Drums of war were beating for almost two years. Why Ethiopia’s conflict was avoidable



Members of the Amhara militia ride in the back of a pick up truck, in Mai Kadra, Ethiopia, on November 21, 2020. Amharas and Tigrayans were uneasy neighbours before the current fighting.
Photo by Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

Yonatan T. Fessha, University of the Western Cape

I grew up in Ethiopia during the days of the military government. For years before its overthrow in 1991, the national army was locked in a protracted war against rebel movements in the north. It was common in those days to hear state media reporting the capture or recapture of towns from rebel forces. The parading of prisoners of war made daily headlines.

However, you would hear a completely different story if you had the courage to tune in to rebel broadcasts, which were banned, or foreign radio. I remember my father making sure that the door and windows of our house were securely closed before tuning into Voice of America Amharic.

Thirty years later, Ethiopians faced another bout of internal armed conflict in the north and found themselves again glued to radio and television not to miss the news about advancing and retreating armed forces. And it’s just as hard to verify reports since telephone and internet links to Tigray have been cut and access tightly controlled since the fighting began on November.

The federal government launched a military offensive against the regional government of the state of Tigray in retaliation for its attack on the Northern Command of the federal army stationed in the capital of the state government. Since then, the conflict has escalated markedly.

While the Ethiopian federal government controls the federal police and the national army, the Constitution allows each of the country’s 10 states to deploy its own police force to enforce their laws. In addition, some of the states have heavily armed special forces.

Though the conflict appeared to have begun abruptly, the drums of war were beating for almost two years. The seeds of the current conflict were sown even earlier when public unrest erupted against the government, in power for almost 27 years, five years ago .

The protests eventually led to political realignment within the ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of four ethnic based parties. The end result was the dislodging of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front as the dominant member of the coalition and the election of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister in April 2018.

Outwardly, the political configurations seemed to have taken place smoothly. But it did not take long before cracks within the ruling party started to emerge. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, whose leaders retreated to their stronghold state of Tigray, complained of ethnic marginalisation and economic sabotage.

Had the national government and Tigray state government attempted to engage in intergovernmental dialogue, things might have turned out differently.

Elections and COVID-19

On March 31, Ethiopia’s National Electoral Board announced that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, national elections would not be held as scheduled. The decision gave rise to a constitutional conundrum. The Constitution, it appears, has no definitive answer regarding the fate of an incumbent whose term comes to an end before an election is held in the country.

Therefore, the national parliament sought advice from the House of Federation. This second chamber of the Ethiopian federal parliament ruled in favour of extending the term of the office of the incumbent administration until the next elections are held.

But not everyone supported the decision of the government to seek guidance from the House of Federation. Nor with the decision that was rendered by the House. The state government of Tigray and a number of other opposition parties deemed the move as illegitimate control of power. They called for a national dialogue that should lead to the establishment of a transitional government.

Tigray took its opposition further by establishing its own electoral board and holding an election. After carrying out its election, Tigray declared the federal government illegitimate and withdrew its members of the federal parliament.

Some aspects of the decision of the House are arguably problematic. These include its decision to extend the term of office of state councils and executives. Unlike other federal constitutions, the Ethiopian constitution is largely silent about the organisation and functioning of state governments. That is left to state constitutions. This suggests that any decision regarding state governments and state parliaments must be based primarily on state constitutions.

Yet, irrespective of the merits of the decision, the House body has the power to interpret the constitution and must be respected as such. For this reason, Tigray attack on the federal government as illegitimate was constitutionally problematic. The bodies that have the ultimate power to interpret the constitution have allowed the federal government to stay in power until the next elections are held.

The intergovernmental tension was further exacerbated when the House of Federation suspended the transfer of funds to Tigray state government. It elected to work directly with local governments in Tigray, bypassing the state government. Tigray reacted by making public its intention to withhold all federal taxes collected in the state.

One would have hoped that Addis Ababa would first see out the full implementation of the use of the power of the purse to resolve the tension. But instead the country was plunged into a military conflict to resolve intergovernmental disputes.

Federal intervention

The Constitution allows the federal government to intervene in state governments. This ranges from giving directives on matters that are normally left to state government to removing a state government and assuming its responsibilities.

Although a constitutionally valid option – and more tempting once Tigray attacked the Northern Command – it was a politically unwise move that is fraught with disastrous consequences. A federal intervention in Ethiopia is not what we see in other federal countries, given that some of the state governments command a heavily armed force in the form of a special police force.

The state of Tigray is reported to have 250,000 strong well-armed militia and special force. A federal intervention that happens under this context unavoidably becomes an armed conflict, if not a civil war.

That is why the claim of the current administration that it is pursuing a law enforcement operation falls flat in the face of reports of the rocket missiles and air bombardments dominating the news about the conflict.

Dialogue

The actions and reactions of both governments reveal the limits of the law and violence to dampen intergovernmental tensions. What is striking (and tragically so) is that there has not been a single report of both governments sitting behind closed doors and engaging in intergovernmental dialogue. This is despite a number of attempts by a group of elders.

Instead, matters were allowed to fester through demonstrations, press releases and wars of words that only served to deepen the rift among communities.

The state government of Tigray expressed its willingness to engage in a dialogue. But, it said it was not interested in a bilateral dialogue that aimed at resolving the conflict between the two governments. It insisted that the dialogue should include all opposition parties and other stakeholders.

It was expected that Abiy could only see this as a call to gang up against his administration and oust him from office, making the demand a non-starter. On the other hand, his government has rejected efforts by international powers to halt the deadly fighting as interference in internal matters. This is an odd argument coming from a prime minister eager to play peacemaker in neighbouring countries.

Perhaps, what was – and still is – needed is a negotiation that aims at de-escalating the conflict between the two governments. The rest can wait for another day. The country cannot afford the continuation of the conflict that has already cost thousands of lives, created enabling environment for massive human rights violations, further deepened communal divisions and made the continued existence of the country more precarious than ever.

A version of this article was first published in Verfassungsblog.The Conversation

Yonatan T. Fessha, Professor, University of the Western Cape

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Conflict between Tigray and Eritrea — the long standing faultline in Ethiopian politics



An Ethiopan soldier mans a position near Zala Anbesa in the northern Tigray region of the country, about 1,6 kilometres from the Eritrean border.
Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

Richard Reid, University of Oxford

The missile attack by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front on Eritrea in mid-November transformed an internal Ethiopian crisis into a transnational one. In the midst of escalating internal conflict between Ethiopia’s northernmost province, Tigray, and the federal government, it was a stark reminder of a historical rivalry that continues to shape and reshape Ethiopia.

The rivalry between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the movement which has governed Eritrea in all but name for the past 30 years – the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front – goes back several decades.

The histories of Eritrea and Ethiopia have long been closely intertwined. This is especially true of Tigray and central Eritrea. These territories occupy the central massif of the Horn of Africa. Tigrinya-speakers are the predominant ethnic group in both Tigray and in the adjacent Eritrean highlands.

The enmity between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front dates to the mid-1970s, when the Tigrayan front was founded in the midst of political turmoil in Ethiopia. The authoritarian Marxist regime – known as the Derg (Amharic for ‘committee’) – inflicted violence upon millions of its own citizens. It was soon confronted with a range of armed insurgencies and socio-political movements. These included Tigray and Eritrea, where the resistance was most ferocious.

The Tigrayan front was at first close to the Eritrean front, which had been founded in 1970 to fight for independence from Ethiopia. Indeed, the Eritreans helped train some of the first Tigrayan recruits in 1975-6, in their shared struggle against Ethiopian government forces for social revolution and the right to self-determination.

But in the midst of the war against the Derg regime, the relationship quickly soured over ethnic and national identity. There were also differences over the demarcation of borders, military tactics and ideology. The Tigrayan front eventually recognised the Eritreans’ right to self-determination, if grudgingly, and resolved to fight for the liberation of all Ethiopian peoples from the tyranny of the Derg regime.

Each achieved seminal victories in the late 1980s. Together the Tigrayan-led Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and the Eritrean front overthrew the Derg in May 1991. The Tigrayan-led front formed government in Addis Ababa while the Eritrean front liberated Eritrea which became an independent state.

But this was just the start of a new phase of a deep-rooted rivalry. This continued between the governments until the recent entry of prime minister Abiy Ahmed.

If there’s any lesson to be learnt from years of military and political manoeuvrings, it is that conflict in Tigray is unavoidably a matter of intense interest to the Eritrean leadership. And Abiy would do well to remember that conflict between Eritrea and Tigray has long represented a destabilising fault line for Ethiopia as well as for the wider region.

Reconciliation and new beginnings

In the early 1990s, there was much talk of reconciliation and new beginnings between Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Isaias Afeworki of Eritrea. The two governments signed a range of agreements on economic cooperation, defence and citizenship. It seemed as though the enmity of the liberation war was behind them.

Meles declared as much at the 1993 Eritrean independence celebrations, at which he was a notable guest.

But deep-rooted tensions soon resurfaced. In the course of 1997, unresolved border disputes were exacerbated by Eritrea’s introduction of a new currency. This had been anticipated in a 1993 economic agreement. But in the event Tigrayan traders often refused to recognise it, and it caused a collapse in commerce.

Full-scale war erupted over the contested border hamlet of Badme in May 1998. The fighting swiftly spread to other stretches of the shared, 1,000 km long frontier. Air strikes were launched on both sides.

It was quickly clear, too, that this was only superficially about borders. It was more substantively about regional power and long standing antagonisms that ran along ethnic lines.

The Eritrean government’s indignant anti-Tigray front rhetoric had its echo in the popular contempt for so-called Agame, the term Eritreans used for Tigrayan migrant labourers.

For the Tigray front, the Eritrean front was the clearest expression of perceived Eritrean arrogance.

As for Isaias himself, regarded as a crazed warlord who had led Eritrea down a path which defied economic and political logic, it was hubris personified.

Ethiopia deported tens of thousands of Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean descent.

Ethiopia’s decisive final offensive in May 2000 forced the Eritrean army to fall back deep into their own territory. Although the Ethiopians were halted, and a ceasefire put in place after bitter fighting on a number of fronts, Eritrea had been devastated by the conflict.

The Algiers Agreement of December 2000 was followed by years of standoff, occasional skirmishes, and the periodic exchange of insults.

During this period Ethiopia consolidated its position as a dominant power in the region. And Meles as one of the continent’s representatives on the global stage.

For its part Eritrea retreated into a militaristic, authoritarian solipsism. Its domestic policy centred on open-ended national service for the young. Its foreign policy was largely concerned with undermining the Ethiopian government across the region. This was most obvious in Somalia, where its alleged support for al-Shabaab led to the imposition of sanctions on Asmara.

The ‘no war-no peace’ scenario continued even after Meles’s sudden death in 2012. The situation only began to shift with the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn against a backdrop of mounting protest across Ethiopia, especially among the Oromo and the Amhara, and the rise to power of Abiy.

What followed was the effective overthrow of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front which had been the dominant force in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition since 1991.

This provided Isaias with a clear incentive to respond to Abiy’s overtures.

Tigray’s loss, Eritrea’s gain

A peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, was signed in July 2018 by Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki. It formally ended their 1998-2000 war. It also sealed the marginalisation of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Many in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front were unenthusiastic about allowing Isaias in from the cold.

Since the 1998-2000 war, in large part thanks to the astute manoeuvres of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Eritrea had been exactly where the Tigray People’s Liberation Front wanted it: an isolated pariah state with little diplomatic clout. Indeed, it is unlikely that Isaias would have been as receptive to the deal had it not involved the further sidelining of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, something which Abiy presumably understood.

Isaias had eschewed the possibility of talks with Abiy’s predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn. But Abiy was a different matter. A political reformer, and a member of the largest but long-subjugated ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo, he was determined to end the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s domination of Ethiopian politics.

This was effectively achieved in December 2019 when he abolished the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and replaced it with the Prosperity Party.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front declined to join with the visible results of the current conflict.




Read more:
Residual anger driven by the politics of power has boiled over into conflict in Ethiopia


Every effort to engage with the Tigrayan leadership – including the Tigray People’s Liberation Front – in pursuit of a peaceful resolution must also mean keeping Eritrea out of the conflict.

Unless Isaias is willing to play a constructive role – he does not have a good track record anywhere in the region in this regard – he must be kept at arm’s length, not least to protect the 2018 peace agreement itself.The Conversation

Richard Reid, Professor of African History, St Cross College, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.