The Window for a Negotiated Settlement in Ethiopia’s War is Closing as the Country Faces Protracted Civil War

Tigrayan Defense Forces and Oromo Liberation Army endure continuing hostile relations (Source: African News)

On November 22, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that he was leaving the capital, Addis Ababa, for the frontlines of the country’s civil war (Addis Standard, November 22). This move by Abiy Ahmed, who has delegated day to day power to his deputy prime minister, is an indicator of the gravity of Ethiopia’s situation (Addis Standard, November 24). The stakes for all sides in the conflict could not be higher and, consequently, the likelihood of some kind of negotiated settlement diminishes by the day.

Abiy Ahmed’s departure from Addis Ababa was preceded by a rapid counter-offensive by the Tigrayan Defense Forces (TDF). The counter-offensive followed a failed October offensive by government forces (Daily Maverick, October 31). The TDF successfully advanced south toward Addis Ababa.

At the same time, Ethiopia’s other major insurgent group, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), increased its own operational tempo northwest of Addis Ababa. In early November, the TDF and OLA forces linked up near the town of Kombolcha, which sits alongside the A2 road leading to the capital (All Africa, November 1). After linking up, the TDF and OLA pushed down the A2 toward the town of Debre Sina, only 120 miles from Addis Ababa.

A New Ethiopian Government Counter-offensive with Help from Amhara and Afar Militias

Despite their push toward Addis Ababa and acquisition of territory throughout most of November, the TDF and OLA now face renewed pressure from Amhara and Afar militias. The Amhara (Fano) and Afar militias are operating alongside reconstituted units of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF). Both the Amhara and Afar militias and the ENDF are deployed on the western and eastern flanks of the TDF and OLA.

On November 28, Afar and ENDF forces retook the town of Chifra located along the border between the Amhara and Afar regions (Borkena, November 26). The town had been occupied by the TDF. Concurrently, Amhara-based militias recaptured territory on the TDF’s western flank, including Lalibela (Satenaw, December 1).

The well-coordinated moves by the Amhara and Afar militias alongside the ENDF and Ethiopian Air Force mark a possible shift in the government’s war against the TDF and OLA. Previously, the ethnic militias, which the government is dependent on for its defense, suffered from a notable lack of coordination with the ENDF and its commanders. As a result, joint operations between these forces often failed. The current offensive against the TDF and OLA by the militias and the ENDF demonstrates that some of these challenges have, at least temporarily, been overcome.

Ethiopia’s Use of Drones

The Ethiopian government is also making more extensive and more accurate use of drones to target the TDF and OLA leadership, TDF armor, as well as other targets of opportunity. The government imported its armed drones from Turkey, China, and Iran (ORYX, November 17). The increased frequency of attacks by drones and manned aircraft precipitated the TDF’s November withdrawal from territory that it had taken in the Afar region (TRT World, November 29). This region is largely flat with few large settlements. Thus, it is ideal for the use of drones. There is evidence that the government relocated drones to the airbase at Samara in the Afar region (The Arab Weekly, August 24).

The key objective of the current government counter-offensive is to force the TDF back into the borders of the Tigray region. In the face of this counter-offensive and drone attacks, the TDF has carried out a strategic withdrawal from southern sections of the A2 road. The withdrawal allowed the TDF to reposition forces to more mountainous terrain that is less conducive to aerial strikes. This type of terrain is where the TDF is most accustomed to fighting. Just as in the last government offensive in October in which the TDF routed government forces, the TDF will leverage the terrain to inflict heavy losses on the ENDF and its allies.

While the TDF and its OLA allies are spread thin in some areas, it is unlikely that the current government counter-offensive will succeed in bottling up the TDF in the Tigray region. Instead, the fighting will signal to the TDF and OLA that there are no options beyond total war. The government counter-offensive and escalating drone attacks, which have reportedly killed civilians in the Oromo and Tigray regions, will also strengthen ties between the OLA and the TDF (Borkena, November 21).

No Turning Back from Total War

The rhetoric from all sides in the conflict has escalated along with the fighting. Before Ahmed Abiy left Addis Ababa, he referenced his own possible “martyrdom” in the war (al Jazeera, November 23). Political figures, such as Andargachew Tsege, have used language that gestures toward calls for genocide against Tigrayans and, more generally, all Ethiopians who oppose the government (Telegraph, November 28).

In the case of the TDF, a failure on the battlefield could mean that tens of thousands of Tigrayans starve (Ethiopia Insight, February 19). Abiy Ahmed’s government continues to restrict or block aid deliveries to the Tigray region. [1] The Tigray region depends on small scale agriculture, which has been severely disrupted by the war. If the TDF fails to open transport corridors to the Tigray region, famine, which reportedly is already widespread, will become even more pronounced.

The OLA, which controls territory to the north, west, and south of Addis Ababa, has attracted large numbers of new recruits over the last six months due to attacks by ENDF soldiers on nearby villages and towns. The ENDF has also engaged in the mass detention of military age Oromo men. These men, many of whom are teenagers, are then forced to join the ENDF. [2]

The Strengthening TDF-OLA Alliance

The OLA does not have the battle hardened and formally trained leadership that the TDF has, nor does it have heavy weaponry. However, the TDF sent trainers and liaison officers to some units of the OLA several months ago. The OLA is now a larger, better organized, and more capable fighting force than it ever has been. Gains made by the OLA over the last four months attest to its enhanced capabilities.

Despite a history of bad relations, the TDF and OLA are coordinating more of their offensives. The government’s current counter-offensive will ensure that the OLA and TDF work together more closely. In fact, reports of a new OLA-led offensive to the north and west of Addis Ababa may indicate better OLA-TDF coordination. If the offensive gains ground, it will pressure the ENDF and allied militias to move more forces to the Oromo region, which surrounds Addis Ababa. The OLA offensive may also be an attempt to reduce pressure on TDF forces from the government’s current counter-offensive.

The Ethiopian government’s decision to pursue a war with few limitations against the OLA and TDF will provoke a similar response by both insurgent groups. The dehumanizing rhetoric and a mounting list of atrocities may mean that there is no turning back from total war. Furthermore, the embrace of war by all sides all but ensures that the conflict in Ethiopia will be further internationalized.

Descent into Dissolution

Global and regional powers, some of which are already involved in supplying Abiy Ahmed’s government with weapons and expertise, will pick sides in the conflict. Eritrea already has troops on the ground in Ethiopia, and Ethiopia and Sudan are engaged in an armed dispute over a contested border (The East African, December 1). Sudan and other nations will see Ethiopia’s various insurgent groups as viable proxies. The internationalization of the war in Yemen is a good example of how a civil war can be prolonged and intensified by the interference of external powers. This same scenario could easily play out in Ethiopia.

The civil war in Ethiopia shows no sign of ending in either a negotiated settlement among domestic parties or a definitive victory for any one side. While it has formidable fighters and a skilled officer corps, the TDF does not enjoy the goodwill of a majority of Ethiopians. The current war will be no repeat of 1991, when the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) helped overthrow the dictator, Mengitsu Haile Mariam. The current war is being fought along ethnic lines with few clear overarching objectives. The TDF and OLA both claim to want strong autonomy for their respective regions. Beyond this, there is little common ground between Ethiopia’s two largest insurgent groups. For now, it is the war against the government of Abiy Ahmed that binds them.

Regardless of whether Abiy Ahmed’s government is defeated by the TDF and OLA, there may be little left to hold Ethiopia together as a functional and unified nation. The ENDF, which has already been partially transformed into a collection of ethnic militias, is being hollowed out by the war. If the war continues, other national institutions will also see their roles and efficacy erode. At the same time, the war is taking a severe toll on Ethiopia’s already weak economy. The longer the war goes on, the more difficult it will be to reconstitute a unified nation, even under the auspices of a reworked federal system.


[1] Teklehaymanot G. Weldemichel, “Inventing Hell: How the Ethiopian and Eritrean regimes produced famine in Tigray,” Human Geography (November 18, 2021).

[2] Author interview with an analyst based in the region, November 2021.