ETH-WarBy Tonny Onyulo 

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – Recently, Tigrayans opened the door to a peace agreement, offering to withdraw their forces from outside of their province.  
Tigrayan leader Debretsion Gebremichael sent a letter to the United Nations officials this week, calling the withdrawal "a decisive opening act for peace." He hoped the move would end hostilities and jumpstart peace negotiations.
But Tigrayans and others in Ethiopia don't believe things can return to normal so easily. In fact, many are pessimistic that Ethiopia's diverse tribes can ever live in harmony, especially after the brutality of this conflict which has killed thousands, displaced millions and led the UN to pledge to investigate crimes against humanity committed by both sides.
"The government does not want to see any Tigrayans," said Kehase Aregawi, 35, who is a Tigrayan, an ethnic group from the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia.
"They want to finish us," he added, while serving tea and freshly cooked rice to his customers at his hotel in this sprawling capital. "We are dying. There might be no Tigrayans remaining if the conflict continues the way it is."
Last November, fighting broke out in this Horn of Africa country between government troops and Tigrayan forces after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive against the region: He blamed the Tigray People's Liberation Front, a political party that dominates Tigray – and dominated the country of 115 million for three decades until Abiy took over in 2018 – for staging an attack on a military camp in the region.
Tigray has long resisted the federal government's power.
After eight months of intense fighting, Mr. Abiy's government declared a unilateral ceasefire and pulled forces from Mekelle, the capital city of the Tigray region. Since then, however, Tigray forces advanced and captured several towns, including Dessie and Kombolcha near Addis Ababa, raising fears that the rebel forces may capture the capital itself.
Mr. Abiy, a former lieutenant colonel in the military, led troops against advancing Tigray rebels, announcing recently that his troops had recaptured Dessie and Kombolcha.
"The struggle isn't yet finished," said Mr. Abiy, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for making peace with neighboring Eritrea. "We should offer a long-lasting solution to make sure the enemy that has tested us doesn't become a danger to Ethiopia again."
His supporters say they won't rest until the rebels are defeated.
"Tigrayans have not accepted that anyone else can lead this country," said Muktar Mohammed, a resident of Addis Ababa, who is also an Abiy. "They are angry, and they want to retake power through the backdoor. They killed everyone and destroyed our country's economy when they were in power."
"We will not allow them to ascend to power," he added "We will defeat them. They are our enemy number one."
Analysts say such prevailing sentiments on both sides could lead to a protracted civil war, threatening the future of Ethiopia, in spite of a ceasefire.
"Ethiopia could be destabilized," said Macharia Munene, history and international relations professor at the United States International University-Africa in Nairobi. "The residents of Ethiopia are suffering a lot, and it's going to be chaotic in the future if the war continues. The nation is underdeveloped, and people are facing hunger and starvation."
"In the worst-case scenario, the rebel forces capture Addis Ababa – then there would be no country," he added.
Meanwhile, fears have been escalating over the conflict destabilizing the region, especially as hundreds of thousands of refugees have crossed borders into unstable Sudan and also Kenya. Eritrea has already been drawn in, helping the government militarily.
Munene says Sudan, with its recent coup, fragile transition to democracy and economic crisis, is in no position to handle the influx. He worries about larger numbers leaving Ethiopia.
Meanwhile, analysts are split over a solution to the conflict. Munene believes a national dialogue is the path forward, saying that Mr. Abiy needs to reach out to rebel forces and allow for candid and democratic dialogue to address the causes.
"Military action cannot solve the Ethiopian crisis because the strategy has failed before," he said, urging the U.N. and other key partners to put pressure on Ethiopia for a ceasefire to allow for dialogue. "Abiy's bid to use the military to centralize power in Addis Ababa and destroy the country's multi-ethnic federation has failed and is proving disastrous for the country."
However, Adan Getachew, a security analyst in Addis Ababa, disagreed. For a peaceful solution to be achieved, he said, rebel forces will have to be defeated by the government to save the country from collapsing.
"It's a risky situation because there must be a winner in this war," he said, adding that the rebels' intention is to return to power by any means necessary.
"Dialogue cannot work in this situation because everyone needs power," he added. "It's either the government troops who win the war and save the country or lose it to rebel forces, and we become like Somalia and Afghanistan."
To date, Gebremichael has asked the UN diplomats to "establish a mechanism to ensure the immediate and veritable cessation of all forms of hostilities" and "the total withdrawal of all external forces" from Tigray as well as the creation of a no-fly zone over the region excluding humanitarian and civilian aircraft. He has also requested an arms embargo on Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The Ethiopian government has not responded.
Meanwhile, both Tigrayans and non-Tigrayans say the conflict has escalated ethnic tensions on the ground, especially in Addis Ababa, where both sides lived peacefully for years.
"This is no longer our country – all Tigrayans have been labeled as terrorists," said Bisrat Kibret, a Tigrayan woman and mother of two living in Addis Ababa. "The police and army are raiding homes, community places, and workplaces looking for Tigrayans. Many have been killed, tortured and detained for falsely being accused of supporting rebel forces."
Aregawi says the international community must intervene.
"Our country needs help right now," he said. "We are worried about our country."

Photo: November 3, 2021 - Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed greeting soldiers. Last November, fighting broke out in this Horn of Africa country between government troops and Tigrayan forces after the prime minister launched a military offensive against the region.
Credit: Courtesy of Office of the Prime Minister of Ethiopia's official Twitter account (11/03/21)

Story/photo published date: 12/23/21

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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