Seventeen months of brutal civil war in northern Ethiopia have created a ghastly humanitarian crisis. Fighting between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal government and its allies and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, large-scale displacement, economic instability and a devastating famine.
On the battlefields, the pendulum has swung back and forth between the TPLF and the federal forces. Initially, the federal army and its allies defeated Tigrayan forces within three weeks. But the Tigrayans regained control of much of the region in June 2021 and made significant gains into the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions, and even began marching towards the capital, Addis Ababa. But in November 2021, the federal forces halted the Tigrayan advance to Addis with a drone-assisted military offensive, which resulted in Tigrayan forces withdrawing into their own region. Federal forces said they would not pursue them into Tigray. Tigrayan forces have since retaken control of certain parts of the neighbouring Afar region.
After all this, the two sides appear to have finally realised the writing on the wall: total military victory is beyond reach.
While the situation remains fragile, the conditions for peace seem to have ripened. After weeks of diplomacy by the African Union and other foreign parties, on March 24, Abiy announced a “humanitarian truce”. While insignificant in view of the enormous needs, humanitarian provisions have started to flow to Tigray. The rhetoric has also shifted significantly towards the need for compromise, and zero-sum thinking may be giving way to a realisation of the inevitability of co-existence.
To build on the progress, the warring parties must take concrete steps to recognise the legitimate fears and grievances of the other.
The spectre of war remains because of the continuance of government-imposed restrictions on access to Tigray, particularly for humanitarian aid; occasional attacks on federal forces by the TPLF which continues to control parts of the Afar region to the east; and because of disputes between Tigray and the Amhara region over identity and land issues in the west.
In the short term, the federal and Afar governments should facilitate a hastened flow of humanitarian provisions. Further routes for aid supplies through the Amhara region could also be considered. In turn, the TPLF needs to end its control of Afar areas, which has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
The TPLF is understandably wary of another federal offensive, and could be using the control of Afar areas as a defensive strategy, in view of their proximity to Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital.
To allay these fears, Abiy and his Eritrean allies should publicly reject the possibility of any future offensive into Tigray before starting to chart negotiated long-term solutions.
Furthermore, the federal government could cement the leap towards peace by removing the TPLF’s designation as a terrorist organisation.
Perhaps the thorniest obstacle to sustainable peace remains the dispute between Amhara and Tigray over Raya and Western Tigray/Welkait Tsegede. The two areas have been contested since the 1990s when they came under Tigrayan control. Amhara forces took control of both locales after the start of the war in November 2020, with the help of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces. Then TPLF forces retook Raya in June 2021.
Preventing an endless cycle of localised conflict necessitates public commitment from both sides to politically resolve these historical grievances.
Beyond this regional issue, sustainable peace requires a feasible nationwide dialogue. So far, the inclusiveness, transparency and communication around the establishment of the National Dialogue Commission and appointment of its members has been abysmal. But the process is not irredeemable.
The process has generated legitimate questions on the genuineness of the dialogue initiative, and even calls for a boycott. Ethiopian officials have rejected including the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Army, another armed group fighting the federal government in the Oromia region since late 2018. The commission would be more likely to be effective with the involvement of all parties to the conflicts.
Beyond an inclusive and participatory process, the success of the dialogue may require a statesperson capable of offering the political backing to move it forward. President Sahle-Work Zewde is the head of state, but hers is a largely ceremonial position and she lacks the necessary political clout, energy and resources to discharge the multifaceted support that dialogue needs.
Arguably, Abiy, who is justifiably criticised for being part of the problem, would be in a better position to steer the country towards peace, if he made a commitment to leave power after his current term ends in 2026. Such a promise could ease tensions by winning the confidence of the opposition, and it would free him to pursue interests beyond short-term political and party calculations necessary to address divisions within his party. A commitment to leave at the end of his term would offer better prospects for the country’s future (and for Abiy’s legacy), than the establishment of a transitional government or even an immediate resignation.
Whether any of these prescriptions are achievable remains to be seen. Seizing the fragile momentum for peace requires a shift away from the reflex to assume the worst of our rivals and towards recognising the legitimate concerns of others. The pull of hatred and mistrust are hard to shake off, but Ethiopia’s prospects for peace and survival demand no less than rediscovering the humanity of our adversaries. This is not a call to exonerate our political elites from accountability, but an affirmation of the need to seek atonement and justice through deliberation and dialogue.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.