By Faisal A. Roble
The Pretoria Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities between the government of Ethiopia and the Tigray armed forces has entered the implementation phase with great optimism. It was a teaching and humbling moment to witness the same leaders, who decided to wage the bloody two-year-long war, designing together the road back to peace. In the end, silencing the guns and settling differences through negotiation proved to be a cheaper and preferable option to do the people’s business.
Ethiopia was submerged into an unnecessary and vicious war on November 4, 2020. With only about 7 million people, the Tigray region had to face off against Africa’s second most populous country. Aided, abetted, and planned, as Martin Plaut puts it, by Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, Addis Ababa reportedly unleashed a wave of at least one million soldiers against Tigray. Although the Tigrayans fought back against the allied forces bravely, the weight of the two countries and multiple regional militias was too much to bear.
Ultimately, resilience and bravery alone could not withstand a determined militarized state that is inspired by hate-mongering media and cultural elite, including deacons of the Orthodox Church (e.g., Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Social Affairs Advisor, Deacon Daniel Kibrat referred to Tigrayans as “satan,” “cancer” and “weeds at the height of the war”). One wonders whether the war would have reached its current levels had it not been for the destructive role played by local media and vindictive personalities like the ultra-Amhara nationalist, Andargachew Tsege, and Birhanu Nega, the minister of education, who aggressively advocated for the war.
The Tigray people are hurt to the core of their being. Whether Debretsion Gebremichael and his Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) should have realized the venom directed at their people early on in the conflict is a question many will ask once the conflict ends. Another question many are asking is about TPLF’s political direction if peace prevails. Would the diminished TPLF accept a proposal it rejected four years ago and join the ruling Prosperity Party? What did the people of Tigray achieve from the carnage of the last two years? Who should govern Tigray in the interim? These and other political questions will surface as normalcy returns to the Tigray region.
Cost of the War
The war in Tigray and across northern Ethiopia saw industrial-scale atrocities and devastation. Over a million Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers have been poured into the theater; several regional militias also took part. An estimated 600,000 people perished due to war and conflict-induced famine. Addis Ababa also weaponized both rape and starvation in total contravention of international law; in a few cases, people have been burned alive. Thousands of ethnic Tigrayans have been placed in untraceable concentration camps across Ethiopia.
The two-year siege on Tigray made critical activities such as banking or access to telephone, electricity, health, or transportation services out of reach for millions. Ethnic profiling, harassment, and extrajudicially killing of people of Tigrayan heritage continued unchecked.
Hundreds of Tegaru living outside the Tigray region are unaccounted for. In the Amhara and Afar regions, hunting down Tigrayan civilians was often done with governmental acquiescence. Inside the Tigray region, thousands died because they could not receive basic medical care, such as insulin for diabetes and drugs for cancer patients.
Meanwhile, the Ethiopian economy hit its doldrums. Inflation climbed to an all-time high of 35 percent. The devaluation of the Birr eroded the ability of the average citizen to afford essentials such as food, as the country’s hard currency reserve dries up. Corruption by high-ranking government officials ran amok. Worse, over $27 billion, or about 27 percent of the country’s GDP, was lost in the destruction of critical infrastructure across northern Ethiopia. The cumulative impact of this destruction is reflected in more than 2.3 million school-age children (1.8 million girls) losing access to education with the closure of over 2,270 schools. This is the punishment that Arat Kilo handed down to the people of Tigray.
Peace was the only Alternative
Left without limited options, the TPLF leadership wisely, perhaps belatedly, learned that peace is the only way to save the people of Tigray and accept the “painful concessions,” as Getachew Reda put it.
The Pretoria peace deal was signed on the eve of the second anniversary of the deadly war. Western countries did not give the Tigray conflict attention commensurate to the magnitude of the carnage. The United States maintained continuous engagement with the warring sides but it did so rather meekly. The turf war and infighting within the U.S. State Department did not help. Mike Hammer, the current of three envoys, would be remembered as the key U.S. diplomat who helped broker the truce. Hammer earned the respect of all sides despite the feeble approach of the State Department’s Africa Bureau leadership. It was his constructive engagement, unflinching passion, and unwavering commitment to pushing the envelope that made the Pretoria peace talks possible.
Although many have been disappointed by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo’s slow and often opaque mediation efforts, the addition of former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyattabreathed badly needed momentum and credibility into the African Union peace process. The Nairobi deal of November 2022 that finally brought together senior Ethiopian and Tigray military leaders paved the way for the implementation of the deal.
The resumption of Ethiopian Airlines flights to Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, the restoration of basic services to selected areas in Tigray, and the regular delivery of food aid to the needy are all important and well-received gestures.
How else can one register but with elation the image of a mother meeting her two-year-old grandchild for the first time, or an eighty-year-old Mekelleresident weeping not because of aerial bombardment but because of a joyful family reunion, or a mother kissing the ground of the Mekelle airport tarmac?
The arrival on December 26, 2022 of top federal officials from Addis who were received by their Tigrayan counterparts without security precautions, and the festivity around the visit of Obasanjo, Uhuru, and a large delegation from the diplomatic community to Tigray are signs of peace replacing war narratives.
The icing on the cake is Tigray President Debretsion’s graceful offer of an olive branch thanking Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for the peace initiative. Reports of peace have replaced war narratives at various state-run media outlets.
I was fortunate to have been at the Tokyo restaurant in Nairobi on that eventful day of December 20, 2022, when the implementation phase of the accord was signed. I met people that I have only known through the media. I shook hands with most of them and exchanged views.
The delegates appeared to be normal people who have families, and share certain values and customs. Given their interactions, one could tell that they were once comrades-in-arms. You could also see from their expressions and affinity with one another that they longed for peace. I concluded that they were good people who were executing faulty policies dictated to them by their higher authorities. I thanked the two teams for their gallant choice of peace over war.
Saying this does not mean negating the abuses and crimes against humanity or war crimes that have been meted out against the people of Tigray. Accounting for the crimes will come in due course. The most important task at hand is saving lives and launching reconciliation and peacebuilding efforts.
John Paul of the Eastern Mennonite, who worked in peacebuilding in the 1990s in Latin America, says that peace comes when conflict is at its apex. The Ethiopian conflict has reached a crescendo to transition into a peaceful phase.
Somalis across the world have felt the pains experienced by Tigrau for no other reason than the fact they have experienced the same siege, blockade, and mayhem at the hands of Ethiopian authorities on multiple occasions. For example, Somalis experienced massacres in 1942, 1948-57, 1960, 1963, 1977, and 2010-12. Taking punitive measures against civilians is as Ethiopian as their Injera is.
Hopes for peace reflected in Tigray and stability in Ethiopia will not materialize if the conflict in Oromia is not quickly arrested.
The Oromia conflict could prove more devastating for the simple fact that the state is geographically, demographically, and politically more complex than Tigray. For example, Oromia lies in the belly of Ethiopia and is considered the country’s bread basket. It has borders with Somali, Afar, Amhara, Tigray, Sidama, and Gambella regions, and Kenya. It would be impossible to place the region under siege or prosecute an effective counterinsurgency campaign. A prolonged conflict thus could bring the central government to its knees and break the back of an already struggling economy.
With almost 40 million people whose history is marked by institutional marginalization, exploitation, and expropriation of their resources, the Oromo issue is more volatile than any other region in the country. The Abiy administration should bring the Oromo conflict to a close fast, fairly, and sustainably.
Abiy does not need to be obsessed with defeating the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). Initially founded in the early 1970s, the Oromo Liberation Front, from which the OLA broke away in 2019, has survived many purges. Universally, it stands for the existential question of the Oromo people and shares political and historical similarities with the entire Cushitic groups and others in southern Ethiopia.
Adhering to the spirit of the current Ethiopian constitution, which promotes multi-national co-existence and respects regional self-rule rights is a good starting point for the initiation of fresh talks with all Oromo groups, primarily with OLA.
In the spirit of a Somali Adage, “dagaal wiil baa ku dhinta, nabadna will baa ku najaxa,” or “war consumes your son but peace helps him thrive,” it is time that Abiy rises to the occasion and chooses to silence the guns in Wallaga, Shawa, and Guji zones, and start peace talks with OLA.
The International Community’s nonchalant attitude towards the Tigray conflict did not help in fostering peace much earlier. The African Union’s long silence during the war complicated the international response to the crisis. The AU helped broker the Pretoria deal, but its chairperson’s deference to Addis Ababa at the height of the war damaged the organization’s reputation in the eyes of an already weary masses in Ethiopia and elsewhere.
I disagree with Martin Plaut, an otherwise astute analyst of Ethiopia, that Tigray lost the war. TPLF may have lost some of its ardent diaspora supporters, but to say Tigray lost because it did not defeat the federal government, or it did not declare independence from Ethiopia is missing the mark. First, TPLF never said it was waging a secessionist war. It also never said that militarily defeating Addis Ababa was the ultimate objective of its resistance war. TPLF agreed to resolve the conflict through peace negotiations because of U.S. and AU pressure. Notably, the destruction of the lives of Tigrayans became unbearable.
In the final analysis, this was a war where all sides suffered. However, in peace, we hope that all will be winners.
Let us hope peace prevails in the spirit of the New Year and a national reconciliation starts in earnest. To lay the groundwork for lasting peace and stability, the Abiy administration should end the conflict in Oromia through negotiation, replace rogue regional leaders, and curtail the run-away corruption by top government officials.
Faisal A. Roble
Email: [email protected]
Faisal Roble, a writer, political analyst and a former Editor-in-Chief of WardheerNews, is mainly interested in the Horn of Africa region. He is currently the Principal Planner for the City of Los Angeles in charge of Master Planning, Economic Development and Project Implementation Division.
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