- An increased understanding of the various actors' separate dispute issues contributes to an insight into the obstacles that exist for a quick solution, writes, David Larsson Gebre-Medhin, PhD in peace and conflict research, in a guest analysis on the conflict in Ethiopia.

Guest analysis

The war in Tigray must be resolved as three different conflicts

The Tigray war in Ethiopia has taken a new turn and rebels are now threatening the capital Addis Ababa. Although Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed recently strengthened his mandate through success in this year's elections to the federal parliament, he now risks losing power. And with each passing day, suffering is growing - so far the war has resulted in thousands of deaths, widespread ethnically motivated abuses against civilians, violence that has displaced more than 2.5 million people and a famine that has affected an estimated 400 and threatens another seven million people.

In reporting on the Tigray War, the conflict often appears as a civil war between the disputed Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and the federal government of Abiy Ahmed, the latter backed by allied actors from the Ethiopian province of Amhara and neighboring Eritrea.

With such a perspective, one would think that a military or negotiated decision between the TPLF and Abiy Ahmed would lead to an end to the war. However, this is a simplified picture that risks obscuring the complexity of the war and potentially underestimating the challenges that exist to achieve a solution. Instead, the war must be understood as three separate conflicts, which have been intertwined because the allied actors have a common enemy in the TPLF.

The conflict between the TPLF and Abiy Ahmed's federal government is the trigger for the war - and the most central dispute. The contradictions between the TPLF and Abiy Ahmed can partly be understood as harsh power politics, but they are also rooted in widely differing ideas about how Ethiopia should be politically organized. Only since the change of government in 2018 have Abiy Ahmed and TPLF been in irreconcilable competition for political power. Abiy Ahmed's policy meant a marginalization of the TPLF, which also had to shoulder the main responsibility for the previous regime's repression. The TPLF, for its part, chose to stand outside the new government base and consistently undermine Abiys Ahmed's legitimacy. The result is two parties who regard their relationships as a zero-sum game, and where a solution can only be achieved by eliminating the other side.

In addition to the power-political contradictions, the two parties have completely different views on how the political game plan in Ethiopia should be organized. The TPLF advocates an ethnofederal system - that is, regions based on ethnicity have far-reaching autonomy. Abiy Ahmed, on the other hand, strives for a more centralized government in which an overall national identity takes precedence over ethnic and regional ditto. Both systems have the support of other key political actors in Ethiopia.

However, a constructive national debate that clashes with these systems is hampered by the fact that Ethiopia has experience that both models have been historically abused. Critics of the current ethno-federal system recall how the TPLF used it to promote Tigrean interests. Furthermore, it is considered to encourage ethnic division. Critics of centralization often have historical experience of political marginalization and see regional autonomy as an insurance against federal dominance. The point of this dispute is that it will survive the parties to the conflict: regardless of military decisions, Ethiopia's plethora of political actors must resolve the issue of future political systems. This is not an issue that can be militarily dictated by either Abiy Ahmed or the TPLF.

Conflict between Tigray and Amhara provinces

Regardless of how the conflict between Abiy Ahmed's government and the TPLF develops, the regional government of Amhara province is fighting a separate rivalry with the leadership of the neighboring province of Tigray. Even at this inter-regional level, power-political contradictions play an important role. The leadership of Amhara and Tigray has historically competed to dominate federal policy in Ethiopia, but the rivalry also has a local character based on ethno-nationalist contradictions and regional border conflicts. At the national level, the centralized political model advocated by Abiy Ahmed has strong support in Amhara, and this opposition to the TPLF's ethno-federal system would most likely persist even if the TPLF, for example, succeeded in overthrowing Abiy Ahmed's government. In addition, Tigray and Amhara have overlapping claims to large tracts of land in present-day western Tigray. This dispute is in itself reason enough for continued conflicts between the regions' leadership, regardless of the development in the conflict between TPLF and Abiy Ahmed.

The conflict between Tigray and Amhara is thus based on its own set of contradictions, has its own dynamics, and can thus very well continue to be decoupled from a possible decision in the conflict between the federal government and Tigray.

A third conflict in the conflict

The third conflict is that between the TPLF and the Eritrean government. The leadership of the Eritrean capital Asmara has its own set of disputes that justify their participation in the war against the TPLF. This conflict is also rooted in historical political rivalry. For the Eritrean government, the war was an opportunity to put its main rival in place and avenge decades of perceived injustice and isolation. A TPLF that controls Tigray, or regains federal power in Ethiopia, also poses a threat to the Eritrean government's regional influence and eventual survival.

In addition to the power-political contradictions, the Eritrean intervention in Tigray is justified by the TPLF's opposition to handing over border areas to Eritrea, in accordance with Abiy Ahmed's commitments as part of the 2018 peace treaty. . The conflict between Abiy Ahmed and the TPLF created an opportunity for Asmara to intervene in Tigray, but Eritrean engagement is governed by separate Eritrean interests, and will therefore not automatically end with a possible settlement between the TPLF and their Ethiopian enemies.

The political development in Ethiopia since 2018 has been characterized by both surprises and sudden turns as well as predictable confrontations. Although the dynamics of the war may continue to take unexpected turns, the point is that an increased understanding of the various actors' separate dispute issues contributes to an insight into the obstacles that exist for a quick solution. The war may have started as a common conflict - but it can only be resolved as three, certainly intertwined, but still distinct conflicts.

 

This is a guest analysis. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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