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Vol 63 No 19

Published 22nd September 2022


Addis and Tigray return to the battlefields

Tigrayan and federal forces are blaming each other for scuppering the truce and they are right – both sides were planning for more fighting

Copyright © Africa Confidential 2022

Ahead of the resumption of fighting in early September, both Tigrayan and federal forces had repositioned their troops as tensions rose amid the faltering peace process. This followed a coordinated flurry of peace missions to Ethiopia, a month earlier, by senior officials from the United States, the European Union and the African Union.

Whatever message they conveyed to the diplomats, military commanders in Addis Ababa and Tigray were evidently on high alert, preparing for a return to the battlefield. A day before the rival forces clashed at a front line cutting across the Tigray boundary in northern Amhara region, the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) warned reporters it was illegal to publicise the army's activities. On 24 August, just hours before the war resumed, Tigray's authorities entered a World Food Programme compound in Mekelle and seized 12 fuel tankers with 570,000 litres of fuel, the same amount that it said it lent to WFP earlier in the year.

The humanitarian truce declared in March by Ethiopia's federal government did not end the suffering as its policies continued to asphyxiate Tigray's economy. With power, telecommunications and banking services to Tigray still cut off, trading blocked, and fuel in desperately short supply, its leaders tried to break out of the blockade, or at least strengthen their bargaining power. 

Worsening hunger in the region added to the pressure on people in Tigray, forcing their leaders into action. More fighting is unlikely to break this siege unless Tigray's leaders can put Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in an even weaker position than when they routed federal forces on their march towards Addis late last year.

Truce over
Over the past few months, Abiy's government was weighing whether it should join serious peace talks with the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) leaders that are widely despised outside their home base.

Any serious engagement would have meant that Addis Ababa would have had to lift the blockade that was central to constraining Tigray's forces. Addis faced growing pressure from international officials to negotiate and had reached the limits of the time bought by its uneasy truce with Tigray.

The humanitarian situation in Tigray was continuing to  deteriorate but the logic of the federal government's siege strategy meant that any action to relieve the pressure on Tigray's economy would also be seen as increasing the capacity of the region's forces. 

Rather than address its dilemma head on, Addis Ababa took piecemeal steps to alleviate the conditions inside Tigray and move incrementally towards talks. But that failed to rebuild any trust with Tigray. That all culminated in a return to war when Tigray's leaders sensed they were being played by Addis as thousands in the region were dying of malnutrition and lack of healthcare

Additionally, for Abiy, whose mother is Amhara and father is Oromo, launching formal talks with the TPLF risked losing more support from the Amhara. That is partly because the Amhara suffered heavily during Tigray's offensive last year and want to see the region disarmed. 

Their other concern is the status of Western Tigray, which borders Sudan. Amhara took over the territory by force in late 2020 and has been administering it ever since (AC Vol 63 No 12, Abiy risks Amhara backlash). 

The Amhara are not interested in negotiating over the area, which they call Welkait and regard as historical Amhara land; the TPLF administration also deems the issue non-negotiable, arguing its brutal takeover was unconstitutional and must be reversed. 

Any move by the federal government to put Western Tigray on the negotiating table would turn even more Amharas against Abiy. And without a creative structure, perhaps a proposal for a flexible joint-control system, any negotiations would be highly unlikely to lead to a peaceful resolution given the zero-sum dispute over blood and soil.

Eritrea and its supreme leader President Issayas Afewerki present another set of intractable challenges to peacemakers (AC Vol 62 No 21, Abiy's war party digs in). Asmara wants implementation of the Algiers agreement on the Ethio-Eritrean border that awarded disputed land to Eritrea. But should Addis end its military campaign against Tigray, the TPLF would resume total control of the territory and block any concessions to Eritrea.

Behind all that is Issayas's desire to bury the TPLF, which he believes betrayed him by turning the full force of Ethiopia's military against Eritrea in its 1998 war, then manipulating the international system to isolate Eritrea in the ensuing decades. Issayas and the TPLF started off as rebel allies in the 1980s against the Derg regime, but had become implacable foes by the mid-1990s. Issayas and TPLF leader, and Ethiopia's first federal prime minister Meles Zenawi were archetypal frenemies.

Alongside Ethiopian forces, Eritrean troops advanced into Tigray on 13 September, capturing Shiraro town, near the border of Tigray and Eritrea. After two weeks of clashes, the US regional envoy Mike Hammer was bringing together federal and Tigray representatives, including spokesman Getachew Reda, in Djibouti to try and agree a new truce. As the talks continued, the federal military continued air strikes in Tigray, and we hear they targeted Reda's house there.

Suggesting further escalation, Eritrean forces have been deployed to Afar region to Tigray's east, while Ethiopian troops went to Eritrea, which started mobilising reservists on 15 September. All that suggests that despite tensions between Abiy and Issayas over the past year, there was some joint planning for this latest assault on the TPLF.

As the battle raged on multiple fronts, Tigray's leaders stepped up their diplomatic game, welcoming an African Union-led peace process after previously upsetting the continental bloc by saying that its envoy, ex-Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, was biased towards Abiy (AC Vol 63 No 14, Rivals differ over talks location). International officials welcomed Tigray's offer, putting the ball back in Addis's court. 

Foreign responses to Tigray's call for peace talks included the regional group of nations, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the AU, and the UN Secretary-General's office: they all referred to Tigray's political leaders as the 'government of Tigray', adding some of the legitimacy needed if the federal government is going to sit around the table with an entity it still classifies as a terrorist organisation.

Another minor positive is that all parties seem willing to extend the peace process beyond Obasanjo, adding Kenya's outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta, while formalising supporting roles for Hammer, his European Union counterpart, Annette Weber, and the UN Secretary-General's Horn of Africa special representative Hanna Tetteh, a former foreign minister of Ghana, widely seen as one of the more effective of the UN envoys. 

This marks an improvement from the preceding months, when a federal-Tigray meeting in June overseen by the US extracted some sort of federal pledge to restore public services, such as electricity and telecommunications, to Tigray. That lapsed because there wasn't enough follow-up. Instead, the federal government used delaying tactics by calling for talks on implementation, and then saying that service restoration could only come with a formal ceasefire. That suggests Addis never planned to reconnect Tigray to the grid, which would have allowed the region's economy to recover.

Now, with the increased international attention, it's still unclear whether foreign officials can convince the Ethiopian belligerents – let alone Eritrea's Issayas – to make any of the necessary concessions to open formal negotiations. 

Tigray's leaders are insisting that Addis Ababa must fully lift the siege before signing a new truce; they also want to see Abiy's government call for the withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara forces from Tigray. There's no sign at the moment that either side will move given the ferocity of the continuing battles.

Instead, developments on the battlefield and some of the fiery political gestures point towards another spate of sustained conflict. Following the Tigray statement, the federal government started campaigning for the disarming of the TPLF, as well as launching the air raids. Security forces in Addis blocked local civil society organisations calling for another truce from holding a press conference in the city. For now, the drums of war are drowning out alternative voices.

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