Ethiopia – Tigray: What’s changed in one week since declared truce?

By Fred Harter
Posted on Thursday, 31 March 2022 13:27

A militia member and guard walks through a camp for internally displaced people in Afdera town, Ethiopia, February 23, 2022.
A militia member and guard walks through a camp for internally displaced people in Afdera town, Ethiopia, February 23, 2022. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

One week ago, on 24 March, Ethiopia’s government declared a unilateral humanitarian truce, raising hopes that there could be a peaceful resolution to its 17 month-long civil war with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

The fighting has killed thousands and devastated the country’s infrastructure, while reports of rampant human rights abuses including gang rapes, mass killings and torture have drawn sharp international condemnation.

No aid has entered Tigray by road since 14 December amid what the UN has described as a “de facto” government blockade, which has severed banking services and telecoms across the region.

The US, the United Nations and European Union welcomed the truce announcement. For its part, the TPLF said it would observe a “cessation of hostilities” if aid was allowed into the region.

“The Government of Tigray will do everything it can to make sure that this cessation of hostilities is a success,” it said. “We call on the Ethiopian authorities to go beyond empty promises and take concrete steps to facilitate unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray.”

The statements from the TPLF and the government marked the first time both sides indicated they were willing to pause the fighting.

A previous unilateral “humanitarian ceasefire” – declared by the federal government after a TPLF retook most of Tigray in late June – failed as Addis Ababa cut off services to the region and the TPLF went on the offensive, claiming it was trying to secure a humanitarian corridor for aid into the region.

Fighting subsequently spread to other parts of Ethiopia and by November, the TPLF had come within 200km of Addis Ababa, prompting warnings from the US that Ethiopia could “implode.”

The rebel group’s advance was repulsed with the help of foreign-bought drones and volunteer militiamen after the government declared a wide-ranging state of emergency. The TPLF retreated to Tigray in late December, their supply lines overstretched and vulnerable to air attack.

International pressure

Last week’s truce was declared as the US Congress debated a bill that would impose sanctions against individuals seen to be blocking a resolution to Ethiopia’s civil conflict.

It also followed a visit to the country by the new US Horn of Africa envoy, David Satterfield. The US has been supporting mediation efforts led by the African Union’s envoy, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo.

According to a humanitarian source there were a series of “mid-level talks” between the TPLF and the federal government in the days leading up to the announcement, but the truce declaration was unilateral and seems to have caught TPLF leaders by surprise.

The conflict is in a stalemated position in terms of fighting, with both sides realising they cannot achieve their primary military aims.

“This truce is mainly the result of diplomatic pressure,” says Moges Zewdu Teshome, a former law lecturer at Haramaya University. “Sanctions are being tabled before the US Congress, and that is a huge concern for the Ethiopian government.”

Uncertainty stemming from the war has put off foreign companies previously keen to invest in Ethiopia’s once-booming economy. It has also worsened a foreign currency shortage that has sent prices for everyday consumer goods soaring.

Ahmed Soliman, a researcher at Chatham House, says both sides have reached a point of “mutual exhaustion” and that the government is keen to limit any further economic fallout of the conflict.

“The federal government and the TPLF have expended a lot of energy fighting each other – in terms of manpower, economic and military resources, and using their political capital with civilians who have suffered immensely – and neither side has got very far pursuing a zero-sum approach,” says Soliman.

“The conflict is in a stalemated position in terms of fighting, with both sides realising they cannot achieve their primary military aims.”

Federal forces have not been participating in the most recent fighting in the Afar region, where the TPLF have been battling Afar militias since late December, a situation that already resembled a “de facto ceasefire” between the rebels and Addis Ababa, according to Moges.

The federal military did launch a series of deadly airstrikes against Tigray in early 2022, killing dozens of civilians. However the frequency of these has lessened in recent weeks.

Still no aid

Speaking to The Africa Report, a humanitarian worker says a shift in position is felt on the part of the federal government, which now seems committed to letting aid into Tigray in order to protect its international reputation.

However, one week after the truce was declared, aid is yet to enter Tigray. Both the government and the TPLF have blamed each other, with the TPLF suggesting the announcement was a ploy to “befuddle people in and outside the country.”

The government says the TPLF’s occupation of several parts of Afar is blocking the road to Tigray.

The humanitarian worker adds that a primary concern for aid agencies was the security of trucks transporting supplies through Afar, where local communities have attacked and looted several aid convoys bound for Tigray.

New frontier

The federal military has a very light presence in Afar. As a result, Addis Ababa has little influence on events within the region, according to aid workers in Semera, Afar’s capital.

“Who can guarantee the safety of those trucks?” asks the humanitarian worker. “It is a long and remote road, and the truck’s move along it at a turtle’s pace…They are vulnerable.”

A UN official in Semera has told The Africa Report that a convoy of 30 trucks left Semera for Tigray on Thursday morning as a “trial”, saying that they “hope they will arrive peacefully.”

We are fighting for survival [against the TPLF], but the federal government keeps acting as if there is no war on Afar.

Meanswhile, the opposition Afar People’s Party has criticised the truce, accusing both the federal government and the TPLF of ignoring the “reality of the ground in Afar”, where regional authorities say 300,000 people have been displaced by the recent fighting.

Last month Mussa Adem, the head of the Afar People’s Party, told The Africa Report: “We are fighting for survival [against the TPLF], but the federal government keeps acting as if there is no war on Afar.”

His views are shared by others in the region. Ali Hodale Omar, an Afar militar leader, who commanded several hundred fighters against the TPLF during clashes last year, said the Afar would keep fighting until the Tigray rebels were repulsed.

“As long as there is one metre of Afar under their control, there will not be peace,” he said.

What does the truce mean?

It is not clear what the truce means in practice. Moges, the former lecturer at Haramaya University, emphasises that it was not a ceasefire agreement, an arrangement that is usually bilateral and involves monitoring mechanisms and legal obligations that “pave the way for an eventual negotiated settlement of conflict.”

“This is a temporary voluntary suspension of hostilities,” Moges says.

The federal government is likely to face difficulties getting its allies to agree to the truce. In Afar, there are increasing feelings of disillusionment in the federal government, with many Afar feeling the military has abandoned them in their on-going fight against the TPLF.

Abiy has also lost support in Amhara, which raised hundreds of thousands of militia to beat back the TPLF in November and December. Many of these Amhara fighters view the war against the TPLF as a battle for ethnic survival.

I don’t think this temporary truce is going to lay the foundation for a ceasefire any time soon…There are gestures from the government that they want to negotiate, but there is a lot of mistrust on all sides.

They are unlikely to allow aid to pass through their region on its way to Tigray.

Meanwhile, the release of several political prisoners – including founding TPLF member Sebhat Nega – in an amnesty to mark Ethiopian Christmas in early January was deeply unpopular in Amhara.

Then there is the issue of western Tigray, a region that many Amhara view as rightfully theirs, which the Amhara regional government swiftly annexed at the beginning of the conflict in November 2020. The TPLF is demanding its return and its  status will be a key hurdle in any negotiated political settlement.

The week the truce was declared there were reports of clashes in western Tigray and of build ups of federal troops along Tigray’s southern border with the Amhara region, according to two humanitarian sources. These troops’ movement could be an attempt to strong arm the TPLF into observing the truce, or they could be preparations for a renewal of hostilities.

“I don’t think this temporary truce is going to lay the foundation for a ceasefire any time soon,” says Moges. “There are gestures from the government that they want to negotiate, but there is a lot of mistrust on all sides.”

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