After a devastating two-year civil war, the Ethiopian government and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed a cessation of hostilities agreement on 2 November. The war killed over 500 000 people and displaced millions.
But the agreement still hasn’t received universal support across the Ethiopian political elite and their constituencies. A commitment to peace among these groups is as important as that of the government and the TPLF. Securing it could ease the implementation of potential sticking points in the peace agreement such as disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration.
Gaining this acceptance isn’t guaranteed though, as both signing parties faced substantial opposition to the peace deal in the country and the diaspora. This is partly because, during the war, the two sides effectively mobilised their internal and external constituencies, turning the mainstream media and social media into communication and propaganda battlefields.
The federal government framed the war as one waged by disgruntled traitors – ‘a group that relishes in biting its mother’s breast.’ This metaphor was reminiscent of the Derg regime’s narrative in its fight against the TPLF and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), forces that together toppled the regime in 1991. This language by the government was a coded reference to the Derg’s dubbing of the TPLF and EPLF as ‘secessionists’ and ‘secession enablers’.
During its rule from 1991 to 2018 – before Abiy Ahmed came to power – the TPLF-led Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front had an abysmal record on human rights and democracy. Coupled with the secessionist narrative the public attached to the TPLF, the federal government’s framing of the war as one of ‘national survival’ against ‘traitors’ mobilised a citizen, media and diaspora war coalition.
The signing parties faced substantial opposition to the peace deal in Ethiopia and the diaspora
The TPLF also used fiery rhetoric to mobilise Tigrayans in Tigray and the diaspora, and build its own war coalition. It defined the federal government as a ‘neo-Derg-administration’ and the conflict as resistance against ‘a genocidal campaign against Tigrayans.’ Given Tigrayans’ traumatic social memory of the Derg regime, these were powerful messages.
Both parties framed the war with a narrative of animosity and a determination to defeat the opposition. As the fighting raged on, these discourses effectively transformed the conflict into one of identity.
The geography of the war accentuated this development. The TPLF’s (counter-)offensive against the federal government was directed south of Tigray – in Amhara and Afar. This reignited old rivalries between communities and added another layer to the complicated identity conflict. By then, the clashes were no longer between the TPLF and the federal government alone; they were perceived and communicated as a horizontal inter-group identity conflict of survival.
The peace agreement came when the ‘enemy discourse’ was rampant, and the ‘war coalition’ of both parties was extremely mobilised. For the deal to succeed and lay the foundation for durable peace, the signing parties should build a broader peace coalition, especially in the Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions.
Provisions in the agreement for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration and the resolution of conflicts over territory are two key issues that must be dealt with to begin building a peace coalition.
Contested territories are to be resolved via a referendum, but the affected parties won’t agree to that
A good place to start would be breaking the toxic cycle of ‘security dilemmas’. This refers to the militarisation of conflicted groups who believe their security can only be provided by ‘local forces’. This thinking was induced by mutual fear and suspicion among warring parties in the country’s north, and is exacerbated by old territorial claims and border disputes. The militarisation of ‘TPLF combatants’ and the violent territorial clashes in the Tigray and Amhara regions show this dilemma.
On the issue of territorial disputes, the agreement says these must be resolved within the framework of the country’s constitution – that is, via a referendum. But the affected parties won’t agree to a referendum, and the problem needs to be unpacked.
Agreement on contested territories, such as the Welkait corridor in northern Ethiopia, requires concessions from the Tigrayan and Amhara authorities. One concession would be for both parties to reconsider communities in the ‘contested territories’ as potential resources to reconnect the people of the two regions.
The political and military leadership of the federal government and TPLF need to ensure their approach to constructive dialogue is replicated between the Tigrayans and Amharas and the Tigrayans and the Afars. The cessation of hostilities agreement has a fair chance of success if these key actors – who have been at the centre of recent clashes – commit to peace.
Both sides should build a broad peace coalition, especially in the Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions
The root causes and dynamics of the war are complex. Still, creative approaches could help demystify the conflict and through a national peace coalition, pave the way for a durable settlement.
This could be achieved by engaging major stakeholders in these regions and beyond, including the urban elite, media and diaspora. Mid-level actors such as academics, influencers, business moguls and opposition parties must also be brought on board since they played a significant role in both parties’ war coalitions. A dialogue platform for stakeholders of the three regions could build trust between them and inspire the peace coalition.
At the grassroots level, community elders, religious and traditional leaders, and youth bodies should be included. As the groups most devastated by the war, a conversation among them in the three regions could forge mutual empathy and understanding. Most importantly, dialogue could help break ethnic stereotypes and rebuild inter-group social bonds.
The conflict between the federal government and TPLF, and clashes between the TPLF and its neighbouring regions, didn’t happen in a vacuum. Building sustainable peace will need good coordination. The creation of the National Dialogue Commission to deal with various Ethiopian conflicts shows this is possible; and the commission could help the peace agreement succeed.
These processes should be inclusive and comprehensive, and civil society organisations have a critical role to play. They can hold signing parties accountable and lend their expertise and credibility to help achieve the agreement’s objectives.