The long-anticipated renewed round of war between the Federal Government of Ethiopia against the Tigrayans began at dawn on August 24. The first shots were fired on the southern borders of Tigray near the town of Alamata. Each side blames the other for firing them.
Even more culpable are the international players that have backed a peace process in name only for the last 12 months, hiding behind a casual and complacent African Union High Representative, General Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, who shows neither an understanding of the complexities of the Ethiopian crisis nor an appetite for engaging with them. That process is now dead. Appeals for restraint will fall on deaf ears.
The new fighting is likely to escalate. It’s expected that the second front will be in Western Tigray, where Federal forces along with their coalition partners — militia from the regional state of Amhara and army units from Eritrea — continue to occupy the most fertile parts of the region. Tigray’s other two fronts — on the northern side with Eritrea, and the eastern side with Afar regional state — may also yet erupt. When the battles are over, the protagonists expect that at least one of them will have collapsed.
Critically for Tigray’s seven million people, the fighting spells an end to any immediate prospect of a negotiated lifting of the siege that has reduced them to starvation, costing up to half of a million lives since the war began in November 2020. The Director General of the World Health Organisation, Teodros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, himself an Ethiopian from Tigray, denounced the world’s neglect of the food and health crisis in his home region.
As recently as July, there were hopeful signs of peace talks. Secret meetings brokered by the United States between military officers (in the Seychelles) and senior civilians (in Djibouti) reached preliminary agreements. The plan was for these to become formal, with public talks hosted by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and the AU’s Obasanjo playing a role alongside him. When the Kenyan election was won by Vice President William Ruto—narrowly defeating the candidate backed by Kenyatta, Raila Odinga—the prospects of peace talks in Nairobi evaporated, at least for now.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was uncomfortable with Kenyatta’s assertive role and was quick to congratulate Ruto on his victory. The two men share a Pentecostalist fervor, and Ruto’s rhetoric echoed Abiy’s own imagery, drawn from prosperity gospel preachings. Ruto is also viscerally opposed to international accountability, having been indicted for crimes by the International Criminal Court following his role in post-election violence in 2007-2009. He escaped prosecution because witnesses kept disappearing. He hasn’t been acquitted — the ICC in theory could restart the trial at any time.
Starvation has been Abiy Ahmed’s favored weapon of war. He has cut off food, medicine, banking services, telecommunications and agricultural services for fourteen months. All sieges generate a war economy with smugglers and profiteers, putting intolerable strain on the afflicted society. So too in Tigray: people are reduced to penury while the black market thrives; and some of the most vulnerable women and girls who have survived atrocious sexual violence are compelled to sell their bodies for crumbs.
There’s widespread grumbling against the TPLF, but the critics’ main charge is that their leaders have been too patient in giving time for peace talks instead of seeking a military solution to the siege. They have, however, been training soldiers and buying arms — one supply aircraft flying from Sudan was reportedly shot down on Wednesday. (The TPLF has denied it.)
Starvation is a war crime, and without using those words, American and European envoys have called for it to end unconditionally. Not so the African Union. In his briefing to the AU Peace and Security Council on August 4 (widely circulated but not officially published), Obasanjo falsely claimed credit for having facilitated face-to-face meetings between the warring parties, proposed that Eritrea be a full party to the peace talks, and — most significantly — set an agenda in which an end to the blockade was an item for negotiation. This echoed Abiy’s position, and the spokesman for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) trenchantly pointed it out.
This manifests a deeper problem with the African Union and its unresolved position on international crimes and accountability for them. The AU cannot bring itself to condemn starvation crimes.
In May 2018, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2417 on armed conflict and hunger. Although conservatively worded, it underlined that starvation of civilians could be a war crime. Immediately thereafter, there were calls for the AU Peace and Security Council to debate the same topic and adopt measures in line with the commitment, contained in Article 4(h) of its Constitutive Act, to intervene in the case of “grave circumstances”, defined to include war crimes.
For four years, the AU avoided the topic, finally convening a session in May this year. The four pages of communiqué 1083 contain numerous paragraphs about nutrition and agriculture and just one incoherent line that pays lip service to food as a weapon of war and still manages to choke on the implication that it might be a crime: “Strongly condemns any kind of conditionality for food access and the use of starvation as instruments of war and/or access to humanitarian assistance.”
The AU’s other key failing is to violate rule number one of conflict resolution; namely, that if one warring party objects to a mediator, that mediator steps aside. Shortly after his appointment, Tigrayans made their reservations over Obasanjo — and his role as the principal mediator — known. That position has been repeated many times.
Nonetheless, the AU has persisted with Obasanjo. With the Americans and Europeans distracted by Ukraine, Africa had a tremendous opportunity to showcase its norms, institutions and practices. It failed dismally. In the 12 months since his appointment, Obasanjo’s principal achievement has been to keep a tight monopolistic grip on the position of mediator. The gravamen of the public version of his August 4 briefing was “the centrality of having one peace process under the undisputed leadership role of the African Union.”
As the talks stalled, the Tigrayans have stuck to their demands for ending the siege before negotiating a permanent ceasefire, while the Federal Government has wanted it the other way around, backtracking on promises to restore services. There’s much speculation as to why the communication — and modicum of trust — between Mekelle and Addis Ababa broke down.
The most credible explanation is the simplest: Abiy Ahmed just doesn’t know how to make peace. Probably rightly, he assumed that time was on his side — with every passing month, Tigrayans starve while relations between Addis Ababa and international donors stumble towards something approaching normality. But that’s a high-risk strategy.
Without tangible progress towards human survival, Tigray was on track for an existential crisis. The day before the truce collapsed, the President of Tigray region and head of the TPLF, Debretsion Gebremichael, wrote an open letter to world leaders, warning that, “We, the people of Tigray, are fast approaching the point at which we face death which ever way we turn. Our choice is only whether we perish by starvation or whether we die fighting for our rights and our dignity.”
The Tigrayan attitude is that whatever they achieved during the last 22 months, it was entirely due to their own efforts, and they owe nothing to anyone else.
A year has been wasted. International leverage over the TPLF has disappeared. Abiy and his coalition have not been subject to the discipline of a structured peace process, which has allowed their style of governance through transactional management week by week. The AU has entirely ignored the escalating war in Oromiya. Conflicts are also erupting in other parts of the country, including, disturbingly, an attack by the extremist group al-Shabaab deep inside Ethiopia.
In many rural areas, government salaries are unpaid, local administration absent. Behind the glossy facades in the capital Addis Ababa, this is what state failure looks like.
If there is a silver lining to the eruption of fighting on Tigray’s borders it is that it demonstrates that the current international approach to ending the war and famine has reached a dead end. Ethiopians need something better. There’s a vacuum to be filled.
Only a high-level U.S.-led initiative, which includes the Europeans and the Gulf states, can break the impasse at this stage. There are many African leaders genuinely committed to a peaceful resolution of the crisis and salvaging Ethiopia, who would step up and play a constructive role. That needs to happen urgently. Every day counts.