How a religious festival turned into a massacre
08:29 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

When Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, he was lauded as a regional peacemaker. A year later, he launched a conflict that spiraled into a brutal civil war, spawning one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.

In November 2020, Abiy ordered a military offensive in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region and promised that the clash would be resolved quickly. Two years on, the fighting has left thousands dead, displaced more than 2 million people and given rise to a wave of atrocities, including massacres, sexual violence and the use of starvation as a weapon of war.

Ethiopia was struggling with significant economic, ethnic and political challenges long before a feud between Abiy and the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), bubbled over into unrest and threatened to pull Africa’s second-most populous country apart.

Now, after years of grinding conflict, the Ethiopian government and the leadership of the TPLF have agreed to cease hostilities and pull the country back from the brink. But the surprise truce leaves many questions unanswered, with few details on how it will be implemented and monitored.

Here’s a closer look at what’s happening in Ethiopia.

How did the conflict start?

An Ethiopian refugee prays at an Orthodox church near a refugee camp in Gedaref, eastern Sudan, on December 6, 2020.

The Tigray conflict has its roots in tensions that go back generations in Ethiopia.

The country is made up of 10 regions – and two cities – that have a substantial amount of autonomy, including regional police and militia. Because of a previous conflict with neighboring Eritrea, there are also a large number of federal troops in Tigray. Regional governments are largely divided along entrenched ethnic lines.

Before Abiy Ahmed came to power, the TPLF had governed Ethiopia with an iron grip for decades, overseeing a period of stability and economic growth at the cost of basic civil and political rights. The party’s authoritarian rule provoked a popular uprising that ultimately forced Abiy’s predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, to resign.

In 2018, Abiy was appointed by the ruling class to quell tensions and bring change, without upending the old political order. But almost as soon as he became prime minister, Abiy announced the rearrangement of the ruling coalition that the TPLF had founded – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front, or EPRDF, which was composed of four parties – into a single, new Prosperity Party, ostracizing the TPLF in the process.

In his drive for a new pan-Ethiopian political party, Abiy sparked fears in some regions that the country’s federal system – which guarantees significant autonomy to ethnically-defined states such as Tigray – was under threat. Leaders in Tigray withdrew to their mountainous heartland in the north, where they continued to control their own regional government.

Tensions boiled over in September 2020, when the Tigrayans defied Abiy by going ahead with regional parliamentary elections that he had delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Abiy called the vote illegal and lawmakers cut funding to the TPLF leadership, setting off a tit-for-tat series of escalations between the regional and the federal government.

On November 4, 2020, after accusing the TPLF of attacking a federal army base outside Tigray’s regional capital Mekelle and attempting to steal its weapons, Abiy ordered a military assault against the group, sending in national troops and fighters from the neighboring region of Amhara, along with soldiers from Eritrea. Getachew Reda, a senior TPLF leader, said in an op-ed in Foreign Policy that the group attacked the base in an “act of self-defense.” CNN cannot confirm the claims of either side.

Abiy declared the offensive a success after just three weeks, but the conflict dragged on for two years, with both sides trading control over the regional capital Mekelle, gaining and losing ground.

An earlier humanitarian ceasefire broke down in August and fighting has intensified in the months since. The clashes, combined with a lack of fuel and the communications blackout, has severely curtailed aid distribution to the region.

On October 17, amid reports of heavy bombing in Shire and other Tigrayan cities, and food supplies running out in the regional capital Mekelle triggering fears of famine, UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated that the situation in the Tigray region was “spiraling out of control,” and that the violence had “reached alarming levels.”

The UN chief called for an “immediate withdrawal and disengagement of Eritrean armed forces from Ethiopia,” and the urgent resumption of talks, which had been due to take place in September.

A damaged tank on a road north of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, on February 26

What does the peace agreement actually mean?

After just over a week of formal peace talks mediated by the African Union (AU) in South Africa’s administrative capital Pretoria, delegates from both sides of Ethiopia’s war agreed to a “permanent cessation of hostilities.” The surprise truce was signed by Getachew Reda from the TPLF and Redwan Hussein, national security adviser to Ethiopia’s federal government, on the eve of the second anniversary of the start of the war, on November 3.

The document laid out a number of key objectives, including the disarmament of fighters, unhindered humanitarian access to Tigray, repairing essential services in the region, providing a framework for accountability and justice, and restoring some semblance of stability in the country.

“We have agreed to permanently silence the guns and end the two years of conflict in northern Ethiopia,” both sides said in a joint statement, published after delegates shook hands.

Those involved in mediating the deal signaled that it was just the first in a long series of steps toward negotiating a more enduring peace. Mediators have also warned that forces fighting on the ground could easily disrupt the pact. Still, the UN has called it a “critical first step” towards ending the conflict.

“This is not the end of the peace process but the beginning of it,” said Olusegun Obasanjo, the AU’s high representative for the Horn of Africa and a former Nigerian president, who first announced the deal.

Abiy, whose military, backed by Eritrean forces, has made rapid gains in Tigray over recent weeks, celebrated the conclusion of the talks, saying: “Our commitment to peace remains steadfast. And our commitment to collaborating for the implementation of the agreement is equally strong.”

But how the deal will be implemented is unclear, with analysts pointing out that the text raises more questions than it answers.

“These kinds of agreements should include constructive ambiguity, on the issues that are contested,” Kjetil Tronvoll, an expert on Ethiopian politics at Bjorknes University College in Norway, told CNN. “But here it’s not constructive it’s more destructive, in that it will undermine the trust process and could possibly jeopardize the durability of the agreement.”

Representatives from Ethiopia and the TPLF and mediators at a press conference announcing the agreement in Pretoria, South Africa.

There are a number of points in the agreement that Tronvoll said raise concerns, particularly one issue that was omitted entirely: the status of Eritrean forces in Tigray, which the text makes no mention of in spite of their outsized role in the conflict. Though the agreement states that the Ethiopian military will be deployed along the country’s borders, it does not specify whether they will ensure Eritrea’s withdrawal. “I don’t see any sustainable peace process if Eritrean forces are still on the ground,” Tronvoll said.

The deal is widely being seen as a capitulation by the TPLF, which, by Getachew’s own account, have suffered huge losses since hostilities resumed. “In order to address the pains of our people, we have made concessions because we have to build trust,” he said, adding that civilians and fighters were dying as he spoke.