Peace in northern Ethiopia-looking for the end of the rainbow (By Tibor Nagy)

Surely, everyone can agree on demanding an immediate and unconditional ceasefire. Start with the low-hanging fruit, restoration of services to Tigray and simultaneous withdrawal of TPLF forces from Amhara and Afar states, and end up with the most difficult. But a ceasefire must happen now. When digging one’s self into a hole, one must first stop digging. Ethiopia and Ethiopians can contribute so much to the world, but first, we need them to be at peace.

OPINIONWashington Exmainer

The mere mention of “northern Ethiopia” (or “Tigray”) on social media will result in a barrage of vituperative invectives from around the globe and include tag lines such as Tigray Genocide, TPLF Terrorists, Amhara Genocide, Afar Genocide, Hands Off, and many more. This tidal wave of venom grows daily as the scale of death, destruction, and suffering in northern Ethiopia’s now nearly two-year-old conflict continues to mount — now far exceeding the shocking tally from Ukraine. But strip away the raw emotions, and one of the greatest tragedies is that Ethiopia’s conflict is one of the most needless wars in history.

What started as an intense political dispute based on two very different visions of the nature of the Ethiopian state and its future should never have been militarized. But on the night of Nov. 4, 2020, military forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the mass movement/political party controlling Tigray, mounted a premeditated attack on forces of Ethiopia’s federal army based in Tigray. It could be compared to the South Carolina militia attack on Fort Sumter that started the U.S. Civil War.

Historians will argue whether the attack was also preemptive to prevent an attack by Ethiopian forces to restore the central government’s authority in Tigray. The TPLF leadership was aggrieved for having been displaced from the center of Ethiopian power, which it had occupied since leading a war to eject a Marxist regime in 1991 by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who took over in 2018. Abiy, Ethiopia’s first leader from the majority Oromo ethnic group, moved quickly to redirect the Ethiopian state from the TPLF’s “ethnic federalism” and to institute a new political coalition — the Prosperity Party. The TPLF leadership, alarmed and resistant to Abiy’s moves, retreated to its Tigrayan redoubt. The dueling pistols were cocked and pointed and the TPLF fired first.

When the fighting started, it immediately escalated into a regional conflict, with Eritrea’s Stalinesque leader, Isaias Afwerki, joining the attack on Tigray. He also had grievances, having been soundly defeated in the 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrean War by the then TPLF-led government. Afwerki was eager for revenge and is the one protagonist willing to fight to the last Ethiopian.

Another prominent Ethiopian ethnic group, the Amhara, also harbored historical enmity toward the TPLF. When the TPLF came to power, they transferred a fertile section of Amhara State (Welkait district) to Tigray, renaming it Western Tigray, and brought in ethnic Tigrayans to displace ethnic Amharas. Thus, Amharan militias eagerly joined the fight and forcibly reclaimed Western Tigray. A third ethnic group, the Afar, became involved in the conflict simply because its state borders Tigray on the east and includes lines of communication.

With all the historical animosities, horrendous human rights violations mounted up quickly from all sides. One of the latest reports reads like a compendium of medieval savagery, not 21st-century civilization. In addition, a veritable blockade of Tigray by federal forces and their allies has cut off the state from vital services, drastically increasing hunger and suffering among the population. One of the most frustrating aspects of the immense suffering has been that the protagonists, including their diasporas, tend to focus only on the victimization of their own and respond to the suffering of others with whataboutisms.

The situation truly brings to life Gandhi’s famous saying that “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”

At the outset, knowledgeable observers predicted that a bloody stalemate was the likeliest outcome of the fighting, with the federal forces and their allies unable to capture and pacify Tigray’s mountainous terrain fully, while the Tigrayan forces did not have the capacity to capture Addis Ababa. This is exactly what’s happened, with the only clear winners being the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

From the first day of the war, the international community has been flummoxed, and its response has been impotent. The United Nations, African Union, European Union, United States, Kenya, and even China have all tried mediating to help end the conflict, appointing special envoys galore and issuing statements ad nauseam, all without positive results.

There have been fits and starts toward at least a ceasefire, but nothing has worked. A previously proposed peace conference in South Africa under the AU’s auspices actually had a brief green light from both sides but was postponed for “logistical reasons.” Meanwhile, the fighting is again heating up, with Eritrea committing even more troops while civilians’ suffering intensifies. The combined Ethiopian/Eritrean forces are making headway, capturing towns and cities from the TPLF, but these victories can be illusory as TPLF fighters will again retreat into the mountains and revert to guerilla tactics.

One of the greatest problems for mediation has been the unwillingness of the two sides even to engage in a peace process. Abiy’s government considers Tigray a region in violent rebellion, much like the Union saw the Confederacy, and sees restoring federal sovereignty as the natural right of the state. The TPLF, meanwhile, sees the conflict as an existential struggle for their movement, which they consider indistinguishable from Tigray and its people.

The current peace conference in South Africa offers the best hope to stop the conflict as it has succeeded in “leading the horses to water” and hoping they drink. If there is any good news, it’s that ordinary Ethiopians of all ethnicities seem to be finally weary of the conflict and ready for an end. While the foundations of the Ethiopian state, with its 2,000 years of history, are as solid as that of any nation, the northern conflict is causing and amplifying other historical fissures that could crack the country. Many Ethiopians are worried. Conversely, a peaceful and stable Ethiopia could quickly make significant economic and political progress to the benefit of all its people and the region.

The international community cannot give up, but unity of purpose is essential to maintain momentum toward peace. Surely, everyone can agree on demanding an immediate and unconditional ceasefire. Start with the low-hanging fruit, restoration of services to Tigray and simultaneous withdrawal of TPLF forces from Amhara and Afar states, and end up with the most difficult. But a ceasefire must happen now. When digging one’s self into a hole, one must first stop digging. Ethiopia and Ethiopians can contribute so much to the world, but first, we need them to be at peace.

Ambassador Tibor Nagy was most recently U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa after serving a 30-year U.S. diplomatic career, including as U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia. Follow him on Twitter @TiborPNagyJr.

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