Africa

HORN OF AFRICA

Ethiopian PM cool on Ramaphosa’s efforts to instigate peace talks with Tigray People’s Liberation Front

President Cyril Ramaphosa and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. (Kopano Tlape GCIS)

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appears to have shunned President Cyril Ramaphosa’s attempt to instigate peace talks by calling it fake news, but his willingness to receive three envoys has ignited some hope.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Sunday called on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces to surrender to the national government within 72 hours or face “being condemned forever in the books of history”. Abiy posted a strongly-worded statement on Twitter in English, a language understood in Ethiopia by only a small number.

The statement comes a day after Abiy shunned efforts by President Cyril Ramaphosa, as African Union chair, to send three high-level mediators to help end the war in the northern Tigray region, which has entered its third week. 

In the statement, addressed to Ethiopians, Abiy called the TPLF forces a “treasonous clique” which he said had taken hostage the capital of the Tigray region, Mekelle, and which the national army will now attempt to reclaim. According to official reports – there is no way to verify official information because of a media blackout – the national defence force has already taken surrounding towns. 

Abiy, in his statement, announced that the “third and final phases” of the Ethiopian National Defence Force’s “law enforcement actions” in the Tigray region have started. Abiy asked the people of Mekelle to cooperate with the national army. He said Ethiopia’s military planes “have been very careful not to harm civilians” during offensives in surrounding towns, and to protect places of worship, historical monuments, public facilities, infrastructure, and natural resources. Abiy claimed the TPLF forces have tried to provoke such destruction by using religious institutions and heritage sites as cover. The Tigray region is home to some of the richest religious and cultural heritage sites in the world, and it is believed that only a fraction of these antiquities have, to date, been uncovered. 

On Friday Ramaphosa met with Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde, who came to South Africa as Abiy’s special envoy, and “expressed his deep desire that the conflict should be brought to an end through dialogue between the parties”.

Ramaphosa, whose term as AU chair is set to end in January, said he would dispatch former presidents Joaquim Chissano (Mozambique), Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia), and Kgalema Motlanthe (South Africa) “with a view to helping to mediate between the parties to conflict in the sister Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia”. Abiy’s office, however, issued a harsh rebuttal on Saturday morning, saying he would receive Ramaphosa’s envoys “to speak with them one on one”, but it said news that they would travel to Ethiopia to mediate between the federal government and”#TPLF’s criminal element” was fake.

Ramaphosa, however, got support from United Nations secretary-general António Guterres who, in a statement, commended Ramaphosa for his initiative and assured him of “the full support” of the UN. He also expressed appreciation to Abiy “for facilitating this initiative for peace”. According to the UN refugee agency, more than 30,000 people have fled the Tigray region to Sudan since war broke out in the first week of November, and it’s expecting that number will grow to more than 200,000.

An official said that despite Abiy’s apparent snub, those in the AU in favour of peace are heartened by the fact that he’s willing to receive the envoys. The situation does place Sahle-Work in an awkward position. The 70-year-old was appointed to great acclaim a few months after Abiy came to power in 2018, as she became the first woman to hold this ceremonial position. Previously she was Guterres’s special representative to the African Union and head of the United Nations Office to the African Union. 

She might be agreeing with the peace initiative, but her head could roll should she be seen to be in open disagreement with Abiy on the war.

Abiy declared war on Tigray in the first week of November when he announced that he had launched airstrikes to destroy stores of missiles and heavy weapons around Mekelle. He accused the TPLF of attacking a military camp in the region and attempting to loot military assets. The TPLF denied the attack.

Although it is believed that the national defence force currently has the upper hand, there are fears within the security community that this war could pull in the region on both sides of the war. Eritrea is reported to have stepped in on the side of the national defence force, while Sudan and Egypt have been at loggerheads with Abiy over the filling of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and would be keen to see efforts to do so disrupted. Stepping up the war could severely disrail Ethiopia’s plans to fill the dam, which Abiy wants to use to generate hydro-electric power in the hope of boosting Ethiopia’s double-digit economic growth. Although Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, the seat of the AU headquarters as well as several UN offices, is about 750km south of Mekelle, there is believed to be a remote possibility that it could be targeted.

Diplomats and officials stationed in the capital have been careful not to speak out about events due to the Ethiopian government’s sensitivity to criticism. The AU’s theme this year was “silencing the guns”, and although Ramaphosa has fallen short of South Africa’s stated aims to make peace in Libya and South Sudan, the Institute for Security Study’s Liesl Louw-Vaudran said South Africa’s impact on talks about the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was one of this year’s success stories, but the war could reverse that. DM

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