By Tam nguyen
After winning the war in the Tigray Region, Addis Ababa now faces a more-daunting challenge: keeping the peace.
Abiy’s Uneasy Triumph
On November 3 of 2022, two years after the outbreak of the Tigray War, both the Ethiopian federal government and Tigrayan rebels agreed to a permanent cessation of hostilities after talks mediated by the African Union, ending a conflict that saw forces aligned to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, organized as the Tigray Defence Forces, fight against those aligned with the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments. The following Nairobi Declaration, signed on November 12, detailed measures to implement the peace agreement. The war, notable for its scale of brutalities, such as the indiscriminate killing of civilians by Eritrean forces, the blockage of humanitarian aid to Tigray, and the weaponization of rape, had devastated the region — fatigued TPLF forces thus agreed to end the war, giving the Ethiopian government under Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister since 2018, an opportunity to celebrate what they considered a major victory for their political prospects. Although fighting was mainly confined to the areas of Ethiopia immediately adjacent to the Tigray region, the conflict reflects national divisions of identity and ethnic interests for the Ethiopian people.
It is to be noted that despite the peace deal, tensions with Tigray persist, and there are many unanswered questions about this new political context under Abiy. The most immediate concern is the peace treaty itself: critics have raised concerns about the practicality of ensuring that it is not broken like the last one. Of these, the absence of Eritrea — a major combatant in the war — in signing these peace agreements, the perceived one-sidedness of the agreement’s terms, and most importantly, the lack of an effective mechanism to bring justice to victims of human rights abuses, render the prospect of achieving lasting peace in the region tenuous.
A Country in Painful Transition
The prior removal of TPLF members from the central government, and now the dissolution of the Tigrayan government, suggest that Abiy has now firmly dedicated himself to moving past the post-Mengistu understanding of ethnic federalism in governing the culturally-diverse Ethiopia and replacing it with a centralized state that is capable of defending its interests. While before the war, the Tigrayans, through the vehicle of the TPLF party, were major beneficiaries of this federal system and thus prominent opponents of the Abiy government’s perceived actions against it, they were not the only ones, and balancing the competing interests that have yet to oppose Abiy’s government remains a large issue for the new post-war order.
Within such a volatile and uncertain context, the most prominent of ethnic groups to discuss possible future conflict are the Amhara, who fought alongside the Ethiopian government against the TPLF, and the Oromo, whose loyalties were less clear, with fighters of the Oromo Liberation Army declaring an alliance with the TPLF during the war.
Amhara Ascendancy and Oromo Revolt
Amhara-claimed territories in the Tigray region (but not recognized by the Ethiopian federal constitution) have been occupied by Amhara militias, worsening the humanitarian crisis, while also generating dissatisfaction among the recently-defeated Tigrayans through alleged violence against civilians by Amhara fighters. The Amhara desire to address land disputes in such a manner also extended outside Ethiopia’s borders, as during the war, Amhara military activity spilled over to Sudan, a country already struggling to deal with the economic impact of accepting refugees from the conflict. The aggressive ‘internal diplomacy’ of Amhara leaders in pursuing their interests makes the idea of peace difficult, not only because of how it relates to the Tigrayans themselves, but also by devaluing dialogue as a process for resolving land disputes and perhaps encouraging other groups to do the same, including those whose interests are at odds with the Amhara. This is not to say that the Amhara desire for land represents a purely expansionist impulse: amongst the Amhara there are genuine concerns regarding their ability to maintain economic security, but the present climate of ethnic competition strongly disincentivizes the use of dialogue to achieve their goals in a cooperative manner.
Although Abiy had stated that disputes between the Amhara and Tigrayans are to be resolved through discussion, in effect, the Amhara have the upper hand in all negotiations against the recently-defeated and soon-to-be-demobilized Tigrayans, both in terms of military strength as well as standing with the federal government, who will likely act as ‘mediator’ in such discussions. In this sense, the de facto noninterference of the Ethiopian federal government in these land disputes, although retaining groups such as the Amhara as temporary allies in Abiy’s mission to consolidate a political coalition strong enough to reconstruct Ethiopia into a more-unitary state, greatly lowers the opportunity cost of interethnic conflict: the actions of ethnic militias establishes an environment of mutual hostility and this may lead competing ethnic groups to the conclusion that, if they do not also engage in similarly-aggressive behaviors, they risk being pushed out of economic and political relevance.
Although not entirely caused by Amhara militias, the case of Oromia Region provides an example of how the fundamental issues that drove the Tigray War in the first place - ethnic competition and the perception that peaceful solutions are insufficient - continue to drive conflict. Under a context of historical state repression since monarchical rule in the mid-20th century, as well as the recent instances of Oromo repression before and after the Abiy government was formed in 2018, Oromo fighters under the Oromo Liberation Army insurgent group declared their intention to fight alongside the TPLF in Tigray, while the Oromia Region government remained loyal to the federal government. In this divided environment after the war’s end, conflict emerged in Oromia as violence between Oromos and Amharas increased substantially, with some observers commenting that said violence could escalate into a situation similar to that of Tigray. The presence of open violence amongst ethnic-aligned militants describes a different situation than the initial optimism seen at the end of the war with Tigray: while the Tigrayan symptom of a political culture of ethnic competition was solved through military means, it does not preclude a repeat occurrence. Rather, the limited measures to ensure lasting peace in the region made by the Ethiopian government so far hint that the Abiy administration intends not to challenge the new balance of power that has emerged from the effective neutralization of the Tigrayan factions. In this, the government is trying to maintain the support of important Amhara constituencies while simultaneously repairing its image among groups such as the Oromo, who are increasingly of the view that Abiy government policies, such as tacit support for Amhara claims, are disenfranchising or damaging their people as a whole.
What Future Awaits the Ethiopian Lion?
The consequences for the future foreign policy of Ethiopia are multiple. First, it suggests that, although Ethiopia wishes to gain prestige as a regional power and increase its international profile in the Horn of Africa and the Upper Nile, emergent conflicts from within Ethiopia will prove a large obstacle to its ability to project influence. Second, while Ethiopia is attempting to both strengthen its economy and move away from the status quo of ethnic federalism, it will be in a particularly vulnerable state to do so, and its projects may be delayed should a particularly-intense conflict akin to that of Tigray emerge, which is by no means an impossibility. A possibility that could emerge from such is that, if Abiy decides to continue his program at its current pace, recognizing that there are future risks of instability in the process, he may turn to the United States or China for help, leveraging Ethiopia’s strategic position in the Horn of Africa and as the source of the Nile River to gain assistance from either country. Because the former power is the less likely choice due to perceptions that the US was too active an advocate for the Tigrayan position during negotiations, if ethnic violence is to increase substantially, China, which has opposed international action on Ethiopia, would have a unique opportunity to provide economic or military aid to a possibly-destabilized Ethiopia. And third, while conflict is completely avoidable, there are significant costs in implementing measures to resolve existing tensions, such as allocating infrastructure project funds to economically-neglected regions of Ethiopia or meaningful political reform to promote peaceful engagement between the ethnic groups — both represent significant costs in terms of both money and political capital.
Tam Nguyen is a writer for the Security & Diplomacy team and currently a second-year undergraduate at the University of Washington Department of Biology.