I am occasionally asked this question by friends who don’t follow the Horn of Africa closely and – to be honest – it is not the easiest question to answer.
It is not even clear yet if the war is really over, but the leaders of the Ethiopian federal authorities and the Tigrayan government seem to have established a strong relationship since the Pretoria and Nairobi agreements were signed. And the Eritrean forces appear to be pulling out of Tigray, at last.
The basic outline of the conflict is clear
- War erupted on 3/4 November 2020 has cost vast numbers of lives – the number 600,000 is used, but no-one is certain
- The dead and wounded were an element of the suffering: women who were raped and abused paid a terrible price
- The health and educational sectors of Tigray were devastated. Ancient monasteries and mosques were destroyed and the economy of Tigray was ruined.
This is only part of the story.
Areas of Afar and Amhara were also terribly damaged and huge numbers have lost their lives and been left wounded and crippled for life.
But this was a regional war from the start.
Eritrea’s people have also suffered terribly, with President Isaias throwing every conscript he could find into the fighting. Families have been driven from their homes if they did not give up all those who were required to serve, and an impoverished people have been left still poorer.
Some 10,000 Somali young men were sent under false pretences to Eritrea, only to be also sent to the frontline in Tigray. Only half have returned.
Who must bear responsibility?
Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki
It was his determination to rid himself of his former allies in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that underpins the war. Isaias had been – rightly – infuriated by the decision of Meles Zenawi to refuse to accept the binding ruling of the Boundary Commission following the 1998-2000 border war, which awarded Badme to Eritrea.
He plotted and planned for decades to crush the TPLF and when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, Isaias saw his chance. Isaias brought together the Ethiopian Prime Minister and Somali President Farmaajo to establish a tripartite agreement.
This was the alliance that underpinned the war, mobilising the forces of three nations that unleashed the assault on Tigray with Amhara allies over the night of the 3/4 of November 2020.
Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed
The Ethiopian Prime Minister, an evangelical Christian who believes he is inspired and guided by God, allowed himself to be taken in by President Isaias. He loathed the Tigrayan authorities too, and also believed that their power should be broken.
PM Abiy unleashed ethnic militia that inflicted terrible suffering on the people of Tigray. The Amhara now occupy Western Tigray and have expelled vast numbers of Tigrayan farmers who had lived their for generations. The ethnic hostility that has been unleashed will be hard to resolve.
Tigray’s Debretsion Gebremichael
My Tigrayan friends will not thank me for pointing this out, but the stubbornness of the TPLF in proceeding with the Tigray election in September 2020, when the federal authorities ruled against it, was probably not wise.
Could a TPLF decision to give Badme to Eritrea and accept a merger with Abiy’s Prosperity Party have resolved the problem? Or would the PP-PFDJ alliance have abolished the current Ethiopian constitution, reconfigured the regional states and returned Ethiopia to its pre-1991 state?
Had the TPLF agreed to the merger, that could have been Ethiopia’s destiny. The Tigray war has ensured that this won’t happen by reinforcing ethno-national fervour [including among the Amhara, who were previously the backbone of pan-Ethiopianism, and are now ardent ethno-nationalists]; but at what cost?
There was the decision to drive southwards towards Addis Ababa in late 2021, only to turn round and retreat back to Tigray, which cost many thousands of lives. Was it wise?
Finally, what will happen to the Tigrayan alliance with the Oromo and other of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups? The Oromo are still fighting the federal authorities. What stand will Debretsion and his allies take?
At the start of this article I said it wasn’t clear if the war is over, and it is not. But if peace is now at hand, then all sides can consider what they won and lost.
Tigrayans are the greatest losers. Their incredible bravery and resilience shocked and surprised the world, but so much of the region is in ruins. Tigrayans showed an extraordinary resilience and unity, without which they would not have survived.
But they appear to have lost western and southern Tigray: extremely painful considering the lives lost and the destruction caused. Was it a futile choice to turn Tigray into a warzone rather than make the inevitable ‘bitter concessions’ [to borrow Getachew’s words] pre-war? And what of the hopes of so many for an independent Tigray?
Other Ethiopians have all paid a terrible price: and not just in terms of the lives lost. The economy – previously among the fastest growing in Africa – is on its knees. War continues in other areas of Ethiopia, and Oromia in particular. How will this be resolved?
Pan-Ethiopianist/Amhara extremists were among the key actors that funnelling the national phobia that drove the war go beyond a being a conflict between ruling elites, transforming it into a “people versus people” war.
The Tigray conflict bears the hallmarks of Andargachew Tsigie/EZEMA party, which was deeply involved in instigating, aggravating and prolonging the conflict. Andy brought Abiy and Isaias together, pushed for the camps in which Tigrayans are interned and endorsed the savagery and war crimes that were inflicted. Finally, EZEMA argued against the peace agreement.
Eritreans remain trapped in Africa’s most repressive dictatorship and mired in poverty. Washington has seen through Isaias and the US is now openly hostile to his rule. How will this play out?
Somalia lost so many lives but now appear rebuilding their nation under President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.
And who won?
Harder to say, but here are three.
- Turkey, Iran and China, all of whom supplied (and saw tested in combat) the deadly drones that broke the Tigrayan resistance.
- The mediators: the African Union (at the very last moment, after doing next to nothing for most of the war), the US and EU who worked behind the scenes to try to end this war. Up front were former Nigerian President Obasanjo and Kenya’s former President Kenyatta. The role of IGAD also needs to be acknowledged.
- President Biden kept a focus on the war from the very start. He sent special envoys to try to end the war, and refused to be discouraged as the months went by and his envoys resigned in despair. Antony Blinken, as Secretary of State, spent hours on the phone and in meetings to try to end the conflict. As one wag rightly observed: “the Tigray war has shown the need for “American solution to Africa’s problems”.
Let us all hope for a real peace in 2023. So many lives and futures have been destroyed. So little achieved.
Democracy, freedom and prosperity are the rights of all, wherever they live.