Saturday, August 20, 2022
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The War in Tigray: Disintegration or a Peaceful Transition

By Faisal A. Roble


The Tigray war in northern Ethiopia could result in either a new political order where the Prime Minister eventually leaves office, or in the disintegration of the country. There are serious military, economic and political forces weighing heavily on Addis Ababa, whose combined impact could usher in a new political map and social contract. 

The Tigray war that brought the economy of Ethiopia to a grinding halt

Until recently, Ethiopia’s GDP was averaging 10% growth with life expectancy trending upward and access to clean water and health facilities improving. However, the premature war which Prime Minister Abiy started in Tigray in November 2020 has brought the economy to a grinding halt. 

After the war, the Bir lost ground following a politically inspired currency change in August 2020. As a consequence, the exchange rate is standing at 65 EB to $1 USD. Compounded by a 35% inflation, a GDP that is faltering at 2% per year, and a foreign debt which stands at 65% of the GDP, the IMF had to forego this year a reasonable projection for Ethiopia for 2021-2024. This comes on the heels of far-reaching layered sanctions to be imposed by the US and EU. Also, Ethiopia could lose its African Growth and Opportunity Access (AGOA), potentially impacting employment opportunities for over 1 million Ethiopians. 

At face value, these moves are intentional to soften Prime Minister Abiy’s defiant edges and bring him to comply with the worldwide request to deliver food aid to the starving Tigrian.

If not, the West could consider opening a corridor for Tigray to avert what could otherwise parallel the 1984 famine which left 1.2 million dead. More disasters were averted in 1984 only after a worldwide airdrop was carried out. Either a corridor through Sudan must be opened for food or medicine delivery, or a massive airdrop, led by the US army, could be a way to avert famine.  

Awaiting the decision to classify what had happened in Tigray as“genocide,” a no-fly zone should not be ruled out. Tigray has been under blockade for the last 6 months and food aid is not reaching starving people. The world in the past ignored the Somali region where a total blockade was imposed between 2007 and 2014 resulting in a far-reaching human crisis The same should not happen again. 

Abiy’s declaration of a new offensive military campaign to finish off TDF following his October 4 inauguration for a new five-year term took world leaders and diplomats by surprise. Only days after his inauguration, the Prime Minister launched a military campaign promising to finish off with TDF in seven days. However, reports coming from northern Ethiopia indicate that TDF is having the upper hand. As of October 17, 2021, over 20 villages and districts in the Amhara region fall into TDF hands. Lelibala, home to a UNESCO cited historical resource, and Wucchale, the site where the famous Italo-Ethiopian treaty of 1889 was signed, have both fallen to TDF. 

If the war drags on, the prospects for a total disintegration of Ethiopia cannot be ruled out. Ethiopia has been on a trajectory of disintegration since  Abiy took power. Three years ago, I wrote an article, “Ethiopia’s Ethnic Strife: Potential Scenarios for Disintegration”, where I identified three potential disintegration scenarios, including a Yugoslavian scenario. 

I was not alone. Different experts and scholars looked at the implications of Ethiopia’s challenges. Herman Cohen, former Undersecretary for African Affairs commented in a tweet dated June 24, 2019, that the coup was “an attempt by Amhara nationalists to restore Amhara hegemony…” Only days before the coup, Johnnie Carson of the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) warned of the potential disintegration of Ethiopia. In a high-level conference dubbed “A Changing Ethiopia: Lessons from the US Diplomatic Engagement,” the last serving four US ambassadors assigned to that country (1991 through 2006) shared their instructive insights about the decaying polity of that country. The diplomats all agreed on the stubborn culture of Abyssinian, an attribute that could lead to the country’s disintegration.

If the TDF’s success in the war front continues unabated, Abiy is likely to abandon his war mongering rhetoric and potentially accept a peace deal, including but not limited to, his resignation. 

In an instructive opinion piece in Politico, Alex Randos (former EU representative to the Horn) and Mark Medish (formerly a member of the Dayton Implementation team), call for a Dayton model to settle Ethiopia’s deteriorating conditions. 

Randos and Medish write that “ if the U.S. and other partners do not step up urgently to promote a peaceful settlement and provide necessary support to Jeffrey Feltman, recently appointed U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia could disintegrate like Yugoslavia — with far more serious repercussions.”

No doubt Ethiopia is more complex and has more ethnic groups at war with each other than Bosnia-Herzegovina. Adjusting the Dyton model to Ethiopian conditions is timely and should not be ignored. Whether such a model would also include a potential trial of war criminals and those who weaponized rape remains to be seen. 

Meanwhile, the political agreement reached between TDF and Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) needs to be expanded to include other groups, mainly Somalis, Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, who are wronged by Addis Ababa. Moreover, Amhara activists need to tone down their sterile rhetoric and accept the collective effort to reimagine Ethiopia by all the nations and nationalities. 

Deciding the fate of Ethiopia is no longer the exclusive domain of the center, a center that is decayed but a matter to be negotiated and decide equitably with the help of those from the periphery regions. In that context, a TDF-OLA led reconciliation conference must share their objectives with the rest of Ethiopians. So far, nothing substantive came out from the agreement of these two forces. 

At minimum, a peaceful solution to hold together the already tattered patchwork of Ethiopia must take into account four things:

1. A Dyton-based model should open the talks for all groups stipulated in the Federal Ethiopian Constitution, armed or not armed. There are 11 regional governments thus far recognized under the Ethiopian Constitution (Randos and Medish offer a model that can be developed to suit the Ethiopia condition). Using such a model may or may not result in changing the geographic make-up of Ethiopia. Whether Ethiopia remains as is or changes depend on the desires of the delegates from each nation and national.

2. A country-wide transitional justice addressing all harms committed by all sides inclusive of the last 40 years must be included in the tool box. Things need not be rushed.

3. Transitional governments both at the national and regional level must be redesigned with modalities and terms of agreements that are different from the 2018 transition which brought Prime Minister Abiy and token regional leaders to power. 

4. There must be a new democratic election to be held within two years from the day an inclusive agreement is reached by all 11 regional states.

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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