Patient coaxing of peace in Ethiopia

An agreement between the government and Tigray rebels creates an opening for a national identity based on common values more than ethnic divisions.

In Pretoria, South Africa, Nov. 2, former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta applauds Ethiopian government representative Redwan Hussien and Tigray delegate Getachew Reda after signing an agreement to resolve the conflict in northern Ethiopia,

On paper at least, an African war ended yesterday. The government of Ethiopia and a rebellious faction in the northern state of Tigray signed a peace agreement exactly two years after taking up arms against each other. If the agreement holds, it will mark a turning point in what the World Health Organization has called “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”

From its outset, the conflict was a heart-wrenching contradiction: a war waged with seemingly gratuitous inhumanity to preserve, as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed described it, a vision of Ethiopia as “Africa’s bastion of peace ... founded on love, shared concerns, and benefits.” The fighting has claimed half a million lives, displaced more than 3 million people, and left 5 million on the edge of starvation, according to the United Nations. It drew in a neighboring foreign army and other armed factions from within Ethiopia at a time of acute regional drought.

That tragic urgency, however, may yet prove to be a crucible of African peace and democracy. The accord, reached after 10 days of closed-door diplomacy in South Africa, affirms the core tenets of justice that African peacemakers have honed gradually over the past three decades: patience, humility, and reconciliation. The starting point, as former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan once said, is a conviction that agreements forged by enemies are “more likely than those imposed from outside to secure sustainable justice.”

The agreement itself is predictable in its practical measures. It calls for an immediate end of hostilities (which had yet to be confirmed a day later); disarmament of Tigray forces and their integration into the Ethiopian defense forces; and the free flow of humanitarian aid to Tigray, which has been isolated by government blockades for most of the last two years.

But it also contains a quintessential African trade-off: a declaration of Ethiopia’s territorial integrity and “restoration of Constitutional order in the Tigray region,” on one hand, and a “Transitional Justice Policy Framework to ensure accountability, truth, reconciliation, and healing” on the other. Those provisions seek a balance between Mr. Abiy’s desire to move Ethiopia beyond a restive collection of ethnic identities and a fear among groups like the Tigrayans that they would lose the rights and self-determination they claim under the current federal system.

“Political reconciliation ... is a process that requires perpetrators, victims, and bystanders to be drawn into a society committed to the rule of law, political participation, social stability, and economic development,” wrote Charles Villa-Vicencio, a member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in his book “Walk With Us and Listen: Political Reconciliation in Africa.” 

Two years of fighting and 10 days of dialogue under the patient coaxing of African Union mediators have reset Ethiopia’s pursuit of an identity based on shared values rather than ethnic division. That reset came at a terrible cost. What happens next has the opportunity to bolster trust in democracy across Africa.

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