Ethiopia's Tigray conflict: A fragile ceasefire under threat

A woman leans on the wall of a damaged house which was shelled as federal-aligned forces entered the city, in Wukro, north of Mekele, on 1 March 2021. [Getty]
7 min read
19 July, 2021
Analysis: Decisive action is needed from the international community to avert Tigray's growing humanitarian catastrophe as hopes for a ceasefire go up in smoke.

Hopes for a ceasefire between Ethiopia and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) have gone up in smoke as Ethiopian troops again advanced into the embattled Tigray region throughout July, while Tigrayan forces have sought to drive out their enemies.

It confirms fears that the war would continue despite superficial peace announcements and shows that more decisive action is needed from the international community to avert Tigray’s growing humanitarian catastrophe.

Ethiopia’s ceasefire announcement with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on 28 June was largely a cover for Addis Ababa to regroup its forces from its indiscriminate yet futile assault on Tigray since November last year after the TPLF repelled its advances.

"Hopes for a ceasefire between Ethiopia and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) have gone up in smoke"

External mediation efforts were also crucial but no one has been able to find a solution to the war, with renewed violence coming as no surprise.

Ethiopia’s offensive was backed by militias from the Amhara region on Tigray’s border and Eritrean military forces. While Addis Ababa wanted to put down the insurgency and consolidate its own control in the country, its allies had their own grievances with the TPLF, partly driven by Ethiopia’s federal past.

Amhara forces sought to recapture control over northern parts of Tigray last year, which the TPLF had captured in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the TPLF played a crucial role in defeating Eritrea’s forces in the 1998-2000 border war.

So even if Ethiopia were serious about committing to a ceasefire, the aspirations of both Eritrea and the Amhara militia would prevent a real end to the conflict.

Ethiopia's Tigray conflict: A fragile ceasefire under threat
Ethiopian troops have reportedly facilitated famine and starvation as weapons of war. [Getty]

Turning the tide of the battle

For Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the latest developments are certainly a blow, as he hoped he would decisively quell resistance in Tigray’s capital Mekelle. However, his campaign has sparked a phenomenal backlash.

Firstly, there was a considerable outcry from global powers and the humanitarian community after Ethiopian troops reportedly facilitated famine and the starvation of Tigrayans as weapons of war.

Among other violations, tens of thousands of cases of sexual assault against Tigrayan women were also reported.

The targeting of ethnic groups has also become a core component of Ethiopia’s strategy. Various witnesses claim that security forces have detained thousands of Tigrayans across Ethiopia, amid heightening tensions in the conflict.

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Disturbing scenes of violations against civilians have emerged throughout the conflict, including footage of Ethiopian soldiers executing Tigrayans on a cliff edge in June, in what was known as the Mahbere Dego massacre.

While this has damaged the Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister’s legacy, his forces have also faced crushing setbacks. Following the TPLF’s capture of Mekelle on 28 June, Tigrayan forces said on 13 July that they had seized Alamata, the main town in southern Tigray.

Now, the war has now dragged on into other areas in Tigray, as three regions previously untouched by fighting confirmed on 15 July that they would deploy forces. This came after Ahmed warned the previous day that his forces would counter any attacks by enemy forces, showing that the ceasefire was meaningless.

Moreover, Ethiopia has also faced considerable financial damage from the war, worsening the country’s predicament after sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, and posing extra challenges to Ahmed’s rule.

"Disturbing scenes of violations against civilians have emerged throughout the conflict, including footage of Ethiopian soldiers executing Tigrayans on a cliff edge"

Despite gestures of a ceasefire, the violence has clearly far from subsided. Without further international pressure on all conflicting parties, any peace deal is a distant prospect.

One of the biggest threats to a peace deal is Eritrea’s role, as it has thus far refused to withdraw from Ethiopia. During ceasefire plans, for example, there was no talk of an Eritrean withdrawal from Tigray.

On 13 July the UN passed a resolution urging Eritrea to provide verifiable proof that it had pulled back from Tigray and called for its “swift and verifiable withdrawal.” Eritrea therefore will also likely remain bogged down in the conflict.

“There are more parties to this conflict than just the Tigrayan forces and the Ethiopian government. The talk of a ceasefire so far does not include the Eritrean, nor Amhara forces,” Jos Meester, a Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute, told The New Arab.

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Displaced children from Western Tigray shelter in Tigray's capital Mekele on 24 February 2021. [Getty]

“Additionally, should an actual ceasefire eventually be reached, it will also be interesting to see what the consequences will be of the ENDF backing out while Amhara forces remain engaged. Amhara support is important to the Prime Minister’s influence within the country.”

Elections: A reinforcement of Ethiopia's campaign?

A key factor to consider is how the re-election of Ahmed will impact the Tigray conflict. Elections were held in June, and he was announced the winner on 10 July. So far, any positive prospects for the Tigray conflict seem dim.

The Ethiopian government has faced accusations of rigging the elections. Critical voices have come from parties within Ethiopia, including the National Movement of Amhara, the Afar People’s Party, Balderas for Genuine Democracy, and Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice. Ahmed’s government was also criticised for silencing the opposition, with his electoral victory coming as no surprise.

“There was no voting in several regions (e.g. Tigray, Hariri and Somali regions), several major opposition parties boycotted the election (OLF & OFC) and a range of political figures have been imprisoned in recent times,” said Meester.

"There are more parties to this conflict than just the Tigrayan forces and the Ethiopian government. The talk of a ceasefire so far does not include the Eritrean, nor Amhara forces"

“Next to that, military presence in a number of areas and the frequent recent internet blackouts have not helped other parties mobilise their voters.”

For Ahmed, there is a significant boost in these elections. It gives him an opportunity to expand Ethiopia’s central power over the country and quell federalist aspirations. And the fact that Ethiopia has pursued further military operations highlights its desire to continue the battle.

Yet the overwhelming victory of Ahmed could continue to create tensions. A lack of support for federalist ambitions will also generate further disputes between Addis Ababa and Tigrayan forces.

“Tigrayan actors will need to be somehow included within the political arena in Ethiopia. They have shown they have sufficient capacity to avoid being side-lined,” said Meester.

“This inclusion could take many forms but excluding them clearly does not create stable governance.”

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The need for international pressure

Meanwhile, around 900,000 people are at risk of famine, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) said in late June. The World Food Program (WFP) also warned that four million people need urgent humanitarian assistance. This critical situation has forced the international community to speak out.

On 12 July, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that the bloc is prepared to sanction Ethiopia to push for humanitarian access.

"The option of restrictive measures must be on the table," he told a news conference after EU foreign ministers met to discuss the conflict.

Even though the US has condemned Ethiopia’s campaign, and has imposed some sanctions on Addis Ababa, Washington may be unwilling to act firmly.

"Tigrayan actors will need to be somehow included within the political arena in Ethiopia. They have shown they have sufficient capacity to avoid being side-lined"

After all, it wants to uphold Addis Ababa as a key security partner in the Horn of Africa, particularly driven by its aim to combat al-Shabab in Somalia. Using military and financial ties with Ethiopia to guarantee a ceasefire would therefore be key.

For now, though, Ahmed and his allies are keen to maintain pressure on Tigray and the TPLF will likely continue to reciprocate violence, with the grave consequences of the war certain to intensify.

It shows the need for more international actors to put pressure on warring parties. Otherwise, civilians will continue to pay an extraordinarily high price.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey