Debating the implications of the Pretoria Agreement for Ethiopia: countering attempts to silence alternative voices

Following an earlier piece by the authors debating the importance of the Pretoria Agreement (or Cessation of Hostilities Agreement) concluded in November 2022, this piece sets out their formal response to and rebuttal of blog comments received on (Gebrehiwot et al. 2023), and also of comments in a debate piece by J. Abbink (2023) published in this issue of the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE). The authors here contest the views put forward as lacking engagement with their arguments and mischaracterising their views.

Main article text

We were not surprised when we received a first response from a not-so-surprising corner, from Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe and a number of co-authors (Gebrehiwot et al. 2023).1 What was unexpected was its lack of engagement with our argument and the extent of misquoting and the mischaracterisation. We made some initial observations regarding this piece in a blog that, like Gebrehiwot et al.’s comments, was published on (Gebresenbet and Tariku 2023b). We later received a surprising and one-sided response from Jan Abbink (2023).

Gebrehiwot et al. (2023) did not engage with our arguments, but rather constructed a straw man argument which they then criticised, while Abbink seems unhappy to be represented as a ‘mirror image’ of those supporting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and that we did not base our piece on what he thinks is a more interesting question. After all, the determination of what is interesting rests with every author. As we will show below, what we see is that the responses, being from a position of power, are intended to impose certain perspectives and silence alternatives, rather than having the intention of debating. Before getting to our responses, let us first present our position as students of conflict and security studies, as Ethiopians and Ethiopianists.

The two responses attack our personal character. Gebrehiwot et al. insist that we are insensitive to the suffering of our fellow Tigrayans. We mentioned the extreme suffering of Tigrayans but did not elaborate on it. Criticising us for not being detailed is one thing, accusing us of being insensitive to suffering is an unfortunate mischaracterisation. To Abbink, we were not patriotic enough, because we did not dare to speak when it was risky and because we did not raise questions regarding what he considers to be gaps in the Pretoria and Nairobi Agreements. As we elaborate below, public action can also take place offline and should not necessarily be visible to all. Abbink seems convinced that if it happened, he should know about it.

Gebrehiwot and his co-authors (2023) consider us to be biased towards the Federal Government of Ethiopia (FGE), and criticise us for not undertaking a ‘critical, balanced assessment of the record of [the] decades’ of the TPLF/Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF’s) rule, although our central argumentis to investigate the implications of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA), not to undertake a comprehensive conflict analysis. Unlike some of our critics, we have never held public office and political party memberships, nor are we insiders to the FGE or to any rebel movement. The only professional identity we have is as scholars.2 Abbink ignores the important caveat we had – i.e., that we make the argument based on the expectation that the CoHA will be buttressed by a negotiated peace agreement – and downplays what he takes as ‘an appropriate question mark in the title’ (Abbink 2023, 234) in arguing that we take the CoHA as a ‘peace agreement’ (237) and that we make ‘confident predictions’ (234) without enough context.

In terms of positionality, the centre of our ethical concern in our professional work is the state and society, not any particular government or particular social group within it. We differentiate between regime and state as much as we differentiate between the TPLF and Tigray.

With the above caveats, let us respond to the two rejoinders in five parts.

First, Gebrehiwot et al. (2023) accuse us of being ‘indifferent’ and of lacking ‘empathy’. The war affected the three regions, yet disproportionately harmed Tigray and Tigrayans. The ongoing violence in other parts of the country, including Oromia and Amhara regions, are everyday realities for us. All sides of the war are accused of atrocities, ranging from executions, sexual violence, ethnic cleansing, destruction and pillaging (Blinken 2023). Abbink makes the dangerous mistake of throwing out the baby with the bathwater when he argues in a one-sided manner that activist human rights groups ‘often went along with an ill-checked TPLF-orchestrated propaganda narrative’ (Abbink 2023, 235). The details he gives illustrate that, despite his misplaced strong criticism that we did not properly support our argument with evidence, he is decidedly biased (like Mulugeta et al.) in his assessment of the war.3 Unlike both critics, we accept the facts as non-debateable. We are against any instrumentalisation, exaggerations, denials or reductions.

Mulugeta and co-authors also state that we reproduce propagandist claims, including that ‘claims of genocide are a TPLF propaganda ploy’ (Gebrehiwot et al. 2023). There is no such statement in our article. What we pointed out was that foreign experts pushed the claim of genocide as part of their partisan and polarising role during the war, with Alex de Waal publishing a special issue in the Journal of Genocide Research. While the timing and theme is telling, the selective reading of Ethiopia’s undeniably atrocious past is unbelievable. Most notably, the authors conveniently skipped, for instance, the well-documented atrocities committed by the TPLF/EPRDF regime in Somali (2007–2008) and Gambella (2003–2004) regions – which human rights organisations reported as amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity (Human Rights Watch 20052008). Clearly, mentioning these atrocities does not serve their intended messaging.

Mulugeta et al.’s assertion that we minimised the ‘massacres and deliberate starvation of civilians’ (Gebrehiwot et al. 2023) in Tigray is simply false. Despite the technical and administrative determinations of famine illustrated by Omamo (2022) and what appear to be flat-out rejections by some, there was extreme suffering. The atrocities committed should be determined by qualified independent investigators, not by the propaganda machinations of the warring sides. Its purpose should be to help Ethiopians overcome the effects of the war and ensure justice, accountability, reconciliation and non-recurrence. Minimising, exaggerating or instrumentalisation will simply breed further division and violence. We sincerely hope to see the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement, with the attendant genuine political process that will settle all outstanding issues, including those mentioned by Abbink.

Second, Mulugeta et al. claim that our article ‘reproduces central narrative threads of FGE propaganda. One of these is that an unprovoked TPLF attack on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) was the cause of the war’ (Gebrehiwot et al. 2023). Abbink also implies that we undertook conflict analysis, not least within his title, which highlights ‘the limitations of presentist analysis of conflicts in Ethiopia’ (234). But we did not write about the causesof the war (which we know very well are more complex than the single event of the 3 November 2020 attack), nor did we engage in conflict analysis (which is wider and deeper than the specific issues Abbink covers). We view the attack – which Mulugeta and other pro-TPLF individuals justify as a ‘pre-emptive operation’ (Gebrehiwot 2022) – as a triggering factor that unleashed the war as we know it. Contrary to an attempt to construct a new narrative, we believe that the attack is not inconsequential.

We consider the signing of the CoHA as the outcome of several factors. Mulugeta et al. complain that ‘[t]hose who trumpet the Pretoria Agreement, such as Fana and Yonas, imply that “might is right”’ (Gebrehiwot et al. 2023). They further insist that the TPLF signed the agreement because its central command decided to ‘sue for peace’ after assessing the looming ‘human cost on both sides’ (ibid.). This contradicts the available evidence. Neither the TPLF nor its supporters were keen on an African Union (AU)-led mediation. Mulugeta et al. were effectively supporting TPLF’s position of pushing away the peace process through most of 2022, with Mulugeta himself asserting that an AU-led mediation is a ‘plan that failed before it even began to roll’ (Gebrehiwot 2021).

So, why would the TPLF ‘sue for peace’ through a process that had already failed? The TPLF dropped all its preconditions and changed its stance vis-à-vis the AU through a public statement made on 11 September 2022 (AFP 2022), less than three weeks into the third round of war. If one carefully analyses these dynamics along with the advances made by the ENDF and its allies on the ground, there is little reason to doubt our initial assessment that changes in the ground forced the TPLF to come to the negotiation table.

Abbink, on the other side, appears convinced that the conclusion of the war should not have let the TPLF survive as an organised political group and should have culminated in the discarding of what he takes as the primary cause, the constitutional order. Our position is that as long as the TPLF or any political group is not in a position to seriously contest the state militarily, it should be tolerated for the sake of sustainable peace, and that the war is not about the constitutional order. We will not delve into that here, as it merits a proper conflict analysis.

Third, Mulugeta et al. ignored the entire section of our debate piece on the state and national security by simply dismissing our central argument that the CoHA is a turning point, marking the beginning of the end of ethno-nationalism’s hegemonic centrality to national politics. Their reason is that the incumbent regime is simply ‘shape-shifting’ and ‘embracing the multinational nature of Ethiopia’ (Gebrehiwot et al. 2023). We do not equate ‘embracing the multinational nature of Ethiopia’ with ethno-nationalism’s hegemonic centrality in Ethiopian politics. The two are conceptually and practically different. We are surprised how a team of six authors misses this fundamental distinction. We embrace and celebrate the multinational and multireligious nature of Ethiopia without necessarily subscribing to ethno-nationalism. The likelihood of imagining a future multinational federal Ethiopia with a delicate balance between ethno-nationalism and other ideologies promoting citizenship-based politics is not necessarily far-fetched.

Mirroring Mulugeta et al.’s response, Abbink misrepresented our central argument as if we had claimed that the CoHA marked ‘the demise of ethno-nationalist challenges’ to the Ethiopian state (Abbink 2023, 235). He rejected our argument because ‘the political system that generated the conflict is still in place’ (ibid.). We concede that our argument is contestable. Yet, our claim is based on changes in the pre-war official discourse regarding ethno-nationalist-centred politics which partly precipitated the TPLF’s antagonism toward the federal government, and the former’s loss of the war to the latter. One major policy decision taken by the federal government after the CoHA is the dissolution of the ethnic-based regional Special Forces, also known as Liyu Hayil. This decision is consequential, and it faced resistance only in the Amhara region. Moreover, although Abbink’s assessment of the current situation is mostly valid, we are baffled why he expects radical changes within a year of signing the CoHA. As stated in our article, ‘it is too early to declare the triumph of the Ethiopian state in terms of its security and survival. This, in part, depends on the successful implementation of the CoHA and the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement’ (Gebresenbet and Tariku 2023a, 98).

It is important to note that Ethiopia cannot be stable without embracing the diversity of its people, not just in terms of ethnicity but also other markers of identity and plurality. As such, our view of the Ethiopian state and society is that it will be more secure if it is geared toward building a cohesive, accommodative and just state – with societal relationships based on democratic principles by which Ethiopians live in peace and dignity. Unlike de Waal (2021), who wrote amid the raging war – perhaps prompted by the ENDF’s military loss in June 2021 – that it is ‘valid to see Ethiopia as an empire, its dissolution long overdue’, we view the survivalist instinct of Ethiopian state and society as valid.

Ethiopians will benefit from building a viable, effective and democratic state, not from its dissolution. If the Ethiopian state collapses, it collapses on the Ethiopian people. As seen elsewhere, it is the people who would suffer – not those who are insensitive to the disastrous consequences of their anti-state positions. As admitted from the outset, this is our fundamental position which we do not feel in the slightest bit ashamed to plainly state as Ethiopian scholars.

Fourth, Mulugeta et al. denied that our claim that ‘named critics of the [FGE] are supporters of the [TPLF] is ‘neither substantiated nor correct’, while Abbink rejected our characterisation of his and the rest’s role as pro-government. In so doing, Abbink resorted to sensationalist arguments. He overstepped his bounds by questioning our commitment (while praising his own role) to our own country, which we are serving and to which we pay taxes, and asserted that we ‘emitted not a sound on the conflict … . No commitment to [our] country was expressed, … not a sign of concern about the tens of thousands of civilians displaced, robbed, or killed’ (Abbink 2023, 238). We did not consider ourselves duty-bound to report what we have done over the past years as Ethiopian scholars to help our own country and people. Nor do we think that he is entitled to question our public role from the comfort of his desk in a well-guarded European city. We have never regretted avoiding both the polarised social media and the unhelpful mainstream media. As Ethiopians and scholars, we have been engaged in local public forums including the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences and grassroots-level training platforms which endeavour to find solutions not only to the war in the north but also the violence in other parts of the country. What Abbink has missed is that while his link to Ethiopia is primarily professional, ours is literally everything, and what has happened over the past three years has directly affected us.

We believe we have presented sufficient evidence – within the scope of a debate article – to show how the named foreign experts were not impartial ‘critics’ or fact-checkers. The tweets and articles of some were frequently echo chambers of the propaganda machinations of the respective sides. In playing this role, the authors have helped to polarise the narratives that accompanied the war. We would like to invite readers to look at, for example, the partisan pieces produced by Alex de Waal and Ann Fitz-Gerald on various platforms. We also invite readers to critically examine what Abbink’s rejoinder contributes to calming already polarised positions.

Moreover, Mulugeta et al. misquoted us by saying that ‘new Ethiopian voices have somehow “reframed” a debate distorted by foreigners’ (Gebrehiwot et al. 2023). They also falsely quoted us when stating that our ‘dismissal of foreign scholars is consistent with an anti-colonial, “African solutions”, political stance’. Here, they not only misread our argument but also confuse two separate issues – decoloniality and the AU’s ‘African solutions’. Abbink also viewed our critique of foreign experts as denigration of their contribution to Ethiopian studies (Abbink 2023, 238). We view both responses as a somewhat sensationalist distortion. First, nowhere did we link our critique of the role of foreign experts with anti-colonialism or African solutions. Second, Abbink’s selective quotation of our work to insist that we delegitimise foreign experts as ‘mere activists’ is inaccurate (ibid., 237). Our exact words were ‘reduced to mere activists’ (p. 101). Rather than denigrating them, we recognise and respect their (including Abbink’s) contribution. Our argument is that, in the context of the mis/disinformation, Ethiopians on both sides have wrested the power of framing the situation in their country from foreign experts thanks to social media platforms (ibid.). We consider this challenge to foreign experts’ framing power as a new and exciting development rarely seen, if at all, in Ethiopia’s past. It is a decolonial moment of knowledge production which could help give birth to new paradigms of thinking and research. Yet, as we work and collaborate with several foreign scholars, we did not and will not advance anti-foreign-expert sentiment. It is just an observation that foreign experts in general, and the named partisan experts in particular, have been seriously challenged by Ethiopians themselves. This should be welcomed by everyone, and if the moment is not here yet then we should encourage it.

Fifth, our use of ‘African solutions’ is in reference to the CoHA and the AU’s role. We stated that the agreement is a success for the AU ‘in terms of … giving meaning to the principle’ (Gebresenbet and Tariku 2023a, 96). As Mulugeta et al. note, African agency is one of the crucial components of the African solutions theme (Ani 2019). African agency in the Pretoria Agreement could be discerned by noting the extent of references made to AU norms and principles in the CoHA and the extent of involvement of the AU. As Mukondeleli Mpeiwa (2023) stresses, despite functioning ‘within a context of scarce-to-none budget, staffing and even more limited operational support’, the commitment of the parties to peace and the support of partners enabled the AU to deliver.

Despite the contested nature of the AU’s leadership, it is inaccurate to reduce its role to ‘last minute brokering of peace’ or to limit it to only AU officials ‘holding tight control of the process’ or labelling the agreement as ‘non-African’.4 Examinations of the AU’s involvement should consider the early appointment of envoys and, later in August 2021, the appointment and shuttle diplomacy of former president Olusegun Obasanjo. This again should not be interpreted as romanticisation or simplistic understanding of African solutions (Yohannes and Gebresenbet 2021).

To debate, not foreclose: who speaks?

In conclusion, we had hoped that through the debate we were helping to initiate critical questions and contribute to creating new ideas, but not foreclosing the possibility of critical engagement. It appears that Mulugeta et al. aimed to silence us completely and that Abbink is bent on pushing the argument out of academic circles. This is a display of power and privilege, not an attempt to productively engage with the arguments and messages, both in academic terms and for peace and stability in Ethiopia.

Responses to our intervention have tried to control the terms of the debate in their favour. Mulugeta et al. have a degree of political and media power, while Abbink is a senior academic with power to influence. While the former label and sensationalise in order to expose us to unnecessary social media attacks, Abbink tries to define what the right academic questions are. This is unhelpful in trying to develop an engaged and analytically rigorous debate that has tried to initiate a discussion about alternative forms of political engagement in Ethiopia. Decoloniality should aim to speak out against such attempts at the silencing and prioritising of research questions.

The new era is only beginning after the end of the war: the TPLF’s eclipse is ascertained now, while the Prosperity Party and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed are consolidating their power. We are not making a value judgement on the nature of the emerging new era, we are only stating its imminent birth. Much as the post-1991 period was applauded by some and denigrated by others, the post-CoHA period will see a similar fate in the years and decades to come. We will be willing participants in this critical debate.


While in the Ethiopian tradition first names would be used here and in the journal references, the journal’s European system of listing by second name has been used for citations and references in this piece. The text therefore often refers to Mulugeta and co-authors, while their piece under discussion is listed under Gebrehiwot et al. 2023 in the reference list, as indicated in the citations.

Two of our critics are clearly politically partisan and have skin in the game: Mulugeta (as a TPLF veteran and still an insider) and Mohammed Hassan (an Oromo Liberation Army [OLA] negotiator).

Abbink gives the number of internally displaced persons and victims of massacres as if they are uncontested facts (see Abadir 2023) and ignores some confirmed atrocities that occurred in Tigray.

Disclosure statement

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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