ine months after the signing of the Pretoria Accords aimed at ending the devastating two-year conflict in northern Ethiopia that has claimed more than 600,000 lives, the city of Mekelle remains eerily quiet.Still, scattered signs of hope have emerged. Numerous cafes, bars and restaurants bear the name ‘Pretoria’ written in Tigrinya on their facades – a nod to the agreement residents hoped would finally bring peace.
“When the war first broke out, many of us in Mekelle tried to stay neutral, seeing it as a power struggle between the TPLF [Tigray People Liberation Front] and federal government,” says Elilta Yohannes, a university student before the war now working as a waitress. “But after witnessing the brutal crimes against Tigrayans, neutrality was no longer an option.”
Elilta lost two brothers in the fighting.
“I’m proud they defended our people,” she says. “But I also mourn those who died on the other side – their lives sacrificed for a needless conflict.”
The Pretoria Accords have set Ethiopia’s fractured government onto the path of dialogue once again.
But for residents of Mekelle like Elilta, the agreement came too late to save her brothers and the hundreds of thousands of other lives lost over the past two years.
“The federal and regional governments could have found a solution long before the death and suffering became so immense,” Elilta says.
Nine months after the Pretoria Accords nominally ended fighting in northern Ethiopia, the scars of war remain starkly visible in Mekelle.
Joblessness hangs heavy over the city’s idle youth, struggling to process wartime horrors amid an economy yet to regain its footing. However, the parade of officials through hotels like Planet, Northern Star, Holiday, Desta, Axum and others betrays a different story – one of Tigray’s fragmented leadership rushing to consolidate power.
Hotel rooms double as offices and living quarters for the Tigray Interim Administration and TPLF leaders who currently lack infrastructure beyond Mekelle. They are frequented by zonal, woreda and kebele officials summoned from across Tigray to meet with top leaders. For now, the hotels have become de facto headquarters for Tigray’s fractured administration, unable yet to extend beyond the city’s limits.
“The Interim Administration is in a very difficult situation,” says one TIA official, speaking anonymously. Northern, western and southern Tigray remain under the control of Eritrean and Amhara forces. The TIA also lacks resources as the federal government is reluctant to release budget funds or finance reconstruction.
The official claims the federal government aims to make the TIA irrelevant and cede western Tigray to Amhara region and northern Tigray to Eritrea. “Western and southern Tigray are Tigray’s breadbaskets. Without them, Tigray will depend on Amhara for food – the federal government plans to keep Tigray under economic siege,” he says.
However, Prime Minister Abiy told parliament on July 6, 2023 a “win-win” solution is needed to resolve boundary disputes between Tigray and Amhara regions, suggesting a referendum.
For Kindeya Gebrehiwot, head of the TIA’s social development cluster, it is the federal government’s responsibility to evacuate Eritrean and Amhara forces and restore Tigray’s constitutional territory as outlined in the Pretoria agreement.
“The Pretoria agreement is clear on Tigray’s territory. Any claims should be resolved constitutionally,” says Kindeya. “But border issues should not lead to another conflict.” Millions of IDPs from occupied areas remain in Mekele schools while the TIA cannot begin its work without returning them to their livelihoods, adds Kindeya.
Competing narratives reveal the deep divide between the federal government and Tigray officials over the factors that triggered the devastating war. Despite nascent normalization efforts since the Pretoria agreement and shuttle diplomacy by Tigray Interim Administrator Getachew Reda, a gulf in perspectives persists.
For many Ethiopians and outside observers, the outbreak of the Tigray war on November 4, 2020 seemed unforeseen and unavoidable. But for those directly involved, clashes had been brewing since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in April 2018.
“The war was declared when Isayas Afworki said ‘the game is over for TPLF’,” alleges Muluwork Kidanemariam, Tigray’s election commissioner who oversaw the TPLF’s regional poll rejected by Addis Ababa. “Beforehand, the Ethiopian government frequently met with Isayas. Then they allowed Eritrea to interfere and blamed TPLF for the war,” he claims.
There was debates over whether the federal government should have respected Tigray’s right to hold regional elections. Others argued this can only happen within a genuinely federal system, stating Tigray’s polls frustrated and prompted the “law enforcement operation.”
“Tigray requested to hold elections before TPLF’s term expired. NEBE refused, so Tigray established its own election commission and held polls as the constitution allows regional governments,” says Muluwork Kidanemariam, head of Tigray’s election commission.
NEBE initially agreed then rejected the outcome, exacerbating tensions. “But the election cannot be the reason for the Tigray war,” Muluwork claims. “The election was fair and free, though labeled illegal. We faced no problems during voting.”
According to Jabessa Gabisa of the Oromo Liberation Front, the conflict stems from two factors: the federal government’s illegal intervention in Tigray’s regional election and Addis Ababa’s strategy of staying in power through instability.
However, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the president and all three government branches consistently claim the war resulted from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front attacking the Ethiopian National Defense Force’s northern command near Mekelle on November 3, 2020.
A senior Tigray Interim Administration official says federal forces sent special forces to Mekelle to kill top TPLF leaders but their operation failed due to Tigrayan forces’ successful defense. “Our forces immediately disarmed the northern command. We did not attack them, but disarmed them to avoid being attacked ourselves,” he says.
Some critics argue the major rift between Abiy Ahmed’s new administration and the TPLF began after TPLF refused to accept the prime minister’s Medemer model and form a coalition.
But Tigray officials tell a different story.
“TPLF was willing to work with the federal government but Addis Ababa was using TPLF as a scapegoat to legitimize its power,” an official says. “They held TPLF accountable for all misdeeds under EPRDF, yet TPLF tried to hand over accountable individuals including former METEC officials. But the federal government kept labeling TPLF a ‘junta’. They were determined to use force instead of constitutional, peaceful political solutions.”
One of the biggest mistakes during the war was equating TPLF with all Tigrayans, the official says. This led Tigray officials to conclude it was not just a war but ethnic cleansing.
Tigray has launched a “Commission of Inquiry on the Tigray Genocide” to assess damage door-to-door.
“The Tigray war has ethnic, religious, power and civilization aspects,” says commissioner Yemane Zeray. “In Axum, thousands were killed in days. Somalia provided troops that played a crucial role in destroying Axum’s civilizational values.”
Yemane claims Turkey, China, the UAE and Iran supplied weapons like drones to Ethiopia during the war. “So international cooperation is needed for investigation and adjudication,” he says. Officials argue the international community’s delayed response exacerbated the tragedy.
Federal government officials reject claims of genocide, noting similar crimes occurred when TDF expanded into Amhara and Afar.
The joint United Nations-EHRC report found “all parties to the Tigray conflict committed violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law. Some may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.” However, the report covers only the first phase of the conflict, not subsequent phases of fighting through November 2022. ENDF, TDF, Eritrean and Amhara forces were implicated.
Undeniably, both federal and TPLF governments were undertaking military preparations. But both sides now admit some mistakes, according to The Reporter’s intensive interviews with the officials. The Tigrian officials say their biggest mistake was to put drones out of the military equation. The federal officials regret the economic cost of the war and the diplomatic damage incurred. Of course, the majority of officials admit the war was mistake, because power-greed and political correctness were put above the public and the state.
Many experts and officials agree that TPLF had no plan of secession when it went to the war with the federal government; but to preserve the region’s right to self-determination. Proponents of this idea stress Tigray cannot exist separated from Ethiopia, from economic perspective. On the other hand, they stress the federal government could have on-boarded TPLF, if only the new administration in Addis Ababa could have wide shoulders to accommodate the divergent political forces in a diversified nation as Ethiopia. For these experts, the war was more about ‘saving faces’ than saving Ethiopia.
Tigray officials accuse Ethiopia of prioritizing territory over people while federal officials blame TPLF for power lust and treason.
Experts question what lessons were drawn from the war. Some argue it was a political game by the ruling party to consolidate power by stoking conflicts among regional forces – evident in Ethiopia’s chain of conflicts.
“This war happened for the interests of a few,” says Mulu work. “What happened in Ethiopia these past years lacks political sensibility. Leaders were arrogant and narrow-minded. The Tigray issue could’ve been solved politically. Officials in the new regime feared facing TPLF alone, so entered a mysterious pact with Asmara. They could’ve negotiated with TPLF and democratized instead of pushing Ethiopia into crisis for power.”
But Yemane argues land politics is driving internal strife. “Land is politics in Ethiopia,” he says. “The Addis Master Plan unleashed turmoil that led to the Tigray war.”
While competing narratives abound, one truth remains clear: civilians on all sides have borne the brunt of this tragic and unnecessary war. As long as politicians stoke dogma and sanction violence against “the other”, slaughter of the innocent will continue – and Ethiopia’s hopes for reconciliation will remain as distant as ever.