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Tigrayan offer to withdraw opens door to a ceasefire as UN Security Council debates humanitarian crisis

After the federal government retakes some key towns, both sides could see benefit in negotiations

Copyright © Africa Confidential 2021

Tigrayan leader Debretsion Gebremichael's offer of a 'strategic withdrawal' from the Afar and Amhara regions could lay the ground for a ceasefire in Ethiopia's 13-month civil war. With hundreds of thousands more lives threatened, both sides are facing mounting international pressure to end hostilities (AC Vol 62 No 24, No jaw, jaw – just war, war).

If the federal side takes up Debretsion's offer, it would be the best chance for a peace deal since fighting started in November 2020. Political talks might follow.

In a letter dated 19 December to UN Secretary General António Guterres, Debretsion writes: 'We have heard the unanimous international call for us to withdraw from neighbouring regions … the government of Ethiopia made the same call. We trust that out bold act will be a decisive opening for peace'.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government did not immediately respond. It may see the offer as a capitulation by Debretsion and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

Most contentiously, in the eyes of Abiy's government, would be Debretsion's call for a no-fly zone over Tigray along with a UN mechanism to verify that Eritrean forces had withdrawn from Tigray. Debretsion also calls for an arms embargo on Eritrea and Ethiopia which will be quickly thrown out by Addis.

But Abiy could also use part of the offer as an opportunity to pause the fighting at a point at which he can assert the federal forces are victorious and the TPLF is in retreat.

A ceasefire between the federal forces and the TPLF would also allow Abiy's government to focus on another rebellion led by the Oromo Liberation Army which was threatening to march on Addis Ababa (AC Vol 62 No 23, Rebel advance drives a diplomatic flurry).

In June, the federal side made a ceasefire offer as it withdrew its troops from Mekelle, the capital of Tigray region. But the TPLF rejected it out of hand.

Debretsion's offer follows the federal forces' recapture of Dessie and Kombulcha in early December. And on 18 December, Addis Ababa announced that federal forces had recaptured Kobo and Weldiya in Amhara region.

Independent reports suggest that armed drones supplied by Turkey and United Arab Emirates had enabled the federal forces to drive the Tigrayan forces northwards. This is the latest swing of the pendulum in a conflict where it looks neither side can achieve a decisive victory.

In early November, multiple sources reported that the Tigrayan forces were less than 200 kilometres from Addis Ababa. That prompted the federal government to declare a state of emergency and call for a mobilisation of all Ethiopians of fighting age.

It seems likely that Debretsion's offer was timed to coincide with a debate on 20 December at the UN Security Council on the worsening humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia.

UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths is to brief the council on the chronic shortage of food and medicaments, which has left 9.4 million people in dire conditions, over a million on the brink of starvation, in northern Ethiopia.

No fuel supplies have reached Tigray since August. But federal officials allowed four convoys of food and medicines into the region in the last week of November after serial requests from UN agencies.

This Security Council debate follows a session on Ethiopia at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 17 December which agreed to appoint a team to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both sides during the civil war.

Ethiopia, with backing from China and Russia, opposed the plan as 'external meddling' in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. But in his letter to Guterres,  Debretsion warmly welcomes the UN Human Rights Council investigation, pledging full cooperation from the TPLF, which along with the federal forces has been accused of widespread abuses during the war.

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