/ 28 September 2022

Why international peace talks in Ethiopia were unsuccessful – and how to make them work

Ethiopian security forces patrol at street after Ethiopian army took control of Hayk town of Amhara city from the rebel Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) in Ethiopia. (Photo by Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images))

It is no surprise international peace mediation failed and active warfare between Ethiopian federal forces and their allies against the Tigray regional forces has resumed. The negotiation track pursued by the African Union, backed by the United States and European Union, is well-intentioned but it does not consider the political realities on the ground. 

There are three key reasons why Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed cannot deliver on his so-called “peace pledges” to international mediators and, when these are taken into account, it is clear that the process was destined to fail. 

The collapse of the talks means many more will die and be displaced at the worst possible time as the region grapples with mass hunger and an economic downturn. A realistic analysis of power dimensions, and the political objectives of the key belligerent parties, is urgently needed to develop a more effective strategy to bring an end to Ethiopia’s civil war.  

Ethiopia has been in the midst of a bloody and destabilising conflict after tensions between the government of Ahmed and the Tigray regional government erupted into a fully-fledged civil war in November 2020. The violence has seen widespread destruction of infrastructure in the Tigray region, along with considerable loss of life and human rights abuses, and has exacerbated a wider set of fault lines that threatens to pull the country apart at the seams. Not only has the conflict engulfed the nearby Amhara region, but it has exacerbated food insecurity for millions of citizens at a time of falling supply and rising prices.

The unilateral declaration of a humanitarian truce by the two key belligerent parties in March offered an opportunity for international mediators to try to settle the conflict. The African Union, and its high representative General Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, was the Ethiopian government’s preferred lead mediator, while the Tigray regional state government expressed scepticism about the neutrality of Obasanjo and later put their trust in a parallel US-Kenya initiative. 

High-level political and military representatives from Addis Ababa and Mekelle met twice for face-to-face negotiations this year (in Seychelles and Djibouti), in addition to regular indirect contact facilitated by the mediators. These talks led to agreement on a number of key issues, including unimpeded humanitarian access to the famine-struck population of Tigray, the lifting of the government-induced siege, and the framework for a formal ceasefire agreement. 

None of this was implemented, however. There were three reasons for this: ongoing instability and insecurity, the ability of leaders from the Amhara region to act as “spoilers” by pressing their own territorial claims and interference from Eritrea, whose leader Isaias Afwerki has his own political agenda. More broadly, these developments reflect the divergent politico-military objectives of the belligerents, the dispersed power relations within Ethiopia’s ruling elite and the limitations of Abiy’s political power. 

The collapse of peace talks has also exposed the impotence of the international mediators to ensure compliance to the process, eventually undermining the minimal trust between the parties. Moving forward, the international community needs to adopt a more realistic approach to Ethiopia and must address each of the reasons that the talks failed in any future peace process.

Amhara territorial claims

One of the main barriers to a lasting peace is that there is tension in the way that the war is rationalised within those on the “government” side: the federal administration’s motivation was originally to arrest the rogue leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and assume control of the Tigray regional state, while the military forces of the Amhara regional state – which is adjacent to Tigray – want to reclaim what they perceive as lost territories. 

With the introduction of the federal system in 1995, and the design of new regional states, the fertile west Tigray (Welkait, Tsegede and Humera districts) was included under the borders of Tigray. Since the breakdown of ruling party cohesion following the death of prime minister Meles Zenawi in 2012, Amhara economic and political elites have argued that they should be given politico-administrative control of these territories, in part because of the valuable sesame cash crops. 

After Ethiopian and Amhara forces obtained military control over west Tigray in late 2020, hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans were displaced and many killed and injured in what the US secretary of state described as “acts of ethnic cleansing”. Claiming that the area is integral to Amhara identity and territory, the regional government has encouraged the influx of about 200 000 Amhara settlers to populate the abandoned farms and villages. 

It appears that Abiy’s growing reliance on Amhara regular forces and the Fano irregular militia has led him to cave into these demands. Following the renewed fighting this month, the federal government issued a statement confirming that Welkait is part of Amhara regional state. This contravened a prior statement by Abiy that changes to regional borders cannot be enforced by arms but must obey constitutional procedures.

The intransigence of the Amhara government represents a major barrier to peacebuilding, as one of the main demands of the Tigray leadership is to have this territory restored to their control. The United States, and other international players, have demanded the withdrawal of the Amhara forces from west Tigray but so far in vain. For his part, Abiy is unwilling to force the regional government to comply, in part because his authority is increasingly stretched and he may lack the power to do so.

To date, the international mediators have not, to the best of our knowledge, designed a separate mediation track to engage with the Amhara regional leadership and deal with their involvement in the war. Instead, they only communicate with the prime minister’s office. Consequently, a major player in the conflict is not actually involved in the talks, which undermines the potential to come to a mutually acceptable agreement that will actually be enforced. 

Setting up a three-way negotiation would be challenging but the United States might have some advantages in this respect. Key political agents of the Amharic elite, media and some of its alleged financial backers are based in the US. By leveraging pressure on these actors, such as the threat of criminal prosecution for funding and abetting crimes against humanity – while simultaneously encouraging talks with the Amhara regional government – international mediators might be able to forge a new way forward.  

The Eritrean agenda

Despite Eritrean military forces invading Tigray and committing gross and widespread war crimes and crimes against humanity, the war is not recognised as an international armed conflict. Although Abiy might have had noble motives when he offered Isaias an olive branch after coming to power in 2018, Isaias did not. 

Instead, he viewed the rapprochement as an opportunity to pursue his personal vendetta against the TPLF leadership. Given that Isaias’s core aim is to eliminate the TPLF, and fatally undermine the political and economic position of the region, his meddling is a major barrier to lasting peace.

The close relationship observed between Isais and Abiy last year, where they were seen to meet and embrace on many occasions, both physically and politically, seems to have waned. Insiders in Addis Ababa suggest Abiy has realised that Isaias has ulterior motives and is worried about being taken to the international criminal court for the widespread atrocities carried out by the Eritrean forces in Tigray. 

Others suggest that Abiy was well aware of Isaias’s intentions but thought that he would be able to exert greater influence over his neighbour than has proved to be the case. Most worryingly for Abiy, there are signs that Isaias is developing a relationship with the Amhara leadership, supporting their political aspirations in Tigray, which could further exacerbate growing tensions within Abiy’s own Prosperity Party (PP) government. 

This is another area in which the international community badly miscalculated. Removing sanctions before Abiy and Isaias had actually demonstrated a willingness to walk the walk, rather than just talk the talk, was always going to be interpreted as a green light to further abuses rather than a reason to behave better. 

Similarly, efforts to talk Isaias into playing a constructive role in the peace process have come to nought because he feels no responsibility towards the lives of the people in the Tigray region. As the most recent US envoy to Eritrea recently admitted, “no amount of engagement will change them”. 

So, what to do with such a nefarious actor? It might be that the only option is to make it too costly for Isaias to continue to destabilise Ethiopia by imposing a fresh raft of smart sanctions on the top-level political and military leadership. 

This could go hand in hand with a weapons embargo and moves to cut off the formal and informal flow of resources to the regime in order to defund the military apparatus that is being used to not only perpetuate war crimes in Tigray but also suppress the Eritrean people. 

Nation-wide insecurity and a stalled political transition

The final main challenge facing the peace process is that the drivers of conflict and instability in Ethiopia did not originate with the Tigray war, but rather stem from a stalled transition and a system of government that is saturated with authoritarianism and violence. A sustainable solution to the crisis therefore needs to look beyond Tigray.

Abiy established his Prosperity Party vehicle in December 2019, following the collapse of the old government coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, but it has never come close to delivering the same control and cohesion as its predecessor. Instead, by featuring many of the same contradictions and flaws, while alienating the TPLF, the PP has become riddled with regional in-fighting. 

The key destabilising disagreement in Ethiopia is between “federalists” and “unitarists”, who have radically different visions of how the state should be configured and how the more than 80 ethnic groups in the country should be governed. The TPLF fought a 17-year guerrilla war in the 1970s and 1980s to transform the centralising and suppressive unitary state into a multinational federation. Abiy promised to transform this system into something more inclusive and effective but his centralised vision has proved to be just as authoritarian and exclusionary as Meles’s rule in practice. 

In turn, the lack of genuine power-sharing has led to resistance within the PP itself, making it impossible for Abiy to deliver peace even outside of Tigray. A flawed election in 2021 – after promises of free and fair polls – did not help. Thus, the Oromo Liberation Army has resumed its insurgency in west and south Oromia, while other ethnic-based armed movements are revamping their own struggles. 

Along with the challenges posed by non-state armed actors, political stability is undermined by armed confrontations between regional state forces and their proxy militias. Some of the most notable examples of this include the Afar-Somali and the Amhara-Oromo conflicts, which resulted in massacres of several hundred civilians recently.  

Ethiopia now finds itself in a very difficult and dangerous situation. The federal government lacks both the legitimacy and capacity to provide security guarantees to all its citizens. The social contract between the government and its citizenry, which was warmly embraced in 2018, no longer exists. Indeed, there is a serious risk that the PP itself will come apart at the seams. As we write, the government is accused by Amhara nationalists of perpetrating genocide against their people, while Oromo leaders and others claim the government is emulating the empire state or has been taken over by Amhara chauvinists. 

This situation threatens to undermine any peace deal struck with Tigrayan leaders. To achieve long-term, durable stability and security, a nationwide comprehensive peace process needs to be established, one that is inclusive and so is seen to be legitimate. It seems highly unlikely that Abiy can deliver this process; his attempts to establish first a Commission for Reconciliation, and subsequently a National Dialogue Commission have both failed. 

Therefore, it is time for the international community to encourage the formation of an all-inclusive transitional government in Ethiopia, tasked with negotiating a new, durable governance dispensation in the country. Not only would this create an opportunity to rebuild the foundation of the Ethiopian social contract but it might persuade Tigray and the Oromo Liberation Army to put down arms – at least while talks are ongoing.

Real negotiations, or continued war?

The US special envoy Mike Hammer returned to Ethiopia after the resumption of hostilities to seek out new negotiation possibilities. Secret talks between high-level representatives from Mekelle and Addis Ababa have reportedly once again been conducted in Djibouti recently. Alas, it seems the same framework for the negotiations is being applied, even though it failed the first time. 

It might be that international mediators are stuck in a failing strategy simply because Ethiopian and Eritrean actors are unwilling to countenance any other option. The power of outside forces is often exaggerated in countries such as Ethiopia, whose governments have proved willing to turn their back on US partnership, even if it costs their people economically. 

Pressing “restart” might be extremely difficult, given the personalities involved. But if this is the situation, the goal of the international community should be to generate the leverage – by simultaneously increasing the pressure on all relevant parties – to change the rules of the game.

There are signs of war fatigue in Ethiopia. But the starving and suffering people of Tigray are left with few options when their region is under siege. A colleague at Adigrat University in Tigray texted his impressions: “We are emboldened now, and the situation is better for ordinary people as we will win or die. We will rather have a 50% probability of winning, than living under siege and 100% uncertainty of a peace process.”

Against this background, the international community does not have time to continue “sweet-talking” Abiy. He and his government have repeatedly shown their inability to comply, or disinterest in complying, with agreed-upon measures of conflict mitigation and peace enhancement. 

A realist understanding of the dire political situation in Ethiopia must be adopted, followed by realistic and effective mechanisms to force the belligerent parties to comply with negotiated compromises. It is critical that this process is managed by people who understand that the current conflict is rooted in disagreements and political strategies that can be traced back decades – and that peacebuilding will, therefore, require sustained and long-term engagement. 

What is at stake is not only the fate of 6-million Tigrayans, but the very integrity of the country, and the future of the Horn of Africa. 

Kjetil Tronvoll is professor of peace and conflict studies at Oslo New University College.

Nic Cheeseman is professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.