Over one year after the initiation of the Ethiopian federal government’s law enforcement operation, the Tigray crisis has escalated into a widespread armed conflict. The fighting has had a devastating impact on an incalculable number of Ethiopians. The immense direct human toll has been accompanied by destruction and violence, forcing a great number of people to leave their homes and take refuge in other parts of the country or abroad. But the effects of the hostilities have been even more extensive in terms of the downward spiral of the national economy and the breakdown of services and basic utilities. While the root of the conflict lied in the antagonism between the main warring parties, the current federal administration and its main allies, the Amhara nationalists and Eritrea, versus the former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the spread of the fighting has not only resulted in the rise of the TPLF-influenced Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) but also inspired other armed opposition groups to intensify their activities. Recently, building on an already existing alliance between the TDF and the dominant faction of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), seven other groups joined the armed opposition coalition forming the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Forces (UFEFCF).
Meanwhile, the situation remains dire. The human suffering caused by the conflict is immense and it will have a lasting impact on intergroup relations within the country. As in any comparable armed conflict, the politicization and polarization of ethnic identity fueled by hate speech have been significant, as the protagonists have rallied constituencies for their cause. This, and the incessant violence, has allowed hardline positions to take precedence over moderate views and produced further intergroup antagonism and violence. Such positions, which obstruct attempts to find a negotiated solution to the carnage, have been maintained by leaders on all sides of the conflict.
However, despite the impasse, the most immediate need, as repeatedly expressed by the United Nations and international observers, is to put a stop to the fighting. This requires the main parties and their allies to agree to halt their military operations and maneuvers in preparation for negotiations and resumption of adequate humanitarian access to the most heavily affected areas of the country, particularly in the Tigray and Amhara regions. This would require goodwill from both the federal government and the TDF, as well as the OLA and the other components of the UFEFCF. The warring parties could also be pressured by key external actors adopting a coherent position, which would enable them to impose wider targeted sanctions, open the possibility of prosecution of human rights violations, and implement collective intervention under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine to establish a barrier between the warring parties.
In order to safeguard a possible general ceasefire, a sufficient number of external observers and light contingents able to patrol the terrain should be deployed. Such deployment should make use of the observation and military capacity of the Eastern African Standby Force which is mandated “to enhance peace and security in the Eastern Africa region”. The regional bodies, the African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), so far largely paralyzed in the context of the Ethiopian crisis, could be brought back into the equation by the warring parties accepting their mediation efforts and allowing them to deploy observers and peacekeepers. In particular, the AU Peace and Security Council and the IGAD should work together and adopt a strong role in mediation while also actively engaging according to their mandates to prevent, manage, and resolve armed conflicts.
Moreover, negotiations should be initiated among the main warring parties. However, these should start without unrealistic preconditions and with a sincere willingness to reach tangible compromise solutions to address the immediate crisis. A workable solution should be found to alleviate the situation, especially the humanitarian disaster, and restore medical and other services and utilities in the most affected areas. Speedy measures should be taken to facilitate unimpeded access to humanitarian agencies and actively support them in the provision of critically needed assistance to the population in need. The humanitarian organizations should be supported by an external body such as the AU to ensure that the aid is not diverted by any party to the conflict and that it reaches those in need.
The talks should then deal with the political issues that are at the heart of the conflict. Most importantly, such negotiations should be inclusive enough to prevent the marginalization of the wider ethnic nations within the country. Initially, a serious attempt should be made to find an acceptable settlement for all major parties in the short and medium-term. Any such solution would most likely require a degree of power-sharing at the national level, but also in the federal regions and their political institutions. The negotiations should lead to the establishment of an interim executive body at the national level including meaningful representation from all major stakeholders.
At the same time, a national dialogue on the future dispensation of political power and structure of the state should be initiated as a more long-term process. This should be a holistic and inclusive process involving nationwide societal forces. National and regional state actors and organized non-state actors should participate and civil society groups and professional organizations should be included. Such a process could be driven by a council representing all major societal stakeholders in the country and it should ensure sufficient time for comprehensive consultations and recording of the positions of all groups and organizations involved. The stakeholders’ positions and proposals on the dispensation of political power and authority, the political model to be pursued, and the structure of the state to be implemented should be intensively debated until a compromise solution would be brought to the people for a decision. This process would likely be long and arduous, but if undertaken inclusively, and in good faith and practice, it should bring about a collective political solution that Ethiopians could be proud of and strengthen the nation as a whole.
Although the way forward suggested here to resolve the crisis may be difficult for the warring parties to accept, it may be one of the few possible paths out of the current impasse and salvage the situation for millions of Ethiopians. As the leading forces amidst the current crisis, parties to the conflict should oblige themselves to look beyond the immediate interests of their leadership and focus more on the longer-term scenario of creating inter-ethnic cooperation and harmony for the good of the country and its people as a whole. Agreeing on a general ceasefire, negotiations, and unimpeded humanitarian access could be a first step.