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Ethiopian belligerents get into the nitty-gritty of peace talks

Ethiopian belligerents get into the nitty-gritty of peace talks
Ethiopian federal troops conduct drills during a military parade in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 10 September 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE / STR)

All agree a ‘cessation of hostilities’ should be the first step to peace.

The substantive phase of the peace talks between the Ethiopian federal government and its foes in the Tigray province began in South Africa on Wednesday, with intense discussions about the terms of a possible cessation of hostilities.

Negotiators from both sides, and the mediators, have agreed that a cessation of hostilities should be the first objective in these first formal negotiations between the two sides who have been fighting each other in a bitter and bloody civil war since November 2020.

“Cessation of hostilities is the priority and both sides seem to be taking this seriously,” said Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation.

ethiopia obasanjo

Former president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo. (Photo: EPA / Sven Hoppe)

ethiopia kenyatta

Former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Miguel A Lopes)


Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. (Photo by Daniela Porcelli/Getty Images)

The negotiations are being mediated by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who is special envoy for the African Union. He is supported by former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and former South African deputy president Phumzil Mlambo-Ngcuka.

The Ethiopian federal government negotiation team is led by Redwan Hussein, national security adviser to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and justice minister Gedion Timotheos, according to an official familiar with the arrangements.

The Tigrayan negotiators are headed by Getachew Reda, spokesperson for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and veteran military general Tsadkan Gebretensae, a former TPLF member and now part of the Tigray federal government.

Agenda agreed

The negotiators and mediators arrived in South Africa on Monday. The mediators agreed on an agenda that day. On Tuesday there was a ceremonial opening of the negotiations which are taking place at a secret venue believed to be in the vicinity of Pretoria. On Wednesday the substantive negotiations began.

The talks are taking place against the backdrop of a fluid situation on the battlefield. Ethiopian federal troops — controversially backed by forces from neighbouring Eritrea — have captured the key towns of Shire, Adwa and Aksum in Tigray, from the Tigray forces, over the past week. But they have not captured the Tigray capital of Mekelle, sources said, contradicting some reports from the Ethiopian government’s side. 

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The sources also noted that the Tigrayans had bounced back from worse positions before — as in November 2020 when they lost Mekelle — and so should not be counted out of the battle.

There had been some discussion among the negotiators and the mediators on whether the talks should aim at a “cessation of hostilities” or a “ceasefire” as a first step. The difference is tactically important and more than semantic. A cessation of hostilities would mean a straightforward freeze in fighting, a silencing of the guns, which would then lead to a ceasefire, requiring the negotiation of terms and conditions such as the positions of troops, the prohibition of certain actions and monitoring and verification mechanisms.

Tigrayan suspicions

The Tigrayan side had been suspicious of Obasanjo, believing he was collaborating with Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed to aim at a ceasefire rather than a cessation of hostilities as the first step towards peace.

ethiopia ahmed

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. (Photo: EPA-EFE / STR)

They suspected this was a ruse to give the Ethiopian government forces more time to complete a military victory on the battlefield while the terms of a ceasefire were being haggled over in South Africa.

Daily Maverick understands that the Tigrayans have been reassured by having Kenyatta and Mlambo-Ngcuka in the mediation team, as they have been assertive on issues such as insisting on a cessation of hostilities as the first step.

“Anyone who assumes that Phumzile and Kenyatta are merely there in supporting roles to Obasanjo would have been mistaken,” one source said.

“Mlambo-Ngcuka in particular is being assertive and asking the right questions and putting people on the spot.” DM


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