Abiy has assured me and others that he can manage the Eritreans, to the point of expelling them militarily from Tigray if necessary. But the Ethiopian prime minister’s confidence seems unmoored from reality. Even if Afwerki withdraws Eritrean troops from Tigray, he would retain other methods of interfering in Ethiopia. Among the Ethiopian proxies Asmara has cultivated are hard-line Amhara militias who share Afwerki’s hatred of the Tigrayans and who might be persuaded to flout their obligation under the Nairobi declaration to withdraw from parts of Tigray that they currently claim and control. Afwerki appears impervious to the usual array of incentives and disincentives.
The Country’s Problems Go Far Beyond Tigray
By Jeffrey Feltman
December 26, 2022
Rape, extrajudicial killing, manmade famine, denial of medical aid and services, and expulsions described by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken as “ethnic cleansing” are among the horrors of the brutal war that exploded in Ethiopia’s northern highlands in November 2020. Up to 600,000 people, mostly ethnic Tigrayans, are estimated to have died, the majority from starvation and disease. For close to two years, Western and regional powers wrung their hands but did little to halt the violence or prevent Africa’s second most populous state from disintegrating.
Then in November 2022, the African Union made an unexpected breakthrough, facilitating a cease-fire agreement between the Ethiopian government and the rebel Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front. The deal and a subsequent plan for its implementation are far from perfect and leave unresolved many thorny questions of peace. Even more troubling, they all but ignore the largest potential spoiler. Eritrea, which has been fighting alongside the Ethiopian government in Tigray, is neither a party to the agreement nor mentioned by name in the text. Although Asmara has been aligned with Addis Ababa throughout the conflict, it views the TPLF as an existential threat and may not be content with a peace deal that leaves the organization intact and its leaders alive.
Still, there are things that Ethiopia’s international partners can do to support the peace deal and give it the best chance of succeeding. They can seek to create as much momentum for the agreement as possible, coming together to provide unified support for its implementation and using their limited leverage to dissuade Eritrea and other potential spoilers from prolonging the conflict. By accelerating lifesaving humanitarian aid, pushing for a credible monitoring and verification mechanism, and encouraging the warring parties to supplement the cease-fire implementation talks with a political process, foreign powers can reinforce what so far is an encouraging but fragile Ethiopian bid for peace.
At the end of the day, however, the Ethiopian government will have to earn the support of its international partners through good-faith implementation of the agreement. Benchmarks the international community should monitor include the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Ethiopia and of local Amhara forces from Tigray, the initiation of credible transitional justice and accountability mechanisms, and the establishment of a political process that builds on and protects the cease-fire arrangement from spoilers and that addresses tensions and violence in other parts of Ethiopia. Only once Ethiopia’s international partners are satisfied that Addis Ababa is making steady progress in these areas should they restore all the economic and development assistance they suspended in the early stages of the war.
The war in Tigray has caused unimaginable suffering. All sides stand accused of committing war crimes against civilians, with the Tigrayans bearing the brunt of the violence. Throughout the conflict, the Ethiopian government and regional administrations in Afar and Amhara used a variety of means to severely restrict the delivery of food, medicine, and services to Tigray, essentially putting the region’s six million residents under a siege that appeared to violate a UN Security Council prohibition of using food as a weapon of war.
The Ethiopian government also stoked popular anger against the TPLF, often using egregiously dehumanizing language about all Tigrayans. (Millions of Ethiopians already loathe the TPLF because it dominated the country’s repressive government from 1991 until 2018, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power). With Internet and power services cut inside Tigray, Tigrayan leaders were less able to shape popular narratives of the war, but the Tigrayan diaspora stepped into the vacuum with inflammatory vitriol against Abiy and his government.
Most serious for Ethiopia’s internal security, the government’s overriding focus on the war in the north caused it to neglect rising tensions and violence elsewhere in the country, an uneasy amalgam of some 90 ethnic groups. As Ethiopia’s impressive prewar economic growth slowed under the burden of war and COVID-19 disruptions, long-simmering conflicts in the regions of Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, and Oromia have started to boil over. In June, hundreds of Amhara civilians living in Oromia were massacred in an attack for which Ethiopian officials and Oromo fighters each blame the other.
SANCTIONS VS. DRONES
Despite strong statements from some countries at the beginning of the war, the international response has been lackluster. Led by the United States and the European Union, most Western donors suspended some economic and development assistance to Ethiopia in the spring and summer of 2021. And in June of that year, the G7 called for a negotiated settlement to end the war and preserve the unity of the Ethiopian state. But even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began to dominate the agendas of leaders in North America and Europe, the international focus on Ethiopia was insufficient—and insufficiently coordinated—to change the basic trajectory of the conflict.
Ethiopia’s neighbors and partners consulted frequently with one another, agreeing on the imperative of Ethiopian stability. But they diverged on how best to help. The United States and the European Union hoped that, combined with emergency humanitarian assistance, punitive measures such as the threat of sanctions and the withholding of development aid would halt the atrocities and move the parties from the battlefield to the negotiating table. But China, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) doubled down on backing Abiy, providing his government with military support, including sophisticated drones. With the exception of Eritrea, which is deeply implicated in the war, African countries mostly watched and worried. The three rotating African members of the UN Security Council—ostensibly at the behest of Ethiopia—largely succeeded in keeping the war in Tigray out of council debates, despite the threat it posed to international peace and security. The African Union itself, headquartered in Addis Ababa, remained mostly mum, presumably to avoid annoying its host.
Nearly ten months into the conflict, the African Union finally appointed former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo as High Representative for the Horn of Africa, creating the appearance of regional and international solidarity as world leaders hastened to pledge support for an AU-led peace process. But divides over how to engage the parties (and especially over how to deal with Eritrea) endured, with Ethiopia’s partners split over whether pushing Abiy or pandering to him would be the most effective way to resolve the conflict.
In the end, it was events on the ground that created an opening for talks and an opportunity for peace. Both sides have seemed to have the advantage at various points, but in early 2022, an uneasy stalemate emerged that with American facilitation evolved into a fragile five-month truce. That truce collapsed in late August, with the government blaming the TPLF for attacking government positions near the regional border between Amhara and Tigray and the Tigrayans accusing the government of backtracking on commitments to restore basic services to Tigray after a 20-month blackout. By mid-October 2022, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, as well as allied Amhara militias, had overrun Tigrayan defensive lines in the strategically important city of Shire in central Tigray, opening the way for what could have been a scorched-earth march on Tigray’s cities and towns, including the regional capital of Mekelle. Abiy would have enjoyed widespread popular support for such a campaign. And although they were running short on supplies, Tigrayan fighters could have retreated into the mountains to pursue a guerrilla insurgency. Instead, both sides blinked, halting the bloodshed and accepting an invitation from the African Union to attend peace talks in Pretoria, South Africa.
Going into the peace talks in Pretoria, the Ethiopian government was in a much stronger military position than the TPLF. Not surprisingly, the agreement the two sides reached there on November 2 tilts in Addis Ababa’s favor, providing for the restoration of Ethiopian federal authority in Tigray and the dissolution of the TPLF administration. The agreement has flaws, including an overly ambitious initial timetable for TPLF disarmament, inadequate monitoring and reporting processes, a lack of clarity on accountability, and, most seriously, silence on Eritrea, except for a vague prohibition on “collusion with any external force hostile to either party.” Regardless of these imperfections, the Ethiopians deserve credit for agreeing to end the bloodshed.
The two sides have also taken steps to address some of the deal’s deficiencies. Less than a week after the Pretoria agreement was signed, senior Ethiopian and Tigrayan military commanders met in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi to hash out an implementation plan. Acknowledging Tigrayan fears of being left defenseless against hostile Eritrean troops and Amhara militia members still present in Tigray, they specified in a declaration issued on November 12 that Tigrayan forces are to disarm at the same time as foreign and non-Ethiopian federal forces withdraw from the region. The military commanders continued their talks in Nairobi in late December, with AU, Kenyan, U.S., and regional facilitation, and there are indications that the negotiations are going well.
But the potential problem posed by Eritrea remains.
Whereas nearly all of Ethiopia’s partners have praised the Pretoria and Nairobi agreements, Eritrea has remained silent. In theory, TPLF disarmament should incentivize Eritrean President Isais Afwerki to order his troops home. But in practice, it may not be enough. Afwerki’s government fought a bloody war against the TPLF-dominated Ethiopian government from 1998 to 2000, ostensibly over a border dispute but more fundamentally over whether Afwerki or the TPLF, one-time allies turned bitter foes, would dominate the Horn of Africa. Afwerki may worry that even a disarmed TPLF could one day rise again and threaten his regime. For that reason, he may wish to defeat the organization militarily if not exterminate it, not just ensure the formal dissolution of its Mekelle administration, as the Pretoria agreement states.
Abiy has assured me and others that he can manage the Eritreans, to the point of expelling them militarily from Tigray if necessary. But the Ethiopian prime minister’s confidence seems unmoored from reality. Even if Afwerki withdraws Eritrean troops from Tigray, he would retain other methods of interfering in Ethiopia. Among the Ethiopian proxies Asmara has cultivated are hard-line Amhara militias who share Afwerki’s hatred of the Tigrayans and who might be persuaded to flout their obligation under the Nairobi declaration to withdraw from parts of Tigray that they currently claim and control.
Afwerki appears impervious to the usual array of incentives and disincentives.
Moreover, Afwerki aims to do more than simply eliminate the TPLF threat to Eritrea. Based on Afwerki’s history of attempting to destabilize his neighbors, one can conclude that he also wants to prevent the reemergence of a stable Ethiopia that dominates the political and security environment of the Horn of Africa, as it did under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the heavy-handed TPLF leader who ruled from 1991 until his death in 2012. By interfering in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan, Afwerki seeks to become the regional hegemon.
Making matters worse, Afwerki appears impervious to the usual array of incentives and disincentives. He dismisses as Western hostility the widespread condemnation of his oppressive regime. Sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States—including on the Red Sea Trading Corporation (RSTC), Afwerki’s main conduit for arms and money laundering—have had no perceptible impact on his external meddling. Promises of increased humanitarian and development assistance do not interest him because he is contemptuous of his own citizens. Eritrea’s Red Sea coast and Asmara’s architectural heritage could be magnets for investment and tourism. But just as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was not tempted by U.S. President Donald Trump’s offer in 2018 to swap nuclear ambitions for hotels, Afwerki is uninterested in private-sector development that could threaten his grip on power. Stripping Eritrea of its preposterous seat on the UN Human Rights Council would enhance the council’s credibility but is unlikely to change Afwerki’s behavior.
But Eritrea’s neighbors do have some leverage over Afwerki, although they often claim otherwise. The United Arab Emirates hosts the RSTC’s largest offshore facility, which Afwerki relies on for imports and exports, including of arms. Simply by asking questions about the RSTC’s activities, the UAE could change Afwerki’s calculus. Saudi Arabia, which hosted the historic peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2018, could also link its support of Afwerki to his behavior toward Ethiopia. In recent years, Riyadh has drawn closer to the Eritrean leader, in part to prevent him from resuming his one-time friendship with Iran. But getting either Gulf country to bring its influence to bear on Afwerki would likely take a push from the United States, and reining in Eritrea might not rank highly on the already packed U.S.-Gulf bilateral agenda. Moreover, the lack of agreement among regional powers and other partners of Ethiopia on how to deal with Eritrea gives Afwerki much room to maneuver.
The international community does have one other source of leverage, however. After the 2018 rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, for which Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the UN Security Council lifted its sanctions on Eritrea, removing an arms embargo as well as travel bans and asset freezes targeting senior Eritrean officials. As unbothered as he is about bilateral U.S. or EU sanctions, Afwerki is unlikely to want to risk the restoration of universal UN Security Council sanctions, which require him to orchestrate more complicated work-arounds to meet Eritrea’s basic needs.
UNITY AT LAST
Given their limited influence over Afwerki, countries and institutions that are concerned about Eritrea’s potential to spoil the peace process in Tigray might consider an Ethiopia-focused approach: they could help both the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayans build as much momentum as quickly as possible for the AU-led Pretoria process, including through the accelerated delivery of lifesaving humanitarian assistance and the restoration of basic services.
Afwerki should see that the international community—so divided in its reaction to the war—is united behind the Ethiopians’ decision to create the conditions for a permanent cessation of hostilities. International solidarity—among Ethiopia’s warring factions, African and Gulf countries, Western states, and other interested parties—might dissuade him from continuing to meddle in Ethiopia, especially since flouting a near-universal consensus in favor of the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of Tigrayan fighters could revive his reputation as an international pariah and even invite the reimposition of UN Security Council sanctions.
One way to foster unity within the Horn of Africa would be to strengthen the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional grouping of East African states that Eritrea has long ignored or sought to undermine. Although IGAD’s powers are limited, making it more capable and responsive to the needs and aspirations of citizens in the Horn of Africa would be a rebuke to Afwerki’s domestic repression and a step toward deeper regional cooperation. In addition, resolving differences among Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan over Ethiopia’s controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam would give Afwerki fewer regional divisions to exploit.
Even with unified international backing for the Ethiopian agreements, problems will inevitably arise over interpretation and sequencing. Deadlines will be missed. Would-be spoilers in addition to Eritrea, including hard-line Amharas and even al Shabab militants, will watch for openings. Ethiopia’s external partners can help prevent the peace process from falling apart by keeping the Ethiopians focused on the political and economic benefits that will come with peace.
There is still a risk that Ethiopia could disintegrate.
It is likely that TPLF demobilization and disarmament will receive widespread scrutiny and support from Ethiopians outside Tigray but that the much less popular process of reintegrating former fighters will be neglected, distressing Tigrayans. Addis Ababa will need to resist using the Pretoria agreement as an excuse to impose a hostile military occupation and “victor’s peace” on the battered population of Tigray. Ultimately, a political process will also have to address the explosive, zero-sum issue of territory claimed by both Amhara and Tigray, referred to only elliptically in Pretoria. In these disputed areas, the withdrawal of Amhara and Eritrean fighters and the return of expelled Tigrayans will be politically fraught for Abiy. Yet despite such looming challenges, the signs so far are encouraging. Work has begun to restore utilities in Tigray, humanitarian deliveries have increased, and the two sides have maintained constructive contact. The cessation of hostilities is holding.
According to participants in the Nairobi talks, the Ethiopian government and TPLF negotiators who are now working on terms of reference for a cease-fire monitoring and verification team have left the door open to UN and other expertise. If true, such receptiveness is encouraging—and uncharacteristic of a country that is proud of keeping foreigners in general and the UN in particular at arm’s length. The monitoring and verification team will have just ten members, per the terms of the Pretoria agreement, meaning that it won’t be able to cover enough ground to give each side total confidence in the other’s compliance. But expertise from the UN and elsewhere can help make the team as credible a confidence-building mechanism as possible.
Both the Pretoria agreement and the Nairobi declaration are silent on the role of external partners, although the Ethiopian government expects the rapid resumption of development assistance from the United States, the European Union, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, as well as financing for reconstruction. As they ramp up humanitarian assistance for Ethiopians affected by the war and by a historic drought, donors will have to balance the need to support the implementation of the peace deal with the need to tie some funding to progress on tough issues such as accountability for human rights violations. The full resumption of financial and development assistance should be contingent on the situation in Ethiopia as a whole, not just in Tigray or on relations between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF.
There is still a risk that Ethiopia could disintegrate.
As implementation of the Pretoria and Nairobi agreements proceeds, Ethiopia’s partners should encourage the federal government to develop a credible and inclusive national process to resolve the tensions rising elsewhere in the country, including in Oromia. Basic political questions such as how to calibrate the balance of power between federal and regional authorities—one of the triggers of the war in Tigray—need to be addressed peacefully and inclusively by all the Ethiopians. The more unified Ethiopia becomes, the less meddlesome outsiders will be able to exploit its divisions.
Throughout its long history, Ethiopia has endured numerous bouts of horrific ethnic violence that have typically ended when one side decisively defeated the other. Despite the atrocities of the last two years, Abiy and the Tigrayans are attempting something different: a negotiated disarmament, demobilization, and reconciliation to solidify their stated desire of a permanent cessation of hostilities. Yet as the escalating violence in Oromia demonstrates, there is still a risk that Ethiopia could disintegrate, an outcome that would have devastating consequences for Ethiopians and their neighbors and affect countries around the world.
Ethiopians have the primary responsibility for implementing the cease-fire agreement and establishing a political process that can counteract the centrifugal forces threatening to unravel the country. But Ethiopia’s neighbors and partners have an interest in the success of these processes and will need to remain more engaged than Addis Ababa may want, especially if Eritrea interferes. African leaders often cite the principle of “African solutions for African problems,” but the truth is that African problems can affect the interests of countries beyond the continent. In the case of Ethiopia, perhaps the message to the African Union should be that while the solutions should be African, support for them should not be exclusively so.