Date: Thursday, 05 October 2023
After a peace deal ended the conflict in Tigray, the country is on the slow road to recovery. But lingering animosity threatens progress
Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed, left, and Getachew Reda, a senior member of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front © FT montage; AFP/Getty Images
Andres Schipani in Mekelle A DAY AGO
The plumes of smoke billowing from Tigray’s capital Mekelle are a reassuring sight. It is a cement factory back at work, not the byproduct of fighting between Ethiopian forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
The world’s deadliest recent war — in which an estimated 600,000 people died — ended in November 2022 after two years of fighting. A peace deal signed in South Africa between the government of prime minister Abiy Ahmed and TPLF leaders brokered through backchannel talks in Seychelles and Djibouti finally “silenced the guns”, the two sides said.
“Before the ceasefire, there were drone attacks, air strikes, all over here,” says Teame Kebede, a senior executive at the Messebo Cement Factory, one of the biggest in Ethiopia, the east African country that is home to 120mn people.
For a while during the war Ethiopian forces had occupied the plant, which sits on a hill. Charred trucks on site are reminders of the combat that many in Ethiopia are happy is behind them. “Now, we are producing again — little by little,” Teame says.
Tigray’s former nemesis, the government in Addis Ababa, provided Messebo with foreign currency to resume production and help with reconstruction. There is a long road ahead for the once-promising country, however: the civil war cost it $28.7bn in “lost growth and economic losses”, estimates finance minister Ahmed Shide.
Abiy rose to power in 2018 advocating pan-Ethiopian unity and won a Nobel Peace Prize a year later for his efforts in bringing the country’s war with neighbouring Eritrea to a formal close. But the ethnic and political tensions suppressed during the decades that the TPLF were in power in Ethiopia eventually erupted in northern Tigray, one of the nation’s 12 states.
Fighting broke out in November 2020 after Abiy accused the TPLF of attacking the federal army. Violence later spread to neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar, sucking in Eritrean troops, local forces and militias.
© © FT • Source: Acled © © FT • Source: Acled
Tigray’s two-year war is believed to be one of the world’s deadliest contemporary conflicts with an estimated 600,000 deaths
After almost 10 months of fighting in Tigray between TPLF forces and an assortment of Ethiopian, Amhara and Eritrean troops, Tigray’s soldiers pushed to attack the neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions, and took over Lalibela, home to famous rock-hewn churches
Ending a months-long ceasefire, fighting between Tigrayan and government forces erupted again, including drone strikes from the Ethiopian army
Following a peace deal between Addis Ababa and Mekelle, violence shifted to Amhara where the Fano militia army — a group that allied with Ethiopian forces during the Tigray war — clashed with Ethiopian forces following a federal government move to integrate regional special forces into the national army or the police
“This was a brutal war and there were multiple actors, which was also a complicating factor intensifying the level of animosity,” says Gedion Timothewos, Ethiopia’s justice minister, credited as an architect of the peace deal.
Today in Mekelle, there is a sense of life returning to normal. Alongside the cement factory, an industrial park is set to reopen, cafés are bustling and services, including telecommunications, banking and flights have been restored. There is a cautious optimism. “We’re obviously in a very different place than we were during the war,” explains one US official.
But behind the patina of stability in Tigray, the federal patchwork of more than 80 ethnic groups is struggling to move on. Many of the Oromo and Amhara people, two of the largest groups, are not only at loggerheads with each other but also with the government in Addis Ababa.
In Ethiopia, where all transitions of power since the fall of emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 have been violent, his words still resonate: “Peace is a day-to-day problem.”
Lying ahead are many potential spoilers threatening the peace efforts; from the lack of funds for reconstruction and disputes over land to a dire humanitarian situation and frustration that there will never be justice over atrocities committed during the war.
“It was better to stop the war and give peace a chance,” says Tsadkan Gebretensae, deputy president of the interim administration of Tigray and a veteran army general who led the TPLF’s troops. But, he adds, “the reality is Ethiopia is an empire and this empire has to recreate itself and figure out how we can all live together”.
Coming back from the cold
The war derailed one of Africa’s most promising economies.
According to World Bank data, Ethiopia’s economy grew at an average of 10 per cent annually for 15 years before the war broke out.
It was hit by a flurry of shocks, starting with the global pandemic, long-term droughts, and then Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Now it needs $20bn over the next five years to rebuild in conflict-affected regions. It is “a huge price tag and nobody has that kind of money” to give, says a western diplomat in Addis Ababa.
The war also sullied western backing for Abiy and froze budgetary support from donors and development partners as well as ending Ethiopia’s tariff-free access to the US market. Officials hope that the ceasefire will pave the way for grants, loans and financing from international players, topping $10bn, or about 8 per cent of Ethiopia’s gross domestic product of $127bn.
Slowly, however, Ethiopia is coming back in from the cold. Abiy welcomed a flurry of dignitaries in the capital this year, including US secretary of state Antony Blinken and the new World Bank president Ajay Banga. “We are very much optimistic on this renewed relationship with our development partners,” says Ahmed, the finance minister.
But for some of the funding to be approved, the IMF says, Ethiopia requires “clear commitments from development partners and financing assurances from creditors” on the overhaul of up to $28.2bn of external debt, including some $7bn to China, under a G20 framework that remains under discussions.
Under Meles Zenawi, a former Tigrayan guerrilla fighter and national leader until his death in 2012, the state dominated the economy. When Abiy took office, he initiated pro-market reforms, including opening up the telecoms sector.
In search of cash, the government now envisages a sell-off of state assets, including a stake in Ethio Telecom, the state provider, which has caught the attention of France’s Orange and the UAE’s Etisalat, Ethiopian officials say.
Ahmed also vows “to open the banking sector” to foreign players, amid interest from Kenyan banks, one of the government’s many “bold reforms”, he says.
Canadian miners and German carmakers are exploring opportunities in Ethiopia, says an adviser to investors, but foreign companies struggle to repatriate profits and access foreign currency to operate. In response, Ahmed says the liberalisation of the foreign exchange system “will be addressed”.
“Despite the multiple challenges” — including a shortage of foreign currency for purchasing imported goods and inflation at about 30 per cent — Ahmed says that in the 2022-23 period, the economy grew 6.4 per cent, almost double the World Bank’s sub-Saharan Africa average of 3.6 per cent.
“Now with the peace agreement in place, we are going to focus on addressing the issue of debt as well as foreign exchange and inflation,” he adds.
Alemayehu Geda, an economist with Addis Ababa University, believes Abiy’s administration is too confident. “The government is expecting all these nice things to happen,” he says, adding that more needs to be done to accommodate major investments and financing.
Not least, he warns, the “insecurity” across the country needs to be addressed.
One source of tension stems from a long-running land dispute in a north-western corner of Ethiopia.
The area, known as Western Tigray by Tigrayans and Welkait-Tegede by Amharas, has been the site of some of the worst war atrocities. While under Amhara control since the early days of the conflict, it was previously mapped as Tigray some three decades ago during the rule of Meles.
A Fano militia commander, at his shop in the city of Lalibela. The militia group had sided with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in the war against the TPLF © Eduardo Soteras Jalil/FT
Ethiopia’s defence minister, Abraham Belay, has promised a referendum “when our people are ready” to determine the status of the disputed territory in response to the peace deal, which calls for the resolution of contested areas. But, analysts say, it is not yet clear who would have the right to vote in any referendum: the Amharas, the Tigrayans or both.
The government is also working to integrate disparate regional forces into one national military unit. Yet attempts to do so have sparked deadly clashes between the Amhara Fano militia — a group that, until the peace deal, allied with Abiy in the war against the TPLF — and Ethiopian federal troops. Around 300 people have been killed in August, the Ethiopia Peace Observatory says. The Fano believe the federal authorities are unable to stop the killing of ethnic Amharas.
Recently, Addis Ababa imposed a six-month state of emergency in the Amhara region, where Fano militias and a faction of the Oromo Liberation Front are also fighting each other. In late September, the Amhara Popular Front, a nationalist outfit that supports the Fano, denounced “war crimes and crimes against humanity by the regime of Abiy Ahmed”.
The EU and the US have also expressed concern about the violence in Amhara, while the UN called “on all actors to stop killings, other violations and abuses”.
“This issue has become a hot potato for Abiy,” says Tsadkan, of the Tigray administration. “The government doesn’t want us to go back to war over Western Tigray, which is a real possibility, because we cannot let go.”
As conflict rumbles on, a dire humanitarian situation is also brewing discontent. More than 4mn people in Tigray are short of food, says the World Food Programme. Land once used for subsistence agriculture was “heavily contaminated” by fighting, according to an analysis from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
While aid shipments resumed after the November ceasefire, they were halted in April after the WFP and USAID said supplies were being diverted from those in need. At the Ayder hospital in Mekelle, children wear the scars of a war that put Tigray on the verge of famine — doctors say a 10-year-old girl curled up on a bed weighs 11kg, dangerously below the healthy weight for her age.
“After the peace deal we were able to focus on the backlog of civilian cases, not the war wounded anymore. But malnutrition is still abundant; more than 1,000 people have died due to starvation in recent months,” says the hospital director, Kibrom Gebreselassie, adding that it is operating with less than half the necessary budget. “There’s no aid. People cannot plough their land. There are no fertilisers, no seeds, so they come here.”
For Getachew Reda, a senior member of the TPLF who was appointed by Abiy as interim president of Tigray, among ordinary Tigrayans, the “level of mistrust” towards officials in Addis Ababa “runs deeper than you can possibly imagine. We are trying to narrow that.”
‘How can we live with our killers?’
For those affected by the fighting, the ceasefire is bittersweet.
Many of the 1mn displaced by the war, like Niguse Berha, were forced to flee to cities such as Mekelle from Western Tigray, where there have been allegations of massacres of both Tigrayan and Amhara people alike. Despite the truce, they say they cannot return home due to the presence of Eritrean and Amhara fighters.
“In principle, we feel good because the agreement is a big sign of peace,” says Niguse, who says he witnessed members of his own family being “chopped down” by militias. “But how can I count all the relatives that were killed? How can we live together with our killers now?”
Officials in Ethiopia echo the danger posed by Eritrean troops who remain in parts of Tigray, where reports by Amnesty International claim they have committed atrocities against civilians in Tigray.
This, many fear, could potentially sow the seeds of another conflict, especially because they are not part of the peace deal. “The Eritreans are the spoilers of the Pretoria agreement,” says Tsadkan.
Displaced people play football outside a secondary school in Mekelle where they are sheltered. The war forced a million people to flee Western Tigray for cities such as Mekelle © Eduardo Soteras
Eritrea’s pro-Russian strongman president, Isaias Afwerki, who loathes the TPLF, has rejected the claims. During a rare media appearance in February, Afwerki was evasive about whether his country’s troops remain in Ethiopia, and called allegations that they had committed crimes a “fantasy”.
After his own election, Abiy grew close to Afwerki, in a rapprochement following two decades of tension spurred by the Ethiopia-Eritrea war, fought across the Tigrayan border under Meles. But now even officials in Addis Ababa acknowledge Afwerki is a “problem” for Ethiopia’s peace aspirations.
Under the peace deal, the TPLF agreed to disarm and demobilise, but have so far mainly handed over heavy weaponry. They say the violence in Amhara and the presence of Eritrean forces in parts of Tigray has made them hold on to some 200,000 battled-hardened armed troops.
“The bulk of our forces are still there,” says a Tigrayan official, adding that the Pretoria agreement states they will fully demobilise on the condition that Tigray is secure.
The impasse highlights a fundamental weakness with the deal. A senior foreign mediator points out that the agreement was only “between two sides” — the federal government and the TPLF — but did not include Amhara or Eritrea.
Following decades of resentment between Asmara and Mekelle, analysts believe the threat of conflict remains. During the Tigray war, the mediator says, the two sides mobilised their populations against each other’s “ultimate enemy” but could end up fighting together against Amhara, Eritrea or both.
“We want the federal government to be stable,” says a senior TPLF official, adding that as much he “wants to avoid a conflict”, if tensions with Eritrea were to spill over, his generals would be likely to support more fighting.
No justice, no peace
The government in Addis Ababa will want to avoid the eruption of widespread violence as it works to pull off the reconstruction it desperately needs.
Part of the peace agreement requires holding those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity to account. It is also an unofficial condition for Addis Ababa to improve its relations with western donors.
“No one is innocent in this war,” says a foreign official monitoring the implementation of the agreement, a claim backed up by findings of a 2021 joint investigation by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the UN high commissioner for human rights. “There won’t be real justice, that’s clear, they will move straight to reconciliation.”
A view of the Tigray Martyrs monument in Mekelle. With services such as flights and banking restored, and the city’s cafés once again bustling, there is a sense of life returning to normal © Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
Concerns abound over independence of the justice system, the credibility and scope of investigations and the political will to punish perpetrators and to redress victims, wrote researchers at Human Rights Watch.
Justice minister Gedion insists the Ethiopian government is committed to “accountability” and that it is pushing through “transitional justice” while assuring there will not be a “blanket” amnesty.
Getting this right is important for stability. “There are a million untold stories,” says Birhan Habtie, a political scientist at Mekelle University. “Tigray cannot heal until there is truth and justice.”
But in late September, a UN group of international experts, which the Ethiopian government considers to be politically motivated, said the federal government had failed “to effectively investigate violations” — including mass killings, rape, starvations and forced displacements and that it had launched a “flawed transitional justice consultation process” and “has sought to evade international scrutiny”.
Daniel Bekele, head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, says the magnitude of the abuse means “it is not realistically possible to prosecute all the offences but the most serious human rights violations”. In some cases, victims and perpetrators overlap. Bringing Eritrean soldiers to justice would also be impossible, other analysts say, because they are not part of the peace deal.
Filsan Ahmed, a former minister who left Abiy’s cabinet in protest over the war and now runs the Horn Peace Institute, an advocacy group, sums up Ethiopia’s situation: “I applaud that both sides have taken a mature decision of ending the Tigray war. But there are a serious problems unfolding. Has the crisis got worse or better? It looks like we are in a vicious circle.”
Some are clinging on to peace. In the Awash military hospital in Mekelle more than 1,700 Tigrayan fighters wearing threadbare clothes recover from their wounds in rickety beds. Their sunken cheeks and wiry limbs indicate decent meals are scarce.
Kifle Gebrehanes, a Tigrayan fighter from Adwa, is one of them. He lost his left leg below his knee last year during fighting in Shire, close to Eritrea. Sitting in a wheelchair, he smiles as he listens to music from his mobile phone. “Although many places in Tigray are still under control of enemies, I am very happy with the agreement,” he says. “At least we have peace.”