By Anthony Shaw

See you in Nairobi

It is beginning to look as through talks between Ethiopia’s Federal government and the Tigray regional leadership may finally get under way, possibly next week, probably in Nairobi. Both sides have appointed peace committees though whether they will be prepared to accept each other’s delegates may prove to be the first hurdle.

The TPLF have insisted on public talks, and international involvement, though it’s concerned by the links of the AU Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, to Prime Minister Abiy. It’s indicated it would prefer President Kenyatta to oversee the talks which is why Nairobi remains the most likely venue. TPLF leader Debretsion expressed his appreciation of President Kenyatta’s “sustained, principled, impartial, inclusive, and discreet efforts to broker peace and negotiations with a view of a comprehensive resolution to the crisis” in a letter to the AU chairman last month. But the Federal government has stated that it will only take part in any negotiation if it is mediated by the African Union.

Both sides need to be committed to peace, something that is far from clear, though both Abiy and the TPLF do currently see certain specific advantages in making peace. Abiy desperately needs to get international support for Ethiopia’s crumbling economy and for debt relief; the TPLF needs a massive increase in humanitarian aid into Tigray to merely keep its people alive. Nevertheless, any talks will be protracted. Those involved will need to demonstrate real political will and commitment. It is far from clear either side are yet prepared to do so. Trust and transparency, other qualities largely absent from both sides, are necessary for any realistic and genuine peace dialogue if any progress is to be made.

Other interested parties and players, all of whom will have to come on board eventually, President Isaias, the OLA, Sudan, the Amhara regional state and other state administrations in Ethiopia, do not have the same needs. Much of the output of social media, of Twitter, Facebook and similar elements, reflect this, appearing to believe in a continued need to call for genocide and destruction. Misinformation and disinformation have been a constant factor in the extreme ethno-nationalism widely displayed. Plenty of people continue to push for continued conflict.


Both sides have laid out various pre-talk ‘red lines’, covering both short-term and long-term concerns, which include the issue of peace itself though bound up with humanitarian factors, what should happen with detainees and IDPs, with regard to human right, restoration and rehabilitation, as well as wider political issues, not least the future governance of Ethiopia, a matter of considerable interest to Ethiopia’s neighbours. 

The TPLF earlier demanded full withdrawal of all government or Eritrean troops and of Amhara militia or special forces from all of Tigray, in which they include both ‘Western Tigray’ and ‘Raya’, areas claimed by the Amhara regional state. In other words, a return to the pre-war situation. Another pre-talk demand has been the lifting of the effective blockade of the region since mid-2021, the closure of banking, power, fuel and telecommunication links, and restoration of unlimited access to humanitarian aid and assistance. More aid has been getting into Tigray in the last few months but it still only a fraction of what is needed.

The federal government claims its reasons for seeking a ‘peace resolution’ include the fact that the conflict was forced upon the government. It insists it has always been ready to resolve differences peacefully ‘provided that the TPLF is ready to come to the fold’, in other words to surrender. It has also underlined the need for peace in order for the Prime Minister’s reforms to succeed. It now notes the need to prioritize reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation of communities, and the need for consensus through the inclusive national dialogue.  Not much has been heard of the activity of the National Dialogue Commission but it will have to initiate dialogue among all political stakeholders including Tigrayans, civil society associations, religious communities, and the public, if it is to discuss national issues openly and produce a national consensus. For this it needs peace, not just in Tigray but national-wide discussion. Abiy anticipates it will provide proposals for constitutional reform within a three-year time-frame, but much of this period is likely to be taken up in resolving the current conflicts. 

Changing terms

Government principles for talks with the TPLF have changed according to circumstances. In November last year, it demanded a halt to TPLF attacks, withdrawal from Amhara and Afar regions, and recognition of the legitimacy of the federal government. More recently, these were rephrased as: respecting the constitutional order, respecting fundamental national interests, refraining from subversive activities and recognising the role of the AU as the facilitator.

The TPLF, of course, also claims to respect the constitutional order. This comes back to interpretation of the constitution and the elections of September 2020 in Tigray and the general election of June/September 2021 in the rest of Ethiopia. The issue of legitimacy concerns both sides. The federal government rejected the TPLF’s regional election in September 2020; the TPLF claimed the government’s own elections in June and September 2021 were equally illegal. There is plenty of scope for arguments over the legality of the Tigrayan election and the subsequent House of Federation rulings as well as the General election in June and Septembers 2021. The dissolution of the then ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and its replacement by Abiy’s own Prosperity Party in December 2019 is another area of legal question.

Disagreement remains over human rights and accountability. International human rights organizations, including AI and HRW, have produced evidence of major abuses in Tigray after November 2020, including “widespread displacement and forced expulsions, systematic looting, destruction of property and crops, mass detention, extra-judicial killings, rampant sexual violence, manmade famine, denial of basic services, and ethnic profiling”. The government claims the controversial Joint Investigation Report of the EHRC and UN Human Rights last year, which failed to visit Tigray and ignored most of the allegations of abuse there, did cover Tigray satisfactorily. It is implementing the recommendations for an Inter-Ministerial Taskforce to collect and document criminal activity, and this is now concluding the investigation of abuses committed by the TPLF in the Amhara and Afar areas. It will start proceedings in the next few months. The government says it said it will cooperate with the International Commission of Experts on Ethiopia provided that the commission agrees to focus on events which were not covered by the EHRC and OHCHR Joint Investigation, in other words to ignore Tigray.

Among related issues that will need consideration in any substantive talks in the short-term is the release of all Tigrayans currently detained, numbering tens of thousands across the country.

Next week’s talks, if they start, will in effect be negotiations about talks, though both the federal government and the Tigrayans have indicated they will send high-level delegations. Peace in Tigray is certainly desirable, but equally, both sides are aware that they make up only part of the problem. The ‘three weeks law enforcement’ operation which morphed into a civil war with international complications with both Eritrean and Sudanese involvement. It has now last more than 18 months. It started in Tigray but spread to Amhara and Afar regional states, and has affected relations between all the major ethnic groups in Ethiopia. It is far from clear that talks between the federal government and the TPLF in Nairobi can resolve what is in effect a problem for Ethiopia and one that requires a broad-based lasting solution.

Troublesome Eritrea

The question of how President Isaias and Eritrea will respond to any peace agreement also remains critical. Eritrea has a long tradition of regional interference, and President Isaias has appeared determined to destroy Tigray as a potential economic or political rival to Eritrea and to ensure that the TPLF can never again be a danger to him. It is a highly personal view, driven by the humiliation the TPLF heaped in him in 2000 and in successfully categorising Eritrea as a pariah state for most of the following two decades. At the same time, President Isaias has always made clear his view that instability in Ethiopia or Sudan is of benefit to Eritrea’s place in the region and his own role as an elder statesman. Indeed, he has consistently argued that neither Ethiopia more Sudan can survive as single nation states. Cynics might claim he has done everything he can to ensure this is the case. Isaias still has the capacity to cause difficulties as there are Eritrean troops based in ‘Western Tigray’ which would be vital for Tigrayan access to Sudan, if no peace deal is reached. Isaias currently appears supportive towards Amhara regional claims to ‘Western Tigray’. He has made it clear to Abiy that he believes a peace deal with the TPLF is premature.

The independence question

One recent suggestion raised in Tigray has been the possibility of creating an independent state, something that in theory could be implemented under Ethiopia’s present constitution. Without an outlet to Sudan through ‘Western Tigray’, this would be difficult, particularly given the destruction committed by the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies after November 2020. An independent Tigray would also continue to face the enmity of President Isaias who would consider it a threat, not least because half of Eritrea’s population are ethnically Tigrayan. The logic of Tigrayan ethno-nationalism would seem to be ‘Greater Tigray’, not a prospect to appeal to President Isaias.

Whatever the result of any talks, the result will have a major impact the relationship between the federal government and the regional states, the governance of Ethiopia.

Not just Tigray

There are a significant number of other territorial disputes between regions which also need attention. Since Abiy took office, the amount of ethnic conflict has steadily increased, geographically and in quantity, even though its origins lie earlier. Nine ethnic-based regions were established by the constitution of 1995, but in many instances the federal government did not never proceeded to formally demarcate borders. The problems range from Metekel zone in Benishangul Gumuz region, whose incorporation into the region is challenged by the Amhara; to a part of Wollo, claimed by both Oromo and Amhara; to Western Tigray, and Raya, areas claimed by Amhara; and a part of the Afar region along the Middle Awash claimed by the Somali regi0n, in a claim backed by Djibouti. There have been border disputes all along the Somali/Oromo border and in 2004 a referendum was held in hundreds of kebeles to try to resolve them. It was only partially successful and violent clashes have continued there and in other areas around the Oromo state boundary.

More recently, there has been an upsurge in clashes between Oromo and Amhara, largely encouraged by Abiy’s political manipulation of Oromo and Amhara to support his war in Tigray. The conflicts in Oromia have operated on two levels. One is increasing tension, indeed, violence, between Amharas and Oromos. This has steadily expanded in the last three years, driven by Abiy’s political manoeuvrings, by the growth of OLA military activity and the involvement of the Amhara Fana militia to defend Amhara interests. Abiy used the assassination of Oromo singer, Hachalu Hundessa, in June 2020, as an excuse to arrest major Oromo political elements, and close down many Oromo opposition party offices. The OLA’s support dramatically increased.

The second level of conflict has been the war between government forces and the OLA which formed a strategic alliance with the TPLF in August 2021. Amhara activists and political parties now accuse both the OLA and the Oromo regional authorities of responsibility for recent killings of Amhara civilians living in Oromia. The Amhara Association of America claims in 2021 alone, 1,688 people were killed in OLA attacks, which it claimed were committed with official support. A peace deal with the TPLF will not include the OLA. The OLA has its own federal interests and unless any deal with the TPLF includes a wider constitutional settlement; it will not satisfy Oromo nationalist elements.

While the government now appears to be considering talks with the TPLF, it appears to remain totally committed to a military solution vis-à-vis the OLA. Like the TPLF, the OLA is still a ‘terrorist’ organisation’ (both were given this designation by Parliament in May 2021).  The government launched a major military campaign against the OLA in Western Wollega in March, using the drones which had been so effective against the TPLF in November 2020. This time they had been less effective. The government announced its campaign had been successful in June but continued OLA operations in recent weeks at Gimbi, Dembi Dolo and even Gambella city (in conjunction with the Gambella Liberation Front) suggest otherwise.  The attack on Gambella led to suggestions that the OLA has been receiving support from the Sudan.

Obstacles ahead

There remains plenty of room for disagreement over formalities, mediators, or even a venue before any agenda surfaces. Neither side trusts the other. Lifting of the blockade on Tigray would indicate the federal government’s good faith as would leveraging the current humanitarian ‘truce’ into a permanent ceasefire and starting the work of rehabilitation and restoration of all areas affected by the fighting of the last 20 months. Assignment of responsibility for the disaster should come later. The holding of talks with the TPLF leadership does provide de facto recognition but this should be supported by the lifting of its terrorist designation.

Recognition of the legitimacy of the respective administrations and of their grievances should also make an early appearance. The Minister of Justice has underlined the government’s determination to negotiate within the framework of the constitution. And both sides actually agree on this, at least in theory. But this is also a mixed blessing. The constitution provides for ‘Western Tigray’ and ‘Raya’ to be part of Tigray regional state. Their return to Tigrayan control is a major TPLF demand though both of these areas are claimed by the Amhara regional state which currently occupies them. Equally, the constitution does not allow for a sophisticated regional army, just a regional militia; a major TPLF demand is to keep its own powerful army. 

Prime Minister Abiy claims peace must be the priority over all else, and as he emphasized to parliament recently, he believes strongly in amendment to the constitution through referendum rather than destruction as happened after 1974 and 1991. In that sense, he has indicated that the issue of Wolkait (’Western Tigray’) should be resolved according to the constitution. He told parliament that the budget for Tigray region, including Wolkait, was allocated last year, and again this year.  It will, he said, be implemented if the issue is resolved. This appears to indicate he intends the return of ‘Western Tigray’ to the Tigrayan administration, though any such comments are anathema to Amhara nationalists. 

What kind of state?

There are also more substantive\ideological areas of disagreement including the issue of neo-liberalism versus the developmental state, as well as the issue of regional autonomy, currently instituted in the constitution.  Abiy has persistently defended his support for federalism, pointing to the creation of new regional states, Sidama, and South-west, but his war with Tigray was a deliberate effort to curtail regional power, and he has also persistently indicated his interest in returning to a more centralized, even imperial, past. One effect of this has already become apparent in the last few years, a significant growth of sub-state ethno-nationalism and conflict, both from areas seeking greater autonomy and others resisting: an ‘ending cycle of violence’ as one commentator has described it.