President Ramaphosa to contribute as peace efforts in Ethiopia gain momentum

President Ramaphosa to contribute as peace efforts in Ethiopia gain momentum
Chairman of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and the current President of Tigray Region Dr. Debretsion Gebremichael speaks during an interview in Mekele Tigray region of Ethiopia, 08 June 2019 (issued 09 November 2020). EPA-EFE/STR

President Cyril Ramaphosa is poised to aid peace efforts in the Ethiopian conflict with advice to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on how to manage an insurgency.

Behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts led by the African Union have resulted in Abiy’s cabinet approving a framework document on national dialogue earlier this month, says academic and former South African ambassador to Eritrea, Iqbal Jhazbhay.

President of the Tigray region, Debretsion Gebremichael, who also chairs the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), on Monday in a letter announced the TPLF’s withdrawal back to Tigray. In it, he also called for an “all-inclusive dialogue in which all political parties and constituencies within Ethiopia are fully and fairly represented”.

After more than a year of conflict between Ethiopia’s central government and the rebel TPLF, Jhazbhay on Friday in a webinar of the Ethiopian Professionals Association in Southern Africa said: “There are some positive signs ahead”.

Debretsion also said: “I know the Ethiopian Prime Minister has written to President Ramaphosa and they’re looking forward to gleaning from many of the South African experiences of reconstruction and the questions on how to manage what we call military groups, or insurgent groups, or rightwing groups.”

He added that any national peace dialogue, in the South African experience, could be “a long, hard journey,” but the peace struck between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2019 with Abiy at the helm after two decades of conflict showed that “nothing else is impossible”.

Jhazbhay said “quite diplomatic efforts” were made by AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, as well as current AU chair and Democratic Republic of Congo President Félix Tshisekedi, last year’s AU chair, Ramaphosa, and next year’s AU chair, Senegalese President Macky Sall.

Abiy tweeted just over 10 days ago that he had “constructive phone discussions” with the three presidents and that they would “continue working on strengthening bilateral and continental relations”.

The details of what they discussed have not been made public.

On the same day, he also spoke to Mahamat as well as UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres.

Meanwhile, the recent announcement by Debretsion that Tigrayan forces would withdraw back into Tigray could mark a possible step towards a ceasefire in the conflict.

Debretsion, in a letter to Guterres dated 19 December, maintained that his forces are “intact and undefeated on the ground”, but said that the withdrawal was in reaction to calls by the international community as well as the Ethiopian government.

“We trust that our bold act of withdrawal will be a decisive opening for peace,” he wrote, adding that he hoped that the UN could continue with its humanitarian efforts and prevent starvation.

(On Monday, Abiy responded by reportedly bombing Tigrayan capital Mekelle – Ed)

Debretsion outlined some conditions, amongst others calling for “all political prisoners” to be released – the central Ethiopian government has been accused of rounding up Tigrayans and arresting them – that censorship be lifted, and that hate speech and “incitement to violence” – possibly with reference to Abiy’s efforts to spur ordinary Ethiopians to protect themselves – be renounced.

He also asked that “foreign intelligence and security operatives” be removed from Ethiopian soil. This was probably a reference to the Eritrean officials who had been assisting Abiy.

Debretsion also said he welcomed the International Commission of Human Rights Experts established by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) last week.

There has been some resistance from within the Ethiopian government which considers this as undue interference. The African group of countries within the UNHRC, as well as states like Russia and China, supported the Ethiopian government’s stance by opposing an investigation.

Senegal and Sudan were among the 11 abstentions in the 47-member forum, while 21 states voted in favour of an investigation.

The Tigrayans have accused the Ethiopian Defence Force of using drones, and as the TPLF made advances towards Addis Ababa in the last few weeks, they have called on Abiy to resign.

Debretsion in his letter also complained of “genocide” against Tigrayans and “ethnic cleansing”, but said most of Tigray was free of “the occupier”, with reference to Ethiopian and Eritrean forces.

Humanitarian workers have tried to provide food to those who had been starved or displaced due to the conflict, but after UN food stocks were looted from warehouses in Dessie and Kombolcha in northern Ethiopia earlier this month, the food aid was temporarily suspended.

Ethiopian forces reportedly recaptured these two towns from the TPLF and a small-scale theft of food escalated into looting by local residents as well as some in the Tigrayan forces, the UN said at the time.

The TPLF has already engaged “in good faith” with Mahamat’s appointed high representative for the Horn of Africa, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, and communicated “our concerns and proposals clearly and consistently,” Debretsion wrote in his letter. Obasanjo travelled to Ethiopia earlier this month.

Ramaphosa, as AU chair last year, appointed three envoys at the start of the conflict in November last year to mediate between the warring parties, but the delegation wasn’t very well received in Ethiopia and didn’t achieve much. It included former president Kgalema Motlanthe, former Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano.

Recent fears that TPLF forces could reach Addis Ababa and, with the help of the Oromo Liberation Army fight Ethiopian soldiers, have prompted many companies and embassies to tell non-essential staff to evacuate.

The AU last month quietly gave permission to non-essential staff members to leave the country, while International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor told Daily Maverick South Africa has authorised the same for its mission staff.

It is as yet not clear whether the annual AU summit, which will include heads of state, will go ahead at the continental body’s headquarters in Addis Ababa in a month’s time, or whether the summit would relocate.

It is also possible that the summit could suffer a similar fate to the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, which was due to happen in January but which on Monday was deferred to a later date due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the Covid-19 virus in a number of countries across the world. DM


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