Will negotiation end the ongoing war between the Ethiopian government and Tigray Liberation Force?

The international community is mounting pressure on the federal government of Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed and Tigray Liberation Force (TPLF) to negotiate to bring an end to the ongoing war in Tigray. However, many wonder if negotiations can ever address major outstanding issues that led to the war in the first place.

Although the government doesn’t want to make public, peace talks sponsored by the African Union is under way. The United States Security Council expressed its support for the effort. The United Nations and the European Union are also pushing the warring parties to sit down for dialogue.

The reality on the ground created by the war is also necessitating seeking a peaceful means to an end of the conflict that’s taking the toll on civilians. An increasing number of Ethiopian refugees are crossing border to neighboring countries, particularly Sudan. Internally displaced people need food and shelter.

Casualties both from the government and TPLF side have started to be felt even in areas far away from the war zones. There are reports that hospitals in Bahirdar, Gondar, Dessie, and other cities and towns in Amhara region are filled with injured members of the federal defense force, Amhara region’s special force, and militias who participated in the war.

It’s believed TPLF’s loss of many areas including major cities and towns to the Ethiopian government forces provides more incentive for negotiation. The specter of a costly war to take control of Mekelle city, the capital of the Tigray region, and the heavy toll it will takes on civilians is another motivating factor for both the government and TPLF to sit down for negotiation.

More than three weeks into the war, both Abiy Ahmed and TPLF are not where they were. Abiy has overcome major inhibitors, both psychological and material, of going to a war against the “strongly armed” and the “indomitable” forces of TPLF. He managed to fix the military’s chain of command of the Northern Command and regroup his forces. He has been able to take control of towns and cities in Tigray and made it impossible for TPLF to undertake its daily administrative activities.

TPLF, on its part, managed to show the world what a small but well-organized group can do by taking on the mightier forces of the federal government. It did successful public relations in telling the international community that “hey we are in a civil war which is leading to humanitarian disaster.” It also sent a clear message to Ethiopians that fighting with Tigray is not “walk in the park.”

For Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, what he has achieved through military operations so far puts him in a better position to negotiate. Now he has both carrot and stick in his hands. But this will end if he tries to take control of Mekelle city by force.

The conquest of Mekelle, if successful, should not be something to celebrate. It will be costly and take its toll on the lives of hundreds or even thousands of civilians. The death of civilians in the city as the world watches spells the end of Abiy Ahmed’s advantage over TPLF. The fall of Mekelle under Abiy Ahmed’s forces will also force TPLF to start an insurgency war, the beginning of an endless war, which Ethiopia cannot afford to fight.

The dialogue which the international community is calling for may help to end the ongoing conflict, but it cannot help to address issues that led to the conflict in the first place. For example, mediators may convince either TPLF to cancel the elections it held months ago or persuade Abiy to accept it. Abiy may release all political prisoners of Tigray.

Dialogue may not help to address issues that led to, or exacerbated, the conflict. For example, it’s tough to address Amhara region’s territorial claims over lands which are currently under the jurisdiction of the Tigray regional state. It is hard to resolve TPLF’s concerns about Abiy Ahmed’s relations with Isayas Afework of Eritrea who is believed to have been involved in the war. It’s also difficult to address Ethiopians’ concerns about Abiy Ahmed’s real or perceived ambition to undo the existing multinational federation to replace it with a unitary government system.

A dialogue between the two warring parties may help to bring an end to the ongoing conflict temporarily, but it’s far from addressing long-standing issues that keep ruining the country.

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