Ethiopia: An end in sight to the Tigray conflict?

By Fred Harter

Posted on Monday, 25 July 2022 16:45
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addresses lawmakers at the parliament in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Thursday, July 7, 2022. (AP Photo)
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addresses lawmakers at the parliament in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Thursday, July 7, 2022. (AP Photo)

More than 20 months since hostilities started, there is cautious optimism that a peaceful resolution to Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict may be in sight, with both sides indicating they are ready to talk.

There has been no major fighting between federal forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) since late December, and a unilateral humanitarian ceasefire declared by the federal government on March 24 has mostly been upheld.

In April, after an agreement was reached to observe the ceasefire, the TPLF withdrew from territory it occupied in the state of Afar. Since then, convoys of aid have resumed deliveries to Tigray, where the UN estimates 5.2 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

In June, having previously ruled out any form of talks with the TPLF, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced the creation of a seven-person committee tasked with negotiating with the rebel group. This came a day after the TPLF published a letter saying it is “open to good faith negotiations”.

The committee, headed by foreign affairs minister Demeke Mekonnen – a key fixer for the Prime Minister and an ethnic Amhara – held its first meeting on 12 July. Other members include Amhara deputy president Getachew Jember and Temesgen Tiruneh, a former Amhara president who serves as intelligence chief.

These three appointments indicate that the Amhara region will have its interests represented in the negotiations

“These three appointments indicate that the Amhara region, whose forces have been fighting those of Tigray alongside the federal military, will have its interests represented in the negotiations,” says a recent report by the International Crisis Group.

The TPLF, meanwhile, is yet to formally announce its negotiators, but the rebel group’s spokesman Getachew Reda recently said a team of “high-ranking members” has been set up to represent Tigray in upcoming talks.

Obstacles to peace

These developments have kindled hopes across the region for a peaceful resolution to the war that erupted in November 2020. Tens of thousands have been killed and many millions more displaced in northern Ethiopia.

There are many issues that need to be agreed on before a proper peace process can be said to be underway, however. The ceasefire declared in March has yet to be formalised – with a written agreement and monitoring mechanisms – and there is no agreed venue or mediator for the talks.

The only contact so far has been between military commanders from the two sides, not their political leaderships, according to diplomats in Addis Ababa. Abiy’s negotiation committee is said to be still hammering out the federal position on various issues, while the TPLF has previously issued several pre-conditions for talks that the federal government is unwilling to accept.

These include the restoration of phone, internet and banking services to Tigray, which remains under a communications blackout, and the return of western Tigray, an area of fertile land on the Sudan border that is currently under Amhara occupation.

So far, the African Union’s envoy, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who also led the AU monitoring mission that gave last year’s general election a clean bill of health amid concerns of irregularities, has been leading mediation efforts.

Obasanjo has been shuttling between Addis Ababa and the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, for months, supported by regional leaders, including Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta. The US has also been assisting these efforts, but has been unable to appoint a stable team. The State Department is currently on its third special envoy for the Horn of Africa in little over a year, while the American embassy has been without an ambassador since February – and the deputy special envoy, Payton Knopf, quit in frustration last month.

Meanwhile, the TPLF has become increasingly strident in its criticisms of Obasanjo as a mediator, claiming he is too close to Abiy. Last month, the Ethiopian PM hosted Obasanjo and other international dignitaries on a tour of agricultural projects in Oromia. The TPLF has also criticised the AU, citing what it called the body’s “silence” over human rights abuses committed in Tigray.

“We received the High Representative of the AU Chairperson in Tigray on the basis of the African principle of hospitality, respect for an elder, and respect for the institution of the African Union,” it said in its letter last month. “However, the proximity of the High Representative to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia has not gone unnoticed by our people.”

One diplomat in Addis Ababa tells The Africa Report that they believe Obasanjo’s mediation effort is “dead” and that his on-going efforts are “symbolic”. “Everything that has been agreed so far has been through the military heads talking to each other, it hasn’t come through him,” they said.

Others are more optimistic, with another diplomat saying that the TPLF will stick with Obasanjo-led mediation if they can be persuaded that his is “the only show in town.”

TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael has said talks should take place in Nairobi, mediated by Kenya. However, the preferred country is a fortnight away from elections that will see Kenyatta leave office, meaning a Kenya-led process may be unfeasible, at least until the new administration beds in.

Once talks do eventually get underway, they could be easily derailed. The fate of western Tigray is a key obstacle, with the TPLF demanding its return even as top Amhara officials insist it is now part of their region. Another issue is the unpredictability of Eritrean leader Isais Afwerki. He entered the war in November 2020 to wipe out the TPLF threat on its border, but the group has added tens of thousands of fighters to its ranks since then, and Eritrea may choose to resume hostilities in order to confront the group.

The real aim of these talks is to establish a modus vivendi between Tigray and the federal system

With regards to Tigrayan independence, the TPLF has not outlined its position on breaking away from Ethiopia, but has committed to hold a referendum on the subject amid increasing calls for independence from Tigrayans angered by abuses.

Last month, in an address to parliament, Abiy said he was willing to renew hostilities if talks failed. “We’ll make decisions for peace and towards our national interest,” he said. “The unity and interests of our country, if they are difficult to secure peacefully, we will pay sacrifices with our lives. Outside of that, we believe there is hope [and] our door will remain open for peace.”

Could a deal be possible?

With the federal government desperate to rescue Ethiopia’s flatlining economy, it is possible that these hurdles could be overcome. The country’s foreign reserves have been depleted by the war, inflation is running at 35% and Ethiopia remains cut off from budgetary support from institutions, such as the EU, which said last month that relations will not be normalised until access to Tigray is restored. Foreign investors have also been scared off by allegations of human rights violations.

The cooling of the Tigray conflict comes as the insurgency from the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) heats up in Oromia, where hundreds of ethnic Amhara have been killed in two recent massacres blamed on the OLA.

Last week, Al-Shabaab also penetrated Ethiopia’s Somali region, engaging in a days-long battle with local security forces. The conflict in Tigray has diverted federal troops away from both regions, and Abiy is said to be keen to strike a deal that will free up soldiers to address these threats. The TPLF, meanwhile, faces a spiralling humanitarian situation alongside rising discontent from a war-weary population.

“There are a lot of question marks hanging over the process and where it will lead, but both sides have a lot of incentive to resolve the conflict,” says a diplomatic source.

Observers believe that the process will be staged, with the formalisation of the ceasefire and removal of the TPLF’s terrorist designation likely early steps, alongside the restoration of Tigray’s road, communication and banking links. However, it is not clear if the TPLF will achieve its aim of a complete return to the pre-war status quo.

Any enduring settlement will need to address Tigray’s future position within the federal system and its right to maintain its enlarged armed force. Even so, the parties may duck these thorny issues in favour of a sticking plaster deal that simply stops the fighting in the short term, says René Lefort, a researcher who studies Ethiopia.

“The real aim of these talks is to establish a modus vivendi between Tigray and the federal system,” says Lefort. “For the TPLF, the most important thing is to get unfettered humanitarian access and for the federal side, it is to deploy troops to Oromia. On that basis, an agreement is possible, but such an agreement would not solve major national questions.”

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