The military conflict that exploded on 4 November in the Tigray region of Ethiopia was a culmination of serious tensions between the TPLF and the Federal government led by PM Abiy Ahmed. The Ethiopian government has labelled it “Operation Enforcing Law and Order”, while the TPLF called it an invasion. The conflict was sparked by an attack on the federal army division based in Tigray. The government condemned the act and stated that the TPLF had crossed a redline and declared a state of emergency in Tigray, while the House of Federation passed a resolution classifying the TPLF administration in Tigray as illegal and instructed the government to establish an interim administration for Tigray. Immediately, from various corners, voices were heard appealing for dialogue and a peaceful solution to the problem. The government vehemently rejected any dialogue with what it calls a “criminal junta”. The African Union, the UN, EU and many other international organisations and individual countries appealed for dialogue.
Was There a Door for a Diplomatic Solution?
The Ethiopian government faced concerted pressures that it should immediately declare a ceasefire and engage in dialogue with the TPLF. Two important organisations close to Ethiopia, which should play important role, are the African Union (AU) and the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). The AU was very active and the incumbent chair, South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa, dispatched an envoy to Addis Ababa to persuade the government. The visit did not yield a positive outcome. The Ethiopian government, instead, dispatched its own envoys to neighbouring countries and Europe in a diplomatic counter- offensive. Different officials visited Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, South Africa and Europe. The purpose of the visits was to convince the world that the goal of the operation is to reinforce law and order, and that the government cannot negotiate with an outlawed junta. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has not engaged significantly to deal with the current crisis in the Tigray. The incumbent chair of IGAD, the Prime Minister of Sudan, Abdallah Hamdok, spoke to the Ethiopian Prime Minister about a peaceful resolution of the crisis but besides that, there was no tangible effort made. The common perception is that IGAD has been serving Ethiopia’s interests in the region. It never tried to mediate between Eritrea and Ethiopia due to the latter’s influence, and with the change of government in Addis Ababa its significance has further diminished.
Once the military operation began, the diplomatic door was closed. Two things contributed to the closure. First, the decision by the House of Federation to outlaw the TPLF-led administration in Tigray and instruct the government to establish an interim administration: in this respect, the government could not have reversed the decision of the House of Federation and make the TPLF a legal partner in dialogue. The second factor is the popular outrage of Ethiopians following the attack on the federal army division and massacre of ethnic Amhara in Mai Khadra, allegedly committed by a TPLF-associated militia group. Under these circumstances, re-engaging with the TPLF would be political suicide for PM Abiy Ahmed and his party. Those who pushed for dialogue seemed to be oblivious of this situation.
Why Diplomatic Pressure is Perceived by the Government as Offensive
The diplomatic pressures to find a peacefully negotiated settlement for the crisis in Tigray enraged the Ethiopian government and many Ethiopians. There could be three possible reasons for this. The first is the grave nature of the crime committed by the TPLF attack on the federal army division. When it was reported, what happened to the soldiers and how it happened angered Ethiopians to the boiling point. This makes it difficult to engage in dialogue with a group that the majority of Ethiopians see as criminal. The second factor is putting the federal government and the TPLF on the same level. The international diplomatic pressure for the two parties to sit and negotiate was seen by many Ethiopians as not only unjust but also an insult, as well as an interference in its internal affairs, and, being subjected to sustained pressure, felt humiliated.
The third factor that could explain Ethiopians’ rage is related to Ethiopia’s diplomatic stature. Ethiopians take pride in their long history of successful international diplomacy. The prime minister stated this in unequivocal language during a televised session with the House of Representatives on 30 November 2020. Some of the expressions he used were, ‘we know diplomacy’, ‘we were founders of the UN’, ‘we contribute considerably to peace missions’, ‘we were a country before many of you became a country’, ‘don’t threaten us with your coins’, ‘we might be poor but we have our pride that we inherited from our grandfathers’. These are very emotional and strong words that also generated loud applause from the House of Representatives, incensed at having their great country treated no differently from weak and emerging nations.
The immense diplomatic pressure on the Ethiopian government for an immediate ceasefire and to initiate dialogue with the TPLF not only failed but might have been counterproductive in two senses. Firstly, it might have emboldened the TPLF not to surrender until it was too late, assuming that diplomatic pressure would force Abiy to opt for dialogue. Secondly, it enraged Ethiopians, which might have negative implications for the country’s relations with the international community. The federal government’s perception of the conflict as an internal affair and as enforcement of law and order closed the door to diplomatic engagement. Defining the crisis as an internal matter therefore rendered diplomatic intervention an unwarranted breach of sovereignty. Under these circumstances, organisations such as the IGAD and AU were helpless in pushing for dialogue and ceasefire.