A soldier from the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) gestures after finishing training in the field of Dabat, 70 kilometres northeast of the city of Gondar, Ethiopia, on September 14, 2021. [Amanuel Sileshi/AFP]

Ethiopia’s devastating civil war recently entered into its second year. The conflict between the federal government and the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) has metastasised beyond Tigray, intensified old animosities between Tigray and Amhara, and drawn in armed groups from Oromia, Benishangul and Afar, deepening identity-based contestations across Ethiopia.

These days fighting is moving ever closer to the capital, Addis Ababa, threatening a catastrophic escalation. On November 2, Ethiopia’s cabinet declared a nationwide state of emergency and there are widespread reports of Tigrayan civilians being arrested without reasonable grounds. Governments around the world, from the United States to Turkey, are advising their citizens to leave the country immediately.

Meanwhile, northern Ethiopia is facing a worsening humanitarian crisis, with more than eight million people in urgent need of assistance. In Tigray, at least 400,000 people are believed to be living in famine conditions. Two million people have been internally displaced and there are more than 60,000 refugees in Sudan. No humanitarian convoys have entered the region since mid-October, despite the need for at least 100 trucks a day to meet the local population’s most basic needs.

An joint investigation by the United Nations and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and a subsequent report by the EHRC have laid bare the widespread abuses, torture and sexual violence against civilians committed by the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) as well as Tigrayan, Amhara and Eritrean forces during different phases of the conflict, including some that may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Tigrayan advances – but the end game is unclear

Ethiopian government forces have been on the back foot in recent months. The TDF has captured significant territory, including major cities and towns like Weldiya, Dessie and Kombolcha. Tigrayans also formed an alliance with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), which has captured territory in many parts of Oromia facing limited resistance from the ENDF and its allies.

Joint forces are within 200km of Addis Ababa. In Afar, the insurgents seek to cut off the main supply route to Addis Ababa from neighbouring Djibouti, which would allow them to impose a blockade on the capital and potentially open a crucial supply line to Tigray.

But the end game of the Tigrayans is still not clear. They are yet to articulate a coherent political plan or form a coalition that has a chance of gaining national legitimacy.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and OLA recently established an alliance with seven smaller groups calling for the formation of a transitional authority, but the details of the agreement, which does not include many legitimate stakeholders, remain unclear. It is still uncertain whether the TPLF-TDF is fighting to conquer the entire country, to secure Tigrayan autonomy in a confederated Ethiopia, or to secede.

For his part, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed remains bullish and committed to military victory, having declared that he would lead the army from the front line, and calling on citizens to take up arms against groups his government has designated as terrorists. He maintains significant backing in Addis Ababa, but the federal government is no longer the only power base in the country. Regional administrations are leading their own forces and prioritising their own ethno-federal agendas – fighting not only to protect and expand their territory but also to carve out favourable positions for themselves in possible future political dispensations. A self-sustaining logic of violence is at risk of being established.

Limited international leverage

Neither side seems willing to listen to external calls for peace. Prime Minister Abiy appears to believe that the international community wants to remove him and that his only option is to pursue a winner-takes-all approach. The TPLF/TDF also sees little value in negotiation, especially since its recent advances. Both sides perceive the other as an existential threat.

The European Union and the US have exerted some pressure by halting aid, with the latter also suspending Ethiopia from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, to try and bring the conflict to an end. Sanctions on Ethiopian actors have been withheld, at least for now, to allow time for negotiations to bear fruit, but targeted measures have been placed on Eritrean officials and institutions due to their destabilising role in the conflict.

However, these efforts have had little success so far and the punitive action by external actors has been instrumentalised to stoke nationalism and mobilise resistance.

Mediation will be crucial to resolving this conflict – but there is no single actor who can effectively carry it out. The African Union’s (AU) Horn of Africa representative, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, is engaging in shuttle diplomacy, but his team needs more support and resources to achieve meaningful progress. US and EU envoys are also playing an important role in talks with domestic and regional players.

The AU is in a delicate position. Its headquarters are in Addis Ababa and its decision-making model demands consensus, making strong action, such as suspending Ethiopia, highly improbable. The regional bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), is similarly hamstrung due to upheaval in post-coup Sudan, the current chair. And even before the coup, deteriorating relations between Khartoum and Addis Ababa, and the ties between IGAD’s Ethiopian Executive Secretary and Prime Minister Abiy, have made it challenging for the bloc to act as a mediator.

In the absence of feasible institutional mechanisms, the engagement of regional leaders like President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya is vital. Kenya, currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, has protected Addis Ababa from sanctions (along with China and Russia), insisting instead on an African-led resolution to the conflict. But it has also been outspoken on the humanitarian crisis and urged an end to hostilities. Following his talks with Prime Minister Abiy in Addis Ababa, Kenya’s president has also discussed ways to resolve Ethiopia’s conflict with the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Moving towards genuine dialogue and reconciliation

A road map to sustainable peace in Ethiopia can only be drawn after a ceasefire is achieved. For de-escalation to happen, both the federal government and rebels need to acknowledge each other as interlocutors. This would require the federal government to lift the designations of TPLF and OLA-Shene as terrorist groups and the rebel groups to accept the legitimacy of federal jurisdiction. The government and federal states would also need to allow humanitarian relief to reach Tigray as a matter of urgency. Meanwhile, a UN-mandated independent monitoring and evaluation commission could be established to oversee the ceasefire.

All sides would then need to recognise the overarching need to find a new political settlement and address Ethiopia’s deep-rooted structural problems. They would need to start working towards reconciling their conflicting historical narratives, agreeing on a division of power between the centre and the regions, managing demands for ethnolinguistic self-determination, and resolving territorial disputes.

To move forward peacefully, Ethiopian leaders will need to find a way to accommodate competing ideological perspectives and build a vision for consensual governance. This can only happen through national dialogue and an inclusive transitional process.

To this end, a dialogue platform has been established by the Ministry of Peace and several local organisations. To strengthen this emerging process, the government should be an equal partner – alongside civil society groups and others, with peace building and reconciliation endeavours reinforced.

The transitional process should include the federal government, rebel movements and senior opposition party leaders – such as Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba and Eskinder Nega – as well as civil society groups, religious leaders and eminent personalities.

Such an inclusive process could lead to an interim government of national unity recognised by all stakeholders. This government, which would have a short, pre-determined tenure, could implement institutional reforms to strengthen the federal project and allow for genuine devolution, which would pave the way for national elections that meet local expectations and international standards..

A transitional justice strategy – essential for societal healing and holding perpetrators of atrocities to account – should also be developed. Moreover, stakeholders should agree on a process to manage autonomous regional security forces and reunify the national army. Moreover, addressing the economic drivers of conflict, including by ensuring peace dividends at the local level, will be an important element of any long term solutions. International partners could support this process with resources and technical expertise.

For all this to happen, both sides will need to accept some difficult truths.

Prime Minister Abiy will need to acknowledge that his government’s legitimacy is so tainted by the atrocities committed during this brutal civil war that it cannot continue to govern the country on its own after the end of the conflict. The Tigrayans, for their part, must accept that deep grievances from their long period of dominance in Ethiopian politics remain, and that most Ethiopians will not agree to them leading the federation again. Both sides can aspire to win the war, but neither can hope to win peace alone.

The civil war in Ethiopia has caused unimaginable anguish and brought the country to the verge of collapse. Now is the time for elites to put their self interests aside and start working towards reaching a political settlement that addresses the country’s festering grievances, and building a new societal order based on mutual understanding and inclusivity.