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African and Western diplomats want the fighting to stop in Ethiopia. Less pressure might help.

Research explains what makes cease-fires stick

- December 6, 2021

The war in Ethiopia has entered a crucial but uncertain stage. The Tigray Defense Force took control of the strategic towns of Dessie and Kombolcha in early November 2021, but it’s unclear whether it will be able to advance on Addis Ababa or even hold onto these towns after a late November counteroffensive by government forces.

Regional and international diplomats continue to try to negotiate a cease-fire to prevent further violence. My research suggests one big lesson from past mediation efforts will probably be key: Successful mediators use smart pressure.

What does this mean, exactly? Smart pressure in cease-fire negotiations first entails pushing for a comprehensive and precise cease-fire agreement rather than getting the parties to just sign a document. Second, a clear division of labor among regional and international mediators provides additional leverage.

What makes a cease-fire effective?

On Nov. 2, U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman urged all involved in the conflict to give peace a chance. On Nov. 3, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta issued a statement calling for peace and de-escalation. The message from regional and international diplomats is loud and clear: The time has come for all sides in the conflict to agree on a cease-fire.

The research on cease-fires suggests mediators frequently make the mistake of pursuing the signing of a cease-fire agreement as quickly as possible without full regard for its implementation. For a cease-fire to work, all sides need to agree on the date and time the cease-fire enters into force, the specific zones each side will control, demilitarized areas, and monitoring and verification.

A high level of diplomatic pressure might persuade conflict parties to sign the cease-fire, but the cease-fire is unlikely to succeed if these points aren’t sufficiently addressed.

A cease-fire typically freezes the status quo on the battlefield, for instance. In the current conflict, the Ethiopian government has continuously accused the TDF of exaggerating their advances. If the Ethiopian government and the TDF cannot agree on which side controls what areas during cease-fire talks, armed fighting is likely to resume in those contested areas.

Ethiopia’s government insists that the TDF withdraw from the Amhara and Afar regions as a precondition for cease-fire talks. But this is a non-starter for the TDF, as it would leave their home Tigray region vulnerable to a blockade. That’s where smart pressure comes into play, as outside diplomats could help the parties draft a cease-fire document that is comprehensive and clear on issues like zones of control.

Regional and international diplomats have specific roles

Another crucial component of smart pressure is cooperation between regional and international mediators. Foreign diplomats involved in the Ethiopia conflict each have their own unique comparative advantages.

The United States has the greatest capacity to exert pressure — and also seems more willing to do so. The U.S. government has imposed trade restrictions on Ethiopia and placed targeted sanctions against Eritrean officials and institutions because of their destabilizing role in the conflict. After an appeal from the African Union, the United States has not yet imposed sanctions on Ethiopians involved in the conflict, to allow time for negotiations to bear fruit. For this reason, political scientist Alex de Waal called the African Union “toothless,” but it’s clear that both the United States and the African Union can threaten with imposing sanctions during negotiations.

African involvement in the mediation process is of crucial importance to get the Ethiopian government on board. The government is more likely to see African mediators as partners to help find a solution to the war. Kenyatta, for example, received a warm welcome from Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during his Nov. 14 visit to Addis Ababa.

By contrast, Ethiopian government officials are more likely to perceive pressure from diplomats outside of Africa as a violation of Ethiopian sovereignty. On Nov. 24, Ethiopia expelled four Irish diplomats for their “positions articulated internationally” on the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia. More broadly, anti-Americanism in Addis Ababa is reportedly on the rise and tensions between the United Nations and the Ethiopian government are also increasing.

African mediators are typically highly sensitive to governments’ concerns of not legitimizing armed opposition groups. This “status-quo” bias is even more extreme in the Ethiopian case, because the African Union headquarters is in Addis Ababa. As government forces launched a violent offensive in the Tigray region in December 2020, for instance, the A.U. chairperson congratulated the Ethiopian federal government for taking “bold steps to preserve the unity, stability and respect for the constitutional order of the country.”

While the TDF may be suspicious of outside mediation, it cannot dismiss African mediation efforts. Here’s a telling sign — TDF leaders met with former Nigerian president and current A.U. High Representative to the Horn of Africa Olusegun Obasanjo in Mekele, the Tigray capital, last month. Previously, however, the TDF had criticized him as being biased toward the Ethiopian government.

The TDF has also accepted mediation efforts from Kenyatta, who is working closely with the U.S. special envoy. This mediation effort may benefit from the ability of the United States to exert pressure — and from the legitimizing effects of an African mediator taking the lead.

Less, not more, pressure may work

It’s tempting to believe that the best approach would be to exert as much diplomatic pressure as possible on Ethiopia’s conflict parties. Over the past year, both sides have lost thousands of lives in battle — and hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians are now facing famine conditions. In Addis Ababa, intercommunal violence is looming, and many in the capital are fearful the war will come to their city.

However, there’s a strong risk that too much pressure might lead to the signing of a cease-fire without an actual end to the fighting.

Past mediation efforts in Africa suggest that if the Ethiopian government and Tigray leaders agree to cease-fire talks, then regional and international mediators are most likely to succeed if they apply pressure based on a division of labor in which African mediators take the lead and the United States provides additional pressure. This is probably the only way to create a clear and comprehensive cease-fire document that persuades both sides to stop fighting.

Allard Duursma is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich. Find him on Twitter at @AllardDuursma.

Note: Updated Oct. 5, 2023.