As Ethiopian Troops Exit Tigray, Time to Focus on Relief
The imperative for all sides must now be to facilitate access for relief convoys, ramping up the delivery of food aid to millions of Tigrayans and ensuring that farmers can plough and plant as the rainy season sets in. For their part, Tigray’s leaders should turn their focus to preventing mass starvation rather than seeking right away to exploit their military gains. The temptation for Tigrayan leaders will likely be to quickly try to regain control of western Tigray, which the neighbouring Amhara region seized in the early weeks of the war on the grounds that the TPLF had unjustly annexed it in the 1990s.
Indeed, Tigrayan forces appear to be gearing up for an offensive. They should put such plans on hold, at least to give time for Addis Ababa to ensure the Amhara region gives up administrative control of those areas governed by Tigray prior to the recent conflict and allow for constitutional procedure to adjudicate its territorial claims as part of broader efforts at post-war reconciliation. Abiy’s government – which claims to have strategically withdrawn from Tigray having achieved its main objectives and alleviated the humanitarian emergency – can do other things to lessen the population’s hardship. First, it should push Asmara to withdraw Eritrean troops from Tigray. Not only could an Eritrean exit accelerate aid delivery, as Eritreans blocked aid to parts of northern Tigray, but a complete pullout could also prevent renewed confrontations between Tigrayan and Eritrean forces.
(Ideally, going forward, to defuse a standoff that has lasted two decades, authorities in Addis Ababa and Mekelle should reach agreement to finally carry out a 2002 UN boundary commission’s decision on the international border, whose non-implementation has angered Asmara.) Secondly, federal authorities should establish a minimum level of cooperation with Tigray’s leaders and ensure the provision of vital services such as telecommunications, electricity and banking, all of which are controlled to some degree at the national level. There are reasons for Addis Ababa to do so beyond the critical humanitarian concerns. If it does not loosen its stranglehold on the region, the TDF might well look to open up a supply corridor to Sudan through Amhara-administered areas. Not only would that mean heavy fighting between Tigrayan and Amhara forces, but it could also lead to confrontation between Sudanese and Ethiopian troops (already at odds over the Nile waters dispute and the al-Fashaga border region) and exacerbate serious tensions between Khartoum and Addis Ababa.
Thus far, the federal government’s signals bode ill. An Ethiopian official told Crisis Group in the days after withdrawal that Addis Ababa wants to seal off Tigray from anything other than humanitarian aid in order to thwart the regional leadership’s ambitions. Retreating federal soldiers looted UN satellite internet equipment and reportedly emptied banks before fleeing Mekelle. Addis Ababa has closed Tigray’s airspace and Ethiopian soldiers and Amhara forces have been blocking World Food Programme trucks from reaching Mekelle. Federal authorities have shown no inclination to fully restore the region’s power supply or telecommunications. On 1 July, a bridge over the Tekeze river collapsed, severing a key route into central Tigray. Diplomats and UN officials say Amhara and federal forces likely sabotaged the bridge, while the government blames the TPLF. The cumulative effect is one of debilitating isolation.
With famine conditions spreading [in Ethiopia’s Tigray region], continued international pressure on Abiy’s government is essential.
With famine conditions spreading, continued international pressure on Abiy’s government is essential. Addis Ababa’s crackdown on Tigray has already forced the European Union (EU) and the U.S. into an abrupt policy shift toward their long-time partner. In December, the EU suspended $107 million in budget support for Ethiopia over the obstacles the army had placed in humanitarian workers’ path. In May, the U.S. imposed visa restrictions on unnamed actors in Tigray’s war, targeting current and former Ethiopian and Eritrean officials. Looking forward, outside actors should press Abiy’s government to lift the de facto federal embargo on Tigray and facilitate a complete withdrawal of Eritrean troops. As concerns the status of contested territory in western Tigray, they should back an arrangement whereby the TDF agrees not to press its military advantage there, and Asmara returns administration to Mekelle pending resolution of the inter-regional dispute through constitutional procedures. They must also impress on Tigray’s leaders the need to put famine relief over warfare. The U.S., one of Ethiopia’s largest donors, which has been increasingly vocal about the crisis, should lead these efforts.
More broadly, the setback for the federal intervention in Tigray should be cause for a rethink in Addis. More coercion and outright force will not pacify the region. For Tigray, but also for the country more broadly, an approach rooted in reconciliation and accommodation – likely entailing some form of national dialogue – is the only way to stop Ethiopia’s federation fracturing further. Although thus far little suggests Abiy’s government is looking for a fundamental reset, it should kick-start a maximally inclusive effort at reconciliation, both with Tigrayan leaders and elsewhere in the troubled country, particularly Oromia, where another insurgency is gathering strength. For their part, Tigrayans have suffered horrific violence over the past eight months, notably at the hands of Eritrean forces seemingly invited in by the federal government. But ideally, Tigray’s leaders, too, would send mollifying signals rather than fight on and agitate for secession, which would likely entail years of more violence. Should Addis Ababa initiate a comprehensive reconciliation attempt, they should respond positively and participate.
It is not too late to avert famine in Tigray or to prevent Ethiopia from further coming apart.
It is not too late to avert famine in Tigray or to prevent Ethiopia from further coming apart. In June, Abiy oversaw an election that is likely to hand his Prosperity Party a significant majority – and which unfolded relatively peacefully in the areas where it could be held. A refusal to turn toward more conciliatory measures could leave the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s administration a virtual pariah, at least among Western governments whose support is needed to bankroll the reforms Abiy hopes to roll out. The converse approach could save thousands of lives, notably in Tigray, salvage what was once a promising democratic transition and safeguard a country whose stability is pivotal to that of the Horn of Africa.