Diplomatic efforts to broker peace in Ethiopia swamped by surge in fighting

Diplomatic efforts to broker peace in Ethiopia swamped by surge in fighting
Ethiopians at a rally protest against the Tigray People's Liberation Front in Addis Ababa on 5 December 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / STR)

Despite concerted efforts by the US, backed by the EU and the AU, there seems to be considerably more momentum towards continued war, an expert warns.

African and international efforts to broker peace talks in Ethiopia are being overwhelmed by a large escalation in the fighting.  

Troops from neighbouring Eritrea launched a full-scale offensive against Ethiopia’s Tigray region over the past few days, according to a spokesman for the Tigrayan rebel group (TPLF) which has been fighting the Ethiopian federal government on and off since November 2020.

US diplomat Mike Hammer, who is trying to help the African Union broker a ceasefire, told journalists this week that the US had been tracking the Eritrean troop movements across the border.  

“They are extremely concerning and we condemn it,” he said in a phone briefing for journalists from New York.

After a five-month pause, the war erupted again on 24 August. Hammer helped to bring the Ethiopian federal government and the TPLF together for a meeting in Djibouti almost two weeks ago. But this has not led to a ceasefire or to peace talks.

Hammer, the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, said he had just returned from the region where he had tried to get the belligerents – the Tigrayan regional authority and the Ethiopian government – to stop fighting and to accept and participate in AU-led peace talks.

Hammer was asked though whether he still thought, in the light of the increased fighting, whether the warring parties – and particularly Addis Ababa and its allies – were still really interested in peace talks. 

He replied that the Tigrayan regional authority had issued a statement on 11 September saying it was prepared to go to talks “and in fact offered to abide by a mutually agreeable cessation of hostilities”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Getting to grips with Ethiopia’s ethnic and political violence is vital for stability

Later, Addis Ababa had issued statements reiterating its position that it was “ready to go to talks anywhere, anytime. “And we’re taking both at their word… Of course, the continuing escalation of violence is extremely concerning, and we urge them to stop fighting and get to talks.”

Services cut off

No one seems certain how exactly the fighting resumed on 24 August.  Hammer said that when he had visited the Tigray capital, Mekele, on 2 August, “the Tigrayan authorities were very clear that they were preparing for potential hostilities if there wasn’t a restoration of services, as they were making the case that Tigrayans were suffering badly”. He added that it was not only the Tigrayans but also the Afar and Amhara people who were without services.

Ethiopia has cut off electricity, telecommunications, banking and fuel supply to the northern province of Tigray though neighbouring provinces have also been affected. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: “With all eyes on Ukraine, where is the world and Africa on the Tigray tragedy?

Hammer said he appreciated that the Ethiopian government “recognised their responsibility for trying to provide services for all Ethiopians. But you need a conducive security environment to do so. 

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“And the best way to get to that is, of course, agreeing for a cessation of hostilities to work out the modalities of how services should be restored… and that’s what we have been urging.”  

However the Tigrayans appear to see the necessary sequencing differently, according to William Davison, Ethiopia expert at the International Crisis Group.

“Tigray’s government say that they’re not going to negotiate while they’re under siege. The federal government said at a meeting facilitated by the US in June that they would restore all these services. And that didn’t happen,” he said.  

“And it’s contributed to a sense on the Tigrayan side that they were being strung along and continually betrayed.” 

Volunteers unload food aid delivered to members of Ethiopia’s Chena community by the Amhara Emergency Fund during the 40th Day commemoration of the massacre at Chena Teklehaymanot Church on 10 October 2021. (Photo: Jemal Countess / Getty Images)

Davison said the fighting had resumed on 24 August amid ongoing political disagreement, failures of the peace process “and a continuing reality that Tigray remains very significantly cut off with all the attendant social and humanitarian problems that that is causing”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “War in Tigray: The battle for what constitutes the ‘Ethiopian nation’

It was unclear who had fired the first shots on 24 August on the very volatile frontlines in northern Amhara, just across the Tigrayan border, “but it’s pretty obvious what the context was that led to the fighting”.

Eritreans living in South Africa protest at the Eritrean Embassy in Pretoria on 28 May 2021, demanding that Eritrean soldiers withdraw from Ethiopia and the Tigray war. (Photo: Gallo Images / Alet Pretorius)

Davison commended the efforts of diplomats to stop the fighting. 

“But the problem we have right now is that even if there are some engaged and concerted diplomatic efforts by the US with the support of the EU and obviously the AU in a critical role as well, there seems to be considerably more momentum towards continued war which might very well lead to another period of sustained conflict as we saw in 2020 and 2021.”

He said the major problem right now was getting the parties to stop fighting and then getting a formal recommitment to a truce. Addressing important issues such as the Tigrayan demand for the siege to be lifted before serious talks could begin had now become much harder to achieve in light of the renewed fighting, including the large-scale incursion of Eritrean forces. DM



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