This week will mark a year since the start of the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Twelve months in, the conflict is widening, the human toll is devastating, and the prospects for peace more remote than ever. The future of the Ethiopian state is so uncertain that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) declined to release a forecast for the country in the latest World Economic Outlook. No credible observers believe there can be a lasting military solution to the multiple conflicts tearing apart the Ethiopian state, yet vast obstacles stand in the way of political solutions.
The latest reports from the ground, where solid information remains difficult to obtain due to communications blackouts and restrictions on journalists, suggest that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s October offensive is foundering. Tigrayan forces appear to have captured new territory further south than they have pushed before, while their allies (for now) in the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) have also made gains in their offensive. The advance of forces opposed to Abiy have led to warnings from the State Department and prompted the prime minister and his allies in Amhara to exhort citizens to stop all normal activity and join the fight.
Meanwhile, federal forces continue to strangle the Tigray region, obstructing humanitarian access and waging a sustained aerial bombardment campaign. UN reports reveal a desperate and deteriorating situation, with hundreds of thousands experiencing famine—and millions more at risk—over 60 percent of pregnant and lactating women experiencing malnutrition, and rising rates of severe, acute malnutrition in children under five. Toxic rhetoric casting all Ethiopians of Tigrayan descent as enemies is on the rise, as are mass arrests and other forms of persecution.
The deteriorating situation will doubtlessly lead external actors to redouble their calls for a negotiated, political solution to the conflict. But pity the diplomats charged with this effort. Since the outset of the conflict, the antagonists have delegitimized each other—the federal government insists it is fighting terrorist organizations in the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the OLA, and those parties do not recognize the July elections that gave Abiy a mandate to continue leading the country and accuse him of crimes against humanity. These positions, nearly impossible to walk back, threaten to make talks aimed at any kind of peaceful coexistence nonsensical.
The problem is now compounded by a total absence of trust and credibility. Abiy and his allies complain of shadowy international conspiracies aimed at restoring Tigrayan dominance—a result of the all-too-real history of TPLF oppression, but also a convenient way to dismiss international dismay at the country’s unraveling. At the same time, the prime minister’s misrepresentations and untruths have eroded his credibility as a serious negotiating partner and called into question his capacity to rein in the forces unleashed in his campaign, be they Eritrean troops or Amhara militia. The only strong card in the weak hand of diplomats trying to douse the flames in Ethiopia is the increasing likelihood that if Ethiopian leaders stay their current course, the country is headed for collapse. Would-be peacemakers will need to enlist unconventional partners and find trusted moral authorities to help patch together their efforts, even as they prepare for scenarios in which overt fractures in Abiy’s coalition further complicate the field.