At Long Last, Ethiopia Prepares for Peace Talks
At Long Last, Ethiopia Prepares for Peace Talks
A woman walks past tents at the internally displaced persons (IDP) camp of Guyah, 100 kms of Semera, Afar region, Ethiopia on May 17, 2022. Michele Spatari / AFP
Q&A / Africa 12 minutes

At Long Last, Ethiopia Prepares for Peace Talks

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.

What do we know about the prospects for peace talks?

The twenty-month civil war in Ethiopia has reached another turning point, but this time in the right direction. After six months without large-scale confrontations between their respective forces, federal and Tigray regional leaders have both confirmed their intention to participate in efforts to bring the war to a close. On 14 June, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced plans for a peace process, while Tigray’s leadership published an open letter the same day saying it was willing to engage in talks. Two weeks later, Abiy’s government named a seven-person negotiating team headed by his deputy, Demeke Mekonnen, who is from Amhara region and also serves as Ethiopia’s foreign minister. The Amhara region’s deputy leader, Getachew Jember, is another member of the team, as is Abiy’s intelligence chief, Temesgen Tiruneh, a former Amhara president. These three appointments indicate that the Amhara region, whose forces have been fighting those of Tigray alongside the federal military, will have its interests represented in the negotiations. These steps toward talks are momentous, even if numerous obstacles remain in the way of a durable settlement.

The prospect of peace talks is welcome news in a conflict that has caused probably tens of thousands of deaths and inflicted untold suffering on Tigray’s population as well as civilians in neighbouring regions. War broke out in November 2020, when a political-constitutional dispute between Tigrayan and federal leaders boiled over. The warring parties’ fortunes fluctuated. At first, backed by Amhara and Eritrean forces, the federal government launched a major incursion into Tigray, taking its capital, Mekelle, and seeking to erase its ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), from the political map. A Tigray guerrilla campaign thwarted the federal military push. Then, in July 2021, Tigray’s troops went on the attack, moving toward Addis Ababa in an attempt to dislodge Abiy and his government from power. The offensive failed, however, due in part to the federal government’s ability to purchase and use new drones, a lack of international and domestic support for Tigrayan forces or the notion of overthrowing Abiy, and strong popular mobilisation by the federal authorities and in Amhara. Tigrayan forces retreated to their home region in December. Federal troops eventually positioned themselves mostly outside Tigray’s borders, while their Amhara allies held Western Tigray – an area that Amhara leaders have long claimed – and Eritrean soldiers occupied parts of the north of Western Tigray and north-eastern Tigray.

The move toward negotiations began subsequent to the Tigrayan withdrawal and followed a series of conciliatory gestures signalling the two sides’ willingness to shift from a military to a political footing. In December, Abiy’s government ordered the federal military to refrain from fully re-entering Tigray before releasing key opposition prisoners, including a number of TPLF veterans. It also advanced a plan for a national dialogue to address the country’s chronic political problems. The next major step was a federal humanitarian truce on 24 March, which Tigray’s leaders said they would reciprocate four days later. The next month, Tigray’s forces withdrew from most of the positions in neighbouring Afar region that they had taken up earlier in 2022 in response to a perceived threat from local armed groups backed by Eritrea. Finally, in June, the federal government eased a blockade on Tigray to allow significantly more humanitarian relief to get through – though the region is still dangerously short of fuel, cash, food and medicine.

Why are the two sides ready to move toward negotiations? 

Both the federal government and Tigray’s leadership seem to have decided that – at least for now – they are better off engaging in what is almost certain to be a tortuous peace process rather than trying to achieve outright military victory.

Tigray’s leaders seem to have for now opted to try ending the blockade ... at the negotiating table.

Other than belated recognition that neither side can win outright on the battlefield, a major factor convincing the two parties to pursue talks was the dire conditions they face as a consequence of the conflict. The federal government and its Eritrean and Amhara allies have put Tigray under what the UN has described as a de facto blockade since at least June 2021, cutting off vital services such as telecommunications, electricity and, critically, banking. The siege, as well as the fighting, has disrupted farming, closed trade routes and severely restricted the delivery of overland humanitarian aid. Consequently, almost five million in Tigray are in urgent need of food and medicine, including an estimated 116,000 severely malnourished children. Instead of launching a costly, risky offensive to recapture Western Tigray or push back Eritrean forces, Tigray’s leaders seem to have for now opted to try ending the blockade, and thereby save countless lives, at the negotiating table.

For its part, the federal government is grappling with a sharp decline in economic growth, mounting debt repayments, persistently high prices (annual inflation reached 37 per cent in April) and meagre foreign reserves. An Ethiopian research group believes that growth will slow to 1 per cent in the fiscal year that is about to end, down considerably from 6 per cent in 2020-2021. Abiy’s government appears to realise that it needs to pursue a deal with the TPLF if it wants to escape its economic predicament, not least as credible peace efforts will make donors and international partners more amenable to releasing grants, loans and investments. The economic crisis has helped create a humanitarian disaster, with needs increasing since the UN estimated in early 2022 that as many as 30 million Ethiopians, three quarters of them women and children, need urgent aid. “The cumulative impact of ongoing conflict and violence, climatic shocks such as the prolonged drought, and more recently floods, constitute the main triggers of such a rise”, the UN humanitarian agency said on 27 June.

What are the remaining hurdles to holding direct talks?

Although the two sides appear ready to negotiate, there has been some jostling over who will mediate the talks and where they should take place. In his open letter, Tigray’s leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, said the parties should meet in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, in keeping with the prominent mediating role for the Kenyan government that Tigray favours. He also alleged that the African Union’s envoy for the Horn of Africa, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, is too close to Addis Ababa. For its part, the federal government has generally been supportive of Obasanjo, who has thus far served as one of the principal go-betweens in the conflict along with the U.S. envoy. Obasanjo reportedly had favoured talks in Arusha, Tanzania rather than Nairobi. The lack of clarity over mediator and location could delay talks. A Kenyan lead poses some challenges – the country is set to hold general elections on 9 August that look set to be competitive and potentially destabilising if either of the main presidential candidates mobilises supporters to dispute the official result – though these perhaps are not insurmountable.

Another complication is that Eritrea, whose army has, alongside federal troops and Amhara forces, also waged war upon Tigray’s forces, would not be represented in the envisioned talks. Any further federal steps toward peace with the TPLF risk triggering a spoiler response from Asmara. Hardline Amhara factions could also use violent means to try derailing the peace process, especially if they see it as undermining their region’s claim on Western Tigray.

What obstacles would negotiations face, should they get going?

Despite the incentives to stop fighting, the two sides remain far apart on seismic issues. In a press conference on 15 June, Debretsion laid out Tigray’s key demands, the most significant of which is the return of Western Tigray to his regional administration. Amhara forces annexed the area in November 2020, proclaiming Western Tigray to be their historical land and brutally displacing hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans. Eritrean soldiers have deployed in the area, too, in part to train their Amhara allies. Another important Tigray demand is that the region keeps the military force it has built up in the course of the conflict. Additionally, Debretsion reiterated Tigray’s desire to hold a referendum on seceding from Ethiopia, a right it would have under the constitution if the federal government were to recognise his administration as the lawful regional authority. At present, the federal and Tigray governments regard each other as illegitimate, having declared as much during their pre-war constitutional dispute.

Addis Ababa is cool to Mekelle’s demands. It is unlikely to embrace the idea of a referendum. On 2 June, a federal spokesman said Ethiopia’s territorial integrity was non-negotiable. As for Tigray’s fighting force, Addis Ababa will probably insist that Mekelle downsize it, because it presents a continuing threat to the federal government and neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions. Abiy’s government has yet to show its hand with regard to the Amhara occupation of Western Tigray, but any federal move to assert security or administrative control of the area or any open manoeuvre to tighten Amhara’s grip may well face fierce opposition from Tigray. Conversely, the Amhara regional and Eritrean governments are likely to baulk at measures aiming to restore Tigray’s administration over Western Tigray.

Could armed confrontations flare back up?

While renewed fighting between Addis Ababa and Mekelle cannot be ruled out, especially if the momentum toward peace stalls or reverses, a return to armed conflict is unlikely at present. But big risks remain, especially between Tigray and Amhara forces, as well as between Tigray and Eritrea. The recent flare-up of the Ethiopia-Sudan border quarrel also presents a challenge. Shortly after Ethiopia’s civil war began, Sudanese forces took over most of the territory both countries claim, a rich agricultural area called al-Fashaga that lies adjacent to Western Tigray. The two countries’ armies have watched each other warily at the frontier ever since. On 27 June, Sudan accused Ethiopian forces of killing seven of its soldiers they had captured. Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said an Ethiopian militia was responsible for the deaths, which it alleged occurred when a TPLF-supported Sudanese unit crossed into Ethiopia. On 28 June, Sudan’s military occupied the border town of Barakat. The planned peace talks could be in jeopardy if Tigray’s leaders decide that the Sudanese gains present an improved opportunity to try reclaiming Western Tigray and thereby establish a supply line via Sudan.

Still, probably the single biggest obstacle to the fledgling efforts by the federal and Tigray authorities to bury the hatchet is Eritrea’s government and its long-time leader, Isaias Afwerki. The TPLF and Isaias have been at loggerheads since at least the 1990s and the Eritrean president saw the Tigray war as an unmissable opportunity to deliver his archenemy a fatal blow. But while his military inflicted severe damage in Tigray – including, according to Ethiopia’s attorney-general, atrocities against civilians – the TPLF has yielded little of its power, having amassed a formidable fighting force that poses an existential threat to Isaias. 

Abiy’s pivot toward peace is thus a major headache for Eritrea’s leader, but it is unclear how the latter might respond.

Abiy’s pivot toward peace is thus a major headache for Eritrea’s leader, but it is unclear how the latter might respond. Aside from skirmishes on the Tigray-Eritrea border in May, there has been no clear indication that Isaias will try to ruin talks, or even that he has the capacity to do so. He may train his sights on the seemingly intractable Western Tigray dispute, as it is hard to imagine that negotiations can resolve this issue anytime soon. At present, Amhara lacks a substantive, cohesive opposition movement that Isaias could support. Yet a recent federal crackdown on Amhara militia, politicians and journalists signalled that Abiy recognises that his push for peace with the TPLF risks creating a violent backlash in Amhara. Given the risks, Abiy may delay addressing the Western Tigray issue in hopes that temperatures will lower with time, making an eventual compromise more feasible. 

That sort of piecemeal approach appears to be the most practical path forward, with the federal and Tigray leaderships first striving to consolidate their improving relations while easing the dire humanitarian situation. The thorniest political issues – including the possibility of a Tigrayan secession bid – are probably best tackled later, hopefully when the negotiations have broadened to include Eritrea and other Ethiopian regional actors, perhaps including opposition parties.

What is the role of foreign partners in the negotiations?

The U.S., the African Union (AU), the European Union and, on aid access issues, the UN’s top humanitarian officials have thus far led most diplomatic efforts in the Tigray conflict. It looks likely that Kenya’s government will assume a major role in the forthcoming peace process; Tigray wants a Kenyan lead, Abiy has not strongly opposed and Nairobi is, by regional standards, a relatively impartial power. Still, the AU probably also needs to be prominent despite Tigray’s reservations, primarily because that is Addis Ababa’s preference. Ideally, Nairobi and the AU would flesh out a unified position on a structure for talks, and then take that to the parties.

Donors must also figure out how to best ameliorate Ethiopia’s economic crisis without hindering peace efforts. Major benefactors have largely paused assistance to Ethiopia beyond humanitarian aid due to the brutal conflict, the aforementioned restrictions on humanitarian access to Tigray and large-scale atrocities. But given Ethiopia’s economic predicament, donors are understandably keen to resume broader support to prevent further instability in Africa’s second-largest country. Leading the charge is the World Bank, which has already committed to sending $300 million for reconstruction efforts in conflict-hit areas and $405 million for groundwater and COVID-19 mitigation projects. Later in 2022, the lender could approve an additional $2.3 billion. Italy’s foreign minister flew to Addis Ababa to sign a €22 million concessional loan for industrial development, while the EU may announce development funding soon.

Donors should continue to insist on ... unrestricted delivery of humanitarian aid to Tigray and the opening by federal authorities of trade routes to the region.

While such support for struggling Ethiopians is commendable, it also raises dilemmas. If Ethiopia’s economic slump has indeed motivated Abiy to pursue talks, then a full resumption of development aid risks diminishing that incentive at a critical juncture, with the mediator, venue and agenda not yet decided and basic services to Tigray not yet restored by Addis Ababa. Donors should continue to insist on progress on the latter front, as well as on unrestricted delivery of humanitarian aid to Tigray and the opening by federal authorities of trade routes to the region, before adopting a business-as-usual approach. Overall, to use this limited leverage wisely, donors need to better coordinate planned financial assistance packages for Ethiopia among each other to ensure that they are commensurate with such progress.

Further, Tigray is hardly the only challenge to Ethiopia’s internal stability. In the country’s west, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), which demands more autonomy for the Oromo people and is loosely allied with the Tigray forces, has been battling the authorities since 2018. Incidents in June show that repeated federal and Oromia regional government offensives aiming to destroy the rebel group have failed. On 14 June, the OLA attacked two towns in western Oromia and partnered with other rebels in Gambella region to raid the regional capital there. Four days later, the OLA reportedly killed Amhara civilians en masse in the same area. (The group has rejected the allegation.) With the town attacks, the group sent a message that it is far from defeated. It could launch similar operations. Authorities and rebels should therefore consider a truce and inch toward political discussions, no matter how unsavoury they consider each other to be.

Ethiopia’s partners can encourage wider reconciliation, even as they lend support to the Tigray peace process and gradually re-engage with Addis Ababa on development matters. To provide further incentives for peace, donors should signal that they are willing to offer a larger recovery package if the federal government manages to reach a comprehensive peace deal with Tigray, as well as take measures that show a commitment to the inclusive politics needed to break Ethiopia’s cycle of violence.

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