Ethiopia’s war in Tigray has ended, but deep flaws remain

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mein terms of makeshift hut, Fisseha Gebreselassie reflects on his loss. Days after Ethiopia’s civil war began in November 2020, Ethiopian soldiers killed his 12-year-old son in front of him. Fearing for his life, he fled Tigray, the northern region at the center of the fighting, for Sudan, leaving his wife and three children behind, hoping they would be safe. But it wasn’t long before militiamen from the nearby Amhara region captured their home, put them on a truck and sent them across the river to the center of Tigray.

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More than two years later, the family is still separated. A peace accord signed in November has raised hopes that Fisseha and thousands like him could go home. He has stopped both the fighting and the blockade of Tigray by federal forces which may have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths from bombs, bullets or famine and disease caused by war. By resetting relations between the two main traitors – the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – the agreement also reshapes alliances within Ethiopia and perhaps the region in general.

This rapprochement seemed fanciful just months ago. Leaders from the TPLF and the government smiles as they pose for pictures. Food and medicine are being delivered to starving civilians. Internet and telephone networks to Tigray that were cut for much of the war are being partially restored. For the first time in two years, Fisseha can call his wife.

But it is a fragile and uncertain peace. That can be seen in the Um Rakuba refugee camp in eastern Sudan, which shelters around 16,000 Tigrayans. Most are from the disputed region officially known as Western Tigray. Refugees there say they cannot return home because their land has been taken over by Amhara militias and settlers, or by Eritrean soldiers, who fought alongside the Ethiopian government and is involved in some of the worst atrocities of the war. “If there is peace, why are Eritreans still on our land? asked Fisseha.

The peace agreement did not specifically mention Eritrea, which was part of Ethiopia until it seceded in 1993. A subsequent “road map” drawn up by army chiefs says Tigray’s forces should to be transferred along with the “removal of foreigners and others. –END [federal Ethiopian] forces”, suggesting the withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara troops.

That has not happened. Eritrean troops are still in Tigray, albeit in smaller numbers, where they have continued to raid towns and rape and murder civilians. Western Tigray, as well as disputed territory in southern Tigray, is still occupied by forces from Amhara. The tplf giving up the heavy weapon, but there are still armed people. Tigrayan military sources in eastern Sudan, for example, say they still have around 20,000 fighters at the border.

At the heart of the problem is Ethiopia’s troubled relationship with Eritrea, with which it fought a war between 1998 and 2000. In 2018, Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister of Ethiopia, struck a peace deal with Issaias Afwerki, the dictator of Eritrea, ending a long-running hostilities. almost. forty years. But that deal gave Issaias a chance to settle old scores with the TPLF, who was in charge when Ethiopia defeated his forces in the border war. It is believed that Abiy was surprised when he first sent away tplf and then he sent his army to Tigray to crush it. Eritrean troops entered Tigray almost immediately.

Since Issaias is not a signatory to the latest peace agreement, he may not feel bound by its terms. Even if he eventually pulls his troops out, he may still find ways to stir up trouble to weaken them tplf-and maybe Ethiopia too, if he thinks he has gone soft on his main enemy. Eritrea supports Tigrayans against the TPLF, in some cases through forced recruitment. In Um Rakuba a group of young Tigrayan men said they were abducted and taken to Eritrea for compulsory military training. After that they managed to escape to Sudan.

Also present in Sudan are smaller rebel groups that are not part of the peace deal. Some of them are linked to ethnic minority groups of Ethiopia. But one, the Oromo Liberation Army (OIL), says he is fighting for the self-determination of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group (see map). The oil is a big headache for Abiy, who is himself an Oromo. He recently halted military operations against it, including launching drone strikes that killed large numbers of civilians. If the war in Oromia escalates further, the OIL They may be seeking support from Issaias, an old friend: Eritrea hosted him and several other Ethiopian rebel groups before the 2018 peace deal.

It is difficult to predict how Abiy will react if Eritrea destroys the peace in Tigray. Under the agreement the federal army is responsible for protecting Ethiopia’s sovereignty. By that logic, Abiy may feel compelled to use force to kick out the Eritrean soldiers if they don’t leave. Some Ethiopians believe that it may even join the tplf to do this; the “reshaping of alliances” is not so incredibly improbable, suggests the Oromo opposition leader. But Abiy’s relationship with Issaias, although certainly strained, may not break down just yet. Allowing Eritrean troops to stay inside Ethiopia could be the price he decides to pay to avoid conflicts with Issaias. He could also keep the tplf on the back foot.

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