Ethiopia: Abiy says new committee will handle peace negotiations with TPLF

By Fred Harter
Posted on Wednesday, 15 June 2022 11:25

Ethiopia's PM Abiy Ahmed (twitter: @PMEthiopia)

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has announced the formation of a committee that will handle peace negotiations with rebels from the northern Tigray region.

Abiy revealed the formation of the body during an address to parliament on Tuesday 14 June in his fullest remarks yet on the peace process, after 19 months of fighting with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

It is led by Demeke Mekonnen, a key ally of Abiy who serves as deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs.

“Negotiation is not simple, it needs a lot of work,” Abiy told parliament. “A committee has been established to study how and what conditions to negotiate.”

Government officials had previously ruled out negotiating with the TPLF, which is outlawed as a terrorist group, and vigorously denied recent rumours that talks are already underway.

For the economy

According to diplomats in Addis Ababa, there have been a series of talks between the military commanders of both sides in recent months, but contact between political leaders is yet to take place.

Abiy said Demeke’s committee is preparing a report on negotiation terms and will present it to the executive within “the next 10 or 15 days”. He added that the committee will subsequently lead talks with the rebels, although he did not specify when these would start.

We are not prepared to make secret deals or bargain away our principles for material inducements

“We will tell the people when the committee has come up with its report containing the list of conditions that need to be negotiated,” Abiy said. “It is this committee that will negotiate.”

The conflict with the Tigray region has displaced millions and led to accusations of human rights abuses. It has also devastated Ethiopia’s once vibrant economy, putting off foreign investors and contributing to inflation that soared to 37% in May.

Analysts believe the government has abandoned its previous hard-line stance towards negotiations and is now keen to bring the war to an end in order to curtail further damage to the economy.

‘The proximity’ of Obasanjo to Abiy

Abiy’s announcement comes nearly three months after his government declared a humanitarian truce with Tigray. Since then the TPLF has withdrawn from territory it occupied in the Afar region and there has been a substantial increase in the flow of aid to Tigray, where 5.2 million people need humanitarian assistance.

Tigray’s banking services, road links and telecommunications have not yet been restored, however.

In an open letter to the UN Secretary-General posted on Twitter, TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael said his side is ready to “participate in a credible, impartial and principled peace process”, although he also criticised what he called “the proximity” of the African Union’s envoy Olusegun Obasanjo to Abiy Ahmed.

The TPLF wants immediate gratification because they know time functions against them

“We are not prepared to make secret deals or bargain away our principles for material inducements,” Debretsion said.

Obasanjo has been shuttling between Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, and Addis Ababa in an attempt to mediate between the two sides, supported by the US and other countries, including Kenya. He previously led an AU mission that deemed Ethiopia’s June 2021 general election free and fair amid reports of irregularities. Tigray did not participate in the vote, which Abiy won by a landslide

In his open letter, Debretsion said there was “an existing agreement among the parties” to meet in Nairobi “for negotiations hosted and facilitated by the president of Kenya”, although this has not been confirmed by Ethiopia’s federal government.

‘A slow-moving process’

William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group, says Abiy’s statement about the negotiation committee represents “a significant positive development”, but adds that progress towards talks is likely to be “a slow-moving process”, especially as no timeline or agenda has been set.

“Some elements of an improved situation and steps towards a political settlement will be easier to achieve than others,” Davison says. “It seems likely that the restoration of services to Tigray will be one of the first measures, and we may also see discussions about the removal of the TPLF’s terrorist designation.”

Davison says: “Then there are more difficult issues relating to contestation over western Tigray and the current size of Tigray’s military force. The Tigrayans see this force as an essential guarantee for their future security, but the federal, Eritrean and Amhara governments view it as an existential threat.”

A regional Amhara politician says he believes the next three months represent “a make or break moment” for the TPLF. “They have to do something before the rainy season finishes,” he says, adding that the rebel group may feel compelled to “fight against Abiy or Isaias” if their demands are not met.

“The TPLF wants immediate gratification because they know time functions against them,” he said. “If they quickly agree on resuming basic services, that might give them hope,” he says.

Crises on-going elsewhere

Although strides have been made towards resolving the Tigray conflict, Abiy faces a series of crises elsewhere. An offensive in western Oromia has failed to stamp out the simmering insurgency of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a TPLF ally, and a crackdown is underway in Amhara against militia who fought alongside the TPLF last year, leading to thousands of arrests.

On Monday, as Abiy made his parliament address, heavy gunfire rang out in the capital of the Gambella region, with insurgents from the OLA and the previously-obscure Gambella Liberation Front claiming they were temporarily able to control half of the city and raid police stations for arms.

Meanwhile, several thorny issues may yet derail any upcoming peace talks with Tigray. They include the stance of Eritrean leader Isais Afwerki – whose troops supported the Ethiopian military’s offensive against the TPLF in November 2020 – and the future of western Tigray, which is occupied by Amhara forces.

Separately, China is hosting a regional Horn of Africa peace conference in Addis Ababa on 20 -22 June. Details are vague and it is not clear if the TPLF will participate.

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