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A trio of African politicians have presided over a tentative step towards ending the world’s deadliest conflict
The truce signed between Addis Ababa's federal forces and Tigrayan representatives in Pretoria on 2 November opens the prospect of an end to the fighting and resumption of essential services to northern Ethiopia, but critically it does not in any way constrain Eritrea, whose forces have been playing a leading role in the conflict.
The Agreement for Lasting Peace Through a Permanent Cessation of Hostilities followed 10 days of intense negotiations in which officials of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TLPF) appeared to have given up much of their political agenda.
A fierce offensive led by Eritrean and federal forces against the Tigray Defence Forces continued during the negotiations, as did a blockade on humanitarian supplies to civilians in the region (Dispatches 24/10/22, Federal and Tigrayan leaders open talks in South Africa).
The statement signed by the TPLF and federal government officials reaffirms the commitment: 'to safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ethiopia… thus Ethiopia has only one national defence force.'
It continues: 'we have also agreed on a detailed programme of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration for the TPLF combatants, taking into account the security situation on the ground'. That last caveat hints at the mountain of difficulties in implementing this agreement and setting up an effective monitoring mechanism.
The parties agreed to set up a Joint Committee on which they would be represented along with officials from the African Union high-level panel and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. Efforts by the TPLF to include representatives from the UN appear to have failed.
The AU's chief negotiator, former President of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo – who commanded troops in his own country's war against Biafran secessionists over 50 years ago – warned that the agreement was 'not the end of this process but the beginning of it.'
His fellow mediator, former President of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta, referred to 'destructive' forces 'from within and without' that could sabotage the truce, widely interpreted as meaning the Eritrean forces. When federal forces returned to war in August, after a five-month-long ceasefire, they were critically dependent on ethnic militias and Eritrea (AC Vol 63 No 19, Advancing towards stalemate).
Ethiopia rejected any European Union participation in the Pretoria talks, following a 17 October statement by High Representative Josep Borrell, calling for an immediate halt to Ethiopia and Eritrea's joint offensive, and a full withdrawal of Eritrean troops. The federal government dismissed this as 'external interference'.
The Eritrean Defence Force's (EDF) casualties may be as high as the estimated 90,0000 suffered by the Ethiopian army, but the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF), having fought more from fixed defensive positions, are reckoned to have suffered fewer losses. But the wider population of some seven million in Tigray has been devastated by a lack of nutrition and medical supplies.
Denying it was using food or aid as a weapon, the federal government admitted to providing aid only to areas under its control. Ghent University estimates that from November 2020 to August 2022 between 385,000 and 600,000 civilians died in Tigray, the majority from lack of healthcare or from famine. Tens of thousands will also have died from similar causes in the bordering Amhara and Afar regions.
The first submission to the peace talks by Ethiopia's federal government was uncompromising, effectively calling for the complete surrender of Tigrayan forces as a prerequisite for a cessation of hostilities. Some agreement was finally reached on the principles of a cessation of hostilities and delivery of humanitarian aid which have formed the basis of the 2 November agreement.
The latest offensive began with attacks in late August by the Ethiopian National Defence Force on the southern front. This was rapidly followed by advances by units of both the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies from Eritrea across Tigray's northern border, and then from the Amhara region and Western Tigray, now held by Amhara forces and Eritrean troops. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Issayas Afewerki put at least half a million soldiers – including fighters of the Amhara Special Forces militia (controlled by regional, rather than federal, authorities) – into the field.
The TDF claims to have captured documents setting out Eritrea's aims, including displacing the majority of the population of Tigray, turning them into refugees.
It seems clear that Abiy had expected the peace talks to be overtaken by military success. Field Marshal Berhanu Jula, Ethiopia's Chief of Staff, met Eritrean Chief of Staff Major General Filipos Woldeyohannes early in October in the Ethiopian border town of Humera to plan the latest fighting, the advance on Shire and Adwa in northern Tigray.
Shire was taken on 17 October, but we hear Abiy had thought that federal forces would reach the Tigrayan capital Mekelle by the end of the first week of October, and that victory would be achieved by the start of the peace talks, originally scheduled by the AU Commission for 7 October.
He hoped to announce a new administration for Tigray as the talks opened. The delays and the losses suffered by the military affected the timetable but have not led to modifications in the plan.
Unlike his attempt last year, Abiy had seen no point in including Tigrayan opponents of the TPLF in an eventual new administration for the region. And following the detailed reports of atrocities meted out by federal and Eritrean forces, few Tigrayan officials would have been prepared to cooperate.
Prior to the new agreement, Abiy's plan was for the administration to be headed by non-Tigrayans. We hear that he had considered appointing an Oromo from his Prosperity Party to take charge, with local administrators and bureaucrats involved in trying to restore public services from the Amhara or Afar regions.
That plan has been dropped ahead of the 2 November agreement which specifies that 'within a week' of the federal government lifting its terrorist designation of the TPLF, 'an inclusive Interim Regional Administration [in Tigray] will be settled through political dialogue between the parties.'
The TDF had said that if Eritrean and federal government forces managed to take Mekelle, it would continue its policy of abandoning towns and large-scale battles in favour of 'elastic defence': guerrilla activities, operating around the towns and in the countryside. These tactics served the TPLF well in its fighting against the Derg regime in the 1980s, and the TDF in Operation Alula at the start of the conflict last year. The TDF had begun to implement this around Adwa which the federal forces say they had captured at the end of last month.
International pressure for progress in peace talks had grown surprisingly slowly, despite the horror and scale of the conflict – more than a million soldiers were on the battlefield last month. In mid-October the White House described the conflict as 'one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world'. At the beginning of October, the Ethiopian Red Cross said 80% of Tigray was unreachable and 3.8 million out of a population of about 6 million needed humanitarian assistance.
The African Union's Peace and Security Council and the UN Security Council have met to discuss Tigray, but Ethiopia kept discussion to a minimum. Norway and the UNSC's three African members – Kenya, Gabon and Ghana – proposed a Council statement calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities and serious peace talks, but Ethiopia persuaded China and Russia to prevent this (AC Vol 63 No 11, Abiy’s war aims meet geopolitics).
On 19 October, the UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, Alice Wairimu Nderitu, said civilians were being ethnically targeted, 'exacerbated by horrifying levels of hate speech and incitement to violence'. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a 25 October statement, warning of a 'heightened risk of genocide and mass atrocities' in Tigray. It drew a sharp response from the Eritrean Embassy in the US, which insisted the TPLF, with its 'toxic philosophy of institutionalized ethnicity' was solely responsible for the fighting.
With mid-term elections approaching, US lawmakers have also been taking an increased interest. In mid-October, the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Democrat Bob Menendez, called for an immediate ceasefire and accountability for perpetrators of human rights abuses. He said he planned to push the bi-partisan Ethiopia Peace and Democracy Promotion Act, introduced last November, imposing sanctions against anyone considered to be undermining peace in Ethiopia. Gregory Meeks, the Democratic chair of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said Eritrean troops were destabilising Ethiopia, and that the 'shocking deprivation of humanitarian assistance in Tigray and neighbouring regions is one of the deadliest weapons of this war'.
How Issayas's strategy thrives in a divided Ethiopia
Eritrean President Issayas Afewerki has different, and wider, aims than those of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, not least his long-held belief that Eritrea needs a weak or even divided Ethiopia as a neighbour (AC Vol 63 No 12, Abiy risks Amhara backlash). This underlies Issayas's support for extreme Amhara ethno-nationalist elements in the Amhara region. It was also the rationale for his previous policy of arming and financing opposition groups to the former ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front, such as Patriotic Ginbot 7, headed by Minister of Education Berhanu Nega and Andagatchew Tsigie.
We hear that Issayas is training Fano militia from the Amhara region, which are less well armed and traditionally less militarily trained than the Special Forces. These manoeuvres have divided the Amhara and limited Abiy's support in the Amhara branch of his own Prosperity Party.
Ethnic divisions have pressured the federal government elsewhere in the country. In Oromia, the Oromo Liberation Army–Shene has been stepping up operations despite extensive government use of drones (AC Vol 63 No 15, Heat of war shifts to the centre).
Last week, the OLA said there were hundreds of civilian casualties in six drone strikes in Oromia, including on schools and a protestant church. One was aimed at an OLA-Shene graduation ceremony that was also attended by civilians, with at least 70 people killed and 120 injured. In West Shoa and Eastern Wollega, west of Addis Ababa, clashes between Oromos and Amharas, and massacres of civilians, have become frequent.
In the Awash Valley, the Afar region is gearing up to use its greatly enlarged Special Forces and its Ugugumo militia to retake areas seized by Issa Somalis in recent years. The Afars see this as an acceptable return for their support for the Prime Minister against Tigray last year. Neither the Somali regional government, nor Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh, himself an Issa born in Ethiopia, would find this acceptable.
President Guelleh is also unhappy over Ethiopia's failure to support Djibouti in its problems with Eritrea. Control of the Eritrea-Djibouti border region of Ras Doumeira is still an issue and on 6 October an attack on a military post left at least seven Djibouti soldiers dead. The opposition Front pour la restauration de l'unité et de la démocratie (FRUD) was blamed, and there was little doubt those responsible came over from Eritrea, which still has FRUD members training in camps near the port city of Assab.
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