Main photo: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.
"Tigray forces cannot disarm until the siege is completely lifted and Eritrean troops have withdrawn."
On 2 November 2022, after two years of catastrophic and brutal conflict, Ethiopian federal authorities and Tigray’s ruling party agreed to a permanent cessation of hostilities.
While Tigray’s leaders signed the agreement owing to difficult battlefield and humanitarian conditions, the Ethiopian government was forced to negotiate primarily because the national economy is under extreme stress, with high inflation, low growth, increasing financial deficits, and foreign exchange shortage among the most prominent macro-economic concerns.
Debt restructuring is one of the cards the US used to push Ethiopia to the negotiating table. The federal government wanted its debt restructured under the G-20’s Common Framework but the World Bank and IMF have delayed Ethiopia’s request in part because of the war.
Even if the Ethiopian army, along with its Eritrean and Amhara allies, had managed to take control of all major towns and cities in the region through military force, this wouldn’t necessarily have allowed them to pacify Tigray. This reality also partly explains why federal authorities decided to enter into negotiations.
Tigray’s forces have also suffered significant losses to the extent that continuing to confront the joint Ethio-Eritrean forces in a conventional war would be almost impossible since they are vastly outnumbered and outgunned.
The Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) could employ asymmetric war tactics and begin guerilla warfare, which they are proficient in, but they would be exposing their people to the same retaliation and depredations they suffered during the first phase of the war.
In justifying why the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed such an unfavorable deal, top negotiator Getachew Reda said the human toll on the civilian population would be such if they continued fighting that, even if they won the war militarily, they would have lost hundreds of thousands if not millions more people to famine, atrocities, and displacement.
Faced with this horrific prospect, Tigray’s leaders decided to cut their losses and save their people from further suffering. At the end of the day, the manmade famine created by the almost two-year long blockade of Tigray by the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments forced Tigray’s leaders to forsake some of their key political demands and instead negotiate.
Owing to this fateful decision, people in Tigray will be left at the mercy of the Ethiopian government and its allies. Eyewitnesses and aid workers say that Eritrean forces in particular have continued looting property, killing civilians, and carrying out mass detentions in Tigray.
Despite the fact that Ethiopia has agreed to end its blockade, Tigray is still facing a shortfall of humanitarian aid deliveries, though the situation is gradually improving.
The latest round of fighting substantially increased the number of people in need of humanitarian aid as the number of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) has grown significantly. Before fighting re-started on 24 August, there were 2.2 million IDPs within Tigray. However, this latest round of fighting has added more than 1.2 million IDPs.
The bulk of the few medical shipments that initially reached Mekelle after the inland corridors were re-opened on 15 November were full of non-vital items such as gloves and sanitizers. According to Kibrom Gebreselassie, head of the only functioning hospital in Tigray, the Ayder Comprehensive Specialized Hospital, no critical drugs had reached Tigray by 17 November.
The Ethiopian government has since allowed more trucks carrying food and medical supplies into Tigray, and allowed the resumption of humanitarian fight to Mekelle and Shire, in an effort to relieve international pressure.
However, the Ethiopian government’s claim in early December that aid had been delivered “for 95 percent of needy in North Ethiopia,” is a massive exaggeration.
According to the UN agencies coordinating the humanitarian response, “the second round of distribution for 2022 [that] was launched in Tigray in early October… assisted 1,380,350 people (26% of the total planned caseload of 5.4 million people for the region, including Western Zone) with 22,262 MT [metric tons] of food.”
The latest UN data reports that 1,672 trucks carrying aid by the government, the UN, and NGOs arrived in Tigray between 15 November and 8 December. A year ago, however, the UN and its humanitarian partners estimated that “100 trucks of food, non-food items, and fuel need to enter Tigray every day to sustain an adequate response.”
On 14 December, Kibrom tweeted that none of the medication provided to Ayder Hospital since the peace deal was signed could last for more than two days, and that the siege continues.
The shortfall of aid deliveries is particularly stark in areas under the control of Tigrayan authorities, especially central and eastern Tigray where only seven and 23 percent of people in need have so far received aid, respectively.
This a clear indication of what the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) described as “an intention to deprive the Tigrayan population of objects indispensable to their survival as part of a strategy to weaken or undermine the Tigray authorities.”
Ethiopia and Eritrea have fought this war by keeping Tigray under siege. In September, the ICHREE concluded that, “the federal government is using starvation as a method of warfare.”
The Ethio-Eritrean forces’ strategy throughout this war has been to weaken the resistance by creating mass displacement and forcing civilians to shelter in IDP camps where they can decide who gets aid.
According to the Tigray interim administration’s former chief of staff, Gebremeskel Kassa, during the time Ethiopia and Eritrean forces occupied Tigray in late 2020 and the first half 2021, Ethiopian forces were recorded selling USAID food aid meant for the starving people of Tigray.
In addition, Eritrean forces would divert aid by directing the truck drivers to deliver their cargo across the border to Eritrea. Even the Abiy-appointed interim government reported in April 2021 that Eritrean soldiers had shown up at various food distribution points in Tigray and looted supplies after the “beneficiaries became frightened and (ran) away.”
Federal officials are now amplifying photos of aid delivery to relieve diplomatic pressure while not doing enough to help Tigray avert the mounting humanitarian crisis.
A flood of assistance of goods and commodities as well as the free movement of civilians and humanitarian staff in and out of Tigray are paramount. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the people of Tigray are in need of immediate, massive, overwhelming assistance, not “drip-drip” support both in terms of food and non-food items.
The war in Tigray pushed the federal government to arm hardline Amhara militias and allowed them to annex parts of Tigray. These forces now share a border with Eritrea via Western Tigray.
Under the Pretoria agreement, the two parties committed to resolve “issues of contested areas,” presumably referring to the territorial dispute between Tigray and Amhara regions, in accordance with Ethiopia’s constitution.
However, Abiy told parliament, “We’re keeping quiet on how to solve the Welkait [Western Tigray] issue for now so as not to create obstacles to the peace process. Once the peace process is well in progress, we will make it official.”
Abiy was insinuating that territories that were forcibly and unconstitutionally annexed by Amhara regional forces and militias then ethnically cleansed of Tigrayans might not be restored to Tigray.
Reversing the Amhara seizure of pre-war Tigray’s territories in western and southern Tigray would further alienate Abiy in Amhara. After all, Amhara irredentism has been one of the main driving forces behind the war in Tigray.
The federal government is fixated on Western Tigray not because of its fertility or its economic value, but rather as a means to surround Tigray and deny it access to the outside world via Sudan.
The blueprint for a strong and successful central government in Ethiopia, historically, has been to first subdue Tigray and then rule Ethiopia. So, taking this strategic piece of land that borders Sudan is part of a plan to subjugate Tigray by encircling it with hostile forces.
The 2018 security pact between Abiy and Isaias Afwerki is still intact, as Eritrea has been fighting in Tigray at the invitation of the Ethiopian federal government.
From a legal standpoint, Ethiopia is well within its rights to invite Eritrean forces in its fight against Tigray and the international community cannot take any action unless Ethiopia officially asks Eritrea to withdraw and Eritrea refuses.1
So the most pertinent question is whether the federal government wants Eritrea to fully withdraw from Tigray and if it has the power to tell Eritrea to leave. Pushing back against Asmara will be difficult because the despotic Eritrean regime has enormous leverage over Abiy Ahmed’s government.
The Ethiopian army is weakened to a point that it cannot dictate anything to Asmara. A large portion of the Ethiopian army has been fighting under the Eritrean command structure and it owes its most recent battlefield gains to the Eritrean mechanized units and commanders.
Without the Eritreans, the Ethiopian army cannot maintain its presence in Tigray and would never have been able to achieve such favorable terms, most notably getting the TPLF to agree to disarm. So, for Abiy, asking the Eritrean army to leave would be shooting himself in the foot.
Eritrea’s stated goal is not only destroying the TPLF as a political force but also degrading Tigrayan society through political cleansing, an objective that is shared by prominent Amhara elites. Many in the Eritrean and Amhara camps may not be satisfied with the Pretoria deal, as they believe it guarantees the survival of their mortal enemy, the TPLF.
The Eritrean army has been training Amhara militias to help the federal government’s war effort in Tigray. Eritrea’s ruthless Machiavellian leader won’t hesitate to use these forces against Abiy, his present ally, if he feels that his objectives vis-à-vis Tigray are being sidelined in the name of peace in Ethiopia.
Hence, even if Abiy calls for their withdrawal, the Eritreans are not expected to fully withdraw willingly, as they consider the TPLF an existential threat, and the TDF won’t disarm completely until they’re gone.2It also remains to be seen how the Ethiopian army, which attacked its own people alongside a foreign military, will provide security for Tigray once the TDF disarms.
At the start of the war, Ethiopia and its Eritrean and Amhara allies wanted to wipe out the TPLF and the region’s security apparatus, destroy Tigray’s developmental structure, obliterate its cultural heritage, and undermine its ability to prosper as a society. Although Tigray’s enemies achieved most of their goals, they failed their main objectives, namely, obliterating the TPLF and suppressing the regional military forces aligned with it.
Alex Rondos, former EU Special Representative to the Horn of Africa, said that, despite the fact the Tigrayans seemed to be negotiating from a position of weakness, at the time they made the peace agreement, the TDF still had “some 200,000 men and women under arms.”
Moreover, the main cause of the war was Abiy’s desire to centralize power by destroying the TPLF. In his first appearance in front of parliament after Tigray forces retook Mekelle in late June 2021, he admitted that the war could have been avoided if the TPLF had accepted the offer to join his Prosperity Party.
Despite intra-Tigray divisions that emerged from the Pretoria agreement, what Abiy inadvertently managed to achieve during the past two years was to strengthen the TPLF politically and militarily.
At the start of the war, there were only 9,800 Tigray Special Police Forces and around 40,000 local militias spread across the region. But now, Tigray has a proper army. Even if the TDF is disarmed and demobilized according to the peace agreement, it could easily be remobilized if the political problems that led to the war are not addressed.
Unfortunately, the Pretoria agreement makes no mention of an international probe. The peace deal leaves the crucial task of accountability for the crimes committed during the conflict entirely at the whims of the very government, which, alongside its Amhara and Eritrean counterparts, masterminded and orchestrated the pogrom against Tigrayans.
Furthermore, the federal government could still use the Pretoria agreement to achieve what it failed to achieve militarily: to destroy the TPLF and marginalize Tigray.
Most notably, federal authorities could start another witch-hunt against Tigrayan leaders by abusing Article 10/3 of the Pretoria agreement, which states that, “the Government of Ethiopia shall implement a comprehensive national transitional justice policy,” consistent with Ethiopia’s constitution and the African Union Transitional Justice Policy Framework.
The cessation of hostilities agreement (CoHA) between Tigray and Ethiopia is riddled with ambiguity and the formal monitoring and verification mechanisms in the agreement are weak.
According to Article 10/4 of the CoHA, the two parties “agree to establish a Joint Committee comprising a representative from each party, a representative from IGAD, and chaired by the African Union.”
The monitoring and verification mechanism excluded representatives from the US, EU, and the UN, purporting to be using “African solutions to African problems.” But implementation of the peace agreement is unlikely to succeed without technical support and funding from the international community.
The EU and US, in particular, are crucial to the implementation process. The US has said that the CoHA must be fully implemented to consider restoring previous ties with Ethiopia, which would include reinstating Ethiopian exporters’ preferential trade access to US markets under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, and supporting World Bank and IMF loans to Ethiopia.
Realistically, only the EU and US have the capacity to take punitive measures against parties that are not in compliance with the agreement. Without them, the AU, which officially supported and is still supporting the Ethiopian government’s positions, cannot be trusted to oversee the implementation of such a complex and sensitive disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process.
What all players must keep in mind is that disarming the TDF doesn’t mean the people of Tigray will all of a sudden accept injustice. Any attempt to undermine the Tigray’s interests would lead to another round of bloody conflict, which would make any path back to peace even longer and more fraught.
The only way to achieve sustainable peace is for all parties to the conflict to implement the peace agreement based on the principles of compromise, peaceful coexistence, and equal partnership.
Unfortunately, neither the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea nor those of Tigray have historically exhibited such traits, in line with their winner-takes-all political cultures.