The AU and regional bodies should support dialogue in Ethiopia

After almost two years of military conflict between the Federal government and Tigrayan forces, Ethiopia seems to have decided to resolve its most devastating militarised conflict peacefully. On 24 March 2022, the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared a humanitarian truce ‘to facilitate a free flow of emergency humanitarian aid into the Tigray region.’

This notion was reciprocated by the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) the next day. Since then, both government and TPLF forces, despite a recent uptick in war rhetoric from both, have observed the ‘humanitarian truce’ and cessation of hostilities.

Tigrayan forces complained of the number of humanitarian aid trucks entering Tigray when aid is sent through the humanitarian corridor at the Afar-Tigray border. Tigrayan forces have withdrawn from much of the area they controlled in Amhara and Afar, and both these conflict actors seem to have been pressured by the government into the fold. This is an encouraging step to broker peace and signals mutual recognition of a stalemate by the two warring parties.

If recent history is any indication, the viability of parallel routes of peacemaking is questionable

However, the current state is a temporary de-escalation. Given the intractability of the root causes of the conflict and the attendant social trauma, lasting peace among the parties requires several confidence-building and peacemaking instruments and modalities. Peacemaking efforts should also consider security issues that are intrinsically political, beyond the geographic scope of this military conflict.

This requires bringing other armed forces, especially the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) in Oromia, on board. The African Union (AU), regional economic communities (RECs) and neighbouring countries such as Kenya, which are reportedly involved in mediating the conflict, should capitalise on the truce and exert pressure for a negotiated political settlement.

Abiy’s parallel peacemaking routes

The violence and conflict in Ethiopia, including in the north, is as inherently related to contrasting ideologies about the country’s past and future as it is about power politics. The polarisation of the political stage over the years has triggered tension and violence, culminating in a full-scale military confrontation in the north. However, the dispute is not confined to this region.

OLF-Shane, as the government has labelled it, has been active in Oromia. Efforts to resolve the confrontation amicably seem to have failed. Conversely, attempts to eliminate OLA militarily are yet to succeed. The government later declared it, with TPLF, a terror group.

Interestingly, after ending hostilities with Tigrayan forces and signalling its willingness to negotiate with TPLF, the state launched a military offensive to root out OLA in Oromia. If recent history is any indication, the viability of these parallel routes of peacemaking – negotiation with forces in the north and securitisation in the wider south – is questionable, to say the least.

The national dialogue commission could demand the TPLF and OLA are removed from the terror list

It is high time the government sticks to the peaceful (negotiation and dialogue) route in Oromia and beyond as it did to resolve political and security predicaments in the north. However, this is easier said than done, for multiple actors are already involved in the militarised confrontations.

This confrontation between government and opposition forces has already heightened inter-ethnic animosity between Tigray, Afar and Amhara. Throughout the conflict, the last-mentioned two regions have been involved in the war effort and were devastated by Tigrayan incursions into their territories. Memories of atrocities and social trauma are too fresh to consider a negotiated settlement. The government and the international community should redress not only the economic devastation but the social and psychological upheaval suffered by Afar and Amhara communities.

Can national dialogue transcend the political divide?

Ethiopia recently constituted a national dialogue commission to mediate historic, cumulated and structural socio-political cleavages that have spurred conflict for decades. The commission is intended to facilitate dialogue among political elites and ordinary Ethiopians. Some political parties have refused to participate, citing inclusivity and transparency gaps in the lead-up to the commission’s formation, the methodology of selecting commissioners and other issues.

The Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) are among the major actors that officially boycotted the process. Put simply, the legitimacy of the commission appears to be contested. However, as an independent organ, it could earn legitimacy and assert credibility by demanding the federal parliament remove TPLF and OLA from the terror list. The vice president of the ruling Prosperity Party, in a recent interview, seems to suggest as much.

Convincing victims to consider dialogue and reconciliation for peacemaking could be difficult

The Ethiopian Political Parties Joint Council recently released a statement asking the government to delist the two groups and include them in the process. This sets the stage for the commission and the government to travel the dialogue route of peacemaking.

Given the social trauma of the war and intercommunal animosity reinforced by its discourse, convincing victims to consider dialogue and reconciliation for peacemaking could be difficult. Accordingly, the government and the international community should craft a ‘trauma management’ scheme for communities in war-torn areas. This could be done through coordinated support for reconstruction and rehabilitation of communities most affected, not only in the north.

The AU, RECs and the international community can play a significant role in encouraging confidence-building measures for and in the national dialogue process. On the other hand, they should realise that the government’s securitisation approach in Oromia will prolong violence in and around the region.

A concerted effort is needed to convince the federal government to replicate its peacemaking approach in the north and negotiate with OLA. This would, in all likelihood, encourage the likes of OLA, OFC and ONLF to join the dialogue process. As a government confidence-booster, continental and regional organisations should commit to ‘African solutions to African problems’ and push back against the ‘politics of the United Nations Security Council’.

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