On Nov. 2, Ethiopia’s government and Tigrayan rebels signed an unexpected peace deal aimed at ending two years of brutal war that drew in Ethiopia’s erstwhile enemy-turned-ally—Eritrea—while ravaging the Tigray region and surrounding areas, exacerbating ethnic tensions, and damaging Addis Ababa’s regional and global standing. Now that a deal has been signed, many questions remain: Will Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s ambitious reform agenda get back on track? Will there be economic stability? Will there be accountability for the perpetrators of war crimes during the conflict? Foreign Policy turned to a panel of experts to comment on the country’s future.
Ethiopia’s Peace Deal Exposes Abiy Ahmed’s Unfinished Reform Agenda
When the conflict in northern Ethiopia escalated again this past August, few observers expected a quick resolution—but, paradoxically, it ended with a peace agreement in November.
Fighting the combined forces of Ethiopia’s federal army, Amhara regional militias, and Eritrea’s military, the chances of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) prevailing in a long civil war were always minimal. By signing a peace deal in November, TPLF leaders appear to have been forced to give up arms by their untenable military position.
The peace agreement may on its surface seem a humiliating defeat for the TPLF, a party that once ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist and played an outsized role as a regional power broker. However, it is also a pragmatic recalibration that demonstrates the astuteness of the party’s leadership.
The deal gives the TPLF a second lease of life and an opportunity to realize politically what it failed to achieve militarily. Ethiopia’s current constitutional order, which was largely crafted by the TPLF after it came to power in 1991, allows the party to exercise significant autonomy in administering Tigray. It also divides Ethiopia into competing ethnic fiefdoms.
The simmering competition between the Amharas and the Oromos, which seems to keep Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed busy, may erupt one day, giving the TPLF a political upper hand. By ensuring its political relevance, the TPLF has hence proved wiser than the expectations of its Western acolytes, who had anticipated that it would go on to launch an insurgency.
Overall, the TPLF played its few cards shrewdly. The agreement turns back the clock and places the TPLF at the same position that it would have been in had it peacefully ceded power to Abiy’s party prior to the outbreak of war in November 2020. With the signing of such a lopsided deal, the only risk for the TPLF is sidelining its support base.
Meanwhile, in Addis Ababa, a favorable peace deal will strengthen Abiy’s hand by stabilizing a fragile economy. While peace will be warmly welcomed by the war-torn country, it will eventually expose the prime minister’s unfinished reform agenda. The unabated war of the past two years has given an excuse to Abiy to indefinitely postpone the promise of radical political reforms that helped bring him to power. With the return of peace, these demands are likely to resurface.
Although Abiy introduced some important reforms early in his tenure, he has failed to pursue a genuine and inclusive reform agenda to heal the many political fractures that ail the country, instead opting for superficial changes that rotate around his own persona. If the tenure of the TPLF’s late strongman, Meles Zenawi, offers any lesson, it is the riskiness of building a political system around a powerful individual. Such a system will stand intact only until the demise of the individual.
Indeed, border disputes between regional states—most prominently between Amhara and Tigray—remain to be resolved. The country is still fighting a guerrilla war against the Oromo Liberation Army while attacks on ethnic minorities, especially on Amharas in Oromia, continue unabated.
On the economic front, the ruling Prosperity Party has abandoned the sharp focus of its predecessor, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, on economic progress by forfeiting the vast catalyst role that the state used to play in the economy. Lacking a coherent ideology and a broadly shared purpose, the ruling party suffers from incompetence and decadence. This is apparent from the fickleness and arbitrariness of political decisions, the complete lack of accountability for regular ethnically motivated killings, and a surge of cronyism.
As the TPLF and the Ethiopian government start to implement the terms of their agreement, they should do so with the ultimate goal of averting a similar catastrophe in the future. Now is the time to build enduring institutions that can ensure that war will no longer be the means for resolving Ethiopia’s political differences.
Only Economic Stability Can Ensure That the Peace Agreement Holds
After almost two years, the government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have agreed to stop their violent and destructive conflict and take steps toward political and security stabilization.
There are spoilers bent on disrupting this, both inside and outside Ethiopia. One of the biggest likely spoilers, however, is bound to be growing economic instability.
The international community, particularly the European Union and the United States, must support the cease-fire agreement by ensuring that there is a large economic upside to peace. The first step must be providing international political and financial support to ensure economic stabilization, followed by support for recovery.
It is clear that large parts of northern Ethiopia must be completely rebuilt, with some estimates putting the cost of reconstruction in the next three years up to $20 billion.
This monumental task is even more challenging given that Ethiopia’s macroeconomy is currently on the brink of collapse—and not simply because of the costs of the conflict. Like many countries around the world, Ethiopia has been hit hard by the global rise in fuel, food, and fertilizer prices. On top of this, rising internal and external debt service costs from the country’s infrastructure-led growth model, so applauded across the continent and beyond, adds additional strain.