Ethiopia’s Tigray Conflict Erupts After Brief Lull

The renewed flareup of armed conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region has dashed hopes of the first steps toward peace negotiations. Both sides seem set on a military solution, with dire consequences for civilians.

Fighting was reported in northern Ethiopia on Monday, despite international appeals for a halt to the renewed hostilities between government forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

The fighting took place in Kobo, a town in the Amhara region south of Tigray, which fell into the hands of the TPLF at the weekend. It ended a five-month truce, which had raised hopes of a negotiated solution.

A world distracted by the war in Ukraine

Last Friday’s killing of at least four people, including two children, in an airstrike on a kindergarten in Mekele, the capital of Tigray, drew the world’s attention back to a conflict almost two years old.

The two warring sides accused each other of violating the ceasefire first. Due to the lack of access to the region, experts have difficulty determining who is to blame.

Both parties could profit from renewed fighting, said Hassan Khannenje, director of the HORN International Institute for Strategic Studies in Nairobi, Kenya. The TPLF may be attempting to call the world’s attention back to the conflict or trying to gain advantages to strengthen its position in negotiations.

“But it is more likely that the government, which is feeling more emboldened and in a position of dominance right now, may want to push this further while the international community is focused on Ukraine,” Khannenje told DW.

The drought in the country, one of the most severe to hit Ethiopia in 40 years, according to the World Food Program (WFP), makes peace even more urgent. In Tigray alone, 2.4 million people are severely food insecure, while 20 million across Ethiopia face hunger.

In spring, the international community upped the pressure on the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the TPLF to allow for some relief for the population.

Flareup of hostilities ‘no surprise’

After several high-ranking meetings, the path seemed set for peace talks. Agreements reached in March included allowing aid for the Tigray population by easing the siege by government troops and releasing prisoners.

While the TPLF freed 4,000 Ethiopian soldiers, Addis Ababa did not follow suit. The central government also did not facilitate access to the starving population in Tigray to the extent expected.

Several actors in the international community reacted with surprise to the renewed fighting. “It should have come as a surprise to no one. They didn’t want to know because then they would have been forced to act,” said Kjetil Tronvoll, vice-rector for Research at Oslo New University College and Director of Oslo Analytic.

No will for peace

Statements from Addis Ababa’s political and army leadership in the past few months indicated that Abiy was set on a military solution. At the same time, “the Tigrayan government continued recruiting and training their army to become more professionalized,” Tronvoll told DW.

On Tuesday, Tigrayan rebels said they intended to advance further into northern Ethiopia’s neighboring regions but were still open to peace talks.

Many observers feel that the talks were largely a sop to the international community and a way for both sides to win some time to strengthen their positions. In addition, the government and the TPLF believe that agreeing to the concessions necessary to ensure peace will put their survival at risk.

In the event of peace, they would also be under severe scrutiny regarding reports of atrocities against civilians.

Another problem, analyst Khannenje said, was the lack of a “powerful third party who can guarantee that the agreement sticks.”

The failure of the West to act more decisively comes down to the perception that there is no lack of alternative to the Abiy government, said researcher Tronvoll.

He singled out Germany as one of the countries that have been excessively “protective” of Addis Ababa: “Germany has not put even 10% of the pressure that it should on Abiy Ahmed’s government.”

A scary scenario

An implosion of a country of more than 100 million people would have consequences well beyond the region, Khannenje warned: “You’re going to see literally millions of refugees not just flooding countries in the Horn of Africa but crossing over to Europe.”

The West is betting on Abiy to keep the country together to avoid such a political and humanitarian disaster.

The African Union, which has repeatedly told the world to keep out of African matters, would seem to be the ideal body to mediate in the conflict.

But all efforts by the AU collapsed when the TPLF made it clear that it considered the continental body biased towards Abiy.

Researcher Tronvoll stressed that other powers besides the West are just as much to blame for the lack of initiative or interest in the Ethiopian conflict. Given the [current] situation, Tronvoll’s take on the crisis is bleak: “It is more or less unsolvable,” he said.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu

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