Ethiopia’s peace deal: Prospects for the post-conflict transition after the cessation of hostilities

Strategic Insight 014/2023

Faith Mabera

25 May 2023

Ethiopia’s peace deal: Prospects for the post-conflict transition after the cessation of hostilities 

Late last year on 02 November, Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) agreed to the cessation of hostilities after two years of deadly civil war. The agreement was warmly welcomed as the basis for lasting peace in Ethiopia. The civil war in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray has been labelled as one of the world’s deadliest conflicts in recent decades, reported to have resulted in 383,000 to 600,000 fatalities and the displacement of over 2 million people. At its core, the conflict was attributed to a political rift between Ethiopia’s federal government and Tigray’s leaders with regard to the conducting regional elections. Tensions came to a head after Tigrayan authorities proceeded with regional polls in September 2020 in defiance of a federal mandate from June 2020 that delayed elections in the country’s regional states on account of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The trigger for armed confrontation was an attack by Tigrayan forces against a federal army base in the region on 03 November 2020, prompting the federal government to launch a counter offensive, largely framed as a “law enforcement operation”. Following two years of fighting – characterised by fluid battlefield dynamics, territorial gains and losses on both sides of the conflict, and a large-scale humanitarian crisis – the parties eventually signed a cessation of hostilities agreement on 02 November in Pretoria, South Africa. The core tenets of this agreement included: a permanent cessation of hostilities; disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) of TPLF combatants, restoration of essential services to the region, provision for unhindered humanitarian access, and a range of transitional measures, including the establishment of an interim Tigrayan regional administration and plans for a transitional justice policy. Since its signing, commendable progress has been realised with respect to implementing the main provisions of the agreement, although a  number of sticking points and hindrances persist. In this regard, two pivotal aspects of the agreement have far-reaching implications for durability of the peace – the prospects for a successful DDR process and the issue of contested territory, inextricably linked to enduring tensions between the Amhara and Tigrayan ethnic groups.

Disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration – a vital contributor towards sustaining peace

Shortly after the signing of the cessation of hostilities agreement, senior military leaders from both parties signed an implementation deal in Nairobi, Kenya, on 12 November 2022, which outlined modalities relating to the envisaged DDR program, humanitarian access and the establishment of a monitoring and verification team under the aegis of the African Union. Per the Pretoria agreement, the disarmament of TPLF combatants was envisaged to be completed within 30 days from the signing of the agreement (that is, by 02 December). Although the TPLF did not fully disarm by the initial deadline, reports on 11 January 2023 indicated that it had begun to hand in heavy weaponry, as confirmed by the African Union’s monitoring and verification team. The disarmament process was intended to take place parallel to the withdrawal of foreign (Eritrean) troops and Amharan regional forces (who had formed part of the federal government coalitional force) from the Tigray region. Witnesses from a number of localities in the region reported on 30 December that Eritrean troops had begun withdrawing from towns such as Axum and Shire. DDR is one of the key aspects of the United Nations’ multi-dimensional approach to bolstering peace processes alongside other initiatives such as peacebuilding, peacekeeping, and post-conflict reconstruction and development. The fundamental elements of a DDR programme include a set of tools and measures that cut across military, political security and humanitarian dimensions, namely transitional weapons and ammunition management; community violence reduction; and operational integration with complementary strategic frameworks programs relating to humanitarian action, developmental initiatives and a broader peacebuilding agenda. A sound DDR program should also be context-specific, conflict-sensitive, locally-owned, and be guided by specific indicators, targets and timelines.

As a whole, DDR programmes are as much political as they are technical undertakings. Their viability is largely contingent on trust and political will of the parties involved. An examination of this process relevant to the Ethiopian case reveals several blind spots, especially the limited attention paid to the demobilisation and reintegration components. In the Pretoria agreement, only a single line under Article 6 makes mention of demobilisation and reintegration, with no specific plan to integrate former combatants into society or to incorporate TPLF fighters into the national armed forces.  As scholars such as Sharif and Palik have asserted, DDR is more likely to succeed if the wartime command-and-control structures of disarming groups are dismantled through placement of combatants in cantonment sites, where they are provided with vocational training and educational opportunities that prepare them for life after conflict. However, in the case of the TPLF – which has a strong command-and-control structure and is deeply embedded within its local community – the breaking up of command-and-control ties may not be an option. Moreover, complete disarmament is not likely to place to take place in the short-to-medium term as groups tend to retain some of their weaponry as security guarantees – an aspect which speaks to the degree of trust between the parties engaged in a peace process.

Territorial disputes and ethno-nationalist fissures: persistent risk factors in Ethiopia’s political landscape

The contested territory between Amhara and Tigray could further imperil the cessation of hostilities. During the early phases of the war around March 2021, Amhara militias and special forces reportedly took over parts of historically-disputed territory in western and southern Tigray. The territory in question has been at the centre of a dispute between Amhara and Tigray going back to the 1991-1994 transitional period when the TPLF was at the helm of a ruling federal coalition under the banner of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. When the TPLF came to power in 1991, it annexed historical Amhara lands and incorporated them as part of southern Tigray and western Tigray.

Broadly, the territorial dispute in the country’s north is one that pits ethno-linguistic regional configurations, premised on Ethiopia’s system of ethnic federalism, against land ownership claims based on historical control of territory by individual groups. To compound the situation, rights groups reported wide-spread atrocities committed against Tigrayan civilians by Amharan forces between November and December 2021. The historical animosity and recent incidences of targeted violence against civilians, mostly carried out along ethnic lines, could serve as catalysts for cycles of deadly inter-communal conflict. Not only will this jeopardise the fragile conditions of peace in Tigray, but it could also converge with enduring ethnic tensions in other parts of the country with significantly destabilising effects. Most notably, long-standing tensions between the Oromo and Amhara (Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups) has raised concerns of spiralling into another cycle of violent conflict amid reports of clashes between the two groups in recent months.

The primacy of the political dimension in anchoring peace processes

While the cessation of hostilities agreement has brought some degree of reprieve after a two-year period of conflict, its prospects for fostering a more sustainable compact of peace will be dependent on the level of commitment by constituent parties during the implementation phase.

Apart from the technical dimensions of the agreement (including aspects such as DDR, humanitarian access, and restoration of federal authority), the related political dimension, demands equal attention. Issues such as trust, legitimacy and accountability also have a bearing on the broader processes of transitional justice, reconciliation and peacebuilding.

Central to any peace agreement is keen contextual awareness by its stakeholders of the structural drivers of conflict that could risk derailing nascent negotiated settlements. In the Ethiopian context, these include intermittent inter-communal conflicts, which are often fuelled by political and resource-related grievances, as well as the recurring power struggle between the centre and periphery for dominance over the federal system. The complex nature of these issues ultimately serves as an apt reminder of the long road ahead towards attaining durable peace.

Faith Mabera is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) in Pretoria, South Africa.

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