Is there a path to peace in the Tigray conflict?

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‘There’s no confidence on either side that the other can be trusted.’

Militiamen head to the front line in Sanja, Amhara region, near the border with Tigray, in 2020.

Militiamen head to the front line in Sanja, Amhara region, near the border with Tigray, in 2020. (Tiksa Negeri/REUTERS)

NAIROBI

A month ago, there was hope for a peaceful resolution to Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict. A truce in place since March had allowed sorely needed aid to reach the region’s beleaguered population, and both sides were indicating their willingness to negotiate. 

That truce now lies in tatters. On 24 August, fresh fighting erupted between forces led by the outlawed Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Ethiopia’s federal military in the Raya Kobo area of the Amhara region, south of Tigray.

Since then, the fighting has spread to other fronts. There have been clashes in Amhara’s Wag Hemra zone and battles along the Tekeze river that separates western Tigray from the rest of the region.

The most significant escalation came last week, when neighbouring Eritrea launched a full-scale offensive into north Tigray after mobilising its reserves and massing its troops for weeks. In response, the TPLF called on “every single Tigrayan” to make themselves “fully available for the all-round war we are waging”.

Earlier this month, Eritrean and Ethiopian forces captured Sheraro, in northwestern Tigray, although a Tigrayan counterattack to reclaim the town appears to be underway, with heavy fighting reported in the area. According to diplomats in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, Eritrean troops are also present in the Afar region, near Berhale, east of Tigray. And there is a build-up of federal Ethiopian units in the Afar-Tigray border town of Abala. Both Berhale and Abala are within striking distance of Mekelle, Tigray’s regional capital, which has been pounded by air attacks.

Voices urging peace have been muzzled. A meeting of civil society groups calling for a truce was broken up this month by security forces, and journalists have been locked up for questioning the public’s appetite for more war.

The renewed conflict has also deepened Tigray’s humanitarian emergency. Half the 5.5 million population were already in “severe” need, and aid deliveries into the region have been halted since August. 

On Monday, the World Food Programme said one of its trucks had been hit by shell debris while transporting aid supplies to newly displaced people in the Zana district of Tigray. A few hours later, the federal government, which has long accused the WFP of supplying the TPLF, issued a statement claiming that the rebel group has been transporting its fighters in trucks “illegally painted” with UN logos.

At least 300,0000 people have been newly displaced by the fighting, a UN official told The New Humanitarian. Aid workers have been able to carry out small-scale distributions in areas away from the battlezones, using food that was already in the region, but these supplies are close to depletion.

“The humanitarian situation was already dire before the resumption of hostilities,” said the UN official, who asked not to be named so they could speak freely. “It is hard to get information out, but now we assume it is only getting worse.”

This briefing explores what we know so far about the resumption of hostilities, and the chances of finding a way back to the negotiating table.

What was the status quo?

The Tigray conflict first broke out in November 2020, with federal Ethiopian and allied Eritrean troops quickly taking Mekelle and occupying the region. Faced with this offensive, the TPLF melted into the mountains and launched a hit-and-run guerrilla campaign that ground down the federal military. The group was eventually able to recapture most of Tigray in June 2021.

The TPLF then went on the offensive, pushing into the Afar and Amhara regions and coming within 200 kilometres of Addis Ababa late last year. But drone strikes against their overstretched supply lines, combined with a counterattack by the federal military and allied regional militias, forced the TPLF to withdraw to Tigray in late December. 

Much of that fighting took place beneath the blanket of one of the world’s tightest communication blackouts. This round is no different. Phone lines and internet connections are down in the areas affected by the war, making it hard to track its course. 

Despite this, it appears that the Tigray forces have so far largely been able to resist the offensives against them. “They have dug in and were ready for this,” said a diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. It is unclear, however, whether they have the arms, ammunition, and other supplies needed to sustain their efforts – and to beat back Eritrea’s new offensive.

On 11 September, the Tigray leadership issued a statement to mark Ethiopian new year that said they were ready to abide by an immediate ceasefire and enter peace talks under the African Union (AU). The federal government has yet to respond.

Why did the new fighting break out?

The truce in March was declared unilaterally by Ethiopia’s federal government at a time when the international community was distracted by the outbreak of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The TPLF reciprocated with a statement committing to abide by what it called a “cessation of hostilities”.

Crucially, however, no formal deal was ever struck. The truce existed as a gentleman’s agreement: nothing was written down; no monitoring mechanisms were put in place; and no venue was agreed for proper talks.

The federal government insisted on a process mediated by the AU’s Horn of Africa envoy, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. But the TPLF rejected Obasanjo as too close to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Instead, they called for talks in Nairobi, overseen by Kenya and the United States.

Obasanjo previously led the AU monitoring mission that certified the results of Ethiopia’s June 2021 election – which excluded Tigray – and gave Abiy’s newly formed Prosperity Party a landslide victory.

It’s an opportunity that has been squandered.

An analyst in Addis Ababa, who asked not to be named, blamed the international community for failing to exert enough pressure on the parties while they had the chance, saying diplomats scrambling to respond to events in Ukraine “took their eye off the ball” in Ethiopia.

“They didn’t do enough to get both parties to sit at the table and discuss substantive issues,” the analyst told The New Humanitarian. “It’s an opportunity that has been squandered.”

During the truce, the Tigray leadership was steadfast in its insistence that phone, banking, and internet links should be restored to their region before entering talks. These services have been mostly down since the beginning of the war, but the federal government wanted to settle the issue at a later date and rejected what it called the TPLF’s “preconditions”.

Several sources told The New Humanitarian that the Tigray leadership received assurances on the restoration of their services from mediators and grew frustrated when fresh connections never materialised. 

For its part, the federal government was keen to rehabilitate its international image after coming under criticism for human rights abuses in northern Ethiopia. Yet, despite making peace overtures, it remains cut off from Western budgetary support and is still suspended from the African Growth and Opportunity Act – a US trade pact. 

Federal officials may have believed they had little to lose diplomatically from renewing the war. But, economically, the price could be the suspension of ongoing development aid if donors choose to play that cardto halt the fighting.

It is questionable whether either party was genuinely committed to peace. Both used the lull in fighting to regroup their forces. Thousands of federal troops were seen on Tigray’s southern border in late August and, just before the fighting resumed, the TPLF seized 12 fuel tankers carrying 570,000 litres of fuel from a WFP compound in Mekelle. The group later said it was reclaiming fuel it had previously “loaned” to the WFP for the distribution of humanitarian supplies within Tigray.

In the short term, both sides blamed the other for firing the first shots and breaking the fragile truce, amid reports of shelling exchanges along Tigray’s volatile frontiers in the weeks leading up to the renewed hostilities. 

What are the opposing sides trying to achieve?

Tigray has been under what one top EU official has called a “partial blockade”, imposed by the federal government since June 2021, with its services cut, power down, and its road links tightly policed by federal and allied regional forces.

Last week, the UN’s commission of human rights experts on Ethiopia said in a report that they believe the denial of these services – and obstructions to food and healthcare – amount to “crimes against humanity”. They also said they believe Ethiopia’s federal government “is committing the war crime of using starvation as a method of warfare”.

The truce allowed some aid to flow into Tigray between April and August, under close government scrutiny, but there wasn’t enough fuel to distribute it. Thousands are thought to have died in the region from hunger and a lack of medicines. 

For the TPLF, the holy grail remains securing access to Sudan. That would provide them with a supply line through which they could bring in arms, as well as food. They also want back western Tigray, a fertile area of land that Amhara forces say belongs to them and have occupied since November 2020. 

“There’s no confidence on either side that the other can be trusted.”

The federal government’s aims are harder to discern. If it is forced into talks by the international community, it is likely they will try to inflict as much damage as possible on the Tigray forces while the fighting lasts.

It will also want to capture areas used by the TPLF to smuggle in arms and train fighters, diplomats in Addis Ababa suggest. This would achieve limited military objectives, score propaganda points, and give federal officials more leverage when talks start.

Yet the renewed entry of Eritrea into the conflict, and the massing of federal forces in Afar, suggest the Ethiopian and Eritrean militaries may be preparing for a push on Mekelle, in a bid for a total military victory. 

Relations had broken down between Abiy and Eritrea’s leader, Isaias Afwerki, whose forces waged a campaign of rape, killings, and enforced hunger in Tigray. But the new offensives on Tigray indicate relations have thawed.

Afwerki holds a personal grudgeagainst the TPLF’s leaders, who were the dominant force in Ethiopian politics when the two countries went to war in 1998-2000, and has long been committed to wiping out the group.

Will mediation efforts succeed?

The international community has stepped up its mediation efforts during this round of fighting, with the US providing the main diplomatic muscle behind the scenes.

The United States, the EU, the AU, the UN, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) all welcomed Tigray’s call earlier this month for peace talks, and President William Ruto has tasked his predecessor as Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, with helping to find a deal between Tigray and Addis Ababa.

Talks brokered by the US’s envoy for the Horn of Africa, Mike Hammer, took place in Djibouti earlier this month, but they broke up without an agreement. Last week, Hammer said the major obstacle to getting a cessation of hostilities in place was “trust, trust, and trust”.

“There’s no confidence on either side that the other can be trusted,” said Hammer, adding: “But rest assured we, as the United States, and others, will continue our efforts to try to help the parties build some confidence.”

“We would enter a stalled and protracted situation.”

Eritrea is the wildcard. If it can capture major northern Tigrayan towns such as Shire and Adigrat, Ethiopia’s federal government may lose control over events.

Even if the Tigray forces repel the push from Eritrea and can be persuaded to sit down for talks, there remains the daunting task of hammering out intractable political issues. These include: agreeing to Tigray’s borders; its status within Ethiopia’s federal system; and coming to a settlement over its large armed force.

“We would enter a stalled and protracted situation,” said a diplomatic source. The parties “could agree to another short-term truce” that ducks these issues, and then this is simply “followed by yet more fighting in a few months’ time”.

Edited by Obi Anyadike.

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