Ethiopia: Tigray rebels are calling for peace, agree to AU’s involvement

By The Africa Report
Posted on Tuesday, 13 September 2022 14:42

An Afari militia member walks next to a house destroyed in the fight between the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) forces in Kasagita town, Afar region, Ethiopia, February 25, 2022. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Over the weekend, the Tigray rebels fighting Ethiopia’s federal government said they were willing to accept an “immediate” ceasefire and be part of a peace process led by the African Union.

The statement – made at the beginning of Ethiopia’s new year on 11 September – came nearly three weeks after fresh fighting broke out along Tigray’s borders. The clashes ended a fragile truce declared by the government in late March and halted aid deliveries to Tigray as well as parts of the neighbouring Amhara region.

“[T]he Government of Tigray is prepared to participate in a robust peace process under the auspices of the African Union [AU],” the statement said. “Furthermore, we are ready to abide by an immediate and mutually agreed cessation of hostilities in order to create a conducive atmosphere.”

Eritrea’s role

Engagements have been reported along Tigray’s southern border with Amhara, as well as its northern frontier with Eritrea, where Eritrean troops are believed to be undertaking ground offensives after weeks of troop build ups and shelling.

Last week, there was also heavy fighting in the west as federal Ethiopian forces and allied regional Amhara forces tried to push across River Tekeze towards the major urban hub of Shire. The federal military is also reported to be massing in the Afar region, east of Tigray.

“There is fighting in almost every direction,” says a western diplomat.

The statement on 11 September came a few days after the region’s leader, Gebremichael Debretsion, wrote a letter UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the Security Council proposing a cessation of hostilities that includes four parts:

  • Restoring services to Tigray;
  • Unfettered humanitarian access;
  • Withdrawal of Eritrean troops;
  • Restoration of Tigray’s pre-war borders, including western Tigray, which is under Amhara control.

These positions from Tigray’s leadership are longstanding. The March truce broke down in part because of a lack of progress made on the issue of restoring services to Tigray. The region has been without telephone, internet and banking for over a year.

The Tigray rebels have also repeatedly rejected the AU’s envoy – former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo – as a mediator, criticising what they his perceived “proximity” to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. In their statement, they committed to an AU-led process, a key shift after previously calling for talks overseen by Kenya and the US, and a concession to Ethiopia’s federal government, which was long called for talks overseen by the AU.

No one can be certain how credible these kinds of announcements are, especially as we’ve seen both sides previously call for talks while re-grouping their forces.

Mutually acceptable mediators

Significantly, however, the Tigray rebels did not say that they accepted Obasanjo. Instead, they called for “mutually acceptable mediators”, as well as “international observers who will help the parties build mutual trust” and oversee the implementation of any commitments agreed in the peace process.

The statement came amid reports of ceasefire talks in Djibouti and a flurry of high-level diplomatic activity led by the US.

“There have been informal talks already and pressure on the Tigrayan authorities to show they are actors for peace, who are willing to come to the table to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and political settlement,” says Ahmed Soliman, a researcher at Chatham House in London.

“No one can be certain how credible these kinds of announcements are, especially as we’ve seen both sides previously call for talks while re-grouping their forces. That said, if the Tigrayan administration are now ready to agree to a mutual cessation of hostilities and move into direct talks without preconditions, that is an easing of their earlier stance and an opportunity that should be grasped,” he says.

No sides gaining

Diplomatic and humanitarian sources tell The Africa Report that neither side has made major gains since hostilities renewed late last month, with no large cities changing hands so far. “The fighting bounces back and forth, the frontline is shifting all the time,” says one source.

“None of these offensives are getting very far, it doesn’t seem they are marking much progress on any of the fronts,” says another.

It seems unlikely that the Tigray forces’ peace call was the direct result of major battlefield results. However, their current situation – fighting on several fronts at once – is also unsustainable in the long term.

The Tigray forces’ attempt to punch through Western Tigray towards Sudan appears to have been repulsed, meaning they still do not have access to an international border over which they could bring in supplies.

As the rainy season draws to a close this month, the skies will begin to clear up, allowing the federal military to deploy its drones. These were used to pummel the overstretched Tigray forces last year as they advanced towards Addis Ababa.

“It is by no means clear that this statement stems from a position of military weakness,” says William Davison at the International Crisis Group. “But we know that overall, Tigray and its forces are in a difficult position – they are isolated, and their supplies of fuel, arms, ammunition, spare parts, etcetera, are limited.”

“Tigrayan and Federal forces may be able to make tactical, short-term gains, but can they hold them? Both sides appear intent on continuing to inflict damage on the other, but there isn’t a clear end game with a winner-takes-all scenario. A negotiated solution to the conflict will be necessary if it is going to end,” says Soliman.

‘Unique opportunity’ at peace

The ceasefire call from the Tigray rebels was lauded by the AU, the European Union, the US, the UN and the regional bloc – the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). AU chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat called it “a unique opportunity towards the restoration of peace in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia”.

However, the Tigray forces are still demanding restoration of services to Tigray as part of any cessation of hostilities, whereas the government wants to tackle this issue at a later point.

“If that remains the Tigrayan position, then there are probably still significant obstacles towards renewing the truce, let alone putting in place a permanent ceasefire and a peace process that tackles the political disagreements,” says Davison.

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