In August the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, declared that the humanitarian crisis caused by a civil war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region is the “worst disaster on Earth”.
Finally, it may be coming to an end.
On Wednesday, November 2, following ten days of talks, representatives of the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan rebels agreed to stop their now two-year-old civil war and reintegrate Tigray, the restive northern region of Ethiopia, into the country.
The talks had been convened by the African Union and held in Durban, the administrative capital of South Africa.
The Ethiopian government was represented by its national security adviser, Redwan Hussien; Tigray People’s Liberation Front by Getachew Reda; and the African Union by Olusegun Obasanjo and Uhuru Kenyatta, the former presidents of Nigeria and Kenya, respectively.
The credit for the breakthrough deal belongs in large part to the warring parties, who were (finally!) willing to unconditionally sit down and talk it out. The African Union, for all its impotence (which I often decry), must also be lauded for its decisive contribution. The part played by the international community, especially the United States, in nudging the belligerents to the table, must also be praised.
The conflict in Tigray has been devastating, especially for the civilians caught in the crossfire. There have been accusations of ethnic cleansing and mass rape. A government blockade has cut off Tigray from food, medical supplies, electricity, and banking services almost continuously since mid-2021.
And a communications blackout has left the world largely in the dark about what’s going on there.
A five-month humanitarian truce came to a screeching end when both sides resumed hostilities in September. Since then, with the support of Eritrean forces which squeezed Tigray from the north, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Ethiopian government has had the upper hand, recapturing strategic towns and sweeping through large swathes of land. It seemed destined to rout, or significantly cut down, the Tigrayan rebels.
It is therefore somewhat surprising that he has accepted a deal to cease hostilities at this exact time. Is it perhaps he has learnt an important lesson over the two years of fighting? In my last article on this painful topic, I speculated that the real cause of the war was that Abiy had kicked his opponents when they were down.
By swiftly and naively defenestrating the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which had run Ethiopia with an iron hand for nearly 30 years, he all but invited them to defy him. He was not wrong to cut the TPLF down to size, considering how it badly it had run the country. But his style was unwise. I likened the TPLF’s insurgency to a cornered rat biting the cat.
Now, at a time when his forces have the advantage, he has accepted a deal that places the responsibility for rebuilding Tigray on the government and essentially absolves the TPLF of blame. He didn’t have to take the deal. He could have just gone ahead and won the war outright.
Is this a sign of a maturing leader, who doesn’t want to leave the TPLF with egg on its face, which would only cause resentment to simmer once again and possibly explode into another war in the near future? Or is he just tired of fighting and doesn’t want to battle the law of diminishing returns in sweeping all remaining pockets of Tigrayan resistance? Or is negotiating from a position of strength the point?
Maybe it’s all three.
In any case, I hope that the deal holds. It is just the first step in bringing peace back to Tigray. There are many obstacles ahead. The rebels will have to acquiesce in being disarmed by the government. Millions of civilians and combatants must rebuild their lives, some from the ground up. Refugees and other displaced people must make their way home.
Most importantly, the leaders of all players must line up behind the deal. Of particular significance will be the Eritrea’s next move. Though a decisive belligerent in the war, the country was not formally represented in the Durban talks.
Its strongman leader, Isaias Afwerki, hates the TPLF, from which Eritrea wrested its own independence through a brutal civil war between 1998 and 2002. That war was only formally ended by a peace deal signed with Abiy Ahmed in 2018 (for which the latter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019).
Thankfully, the announcement of the cessation of hostilities was not the end of the talks, which now move on to iron out the details. That will likely take a lot more time, and there will be stumbles along the way. These must be expected and must be handled with grace.
In the meantime, the guns are finally silent in Tigray. With that silence, at least one more arena of unnecessary human suffering in the world has been pacified. All men of goodwill must hope that the deal will hold — and that other conflict zones around the world may similarly soon see peace.