The Long March to Peace: Key Obstacles to Overcome in Ethiopia

The possibility of peace talks between the government of Ethiopia and Tigrayan rebels offers a rare flicker of hope for the people of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. With 40 percent of civilians in the northern state of Tigray suffering from extreme hunger and millions more around the country at risk of the same fate, there is not a moment to lose. For that flicker to become a flame, however, all parties to the conflict must agree to retreat to barracks to allow a cease-fire to take hold, allow unimpeded humanitarian relief assistance, and begin a process of accountability for war crimes committed over the past 15 bloody months. While these steps are difficult, they are critical to ensure a meaningful and lasting peace.


Long-simmering tensions over the future of the country boiled over shortly after the ouster of the Tigray-dominated central government in 2018. Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy took office on the heels of protests over widespread government corruption that preceded a devastating drought in 2015–2016 that left numerous ethnic groups across the country angry with the government’s response. In response to mounting pressure, Prime Minister Abiy announced a flurry of measures aimed at economic redistribution while also centralizing power in the capital of Addis Ababa. Sensing threats to the long-espoused ethnic federalism model their predecessors implemented, Tigrayan leaders retreated to the north. Tensions came to a boil when Tigray held state elections in September 2020, despite the announcement by Addis Ababa that such processes would be delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Under the pretext of responding to seizures of weapons by Tigrayan Defense Forces (TDF), the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) launched an invasion of Tigray on November 4 with Eritrean and Somali army forces and ethnic Amhara militia.

The conflict has since taken a number of unexpected turns, including the June 2021 routing of the ENDF that forced their withdrawal and the arrival of drones supplied by Iran, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates that contributed to the retreat of Tigrayan fighters from the doorstep of Addis Ababa nearly six months later. Now, having stopped just short of reentering Tigray, Prime Minister Abiy seems content to utilize its proxies on the ground and air assets above to maintain pressure on the TDF. For their part, Tigrayan fighters recently launched offensives in Afar and Amhara, ostensibly to force open passage for desperately needed relief assistance denied to the region, but also likely for the purposes of regaining high ground to repel or launch further attacks.

Now, multiple critical steps are needed to build back trust and create the space necessary for cooler heads to prevail. 

Thorny Issues Ahead

Addressing the Humanitarian Crisis

Since the onset of conflict, manipulation of humanitarian aid has been one of the most difficult challenges. Borrowing a page from Ethiopian history, Prime Minister Abiy and his government have continued denying humanitarian supplies across front lines as a means of limiting resources and eroding support among the civilian population for the TDF. 

As a result, more than 9 million people require emergency lifesaving assistance today.

The parties to the conflict must recognize the independent, impartial, and neutral role of the humanitarian community to discharge their duties on behalf of civilian populations, rather than see them as a fifth column of opposition. Since the conflict started, 23 aid workers have been killed in Tigray with no official investigations being carried out to find those responsible. In parallel, the draconian bureaucratic procedures that humanitarian agencies are obliged to navigate continue to hamper relief assistance, as they have for decades in Ethiopia. This imperils relief workers across the country, not just in the north, and needlessly adds mitigation costs that eat into operational budgets.

Despite the efforts to deny assistance to Tigrayans, a better-than-expected autumn harvest in about 40 percent of the region prevented mass starvation in rural areas. Populations in peri-urban and urban communities dependent on aid have fared far worse. A May 2021 Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) report is ill-fit for understanding the current needs, principally because that study was conducted during the lean season whereas the January 2022 World Food Programme’s (WFP) emergency food security assessment analysis was completed during the harvest. That said, the WFP analysis still documents the rapid decline in food security since the onset of the conflict, with millions facing extreme hunger. Resultant negative coping mechanisms will have lasting cognitive effects for a generation. Without immediate resupply, lifesaving relief to millions will grind to a halt and again send hunger, malnutrition, and child mortality skyrocketing.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ most recent humanitarian update also indicates that in every sector of the humanitarian response, the absence of supplies due to the blockade has forced agencies to downsize operations contributing to needless human suffering. Given the depth of the crisis and the steadfast refusal of Prime Minister Abiy to end the blockade, donors and their UN and nongovernmental organization partners should consider pushing for an overland “humanitarian corridor” to serve Amhara, Tigray, and Afar, as well as air bridges similar to the recent successful International Committee of the Red Cross air operation to ensure necessary assistance until such time as the parties allow all Ethiopians in need to have access to lifesaving supplies. 

Abiy’s Faustian Bargain

Seeing the parties of the conflict agree to withdraw from contested lands will prove very difficult. Prime Minister Abiy’s bargain with Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki and Amhara militia, which continue to occupy West Tigray and border areas to the north and south, is perhaps one of the biggest sticking points toward securing some form of settlement and one of the most important to address. Long-simmering anger at the annexation of fertile lands into Tigray in 1994 and the decades-long exclusion of their leaders from the halls of power remain ample motivation for Amhara nationalists to maintain the effort to put down the TDF. The lingering effects of a bloody war between Ethiopia and Eritrea—and the 20-year cold war—contribute to President Afwarki’s stated intent to destroy all remnants of the former Tigrayan party. For the TDF and its people, West Tigray is the primary breadbasket and source of forex (sesame) but also contains a foreign border, which Tigrayan leaders have stated is important should the Tigrayan people choose to vote for independence in the future.

As Prime Minister Abiy centralizes power, he has alienated many in Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group of Oromia who see his government as a continuation of the past regimes. Oromos have sought representation in Ethiopia’s government since the formation of Ethiopia more than a century ago. As such, ethnic Oromo opposition groups should be brought into discussions, not least because some 60 organizations denounced Prime Minister Abiy’s “national dialogue” as a pretext for silencing criticism and centralizing power. 

Within this paradigm, Prime Minister Abiy must come to terms with the result of steady manipulation of public messaging and hate speech prior to and throughout the conflict. Demonizing the opposition exacerbated ethnic tensions within Ethiopia and across the diaspora to the point where the suffering of other communities has become acceptable if not justified.

Accountability for Protection of Civilian Issues

Lastly, the direct and indirect targeting of civilians has been a constant throughout the conflict. Reports of arbitrary arrest and detention, extrajudicial killings, mass rape as a weapon of war, ethnic cleansing, the deprivation and denial of aid, and genocide began to surface soon after the invasion of Tigray on November 4, 2020. Reprisals meted out on Amhara and Afar civilians made headlines months later as TDF fighters marched south, albeit at a far smaller scale. The subsequent international outcry amid damning evidence pointing toward all parties culminated in a joint report issued by the United Nations Human Rights Council and the quasi-independent Ethiopian human rights body failed to capture the breadth and scope of crimes committed. Since then, and despite complaints from Addis Ababa, the United Nations was tasked with conducting a full and independent investigation in parallel to the African Union’s Commission of Inquiry. To be sure, any form of lasting peace for the country and the region must include accountability for violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. For that, credible international investigations must be completed and those responsible must be held to account. History proves that anything less will only result in a continuation or freezing of conflict that would leave the door open for further rounds of violence in Ethiopia.

David Del Conte is a senior fellow with the Humanitarian Agenda Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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