The conflict between Tigray and Ethiopia could cause rifts with other African regions. Canada’s truth and reconciliation experience could help.

The conflict between the Ethiopian federal government and a group from within its northern state of Tigray has ended according to the Ethiopian government. The view of some analysts is that in this post-conflict phase, there remain risks of insurgency from peripheral regions of Tigray. Rather than any organized armed conflict, or armed regrouping by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the more likely outcome is ongoing sporadic violence leading up to delayed federal elections in Ethiopia, now scheduled for June 2021.

Ethiopia is a significant player in Africa’s future. Canada should support its efforts to limit further violence by considering its experience in other similar international challenges. In the wake of its newly brokered partnership with Ethiopia following Prime Minister’s Justin Trudeau’s visit to Addis Ababa in 2020, it’s time for Canada to use its experience in support of peace and progress in Ethiopia, and across the African continent more generally.

Border tensions could bring other countries into the fray

Of increasing concern for the resolution of conflict in Tigray are recent border tensions between Ethiopia and neighbouring Sudan regarding land that has long been inhabited by Ethiopian farmers in the agricultural region of al-Fashqua. Although precise borders in this area have been contested peacefully since the 1896-1902 Ethiopian-British negotiations, otherwise cordial relations between the two allied countries now appear threatened.

Any new Sudanese hostility towards Ethiopia’s border region could compel Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to act militarily. This in turn could spur Egypt to become involved to protect its interests vis-à-vis the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam. The dam draws from the Abay River or Blue Nile, which is the main tributary of the Nile River, on which Egypt depends. Heightened Ethiopia-Sudan tensions, and the prospect of Egypt backing Sudan’s position, risks magnifying regional instability. Having these tensions become an international issue will further complicate matters for Prime Minister Ahmed, and potentially undermine and distract from the urgent internal healing and rebuilding processes in Tigray.

Internationalization of Sudan-Ethiopia tensions could realign interests of some groups and create wider internal cracks in an already challenging federalist arrangement in Ethiopia. This is why the international community must keep front and centre the peacebuilding process in Tigray – which requires the confidence and commitment of the Tigrayan people.

Ethiopia’s close partners have concerns about the conflict, which is constraining any unconditional offers of help. Disabled network communications and a lack of access to the conflict area have restricted reliable and verified situational analyses. This suggests that a wide range of perceptions could be influencing the international position on the conflict. International concerns include the role of Eritrea, which neighbours Tigray to its north, and the Amhara Regional State of Ethiopia, neighbouring to the south, in the conflict; media arrests and detentions; and issues concerning humanitarian access and alleged civilian casualties. That some Ethiopia-based advocacy organizations and international actors are not viewed as free from bias is further obscuring clarity around the situation.

Post-conflict dialogue and regional security structures

To heal from the past, there needs to be a post-conflict dialogue, which considers lessons learned from past Truth and Reconciliation Commissions held in other countries. A wider national dialogue has always been planned in Ethiopia, but because there has been so much dispute over the facts of the conflict, this dialogue process may become challenged. To an extent, this is understandable in a diverse and internally competitive, ethnic federalist system which leaves little, if any, room for perceived impartiality and independence, particularly with ten regional ethnic states* and two federally administered city-states. It will, however, be essential to establish the truth regarding the facts of the conflict in order to navigate through the national dialogue process that the government seeks to facilitate.

But even if the details surrounding the conflict are established and agreed upon, the challenge then becomes the reform of the regional security structures. If this is not addressed in parallel to dialogue processes, governance and national stability will continue to be undermined.

While the constitution permits the formation of regional security forces to protect the interests of regional states, the relative strength of these security forces has amplified over the years to levels and conduct beyond the scope of the constitution. These regional militia forces have included a “Liyu Hail” (special force) capability which, like the broader regional force, is accountable directly to the regional president.

Precedent for this “Liyu” paramilitary wing was set in Ethiopia’s eastern Somali regional state. Set up originally to defend the region against the threat of an Ogaden National Liberation Front-led insurgency, the loosely structured force subsequently committed grave atrocities and human rights abuses. This Liyu concept of policing was copied in the regional states of Oromia and Amhara, and continued to grow in capacity after Prime Minister Abiy came to power.

Tigray’s regional security architecture is no exception to this setup. It was already quite expansive due to the northern region’s lead role in supporting the armed insurgency which, in 1991, overthrew the Derg military dictatorship. Tigray further increased its militia capacity following both forced and voluntary 2018 retirements of senior Tigrayan officers of the national defence forces, which brought an influx of experienced and knowledgeable operational leaders back to the region.

Truth and clarity are also required on issues concerning regional security structures, not only in Tigray but also in other regions with large militia build up. A recently reformed legal proclamation restricting the development of civil society groups with an interest in security studies has, since 1991, limited useful national data on this issue.

There is ambiguity surrounding the number of sworn members of regional and special forces, the types of weapons they can use, and the circumstances in which force can be deployed. The prospect for future regional-federal tensions will only increase if regional militia and special forces, with different lines of authority than federal forces, are maintained.  Clarity around these issues is particularly important for a pluralist democratic federalist system, which could benefit from different political party affiliations co-existing between regional and federal jurisdictions in the future.

The Ethiopian government should consider inviting a respected, independent and impartial adjudicator to assist with post-conflict dialogue and strategic communications. This would add legitimacy to the country’s reporting on key issues – clarity which is vital to the relationship between the Tigrayan population and the federal government. Too much of the federal government’s focus is on fire-fighting less-than-substantiated allegations, which only legitimizes the allegations and dilutes the progress required on the key priorities of healing and reconciliation.

Based on its view that outside mediation was neither desired nor appropriate, the Ethiopian government declined the African Union’s arbitrary appointment of three former presidents as mediators. The government has initiated a broader national dialogue involving a Reconciliation Commission and an independent committee of facilitators. Independent adjudication to verify alleged facts on the ground from the Tigray conflict is necessary to give traction to this homegrown dialogue process.

Drawing from international lessons learned

There is a long history of truth and reconciliation commissioners in South Africa, Australia and Canada. In South Africa, the process involved creating a forum where victims and perpetrators could testify without fear of prosecution on the cruelty of Apartheid. In Canada, the process was initiated by Prime Minister Stephen Harper following his apology to Indigenous Peoples for the cruelty and trauma of Residential schools. The process helped establish the truth and form a basis for reparations for survivors. The lack of commonly shared “truth” in Ethiopia between some groups creates a need for a commission. The commission would investigate the legitimate concerns that moderate and non-violent Tigrayans might have, allowing Abiy’s government to make progress towards strengthening the Ethiopian federation.

Ethiopians hold national flags as they gather at an event organized by city officials to honor the Ethiopian military, at the Abebe Bikila stadium in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Nov. 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

A commission could specify the nature of its mission and the questions it would consider before preparing its recommendations. Two co-chairs, perhaps a prominent and respected Ethiopian academic or judicial figure well-versed in the unique structures of Ethiopian federalism, and an external eminent person, could – together with regional religious and traditional leaders — oversee the data collection, data processing and subsequent dialogue concerning conflict-related issues.

Canada’s contribution to the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, as part of the Northern Ireland peace process, has relevance to this proposal. Former Chief of Defence Staff, John de Chastelain, supported by reputable Finnish and American representatives, was chosen to chair the commission. The appointment of a Catholic bishop to work with General Chastelain as co-chair for the commission resonates with the integral role of traditional and religious leaders in supporting Ethiopia’s conflict resolution tradition.

An active or retired military leader may be a good choice for co-chairing the Ethiopian commission, because of the non-partisan nature of the military. Such a leader would bring knowledge and insight when developing a workable solution for Ethiopia’s regional security structures.

Knowledge of the country, its federal dynamics, as well as experience with the Tigrayan people, matters. A reputable individual who served with the UN Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia (UNMEE) following the 1998-2000 Ethiopian-Eritrea conflict could be of value. Canada played a very positive role in that UN mission.

For Canada, beyond the implicit value of supporting democratic federalism in Ethiopia, and contributing to peace, stability and opportunity across the African continent, there is an opportunity to make real the professed global engagement implicit in the “Canada is back slogan. Foreign policy is about principles, values and interests, and how competently a government advances them in complex global contexts. With recent events in the United States impacting on the perception of its own soft power equity, Canada should not reduce its own soft power projection – one supported by a strong commitment to democratic norms.

Canada’s impact in the past – in Cyprus, in the Middle East and Suez, in Sri Lanka, in Bosnia, on the ending of Apartheid in South Africa – has been real because Canadian leaders and diplomats engaged in situations where Canada could play a constructive role.

Ethiopia plays a major role in the future of Africa. Its legitimate effort at addressing, what appears to have been, an attempted armed attack from some TPLF elements, could benefit from Canadian support and involvement. Canada has genuine experience in similar contexts in other international challenges. It is time to offer that experience in support of peaceful resolution, conciliation and progress in Ethiopia.

Note to readers: This article has been corrected to reflect that Ethiopia has ten regional ethnic states. A previous version said there were nine. 

Photo: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, right, walk together in the newly opened “Unity Park”, which has a zoo, museum, palace, playground and green areas, in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Feb. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)