Cape Town — The international community should rally around former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo's peace mission in Ethiopia, or risk all-out civil war within the country and even a regional conflagration which draws in Sudan.
This is the import of a new report on the war between the federal government in Addis Ababa and the northern Tigray region. The report was issued on Tuesday (October 25, 2021) by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG).
The war broke out 11 months ago, when federal forces launched a military operation against the regional administration in Tigray after it insisted on holding elections in the face of opposition from Addis Ababa and captured the national military command in the region. Since then, Tigray has fought back with some success, prompting counter-offensives from the federal government, including air strikes on the region's capital, Mekelle, and other towns in recent days.
Assessing recent developments, the report is gloomy about the immediate prospects for a peace process in the face of bitter hostility between the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis and the Tigray People's Liberation Front, which dominated the federal government until Abiy came to power in 2018.
When war broke out, militia from the Amhara region of Ethiopia, which adjoins Tigray, joined federal forces in incursions into western Tigray, saying they were taking back land that was historically theirs.
Pointing to incursions by Tigrayan forces into other areas of Amhara, and their determination to reclaim western Tigray from Amhara, the report says Tigray's leaders "look set to ramp up the pressure on the federal and Amhara governments..."
For its part, the federal government has renewed restrictions on aid being sent to Tigray, worsening a famine there, "and has also been buying arms, recruiting tens of thousands of fighters and, most recently, launching a new campaign to reverse Tigray's gains".
Adding to the tensions, in August Tigray formed an alliance with a rebel group from the central region of Oromia. The group, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), is fighting for self-determination for the region. The ICG report suggests the OLA's insurgency "appears to be gaining momentum" and warns that its alliance with Tigray "has ratcheted up the likelihood of all-out civil war."
The threat of Sudan being caught up in the conflict comes from the possibility of Tigray's forces using eastern Sudan as a supply route for weapons in a fight for western Tigray.
"Addis Ababa would view any Sudanese assistance to Tigray's leaders – including the facilitation of aid – as a hostile act, pushing the two countries toward open conflict," says the ICG.
"Relations between Addis Ababa and Khartoum are already at a low ebb, mainly due to disputes over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that Ethiopia is constructing on the Blue Nile, affecting downstream Sudan's water supply, and al-Fashaga, the disputed farmlands adjacent to western Tigray, which Sudan occupied in December."
The ICG report adds: "Once the bulwark of security in the Horn, Ethiopia would then become a source of crisis presenting a major threat to the region's stability."
The chances of dialogue are slim at present, says the report, and "the political atmosphere in the country remains poisonous... as evidenced by the belligerent and at times hateful rhetoric, particularly from the federal side."
But the Crisis Group says prospects for peace could improve if internal and external pressures are combined with "war fatigue" and a stalemate between the warring parties.
At that point, Obasanjo "will be best positioned to broker a choreographed de-escalation leading to a ceasefire that can help stabilise an increasingly fragile Ethiopia... Outside actors like the United States and the European Union, as well as Ethiopia's neighbours, should help prepare the ground for this moment by throwing their full weight behind... Obasanjo."