Eyes welled with tears of joy, faces beamed with genuine smiles, and hearts brimmed with cautious hope as dozens gathered in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa for a journey that, just months ago, seemed all but impossible.
Their destination was one propelled to global fame, rather a notoriety, in recent years: Mekele, capital of Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray, where war, death, and destruction have been unwelcome guests for far too long.
Since late 2020, Ethiopia has been at war with itself, and Tigray has been the battlefield.
The conflict is between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – known today as a rebel group but a force that wielded unparalleled power in Ethiopia for decades – and the federal government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Yet, it has been far more about just them, cascading into a clash of regions and cultures, ripping apart loved ones, and tearing at the very fabric of Ethiopian society.
After more than two years of devastating violence, peace seems within grasp.
Hopes have risen after the warring sides signed an agreement in South Africa in November 2022, a deal that Ethiopians want to believe has paved the way for some sort of mutual understanding and a lasting solution.
There are visible signs of progress, such as the crowds seen at the airport in Addis Ababa as flights to Mekele resumed after a shutdown lasting 18 months.
“There was a mix of feelings. People were so hopeless they questioned whether it was true or not,” Mohammed Hagos, a university lecturer in Mekele, told about the general public reaction to the November peace deal.
When the fighting was at its peak, it felt “as if the world had turned upside down,” said Mohammed, who saw the violence firsthand for more than a year before making an “adventurous and life-threatening” trek to Addis Ababa.
He said the crisis made him feel like a “second-class citizen,” particularly while trying to “escape from one part of my country to another.”
The provisions of the November agreement include immediate cessation of hostilities, restoration of basic services such as electricity and telecommunications, unimpeded humanitarian access, and withdrawal of foreign forces, particularly Eritrean troops.
Another key point is the TPLF’s disarmament and reintegration into Ethiopian politics once the government delists it as a terrorist group.
“Having access again to those basic services has given everyone hope. It is a very emotional moment when you get to hear your children’s voices after several months,” said Mohammed, who had no direct communication with his family for months.
Seeds of conflict
In a way, the war started long before the actual fighting began in October 2020, as both sides churned out divisive rhetoric and propaganda sprinkled with threats and displays of military might.
“This was a clear case of mismanagement of a political transition,” said Mukerrem Miftah, assistant professor of policy studies at the Ethiopian Civil Service University in Addis Ababa.
He was referring to the change of guard in 2018 that brought Prime Minister Abiy into power after the nearly 30-year rule of a coalition led by the TPLF.
Over a year after taking office, Abiy unveiled his Prosperity Party to replace its predecessor, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four parties representing the country’s most powerful ethnic communities based in its northern and central parts, as well as some 50 smaller groups in the south.
The TPLF, the then-dominant force in the EPRDF, refused to be part of Abiy’s new political entity and retreated to its stronghold in Tigray.
The descent into war gathered pace when the TPLF went ahead with regional elections in Tigray in Sept. 2020, defying the federal government’s decision to delay all polls due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the TPLF tried to use the results to further its claim as Tigray’s sole legitimate political authority, the all-out conflict became the only probable result and eventually erupted on Oct. 4, 2020.
Both sides blamed each other for the violence. The government contended that it was a TPLF attack on a major military base that sparked the war, while the rebels viewed the entire conflict as an invasion by Abiy’s government and its ally Eritrea.
Regardless, their clash for political power has plunged Ethiopia into a crisis of unprecedented proportions.
According to the latest figures from the African Union, the conflict has claimed up to 600,000 lives and displaced more than 2.5 million people, apart from wreaking economic and humanitarian devastation.
What brought them to the table?
The agreement has so far brought about a certain level of calm in Tigray, according to Mukerrem.
“At this point in time, the situation in northern Ethiopia is relatively stable. At least there is no active violence. From this vantage point, we can say this deal is significant,” he told Anadolu.
He also delved into what remains a burning question in the country and a source of doubt over the deal’s durability: What exactly brought the TPLF and the government to the negotiating table?
“Exhaustion was the primary factor. This war has been miscalculated by both sides, who each believed they could get a total submission from the other,” said Mukerrem.
“They no longer have the means or resources to continue this war,” he added.
Economic considerations also had a role, with the war draining the government’s budget and rendering it incapable of pursuing any sort of development project.
Over in Tigray, life was a struggle for survival as the government severed basic utilities and barred essential services such as banking.
Adding to the internal factors was the erosion of Ethiopia’s diplomatic ties with its strategic partners, including the US.
“I believe that third parties, particularly the US, played a major role in the negotiations. Not only in facilitating dialogue, but also in designing the terms and agenda,” said Mukerrem.
As the crisis festered, the US punished Ethiopia with a raft of sanctions, including its exclusion from the US African Growth and Opportunity Act duty-free trade scheme.
Just a month after the successful talks, Washington named a new ambassador to Ethiopia, a post that was vacant for nearly two years, while its allies France and Germany sent their respective foreign ministers on visits that were clear indicators of rapprochement.
A fragile peace
According to Mukerrem, there is a great need to tread carefully in terms of implementing the peace deal.
“Foremost is the issue of inclusivity, and it should be taken seriously,” he said.
For the deal to last, all stakeholders need to feel included and like they have a part in it, he added.
He warned of growing voices of discontent and claims of exclusion in regions such as Amhara and Oromia.
Cooperation is also essential for this agreement to work, particularly on points such as disarmament and cessation of hostilities, said Mukerrem.
For Mohammed, the teacher in Mekele, the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray “could be a breaking point if not handled gently.”
“Given the longstanding border issues between Eritrea and Tigray, this can be an arduous task,” he warned.
“Unless the Eritrean government is included in the peace process, it will jeopardize this push for stability in the region,” he added.
Another problem between the TPLF and the federal government relates to the border of Tigray and its neighboring Amhara region.
Amhara wants to renegotiate the borderline in a disputed area known as Welqait, a small region of over 1,300 square miles with a population of some 130,000 people.
The Tigray conflict has also raised constitutional questions in Ethiopia, as one of the TPLF’s grievances against the government is that it is centralizing power.
Making sure peace endures
For Mukerrem, “transitional justice” is essential to ensure lasting peace in Ethiopia.
“One important challenge would be mediation and ensuring justice for the crimes committed by both sides during the war,” he said.
“Unless and until justice is served to the victims of war, unless and until this is guaranteed, this peace agreement will be null and void,” he stressed.
Mohammed also urged both parties to “honor their word” while reiterating the need for an inclusive approach for sustained peace.
Another factor is the structure of the Ethiopian state, which is based on the principles of ethnic federalism, recognizing the autonomous rights, even as far as self-determination, of all ethnic groups.
According to various analysts, there is potential for more conflict in other regions of Ethiopia unless the issue of federalism is addressed and the autonomy of ethnic groups is assured as enshrined in the constitution.
This is what Mukerrem alluded to as he warned of a looming threat of unrest in central and eastern parts of Ethiopia, mainly in its largest region of Oromia, where the Oromo Liberation Army, a group the government has labeled a terrorist entity, is gaining ground and influence.
For now, as peace holds in the north and other parts of the country, Ethiopians are visibly elated but also equally on edge.