A year ago, on 2 November 2022, the two main warring parties of Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict signed an agreement on the permanent cessation of hostilities in Pretoria / South Africa. It brought much needed relief and hope to a society battered by two years of fighting in one of the world’s deadliest conflicts in recent memory. However, on the first anniversary of the deal, questions remain whether its implementation is going to plan to realize lasting peace, and risks of fresh armed conflict surround the region.
There is no doubt that the Pretoria Agreement, which was achieved with intense mediation efforts by an AU-led team, backed up in particular by the United States, succeeded in its immediate goals: After heavy loss of human life, it ended the war[i]. The guns fell silent in Tigray, a ceasefire was established, and the two-year-long siege of the Regional State ended. As part of the process to regularize governance and re-establish Federal Government authority in the region, the Tigray government was replaced with an interim administration led by former spokesperson of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) Getachew Reda[ii]. The Federal House of Peoples Representatives in turn removed the designation of TPLF as a terrorist organization and dropped all charges against TPLF leaders. Tigrayan prisoners including some Tigrayan members of the Ethiopian army were set free. All Presidents of Ethiopia’s regional states and federal ministers visited the regional capital Mekelle. Taken together, these steps illustrate the steady normalization and improvement of relations between the Federal Government and Interim Regional Administration (IRA) of Tigray.
Humanitarian aid delivery was also restored following the signing of the agreement (albeit suspended soon after[iii]). Services including banking, communications and electricity, health, agricultural inputs, and transportation to and from Mekelle have resumed, although they remain limited due to the extensive damage caused by two years of war and the impact of a new armed conflict between “Fano” militia and the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) in Amhara Regional State and adjacent areas. Regional government institutions in the areas of security, agriculture, health and education are slowly coming back onto their feet. The Tigray Police has been re-established. For the first time in three years, universities recently administered Ethiopian entrance exams for grade 12 students, and all federal state universities have resumed teaching. The Federal High Court restored the ownership of party-controlled parastatal enterprises to Tigray[iv]. Overall, in terms of restoration of services and institutions, Tigray is gradually recovering from the effects of the two year long siege.
Pending Issues and Evolving Challenges
Despite some headway, the implementation of critical elements of the agreement remains delayed. Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of Tigrayan combatants was planned to occur simultaneously with the withdrawal of Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) and Amhara Special Forces (ASF) from Tigray. However, EDF reportedly remain on Ethiopian soil in some border areas in northern Tigray while Amhara forces including Fano militia and Amhara paralegal administrative structures remain in areas claimed by Amhara Regional State in the western and southern parts of Tigray Regional State. Tigray fighters - who had been members of the regular Tigray Regional State special forces, joined by volunteers during the war - have handed over heavy weapons to ENDF, but remain generally mobilized in terms of combatants. The authorities argue that complete demobilization is contingent upon Eritrean and Amhara withdrawal, as the Pretoria agreement had stipulated that this process depended on the security situation. Thus the impasse.
Another major challenge is the status of TPLF as a legal political party. Despite its removal from the terrorism list, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) has not restored TPLF’s legal status, citing a gap in law. The electoral body wants TPLF to re-register as a new party, but TPLF says that denying it the restoration of its previous legal entity is a violation of the Pretoria agreement. The party wants the Federal Government to pressure NEBE to reinstate TPLF as a legal political party – notably inclusive of its previous assets. The matter remains unresolved.
Unfortunately, one of the areas showing a great deal of understanding between the two sides is accountability for atrocities committed, including gender-based violence. Little to no progress has been made. Both the Interim Regional Administration of Tigray (IRA) and the Federal Government of Ethiopia prioritize a locally defined transitional justice mechanism, which is yet to be implemented. The Federal Government vehemently opposed an extension of the mandate of the UN Committee of Experts under the UN Human Rights Council, and the IRA did not officially oppose this move.
Western and Southern Tigray
The sections of Tigray Regional State claimed by Amhara Regional State are by far the biggest sticking point - not only in terms of the implementation of the agreement, but also its very text: The pathway to resolving the issue can at best be inferred from the provision on “restoring the constitutional order”. It would imply that control of the territory should be governed by the defined administrative structure and can only be changed through the legally prescribed processes. At the heart of the matter are western Tigray (mainly consisting of the historical regions of Wolqayt, Tsegede, Tsellemti and Humera) and Southern Tigray (Rayya) - territories now disputed between Tigray and Amhara Regional States and currently controlled by ENDF and, in sections, by ASF and Fano militia. Amhara political actors claim that these territories were “basically Amhara” before they were allocated to Tigray during the early years of TPLF’s leadership. These actors now hold the position that they have “taken back” the land forcibly annexed by Tigray. They would like the Federal Government to add these areas to Amhara Regional State. Tigray refers to the current definition of the regional states under the Federal Constitution and demands restoration of its control of the two territories – but there is no sign of traction in that direction so far. Western Tigray is especially critical because of its fertile agricultural land and because it provides the only accessible outlet to a foreign country, Sudan, in light of Tigray’s strained relations with Eritrea.
Amhara political forces allege that the Federal Government has secretly agreed with the TPLF that the land would be returned to Tigray. In response to a query at the House of Representatives, a month after the signing of the agreement, Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed said that determining the status of the territories is not the responsibility of the Pretoria agreement. This July, he told the House that a referendum would be organized once internally displaced populations have returned to their areas of origin. The Federal Government has set out a plan to dismantle the administrative structures established by the Amhara Regional State in these territories, resettle internally displaced persons (IDPs), set up new administrations through consensus, and then organize a referendum. Amhara forces are resisting against the return of IDPs. At the same time, Tigray accuses the Amhara regional authorities of evicting Tigrayans from the area and settling ethnic Amharas in their place to change the demographic balance. According to Human Rights Watch, Amhara authorities and Fano militia continued to arbitrarily detain and expel ethnic Tigrayans to central Tigray[v]. The Tigray interim administration is growing increasingly impatient with the situation, pressuring the Federal Government to facilitate the return of Tigrayan IDPs and refugees (from Sudan). Apparently because of the broader armed conflict between (Amhara) Fano militia and the ENDF in Amhara region, the overstretched Ethiopian Army has so far not been able to dismantle the Amhara regional administrative structures there.
Unless the status of the disputed territories is determined, organizing elections for Tigray is inconceivable. Elections only in part of Tigray Regional State would be interpreted as Tigray’s acceptance of the status quo. It wants both the return of its constitutional territory and the organization of elections as soon as possible. Presently, Tigray region does not have MPs in the House of Peoples’ Representatives. However, the Federal Government is facing stiff resistance from Amhara forces in facilitating the ground work for the determination of the status of the disputed territories. The issue is perhaps the most challenging part of implementing the agreement sustainably, and could potentially lead to delay, stagnation, breakdown or even collapse of the peace process.
Having joined the Tigray war in support of the Federal Government, Eritrea has never fully withdrawn from northern territories previously controlled by Tigray. The Red Sea country claims that these areas were awarded to Eritrea by the international boundary commission ruling in 2002, following its two-year war with Ethiopia (1998-2000). However, there are consistent reports that the Eritrean troop presence exceeds these areas, and that Eritrea continues to provide training and equipment to Fano militia which are operating in western Tigray and engaged in open warfare with ENDF in Amhara region, also posing a threat to Tigray. The Pretoria agreement (Article 8) clearly states that ensuring the withdrawal of non-ENDF forces from Ethiopia and ensuring the territorial integrity of the country is the responsibility of the Federal Government. ENDF was to be deployed along the international boundary. However, this has not been implemented. Moreover, inflammatory rhetoric and troop movements in the area have recently raised the alarm over the potential for another armed confrontation between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The permanent cessation of hostilities was only agreed upon between the Federal Government and Tigray, whereas both the Amhara forces and Eritrea possess vital security interests, significant capabilities and a de facto veto power over peace in Tigray and the wider region. At the end of the negotiation process, the Federal Government downplayed concerns over this gap, arguing that it had enough leverage over both of its war allies. A year on, as relations with Eritrea have soured, and Addis is struggling to quell the Fano militia which is now in the ten thousands, these two forces have become a major Achilles heel for the Pretoria Agreement.
As the implementation of the agreement enters its second year, the gains made so far still provide hope that peace can be expanded and deepened over time. However, it is clear that addressing the most challenging, pending components of the agreement --- the determination of the status of disputed territories in western and southern Tigray, the return of IDPs, the full restoration of the constitutional order and ultimately, organizing elections --- reaches beyond the signatories of Pretoria. They will require a broader view that factors in the wider set of conflict actors. Moreover, these issues also cannot be postponed indefinitely – especially not in the wider regional context that provides many opportunities for fresh conflict and escalation. Delay and stagnation already leads to frustration and tensions between the TPLF, Tigrayan opposition parties and the Interim Regional Administration of Tigray, endangering the gains made so far.
Last not least, even if these major issues are addressed, consolidating peace in Ethiopia, including Tigray, will still depend on a political process to address the root causes of conflict in the country. This includes the fundamental social contract, individual and identity group rights, the establishment and systematic protection of rule of law, the configuration of the state, the power distribution and sharing mechanics, and other fundamental structural matters. Unless these are resolved, the continuation of cyclical violent conflict is only too likely.
Yakob Yatene Aylate is a former journalist of the Ethiopian state broadcaster EBC, an academician and a humanitarian worker.
[i] The precise number of deaths caused by the two year Tigray war may never be known. In October 2023, Tigray Regional State declared three days of mourning, and funeral ceremonies for the fallen fighters took place (see image). The head of the Interim Regional Administration of Tigray, Getachew Reda, stated that the regional authorities are aware of the exact number of Tigrayan casualties, adding that it was not the right time to announce it. ENDF, EDF and ASF never disclosed any casualty figures. Olusegun Obasanjo, the chief mediator of the Pretoria Agreement refers to 600,000 dead (https://www.ft.com/content/2f385e95-0899-403a-9e3b-ed8c24adf4e7) as a result of the fighting and the humanitarian situation.
[ii] The former president of the Tigray government, Dr Debretsion Gebremikael, retained his position as head of the TPLF.
[iii] Gross irregularities and theft of aid resources by various parties in December 2022 triggered a suspension of aid delivery, pending investigation, accountability and establishment of a transparent mechanism in beneficiary selection. See: https://www.africanews.com/amp/2023/06/16/tigray-aid-embezzlement-authorities-identify-186-suspects/
[iv] Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT), a major business conglomerate in the region.