Since a few weeks, we observe violent clashes between government forces and local authorities in Tigray, a region in Northern Ethiopia. The Central Government under the rule of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has sent military troops into the region in order to implement law enforcement measures. To understand the conflict and to discuss ways forward, Samantha Ruppel talked with Dr. Yonas Adaye Adeto, Director and Assistant Professor of Peacebuilding and Security Governance in Africa at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) at Addis Ababa University. In the interview, Dr. Adeto argues that ethnic politics is the root cause of the conflict and describes the most important aspects of a successful conflict resolution.
In your opinion, what are the long-term root causes of the conflict?
Underlying causes for the conflict in contemporary Ethiopia are complex. However, ethnic politics pursued by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) for the last 27 years is generally perceived to be the major cause of the current conflict. Hence, ethnic federalism which is alien to Ethiopia’s sociopolitical system is the number one cause, not only for this conflict but for most instabilities in the country since the EPRDF came to power in 1991.
As you just mentioned, ethnic politics have been a problem for a long time. Therefore, it would be interesting to know if there were any the short-term trigger events that lead to an escalation of the conflict?
The triggering cause was that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which led the Tigray regional government, defied and ignored the legitimacy of the Central Government under Abiy Ahmed. The Central Government postponed elections in 2020 for safety and security reasons due to Covid-19. Regardless of this, the TPLF-led Tigray Region organized their own electoral board, which is contrary to the Constitution of the country. They set up the electoral board; they were the electors; they were the observers; and they claimed to have won by about 100% of the votes.
Regarding underlying causes of the conflict, three important points need to be taken into account: Number one: TPLF was (and still is) defying the Central Government by conducting its own elections. Number two: the killing of over 700 innocent people in Mai Kadra in Tigray region in early November by Semri, a TPLF organized hit squad, which targeted mainly the Amhara ethnic groups; and number three: the massacre of unarmed military personnel of the Northern Command’s Ethiopian Army while they were sleeping by the TPLF militia and Special Forces in early November. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International, amongst others, are blaming the TPLF for these actions. In my view, these are the triggering causes while ethnic politics is the structural cause of the current conflict escalation.
You mentioned, there have been triggering events and a structural cause that led to this conflict. In your opinion, was it just a matter of time for the conflict to escalate violently or was it rather surprising for you?
It was not surprising at all. The TPLF leaders were accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of human rights once they left their political positions. They were wanted by the Federal Supreme Court and issued charges to appear in the Court but they refused. They wanted to have their own de facto state of Tigray, as they call it. The law enforcement action by the Central Government has long been awaited for. It seemed as if it was only a matter of time before the situation escalated under these circumstances because you cannot have three armed groups, for each looking like an independent state, in one country. There is, first, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) claiming to be an autonomous state with armed group called Oneg-Shene and Aba Torbe; second and as mentioned before, the TPLF claiming to be a state; and third, we have the internationally recognized state of Ethiopia, the UN-member country with its long tradition called Ethiopian state, Ethiopian polity. Consequently, the law enforcement activities along with several violent acts that can be observed currently were somehow generally expected. But it seems that the TPLF members thought, the new Federal Government led by Abiy Ahmed was not capable of running the country or actually bringing them to account for the crimes they committed while they were in power for the last 27 years.
As the conflict was rather expected, why could it not be prevented?
I think, maybe Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s government has been overly patient with the TPLF and allowed them too much time to reflect. At the same time, by the way, Abiy Ahmed was not doing nothing at all, actually, he has sent traditional mediators to Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region, in order to mediate with the TPLF. In the Ethiopian socio-cultural context and tradition, it is common that if one of the two ruling parties disagrees to work together, then you have to send elders, religious leaders or intellectuals, to mediate between the conflict parties. The elders and priests, sheiks and traditional leaders tried to reconcile and to convince the TPLF to come together and to discuss in order to resolve the conflict peacefully. But the TPLF refused and remained adamant. Moreover, Mother Peace Ambassadors, as local conflict resolution actors, begged TPLF members to engage in dialogue, but for no avail.
So, what we see today is the consequence of miscalculation, misunderstanding and a lack of openness to get engaged, to discuss, and to negotiate peacefully. Life is negotiation, life is communication. In my opinion, the current conflict escalation is the result of that deficiency on side of the TPLF leaders. But of course, there are also other opinions criticizing Abiy Ahmed and the Central Government.
What would you say is the way forward? What could be done to either resolve the conflict or to stabilize the situation?
For the way forward, I propose for concrete steps. Number one: Look back and reflect and learn from the mistakes and inhuman acts over the past 27 years. Number two: Start a comprehensive security sector reform. You cannot have three de-facto states in one country. Security sector reform needs to include a disarmament process, measures to quickly demobilize militias and other armed groups, and reintegration, i.e. education and job training or farming for these people. Number three: Revisit federal-regional relations, start a dialogue process on the relationship between the Federal Government and regional governments and revise the Constitution. Number four: Reconstruct those demolished areas, reconstruct Tigray in particular. Follow the African philosophy of “one for all – all for one” or “I am because you are”. That form of communal thinking must be down there on the ground. People should get started with construction. This time, all our international development partners need to cooperate and work together. The international community will come back in order to support as usual and to build up sustainable peace.
You said the future is bright and you mentioned four very concrete suggestions in order to solve this conflict. But do you think the involved parties on the ground are willing to take these steps?
I would like to answer by asking rhetorical questions back to you: Do we have any other better way? We have experienced what it means to be in a violent conflict; it is a lose-lose choice. So, is going back to the jungle and waging guerilla warfare the better way? Shouldn’t we focus on educating people, restarting conflict preventing and resolution mechanisms? Shouldn’t the real choice be fostering peace by peaceful means rather than enforcing peace from the point of the barrel of the guns? Therefore, in my opinion, entrenching a culture of peace is the foundation. That is actually why I have every reason to say that the future is bright. And it should be bright. This is why PRIF and IPSS need to work together more closely – to make the future bright by entrenching a culture of peace in Ethiopia!