On 24 August, fighting resumed between the federal government of Ethiopia and Tigrayan forces, ending the five month long humanitarian truce. It was on 24 March that the Ethiopian government declared an ‘indefinite humanitarian truce’ to improve the dire humanitarian situation in the northern part of the country and to give peace a chance. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) reciprocated by expressing willingness to respect the truce and cessation of hostilities on condition of an adequate and timely humanitarian assistance. The truce largely held for five months, paving the way for some positive measures towards ending the conflict that first broke out on 4 November 2020.
@_AfricanUnion should pay attention to the regional dynamics that are adding an additional layer of complexity to the internal armed conflict in Ethiopia.Tweet
On 27 June, the Ethiopian government announced the names of a seven member negotiating team led by Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister, Demeke Meknoennen, in a bid to find a resolution to the conflict. On 28 July, Redwan Hussien, member of the negotiating team and national security advisor to the Ethiopian Prime Minster, tweeted his government’s readiness for peace talks ‘anytime anywhere’ and ‘without preconditions’. Earlier in June, the leadership of Tigray also issued a statement expressing willingness to participate in a ‘credible, impartial, and principled peace process’.
Meanwhile, the African Union (AU) High-Representative for the Horn of Africa, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, as well as US, European Union (EU), and the United Nations (UN) envoys to the region, engaged in shuttle diplomacy trying to bring parties to the negotiating table. However, such efforts did not register major results.
There are at least three sticking points preventing the peace process from making headways. The first is the diverging positions on who should lead the peace process. Tigray regional government, in its 13 June open letter, flagged up its concern over the ‘proximity’ of Obasanjo to the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The regional government also seeks to have the peace talks facilitated by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta with the support of international partners, including US, EU, United Arab Emirates (UAE), UN, and the AU – relegating the AU to a supportive role. The federal government on the other hand, stands by its position that the AU should be responsible for the mediation under the leadership of Obasanjo who was appointed by the Chairperson of AU Commission as the High Representative for the Horn of Africa on 26 August 2021 for a period of one year renewable at the discretion of the Chairperson of the Commission.
The second sticking point is the lifting of the blockade and restoration of basic services to the Tigray region, which has been cut off from electricity, telecom, banking, and other basic utilities since the withdrawal of federal troops from the region in June 2021. The regional government demands restoration of basic services before talks begin while the federal government wants to see an ‘enabling environment’ upon the conclusion of a ceasefire agreement for basic services to resume.
The third and perhaps the most challenging hurdle remains the status of the contested areas of the so called ‘Western Tigray’ (Welkait, Tegede, Telemt, Humera)—a strategic hotspot bordering Sudan and Eritrea. Both Tigray and Amhara regions make historical claim over these areas that were under the administration of Tigray until the Amhara took over control of the areas following the federal force’s advance into the Tigray region in November 2020. The TPLF wants a return to the ‘prewar status quo ante’ but withdrawal from the contested areas seems to be a deal breaker for the federal government as that would mean opening up a weapons supply line for Tigray forces and putting Abiy’s government on a collision course with the Amhara and Eritrean forces.
Several weeks ago, there were high hopes that the two sides would meet in Nairobi, Kenya, to start the negotiation under the AU’s auspices. That hope is now quickly fading as conflict has significantly escalated with fronts expanding from the south of Tigray towards the west of Tigray, as well as along the Ethiopia-Eritrea and Ethiopia-Sudan borders. Lack of effective engagement on the part of the different Special Envoys and other actors to address these sticking points and steer the humanitarian truce towards a negotiated permanent ceasefire and comprehensive peace agreement contributed to the return of full-scale conflict.
On 7 September, the President of Tigray regional state, Debretsion Gebremichael, wrote an open letter to the UN Security Council proposing a cessation of hostilities with four conditions: lifting of the blockade on essential services, unfettered humanitarian access, withdrawal of Eritrean forces under international monitoring, and a return to pre-war borders of Tigray. In addition, it proposed the appointment of ‘a credible panel of high-level international mediators’, further highlighting the reservation over the AU High Representative.
The federal government of Ethiopia has expressed its firm stand that any peace initiative should be within the AU framework anchored on the ‘African solutions to African problems’.Tweet
As fighting escalated, diplomatic engagement also intensified with the return of US and AU special envoys back to Addis Ababa in a bid to silence the guns. The engagement reportedly succeeded in bringing federal government and TPLF together for a direct talk in Djibouti, but neither side have confirmed this meeting. On the Ethiopian new year, which falls on September 11, the regional government of Tigray issued a statement offering ‘an immediate and mutually agreed cessation of hostilities’. In a clear departure from its 7 September letter, Tigray regional state agreed to ‘a credible AU-led peace process’, which includes ‘mutually acceptable mediators’, ‘international observers’, and ‘international experts’. The federal government has not responded yet to the offer, and fighting has continued on multiple fronts. Whilst the ongoing fighting may delay the process, eventually the conflict will have to be settled through a negotiation.
Key actors such as the US and the EU that have significant leverage on both parties seem to be backing a peace process under the AU’s auspice. The federal government of Ethiopia has expressed its firm stand that any peace initiative should be within the AU framework anchored on the ‘African solutions to African problems’. TPLF were reluctant but has now accepted the AU’s mediation role of the peace process. The AU has also asserted its leadership role in the peace talks claiming the AU-led mediation process as the ‘only viable and effective approach’ towards finding a lasting solution to the situation in Ethiopia. While this context highlights the continued role of the AU as a mediator, there is also a need for the Union to use more effort and robust engagement to avoid the risk of a protracted conflict in Ethiopia with serious repercussions to the peace and stability in the wider region. In this regard, taking the following steps may help the AU to recalibrate the mediation process.
First, AU’s Peace and Security Council, which is a fifteen-member standing decision-making organ of the organisation with a primary responsibility for promoting and maintaining peace, security, and stability in the continent, should place the conflict in Ethiopia high on its agenda, and consider the situation more regularly and substantively. Previous engagements by the PSC have been notably low even though the gravity of the conflict demands a high level of attention. The PSC has only met three times (8 November 2021, 10 February 2022, and 4 August 2022) on Ethiopia since the outbreak of the conflict in November 2020, which is in stark contrast to its UN counterpart that has held around 14 meetings. Obasanjo has briefed the PSC three times so far, but none of the briefings except the last one in August extended to interactive engagement with PSC members. In addition to formal engagements, the PSC may also explore other avenues for interactions including through quiet diplomacy. The PSC should also coordinate its efforts with other partners to exercise more leverage on the parties. In this regard, it may consider inviting the Special Envoys of UN, EU, and US for the Horn of Africa to its briefing sessions on the conflict in northern part of Ethiopia for a substantive engagement.
Second, the AU should address concerns raised by the TPLF over the credibility of its High Representative for the Horn of Africa. Most recently, on September 10, the Chairperson of the Commission renewed the mandate of the High Representative, which indicates that President Obasanjo will remain in his position. In this context, one viable option to address the trust issue and take the mediation process forward could be to add more African leaders and experts to the mediation team, that are acceptable to both the federal government and TPLF, in order to build more confidence in Obasanjo’s mediation efforts.
Third, the AU should pay attention to the regional dynamics that are adding an additional layer of complexity to the internal armed conflict in Ethiopia. Eritrea’s reported involvement in the conflict, border tension between Ethiopia and Sudan, and the controversy between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) are further compounding the conflict situation. Hence, the AU should contextualize its intervention in light of these considerations and explore ways to address these broader regional issues as well.
Zekarias Beshah Abebe is a research and training coordinator at Amani Africa Media and Research Services. The opinions expressed in this blog piece are mine and do not reflect the view of Amani Africa.