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Analysis | Peace in Ethiopia may hinge on plans for post-conflict Tigray soldiers


Ethiopia reached a peace deal this month with the rebels of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The Nov. 2 deal follows two years of fighting that killed about 500,000 people and displaced 3 million people from Tigray, a region in northern Ethiopia.

Article 6 of the agreement contains the conditions for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of the TPLF fighters. But these types of programs fail almost half the time. Will the Ethiopian peace deal hold – and can Ethiopia avoid another conflict?

The peace agreement is a necessary first step in ending the two-year conflict. But my research suggests that lasting peace requires demobilization and reintegration plans that ensure the economic and social well-being of rebel commanders and fighters.

What helps demobilization succeed?

Rebel disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (GDR) is one of the most important factors for post-conflict peace. But the Ethiopian agreement only pays lip service to the GDR. Article 6 contains a strict timetable for disarming the rebels within 30 days, without a specific demobilization plan or program to reintegrate combatants into society. And the accord recognizes that Ethiopia has only one defense force. There is no plan for changes in the security sector and TPLF fighters will not be included in the country’s armed forces. Article 6 also specifies that the program will be designed and implemented according to the Constitution of Ethiopia, without any international support.

What happens to rebel fighters is one of the most expensive post-conflict interventions – and the stakes are high when it comes to reconciling rebels with civilians and promoting long-term peace. Since the beginning of this approach in the 1980s, 73 DDR programs have been implemented worldwide. My research shows that these programs fail nearly 50 percent of the time, with rebels rearming to continue the fight.

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How Ethiopia handled past disarmament efforts

Ethiopia has already led two demobilization programs, in 1991-1995 and 2000-2005. The first program targeted the soldiers of the Derg regime after the rebel victory and was a partial success. Peace failed for a brief period when the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) withdrew from the transitional government in 1992 and rearmed. Some of the Derg soldiers gathered in demobilization camps became unhappy with the reintegration program and also joined OLF. The revolt was soon crushed and OLF fighters were sent to demobilization camps. After this episode, Ethiopia successfully demobilized more than 500,000 fighters.

The first program provided veterans with temporary financial assistance, as well as skills training, formal education, land, and employment opportunities, costing a total of approximately $196 million. Due to a lack of funds, the Ethiopian government was dependent on donor support to reintegrate the half million fighters. A World Bank survey found that ex-combatants were socially accepted in civilian communities and were no poorer than the general rural population.

The second GDR program targeted 148,000 Ethiopian army soldiers after the war with Eritrea. Due to a lack of money, the program was extended to six years: ex-combatants were promised financial and technical support, but this did not materialise. The total cost of the program was $174 million, less than $3.1 million of which was paid by the Ethiopian government. The World Bank loaned Ethiopia $170 million to implement the DDR program.

This program was a success because the soldiers did not rearm or join insurgents. Social reintegration also went smoothly. But according to a World Bank survey after the program ended, the capabilities of ex-combatants gradually deteriorated.

In both GDR programs, detailed program design and funding, as well as international funding, determined ultimate success. But the government of Ethiopia has accumulated a rapidly growing external debt since the end of the last GDR program. In 2021, it owed foreign lenders 57 percent of its national income. During previous GDR programs, the national debt was about 40 percent. Given the government’s current economic performance, offering a costly demobilization and reintegration program is wishful thinking. Without such a program, peace will remain elusive.

Can Ethiopia avoid further fighting?

That is a big question for Ethiopia. The African Union praised the peace negotiations, which excluded representatives from the world’s North and the United Nations, as offering “African solutions to African problems”. But the DDR program is unlikely to succeed without technical support and funding from international organizations.

Successful DDR programs, the study found, require an action plan with a detailed timetable, secure funding and technical support for rebel reintegration. In Ethiopia, this means building demobilization camps for TPLF fighters and training the group’s commanders to manage their fighters after the conflict has formally ended.

Typically, standard UN practice of ensuring rebels do not rearm involves breaking the rebel command and control structure after wartime disarmament. This would mean separating the TPLF commanders from the regular combatants.

In Ethiopia’s civil war, violence against civilians is eroding support for the government

But my research suggests that for rebel groups with a strong command and control structure – such as the TPLF – GDR has a better chance of success if the government congregates fighters in demobilization camps and offers them educational, vocational training and job prospects. This temporary period during which active combatants are assigned to camps for processing, discharge and disarmament is referred to as “quartering”.

The TPLF has deep roots among the 7 million Tigrayans. Some TPLF commanders are former high-ranking Ethiopian military officers or political leaders who once held top positions in the federal government. Keeping them out of the demobilization and reintegration program probably creates a negative incentive for rearmament.

My recent work shows that the bonds formed between combatants during war can be essential for the successful reintegration of rebels. Mid-level commanders, responsible for shaping social bonds between combatants in wartime, are essential to reassigning ex-combatant roles and redefining rebel-civilian relationships.

In order for the November peace agreement to take effect, the Ethiopian government has the best chance of success if it trains rebel commanders in peacebuilding. These efforts include ensuring the security of combatants during billeting through cooperation with the Ethiopian armed forces, providing economic opportunities and initiating reconciliation programs with civilians and victims of conflict.

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Sally Sharif (@sally_sharif1) is the Simons Foundation Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at Simon Fraser University. She holds a PhD in political science from the City University of New York.

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