By Cooper Dutton
TIGRAY, ETHIOPIA—The civil war which has consumed the Tigray region of Ethiopia and drawn in neighboring Eritrea over the past two years may be coming to an end.
On Wednesday November 2, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) came to an agreement with the Ethiopian federal government to permanently halt the fighting in the civil war which has killed tens of thousands, displaced millions, and intensely increased the risk of famine since it began in November 2020.
The agreement is a welcome development for the Tigray region, and indeed the Horn of Africa as a whole, as the war drew in forces from neighboring countries such as Eritrea, but significant questions still remain. It is unclear whether belligerent actors not party to the talks—which were held only between the Ethiopian federal government and the TPLF—will also commit to the peace deal, and there also are concerns over how the deal will be implemented.
The agreement calls for a full disarmament of the TPLF within thirty days, and federal forces will reportedly take control of federal facilities and major infrastructure in the region.
Held in South Africa, the deal was reached after eight days of negotiation mediated by diplomats from the African Union, including former Nigerian president Olusegun Obansanjo.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed confirmed the deal Thursday, tweeting that the Ethiopian government’s commitment to peace “remains steadfast” and that “Ethiopia’s peace proposal has been accepted 100 percent.”
The deal comes as a shock to much of the world after a previous humanitarian ceasefire broke down in August, and American-led efforts to bring a new halt to the fighting failed in September. Violence in the region surged in late summer, forcing half a million people from their homes, and government airstrikes hit a refugee camp and UN food truck, killing at least fifty people. The fighting continued in the runup to the South Africa talks, so many observers doubted the talks would result in an agreement.
Few details from the deal have been made available to the public. All that is known so far is that the TPLF will undergo a disarmament process before reintegrating into the federal army and that the federal government will support increased humanitarian efforts in Tigray and its surrounding regions. It is still unknown whether the Eritrean army, which fought with the Ethiopian federal forces, or the Oromo Liberation Army, which is allied with the TPLF, will agree to the terms of the agreement.
Additionally, much of the deal may be hard to sell in Tigray; lead TPLF negotiator Getechew Reda said that it contained many “painful concessions,” including handing over control of infrastructure, and disarmament, which may face backlash.
The conflict broke out in November 2020 after two years of tension between the regional Tigrayan government and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Abiy was elected in 2018 after almost thirty years of minority Tigrayan governance. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his role in ending hostilities with Eritrea and introducing liberalizing domestic reforms.
Abiy dispatched troops from the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) to Tigray in early November 2020, where they were soon joined by the Eritrean army, after accusing the TPLF of raiding a national military weapons depot. Soon, the conflict developed into a full-blown civil war, with many of the military forces involved, including the ENDF, the Eritrean army, the Tigrayan Defense Forces, and the Oromo Liberation Army, being accused of targeting civilians.
It has been hard to get more information about the conflict from within, as Abiy put in place an internet and media blackout soon after the conflict began. This has made verifying information difficult, especially locations of attacks and casualty levels. Federal forces blockaded the region after the TPLF retook control of the region in June 2021, preventing humanitarian supplies and basic necessities from reaching it. There was a brief reprieve during the late spring/early summer humanitarian ceasefire earlier this year, but Tigray still has become embroiled in a dire humanitarian crisis due to lack of food, fuel, and medical supplies.
Tigray has one of the worst food security levels in the world due to low rainfall, regional instability, and a lack of access to Ukrainian grain after the Russian blockade of the Black Sea, but the added complications of the civil war risked sending Tigray and the nearby Amhara and Afar regions into famine.
As it stands, the civil war created what World Health Organization chief Tedros Ghebreyesus called “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world,” displacing millions, risking famine, and killing tens of thousands more, an addition to plunging the Horn of Africa back into regional instability. According to WHO, at least 5.2 people in the region are in dire need of humanitarian assistance.
Although questions still remain about the implementation and scope of the peace deal, it still is seen as a sign of hope for the region. When announcing the deal Wednesday, Obansanjo acknowledged the consequences the war has had for Tigrayan civilians, promising “restoration of law and order, restoration of services, unhindered access to humanitarian supplies, protection of civilians.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also hailed the deal as a critical and promising first step towards ending the war.
However, without more details regarding the implementation of the terms and the role of Eritrea and other regional forces, it is still difficult to know how well peace can be achieved. It is far easier to agree to disarmament than it is to peacefully disarm and cede control of territory, and a peace and reconciliation process that addresses the underlying causes of the conflict still must be undertaken.