Hawzen dirt street, Ethiopia, with remains of bombed-out dwellings, destroyed type 89 AFV contrasted by mules carrying food.
A Type 89 AFV destroyed by fighting in Hawzen (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tigray_War#/media/File:VOA_Hawzen5.jpg)

The Ethiopia-Tigray War is About to Get Even Worse

Last March, there seemed to be a glimmer of hope that the brutal civil war between the Ethiopian federal government and the breakaway Tigray People’s Liberation Front would come to an end. The government announced a ceasefire and an African Union led peace process was underway.

The conflict began two years earlier, in November 2020 with clashes between Tigrayan regional forces and federal government troops. It quickly escalated. This included the intervention of Eritrean troops to support the Ethiopian government.  Over the ensuing months, the conflict caused the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. There’s been severe food shortages, a humanitarian blockade, a telecoms blackout and massive displacement.

Thus, that moment in March when a ceasefire was declared — was extremely welcome. But just four months later, the ceasefire was shattered and now the conflict is entering a new and dangerous phase as Eritrea is re-entering the conflict in a very big way.

In this episode, we are joined by Zecharias Zelalem, a freelance journalist who covers Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa to discuss how we got to this point. We begin our conversation by discussing the circumstances that lead to this ceasefire and its dissolution before talking about the current trajectory of the Ethiopia-Tigray conflict.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

Why was there a ceasefire in Ethiopia and Tigray in March?

Zecharias Zelalem [00:00:00] Whether it was prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine or after, there was definitely not the sort of urgency that a conflict of this nature required, and I think that’s very problematic. The cease fire was the result of about 4 to 5 months of shuttle diplomacy and the fledgling African Union led mediation efforts. For the longest period, the Ethiopian government had refused to entertain the possibility of roundtable talks but then it conceded on that front when the Tigrayan forces nearly made a push for the capital city in fighting late October of 2021. So, four or five months of African Union led mediation between the Tigrayan forces and Ethiopian troops led to both sides, at least publicly stating their willingness to solve things via the round table talks. Nevertheless, for journalists, it was very difficult to determine where things were with the peace talks because there was no transparency, there were no updates, there was no progress bulletins, if you will. But suddenly, in late March, March 24th, the Ethiopian government announced that it had declared a unilateral cease fire. And the funny thing is that cease fire not only caught us journalists off guard, but it even caught the Tigrayan regional government itself off guard. It, too, did not expect Ethiopian government to suddenly declare a cease fire, but it, to a day or two later said, okay, we will go with this. We will cease fighting and attempt to solve things at the round table talks. So that’s how on March 24th, both sides allowed African Union mediators to take over and for the very limited flow of humanitarian aid into the region.

What is the timeline of fighting between Tigrayan forces and the Ethiopian government?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:02] It also seemed that the battlefield dynamics contributed to this moment, this declaration of a cease fire. As you said, Tigrayan forces pushed close to the capital, Addis Ababa. They were repelled by a counter offensive, by the Ethiopian government, and by March of this year, it seemed that there was a real stalemate in fighting. Is that a fair assessment?

Zecharias Zelalem [00:05:30] Yeah. By January of this year, Ethiopian military and Eritrean forces were relatively uninvolved in the fighting that was limited to fighting on the Afar front or involving Tigrayan forces and Afar regional government forces. And as you said, fighting was pretty much at a very, very bloody stalemate with very little in terms of military gains and advances by either side. And the deeper we get into 2022, eventually the rainy season would come, making it very difficult for tanks to maneuver through the highlands with the very heavy rain and the mud. So, a lull in fighting was always on the cards. And that happened to coincide with the cease fire that was agreed to in late March.

Why did the Tigrayan-Ethiopian ceasefire end?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:19] So we had diplomatic opportunity for a cease fire to be declared and the battlefield dynamics suggested that a ceasefire would happen, and it did happen. Yet here we are, months later, the ceasefire formally ended in August. What happened? How did this cease fire fall apart?

Zecharias Zelalem [00:06:43] So the thing about fighting and conflicts in Ethiopia is that there’s a very familiar blueprint, one that observers even saw dating back to the 1998-2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean war. And that is that if there is a lull in fighting sometime between March and June of any year, negotiators, the diplomatic community or anyone at large really has a 4 to 5 month period to establish a concrete cease fire, an agreement of sorts between the two fighters, because come late August and September, the dry season returns to Ethiopia, and then suddenly the forces are able to move around with much greater ease. I had written a piece about this last year, too, in response to the Ethiopian government’s declaration of a cease fire in late June after they were pushed out of Tigray. And observers then also thought that there was a possibility that things could be resolved that an agreement between the factions could be reached but two or three months later, nothing happened, and fighting continued to escalate. So, in March of this year, when a cease fire was agreed to once again, the African Union, as well as the United States, the European Union and other international players who had declared their willingness to be involved in the mediation effort once again had about a four- or five-month window in which to seal something concrete. And as I said earlier, the mediation effort lacked transparency. There were no updates. The African Union’s envoy, the man supposed to be overseeing the effort, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo made perhaps one or two public statements, leaving it up to speculation for us to guess if they were able to build on the initial progress or if things were backfiring. And I think it was about two or three weeks prior to the breakout of hostilities again in late August, the international community was again left at large, if you will. I think it was a US official in Addis Ababa who said something to the nature of that they were still waiting for a timetable, a time, and a schedule for proposed peace talks in South Africa or Kenya from the African Union. So, people were still discussing the logistics and the basics of the next phase of talks when suddenly fighting broke out again August 24th. So that 4 to 5 months, the window, the rainy season period, well, that’s now evaporated so we’re back into Ethiopia’s summer dry, hot season and the conditions are ripe for fighting again. So that was an excellent opportunity to seal a longer lasting agreement and unfortunately, that opportunity has come and gone.

What occurred in the peace talks between Tigrayan forces and the Ethiopian government?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:29] Does your reporting thus far suggest that this unilaterally declared cease fire by the Ethiopian government was merely just an opportunity to rearm and reassess during rainy season in order to launch a new offensive when rainy season ended? Or does your reporting suggest that there were actually meaningful progress towards negotiating with the Tigrayans towards some sort of cease fire?

Zecharias Zelalem [00:09:59] Well, see, that’s where the lack of transparency comes in, because both sides publicly and repeatedly reiterated a desire to solve things via roundtable talks. However, mass recruitment drives by all of the warring factions never halted during this cease fire period. And later on, as war broke out deliveries of weapons and armaments were being made and were reported. And even Ethiopian Airlines, the country’s national airline, Ethiopian Airlines, was reported to be delivering armaments and fighters towards the front lines. So, these facts, combined with the fact that there was really no way to guess whether or not any of the factions were negotiating in good faith, made it impossible for anyone to really get a good idea of whether or not there was a concrete effort by the two factions, especially the Ethiopian government, to reach a cease fire. One of the major sticking points, and I argue perhaps the main reason why fighting broke out again is the fact that there was no progress whatsoever with regards to a timetable for the restoration of severed communications and banking services in Tigray.

Why is Tigray so hard to reach?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:12] It’s important, I think, to emphasize just how cut off Tigray has been since the start of this conflict. One of the recurring themes I’ve read in your reporting and reporting from other journalists is just how inaccessible Tigray is. Journalists aren’t allowed there. There are no telecoms. There are no banking services. It’s like a black box.

Zecharias Zelalem [00:11:34] Very much so. It has been like that since November 2020, so for 23 months and counting now you have some 7 million people cut off from the outside world, and that has hampered everything from humanitarian aid deliveries to day-to-day life. Electricity has been cut off across swaths of the region, especially after the bombarding of the Tekeze dam, which provided much of the region’s hydroelectricity. So, with no repairs, no restoration of the communications, it’s made even aid deliveries extremely difficult. And I think the count last year was something like 900,000 people in need of emergency food aid and exposed to famine and Ethiopian government’s implementation of a humanitarian blockade pretty much left the whole region in need of emergency food and cut off from the rest of the world. So as journalists, it was impossible for us to verify anything, whether it’s the advances by both the warring factions, to just how dire the humanitarian situation had become.

How did the ceasefire end in Ethiopia in August?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:39] So in that context in which Tigray is cut off from telecoms, from Internet, from banking, from humanitarian aid, and in which the Ethiopian government is apparently rearming and ready for a new fight, how in August does fighting actually break out on the ground and is the short-lived cease fire formally ended?

Zecharias Zelalem [00:13:05] So that’s the thing. Both sides, the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan forces blame each other for firing the first bullet that triggered fighting on both the Western fronts, which would be towards the Welkeit areas as well as on the southern front bordering areas of the Amhara region, Wollo in the Amhara region. It is unclear, it’s impossible for journalists and independent observers to verify exactly what happened. But within days the Tigrayan forces managed to make advances and capture the town of Kobo, which over the course of the past two years has exchanged hands multiple times. And within weeks, the Eritrean government had launched a massive new invasion from the north and news of course emerged that Eritrean forces had recruited fighters en masse, including all reservists aged 55 and under. And those reports made it very clear that the Eritrean soldiers were dug in and had been preparing for the breakout of hostilities for some time. And it’s one of the reasons why many argue whether or not there was any true intention by the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments to solidify anything through peace talks. As it stands now, publicly, at least, Ethiopian Foreign Ministry states its willingness to go back to the African Union mediated cease fire initiative, but its forces are dug in. They’ve actually made gains. They’ve captured the town of Sheraro in recent weeks and you may have seen satellite imagery, which appears to depict scores of troops advancing on Tigrayan positions. They do have the impetus and the upper hand having made some gains in recent days so I guess the jury would be out on this. It’s very difficult to see how they would halt their advance now and progress with the mediation effort, which was fledgling from the beginning and doesn’t appear to really have the ability to force the sides to make concessions.

Does it seem like Ethiopia’s attack on Tigray will continue to escalate?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:06] I wanted to ask you about the significance of Eritrea’s apparent general mobilization on behalf of their ally, Ethiopia, against their common foe, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in this new iteration of fighting. As you noted, it was previously reported that the Eritrean government is summoning massive numbers of troops to send to this conflict. What is the significance of that apparent escalation and what do you expect might happen because of it?

Zecharias Zelalem [00:15:47] Well, militarily it could be pretty decisive because when it comes to the Ethiopian military and the Tigray forces, both have recruited from populations that are not that militarized. When I say that, I say that in the sense that the Eritrean government has maintained a policy of conscripting all men and women the moment they turn 18 into their armed forces and it’s been that way since 1996, I believe.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:12] Yeah, I read a UN report not long ago that argued forcefully that this mass conscription of every Eritrean is a form of population control and is the reason that so many Eritreans are trying to flee the country but regardless, it is a highly militarized society because of this forced conscription. Thus, you’re arguing these are actually like trained fighters as opposed to other conscripts from the Tigrayan or Ethiopian side?

Zecharias Zelalem [00:16:42] Exactly. Nearly everyone, all Eritrean adults, male or female, have some basic military training and of course, a good section of the army has been involved in fighting over the course of the past two years in Tigray. In that sense, it’s a very experienced military in comparison with Tigrayan forces, which have really had to build themselves from scratch in the sense that barely two years ago they were, for the most part, a collection of regional police officers mandated with keeping the peace in the Tigray region and the Ethiopian army, which over the course of the past two years lost a good section of its fighting force and has been forced to recruit from the Ethiopian masses over the past 6 to 7 months or so. So, the Ethiopian army is relatively staffed with poorly trained recruits, with very little fighting experience and the same could be said to some degree of the Tigrayan forces. So, in that sense, the insertion of some reports say up to 100,000 Eritrean soldiers into Tigray over the past two or three weeks could prove decisive. And that probably explains the recent battleground victories and gains made by the Ethiopian and Eritrean troops in the north, especially with the capture of Sheraro.

Who is favored to win in the fighting between Ethiopia and Tigray?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:00] So does this new dynamic on the battlefield, the entrance of perhaps 100,000 Eritrean forces suggest any new end game or scenario in which the Tigrayans might lose this conflict?

Zecharias Zelalem [00:18:17] I mean, the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces had captured the majority of Tigray and the Tigrayan capital Mikelle by late 2020 but as any observer of conflicts would tell you, simply capturing territory is one thing and completely pacifying a region is something else. In the eyes of the Tigrayans, these are invading forces, there’s very little confidence that Ethiopian troops and Eritrean troops would be able to establish any sort of normalcy, especially since the memories of the Ethiopian and Eritrean control of Tigray — the period of November 2020 to June 2021 — are very fresh. A period in which these two forces committed a litany of abuses, massacres, sexual violence, ethnic cleansing against the population so for most Tigrayans, the only alternative would be to fight to the end. Even the insertion of 100,000 Eritrean troops wouldn’t suffice. I think on concrete initiative to win, hearts and minds should have been mended into any fighting initiative and of course, that hasn’t been visible at all in either the conduct of the troops or Ethiopian and Eritrean state media. So, the recent developments simply point to a continuation of what is essentially a quagmire, and I don’t really see any prompt end to this war through fighting. A military solution seems some way off. And of course, when it comes to Ethiopia, we also have to take into account the fact that there is another war in the south and west of the country where the Oromo Liberation Army is engaged in fighting with Ethiopian troops. And on that battle front, the Oromo Liberation Army have not lost any territory or any towns and villages over the course of the past seven months. They may even have the upper hand, one could say.

What are international powers doing about the fighting between Tigrayan and Ethiopian forces, and the Ethiopian government’s crimes against humanity?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:20:08] So as the conflict in Tigray is entering a new phase on the ground have you seen any commensurate increase in diplomatic activity by the United States, by the African Union or others seeking to once again try to mediate a political solution to this conflict?

Zecharias Zelalem [00:20:34] Well, all the major players all say that they’re involved in one degree or another sides of the shuttle diplomacy or with talks involving the various factions but considering just how bad things have gotten with hundreds of thousands of fighters being involved, with a humanitarian blockade, famine for over a year, I do detect a very concerning lack of urgency with regards to the diplomatic community. The conflict in Ethiopia, the death and destruction that is caused is far worse than what we’ve seen in Ukraine, for instance. One can argue that it mirrors what we’ve seen in Yemen and in Syria in recent years and yet that tone of urgency, perhaps that we noted maybe a year ago has really just been toned down.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:21:19] And do you think that’s a consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that diplomatic efforts and the international community’s efforts and frankly, their pocketbooks when it comes to donating to humanitarian causes has been just consumed by the Ukraine crisis at the expense of the arguably much worse in terms of humanitarian applications, conflict in Tigray and Ethiopia?

Why is there a lack of urgency in the international community about the crisis in Ethiopia and Tigray?

Zecharias Zelalem [00:21:44] One could definitely say that, but then in order to say that one would also have to argue that much of the diplomatic community had a very strong stance prior to February 2022, prior to the breakout of war in Ukraine. And one could say that much of these states were relatively mellow then too. The United States and the European Union did pass sanctions targeting the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, but these were obviously not enough to sway any of the warring factions in to, for instance, keeping their various forces in check and making a concrete effort to prevent them from carrying out human rights abuses and crimes against humanity. A recent U.N. probe revealed that crimes against humanity happened and are still happening at an alarming pace, so whether it was prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine or after, there was definitely not the sort of urgency that a conflict of this nature required. And I think that’s very problematic because it seems that the Yemeni model for long, drawn out bloody conflicts as far away from European shores is becoming more and more normalized. You know, that has devastating implications that will impact populations for years to come.

What is the current humanitarian situation in Tigray?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:23:02] The world is willing to live with long, drawn out conflict, humanitarian crises so far as they are far enough from European shores. On the situation inside Tigray right now, I know that telecoms, internet is all shut off, but do you as a journalist have ways to contact people in Tigray? To contact sources? And if so, what are you learning about the humanitarian situation there?

Zecharias Zelalem [00:23:32] There are very limited communication portals, and we normally reach out to sources, people on the ground, if they have access to these portals, which are operated by the very few international humanitarian organizations still on the ground. So, this would be satellite phones and satellite Internet, but this is very limited and still updates are not daily. They’re very fleeting. And we might hear of the devastation in a certain town or region months after it happens. What we do have is a relatively reliable flow of information when it comes to the drone attacks that have increased in recent weeks. So, hospital sources will get the information: death toll, casualties on drone attacks and the Ethiopian and Eritrean air force activity in towns and villages in Tigray. So that’s been relatively reliable. We can count on that. But even then, there are differences. So, when it comes to drone attacks in the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle, we can get almost instant updates. Whereas for instance, the alleged Eritrean Air Force destruction of Adi Daro, a town in a far more remote area of Tigray, we weren’t able to get any established data for days. So, there are differences in that regard. When it comes to the mass displacement of peoples, we can get concrete data if we reach IDPs that have left the region, for instance, those that might be settling in the regional Afar or Amhara territories, because communications in those areas have not been cut off. And it’s why I can report to you that something like 30,000 ethnic Afar civilians have been displaced in fighting in recent days after a Tigrayan push into the region. So, as I said, other than the drone attacks, the true scope of the humanitarian toll, for instance, famine deaths, no one has been able to adequately uncover as of yet. And I fear that that’s a horror that we will know only when Internet and basic communications are restored.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:25:44] In the coming weeks or months even, are there any inflection points that you’ll be looking towards that will suggest to you how this crisis will evolve?

Zecharias Zelalem [00:25:57] The African Union postponed its peace talks that were supposed to be held in South Africa. There was face to face talks that were supposed to be held last weekend in South Africa. Those talks were postponed due to either logistical reasons or behind the scenes diplomatic bickering. That’s all up for speculation. But due to the urgency of the situation on the ground, an increase, an uptick in fighting, I think within the very first two meetings, some sort of a deal, at least for a cessation of hostilities will have to be reached immediately. And as a result, I think on the side of the Tigrayan negotiators, there will be a much greater urgency for at least a temporary deal that brings the fighting to a halt, because at least on the battlefield, they are to some degree, on the back foot for the time being. So, within the very first face to face meetings that are scheduled sometime in the near future in South Africa, if nothing concrete is reached, we may unfortunately have to wait for things to play out on the battlefield for weeks, if not months to come. So that’s what the current scenario on the ground projects; it’s not a very promising projection, but there’s been very little reason to be optimistic with anything when it comes to Ethiopia’s civil war.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:27:14] Zecharias, thank you so much for your time and for your continued very valuable reporting on this crisis.

Zecharias Zelalem [00:27:21] Thank you for having me, Mark. I appreciate it.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:27:30] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp. Today’s episode was produced in part through the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York as part of a series of episodes showcasing African voices on peace and security issues in Africa. The views and opinions expressed in this episode belong solely to those of us who expressed these views and opinions.