside mediators, the two countries should convene talks about restoring the shared land-use agreement that prevailed beforehand.
Both federal and resistance forces are digging in for a lengthy battle in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Conditions for civilians are dire, with famine a growing danger. Outside powers should urge Addis Ababa to let more aid into the war zone, while maintaining pressure for talks.
War has devastated Ethiopia’s northernmost region. Pending comprehensive national dialogue, Addis Ababa should ease Tigray’s immediate predicament, engaging elements of the authorities it unseated to govern the area and ensure that aid reaches the millions in need.
A clash over budget transfers is the latest flashpoint in the bitter dispute between Ethiopian federal authorities and their rivals in Tigray. To avoid the standoff triggering a damaging conflict, both sides should back down and embrace comprehensive dialogue.
A disputed regional election plan has ratcheted up tensions between Ethiopia’s federal government and its rivals in Tigray. To avert a confrontation, Tigrayan officials should press pause on election preparations and both sides should embrace dialogue to address the dispute and underlying causes.
The fact that the Tigrayans [in Ethiopia] are making suggestions for a negotiated settlement involving forceful international action is ... positive, but these are ultimately unrealistic proposals.
If [Ethiopian President] Abiy survives the conflict in power, he will likely be thankful to Beijing and Moscow for protecting him at the UN during the war.
After a year of war, the Ethiopian conflict is at an incredibly dangerous point, with no side showing signs of backing down.
Given the current situation [in Ethiopia] and the likelihood of continued fighting, particularly in the Amhara region, I think we are likely to see the U.S. implement targeted sanctions soon.
The current violent blowback indicates that [President] Abiy and his allies cannot achieve peace and prosperity for all Ethiopians by imposing their vision and party on Ethiopia using the coercive power of the state.
The fact that the U.S. and its allies have secured [a UNSC] meeting is itself a signal that Ethiopia has lost some credibility […] and it opens up the possibility that the Council will take further action down the road.
This week on The Horn, guest host Nicolas Delaunay is joined by Nazanine Moshiri, Crisis Group’s climate & security expert, to discuss the complex, often dangerous relationship between climate stresses and conflict in the Horn and on the continent more broadly.
Crisis Group’s Watch List identifies ten countries or regions at risk of deadly conflict or escalation thereof in 2022. In these places, early action, driven or supported by the EU and its member states, could enhance prospects for peace and stability.
Ethiopia's civil war continues between federal authorities and Tigray’s regional government, killing tens of thousands so far. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2022, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to support the federal government’s efforts by continuing to suspend budgetary support to Addis Ababa and development cooperation with Eritrea to alleviate rising tension and violence.
Tigray’s leaders have withdrawn their forces from neighbouring regions and called for a cessation of hostilities followed by negotiations. Ethiopia’s federal government should grasp this opportunity to end the fighting, while international actors should step up to provide support for talks.
In this statement, Crisis Group corrects the record regarding William Davison, Senior Analyst for Ethiopia.