Ethiopia can end its civil war by upholding its constitution.
How to End the Ethiopia Tigray War
Mehari Taddele Maru is a professor and academic coordinator at the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. He is a scholar of peace and security, law and governance, strategy and management, human rights, and migration issues.
In the eyes of the people of Tigray, there is a clear route to peace, but it will require tough decisions, starting with a willingness to accede to the people’s most essential demands.
The suffering of the people of Tigray and neighboring regions is well documented. This war is now strangling the region with what the United Nations calls a “de facto blockade,” a U.N. euphemism for a brutal siege that prevents food aid and medicine from getting to those people—including children—who need it the most.
With 5.2 million out of 6 million people in desperate need of food aid, nearly 83 percent are food insecure, 40 percent are facing extreme lack of food and 900,000 live in a “famine–like” situation. The death toll from this famine, used as a weapon of war, could exceed thousands. Banking and communications services have been shut down. Medicine and other medical supplies are scarce, even for patients needing critical care.
Nor are Tigrayans outside Tigray spared Ethiopian state-led attacks. They face widespread discrimination, persistent threats, and mass incarceration. While some have been released from detention, many, including former peacekeepers and military personnel, are still being held incommunicado. Tens of thousands are in refugee camps in Sudan and other countries, and more than 1.8 million are internally displaced and living in makeshift shelters.
Tigray wants, first and foremost, an immediate end to the siege. It wants humanitarian aid to reach the vulnerable people dealing with the horrors of this war. Public services such as transport, electricity, telecommunications, and banking, as well as deliveries of fuel and other items, are indispensable for survival. As a matter of urgency, authorities need to facilitate humanitarian actors to access all areas of Tigray where there is a need to deliver humanitarian assistance. Mediation should begin now with a humanitarian commitment to cessation of hostilities by all warring parties to save lives.
Once the humanitarian blockade is resolved, attention can then return to the matter at the heart of the conflict. In the past few years, particularly the last 15 months, Tigrayans have confirmed that Ethiopian and Eritrean armies, as well as Amhara regional forces, are waging a genocidal war against communities demanding greater self-rule.
As the war began, the narrative that dominated foreign news outlets was Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s claim that the war was declared in response to Tigrayan forces attacking a federal military post in Tigray on the night of Nov. 4, 2020. Tigrayan authorities, on the other hand, present it as preemptive or anticipatory self-defense to the military buildup that was reportedly going on around the state.
While the trigger of the war remains a subject of much debate, the drums of war were banging loudly two and a half years earlier. Commentators had also clearly forewarned that war was imminent. Prior to November 2020, a massive Ethiopian and Eritrean military deployment was reported in areas surrounding Tigray state. The war drew closer with Tigray’s decision to conduct its regional elections and when the federal government slashed the budgetary allocation to Tigray.
Central to the conflict is the current populist nationalism with imperial ambitions that relies on ethnic majoritarianism to monopolize power by whatever means available. When convenient, populist nationalism and ethnic majoritarianism invoke constitutional norms such as elections and referendums; when necessary, they use unconstitutional, brutal, and oppressive means, including war on those who resist.
Tigrayans view the federal government as an enemy that sided with ethnic Amharas (who claim and currently occupy western and southern Tigray). Even more deplorable, the federal government worked with Eritrea’s dictatorship against its own people—a regime that longed for revenge on Tigrayans, particularly the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), an archfoe of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, and to take over disputed areas that were under the control of Tigrayan authorities, particularly Badme and Irob.
The 1995 Ethiopian Constitution has proved incapable of safeguarding communities from ethnic majoritarianism, populist nationalism, and invasion by the Eritrean army.
Tigrayans learned the disappointing truth that no Ethiopian federal system, no pan-African mechanism, and not even the international community will save Tigray from atrocities. Its populace was left to fend for itself while dealing with the massive military, diplomatic, and economic wars imposed on it by both internal and external forces. And so, the war on Tigray gave birth to a resistance that turned civilians into combatants. Many young Tigrayans rallied around the resistance and flocked to the battlefront to join the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF). With an experienced military leadership and its tight command, control, and communication, the TDF came within 100 miles of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
For Tigrayans, security is a survival issue, and the TDF is the sole guarantor of their security. Many Tigrayans believe the TDF halted the atrocities inflicted on them and will ensure they do not recur. It is highly unlikely that the people of Tigray will accept security provided by any force other than the TDF. To put it plainly, any agreement for peace must keep TDF troops as the main force in Tigray in an internationally guaranteed security agreement.
Needless to say, Ethiopia and Eritrea still view the TDF as a grave threat to their national security. The Ethiopian government wants the TDF disarmed or militarily defeated. But Tigray will refuse and resist. To address the concerns and aspirations of all sides, the warring parties need to declare a joint cessation of hostilities and agree on a transitional security arrangement where the TDF is charged with maintaining peace and security in Tigray. Such a transitional security arrangement could coordinate the provision of security, facilitate humanitarian aid, and fast-track the return of displaced people both within the country and outside it.
It would also enable warring parties to begin a negotiated political agreement on a transitional process in Ethiopia, including a nationwide comprehensive and verifiable permanent ceasefire, and preparations for a referendum on the future of Tigray as per Article 39 of the 1995 constitution.
For the TDF to take over the security of Tigray, all external forces must leave the region. The Eritrean army has annexed some territories in Tigray with the approval of the Ethiopian federal government, despite promises for its total withdrawal. Similarly, Amhara forces should return to their deployment lines before the war.
A withdrawal from some areas, particularly western Tigray, will not be popular in some parts of Amhara region and the regime in Asmara. The Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara forces all consider western Tigray the military chokehold in Tigray’s containment. The Eritrean and Ethiopian governments believe that withdrawing from these western territories will enable the TDF to gain access to external assistance, including military and other supplies through Sudan.
However, these forces’ continued presence in Tigray could lead to the resumption of fighting at the slightest provocation. Any aggression is likely to degenerate into a dangerous waiting game with protracted direct and proxy wars in border areas. In such an event, the popular will to fight, cohesive military and political leadership, resources, and numbers will eventually determine the winner.
Ethiopia’s current woes are the result of political gridlock, and the country is desperately in need of a genuine political resolution. Spilling over into all corners of the country, this war, like the wars before it, is rooted in the nature of the Ethiopian state. Since its formation as a centralized nation-state, Ethiopia has faced a “war of visions” about its future. Embodied in the current constitution is a vision of a loose multinational federalism made up of confederative elements where power rests in the hands of constituent units, not the center.
Article 8 of the 1995 constitution states that the constituent units are its “Nations,
Nationalities and Peoples.” In the same vein, Article 39 of the constitution stipulates diverse cultural communities of Ethiopia bear the “unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession.”
Ethiopian multinational federalism is a vision that demands not only greater devolution of power and more autonomy but also genuine self-rule and shared rule, confederal arrangements, self-determination, and even, where necessary, independence. As seen with the Tigrayan popular forces and resistance from the Oromos and others, this vision is entangled with a war of survival, for self-determination and self-rule, in defense against a predatory state. Historically, Ethiopia has mismanaged popular resistance wars, as seen in the 19611991 Eritrean war of independence, which caused the fragmentation of the Ethiopian state leading to the secession of Eritrea.
The Marxist-leaning dominant party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), with the TPLF at its center, came to power in 1991 and became a dominant ruling political party that exercised state power as a monopolistic hegemon. The EPRDF became viscerally hostile to accountability and the rule of law. While short on popular legitimacy, the EPRDF’s Ethiopian developmental state relied on its delivery capability to recoup political support. Democracy was relegated to a secondary order of importance and often even lower than that. The delivery of social goods brought about stability and impressive economic performance; however, it failed to serve as a substitute for constitutional democracy.
Labeled by many media outlets as one-horse races, elections in Ethiopia under the EPRDF (except for in 2005) offered participatory but uncompetitive space. The EPRDF was accused by opposition parties both at home and abroad of violating human rights and stifling rivals.
The Ethiopian developmental state had two cardinal shortcomings: State hegemony was prioritized over democratic pluralism, and it was plagued by weak government accountability that was heavily dependent on personality and party oversight instead of democratic institutional accountability. The EPRDF’s developmental state failed in the protection of individual political and civil rights, and capitulated to rampant corruption.
Within Tigray, the TPLF failed to create a merit-based, dynamic, competent, economically prosperous regional state committed to both democracy and developmental delivery on the economic front. Like the other regional states, Tigray was unable to exercise a genuine selfrule as enshrined in the constitution. Through its principle of democratic centralism, the EPRDF, as a ruling party with coalition members in control of the regional states, reduced the country’s de jure federalism into de facto centralization.
In contrast to the vision of a loose federal Ethiopian state, there is currently a nation-building effort that is reliant on centralization, the basis of which is an attempt to reclaim quasiunitarist powers that have been constitutionally decentralized for decades. Based on a vision nostalgic for the imperial Ethiopian past, it clings to the heritage of a state that failed to build a shared nation that treats all its cultural diversity and citizens equally. Revived from the grave with Abiy’s rise to power, it is a vision that chained diverse cultural communities to a state unable to build a nation.
This nation-building process has created a legacy of ethnic domination, centralization, assimilation, resistance wars, fragmentation, displacement, and famine. Previous efforts to build an Ethiopia-wide nation-state have failed, leading instead to the oppression and mismanagement of its diverse peoples; Tigrayans are the latest victims of this centralizing approach.
With the ongoing armed struggle in various parts of the country, this war of visions has deteriorated into a ferocious dogfight between ethnic majoritarian domination that is inherently undemocratic and antagonistic to autonomy and decentralized governance, and a vision of multiculturalism, federation, confederal arrangements, and even independence.
Internal boundary disputes are not new to Ethiopia. In the past, they have caused violent conflicts in the Somali, Afar, Oromia, and Benishangul-Gumuz regional states. However, the mismanagement of today’s border issues with Tigray will set a more dangerous precedent and chart a quick path to the disintegration of the country.
Currently, most parts of Tigray are outside the military and administrative control of the federal government. Similarly, in some parts of Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz, and areas bordering Sudan and Eritrea, the federal government exercises very limited administrative control. The Eritrean Defense Forces, Ethiopian National Defense Force, TDF, Oromo Liberation Army, and other armed groups operate in different parts of the country.
With all the promises and discontent it evokes, Ethiopia’s 1995 constitution remains the only instrument that holds Ethiopia together. Only this supreme law can be used to redraw disputed internal or external boundaries, and a forcible takeover of Tigrayan areas in Tigray’s West, North West, and South zones, including Humera, Tsegede, Tselemte, and Raya-Kobo, by Amhara forces would defeat both its object and purpose.
Such a forceful takeover of areas not provided for in the current constitutionally decreed boundaries would likely spark counterhistorical claims to territory and never-ending bad blood. With the prewar status quo restored, Tigray has the constitutional right and duty to administer the areas, and disputes should be resolved through the existing constitutional mechanisms.
Unfortunately, there is little trust in Ethiopian institutions’ ability to provide an impartial and objective process to resolve the war on Tigray and other parts of the country. The dominant public view in Tigray is that the federal institutions are part of the war waged on the region and thus cannot be trusted. Until some level of trust is restored, it is unlikely that Tigray will cooperate fully with federal-led initiatives for dialogue and accountability.
Victim-centered independent inquiries such as the U.N.’s International Commission of Human Rights Experts and other legal mechanisms should be prioritized, irrespective of political dividends and considerations. The governments of Ethiopia, Tigray, and other actors need to facilitate African and international fact-finding and adjudicative bodies’ access to areas where atrocities were committed.
Neither of the armed parties can win the war. The government could not overrun armed resistance in various areas, including Tigray, and at the same time the TDF and other armed groups in Oromia, thus far, have found it difficult to depose the government. The only way out of the current calamity is negotiations and mediation under a third-party facilitator with state-sanctioned leverage over both parties, such as the United States, with the help of African leaders and international guarantors.
To prepare the ground for such substantive—and complicated—political negotiations, it might be necessary to conclude a framework agreement by all political forces that supplements the current constitution and prepares the ground for a referendum for Tigray, and genuine competitive elections in other parts of the country. This framework agreement needs to provide for a cease-fire among the armed groups and coexistence among Ethiopia’s diverse peoples. For this to happen, first the international community needs to provide a credible mechanism for an immediate and verifiable removal of the Eritrean military from Ethiopia, and Amhara forces from Tigray.
In addition, the return of people displaced within Tigray and refugees to their areas, and access to and restitution of their homes, land, business, and property will play a critical part in facilitating reconciliation. Without reparations to victims, and the perpetrators of egregious crimes being held accountable, there can be no healing and thus no sustainable peace.