Analysis | The Misery Behind the Truce in Ethiopia’s Civil War

1. How did Abiy’s fortunes change?

When Abiy first became Ethiopia’s prime minister in 2018, he started with a bang. He scrapped bans on opposition and rebel groups, purged allegedly corrupt officials and ended two decades of acrimony with neighboring Eritrea, an initiative that won him the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. He also put out the welcome mat for foreign capital to maintain momentum in one of the world’s fastest-expanding economies, and vowed to quell civil unrest. But he struggled to contain ethnic tensions and his attempts to sideline the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the party that had been the nation’s pre-eminent power broker for decades, triggered animosity that degenerated into civil war. The conflict also stalled the planned privatization of key telecommunications assets and other economic reforms.

2. What sparked the conflict?

Abiy set about consolidating power under his newly formed Prosperity Party. The TPLF, which had dominated the country’s ruling coalition since a Marxist regime was overthrown in 1991, refused to be amalgamated. Its leaders ignored a government directive to postpone elections because of the pandemic, and the federal parliament retaliated by halting direct budget support. Tigray’s leaders were also angered by a decision by the lower chamber of parliament to designate the TPLF a terrorist organization. Abiy ordered a military incursion into Tigray in November 2020 after accusing forces loyal to the TPLF of assaulting a military base to steal weapons. The TPLF said the raid was a preemptive strike because federal troops were preparing to attack its territory.

3. How did the fighting progress?

The army initially gained the upper hand as it moved into Tigray and secured control of Mekelle, the regional capital. The rebels hit back and retook the city and a vast swathe of territory as they advanced steadily south to within striking distance of Addis Ababa. The army then regrouped and won a series of battles before Tigrayan leader Debretsion Gebremichael ordered his forces to make a strategic retreat to within Tigray borders in December 2021. The government continued to stage air strikes on Tigray and fighting continued in the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions before a conditional truce was agreed in March.  

4. What are the prospects of the truce holding?

Abiy first declared a unilateral cease-fire in June 2021, but the rebels demanded that government soldiers withdraw from their territory before they stopped fighting. International mediation efforts encountered resistance from both sides. But faced with mounting international pressure, the government and the rebels agreed to respect the latest détente to facilitate the delivery of aid to the millions that need it. What remains unclear is whether the agreement can form the basis for a more permanent peace deal.  

5. What’s been the fallout of the war?

The government hasn’t disclosed casualties and access to the conflict zones has been restricted, but there are fears that tens of thousands of people have died due to fighting, hunger and a lack of medical care. In March, the United Nations said three quarters of Tigray’s 6 million people were resorting to “extreme coping strategies” to survive and that hunger was also rife in parts of Amhara and Afar. The government has rejected allegations from civil rights groups that it has obstructed efforts to dispense aid or that its forces have been party to widespread human rights violations. In December 2021, the UN Human Rights Council agreed to establish a team to investigate possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by all parties in the conflict.

6. Which other countries are affected?

TPLF forces fired rockets in November 2020 into Eritrea, which dispatched troops to support Abiy’s forces. Tens of thousands of people fled the fighting into neighboring Sudan, many of whom remain there, according to the UN. A territorial dispute between Ethiopia and Sudan has exacerbated tensions and led to several deadly clashes. To boost its Tigray offensive, Ethiopia pulled back about 3,000 troops who’d been fighting an Islamist insurgency in Somalia, people familiar with the matter said. That raised concerns of a security vacuum across Ethiopia’s eastern border.

7. What’s the backdrop?

Africa’s oldest nation state, Ethiopia has long been plagued by discord among its more than 80 ethnic groups. The country was an absolute monarchy until the 1974 socialist revolution that deposed Emperor Haile Selassie. It became a multi-ethnic federation in 1991, when a TPLF-led alliance of rebels overthrew the Marxist military regime that followed Selassie. The Tigrayans, though comprising just 6% of the population, came to dominate national politics. After failing to quell three years of violent protests over the marginalization of other bigger communities, including the Oromo and Amhara, Hailemariam Desalegn quit as prime minister in 2018. The then-ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front named Abiy, an Oromo, as his successor.

8. How are the country’s finances holding up?

Ethiopia’s $108 billion economy expanded by more than an eye-popping 9% a year for a decade through 2020 as investment flooded in. Yet Covid-19 cut the projected growth rate to about 2% in 2021, with the prospects of a quick rebound in investor sentiment dimmed by the war. With its finances under strain, the government announced in 2021 that it wants to restructure its external debt, which currently stands at $30 billion, under a Group of 20 program. But the U.S. government imposed sanctions on Ethiopia in May over the Tigray violence and urged multilateral lenders to halt their engagement with Abiy’s administration. A block on their funding could derail the nation’s plans to rework its obligations. In November, the U.S. blocked duty-free access for Ethiopian exports because of the human rights and humanitarian crisis in the African nation and Congress is considering a new bill that will introduce even stricter financial curbs on the African nation. 

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