Ethiopia: Abiy agrees to peace talks; Eritrea’s hardline position on TPLF could be stumbling block

By Fred Harter
Posted on Wednesday, 5 October 2022 11:59

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed arrives for the inauguration ceremony of the Meskel square, marking the last election rally he will hold in Addis Ababa
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed arrives for the inauguration ceremony of the Meskel square, marking the last election rally he will hold in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, June 13, 2021. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Ethiopia’s federal government says it has accepted an invitation to attend peace talks mediated by the African Union, raising hopes of an end to one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts after nearly two years of fighting, and more active troops than in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

In a letter dated 1 October 2022, African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat invited leaders of the Tigray region and the federal government to talks on Sunday 8 October 2022 in South Africa.

Redwan Hussein, the national security advisor of the prime minister, wrote on Twitter that the government “has accepted this invitation, which is in line with our principled position regarding the peaceful resolution of the conflict and the need to have talks without preconditions”.

In a separate statement, the federal government said it “remains committed to adopting all possible measures to resolve the conflict in a manner that ensures lasting peace”.

The Tigray rebel forces fighting the government have yet to respond to the AU’s invitation. Last month, they issued a statement saying they were ready to abide by an immediate truce and enter talks mediated by the AU, despite having previously rejected the AU’s mediator, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, as too close to the federal government.

Since then, the Tigray forces have claimed that Eritrea has launched a “full-scale” offensive across their region’s northern border. On Sunday, they said they had withdrawn from parts of the Amhara region to Tigray’s south in order to redeploy troops to address this “existential danger”.

Fighting between the authorities in Tigray and the federal government resumed late August, ending an uneasy truce in place since March that had allowed aid to flow into the region, albeit under tight government supervision. Both sides blamed the other for the renewal in hostilities, which followed weeks of troop build-ups on all sides.

The fighting is taking place under one of the world’s most severe communications blackouts, with all phone and internet services in  Tigray cut. As a result, it is unclear how many casualties have been sustained in the fighting, which a diplomatic source in Addis Ababa says involves roughly half a million troops.

“On the ground, you have more soldiers than Russia and Ukraine, that’s crazy,” says the diplomatic source. “But no one is talking about it.”

Roughly 90% of Tigray’s 6 million population need humanitarian assistance, but the fresh fighting has halted aid deliveries to the region and war-affected parts of Amhara. Thousands are thought to have died from hunger and a lack of medical care in Tigray, a situation WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus – who is from Tigray – has described as “the worst disaster on Earth”.

At least three rounds of talks have taken place between the two sides so far. The latest were held in Djibouti last month, but they broke up without an agreement after the Tigray side insisted on the restoration of their region’s services as part of any cessation of hostilities, a longstanding position the federal government rejects.

They’re not interested in negotiating… They want to wipe out the TPLF.

The invitation from the African Union represents the highest-level attempt yet to find a peaceful end to the conflict. In his letter, the AU Commission chairperson said Obasanjo would be supported by a mediation panel comprising former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the former deputy president of South Africa.

Separately, a diplomatic source tells The Africa Report that officials from the US, UN, European Union and the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development will participate in the South Africa talks as “observers” – if they go ahead.

The biggest complicating factor is Eritrea, which fought alongside Ethiopia’s federal government when the Tigray war first broke out in November 2020. Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, holds a grudge against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) leadership: He sees them as a threat to his position in Asmara and is thus not engaged in the mediation efforts. Even if a deal is struck in South Africa, it is not clear if Isaias will respect it and call off his forces.

Last month, US special envoy to the Horn of Africa Mike Hammer was reduced to encouraging “those that might be able to communicate with Asmara” to ask the Eritreans to withdraw their forces from Tigray.

“They’re not interested in negotiating,” says a diplomat in Addis Ababa, referring to Eritrea. “They want to wipe out the TPLF.”

The government’s acceptance of the AU’s invitation for peace talks came a day after regional broadcaster Tigrai TV reported that an airstrike had killed “more than 50 civilians and injured 70 others” in Adi Daero, a town in northwest Tigray.

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