Ethiopia’s offer of talks signals breakthrough in Tigrayan conflict

UN secretary general hails release of prisoners but many others remain cautious

During this month's Orthodox Christmas, the Ethiopian government delivered its war-weary citizens a festive surprise – Addis Ababa released several opposition leaders from prison and signalled its willingness to talk to its opponents.

After more than a year of a brutal civil war, during which thousands have been killed and thousands more arrested, the federal government on Friday said that “the key to lasting unity is dialogue”. In the wake of a string of military victories over Tigrayan forces, the government said: “One of the moral obligations of the victor is mercy.”

The suggestion of dialogue, analysts say, is arguably the most significant breakthrough since war broke out in the northern Tigray region in November 2020 – a war that endangered the unity of a federal patchwork of about 80 ethnic groups and an economic powerhouse in the Horn of Africa.

UN secretary general António Guterres hailed the release of the prisoners, and called for "a credible and inclusive national dialogue and reconciliation process". Moussa Faki Mahamat, chair of the African Union, echoed this sentiment.

But many remain cautious. Adem Abebe, an Ethiopian expert with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, said he felt "simultaneously more nervous and more hopeful than I felt in a long time".

Tensions bubbled

Jawar Mohammed, a leading opposition figure, was released. Some leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the party fighting Abiy Ahmed’s central government, were also freed. It is unclear if both sides will finally engage in talks or what the outcome of those talks would be.

From his first days in office in 2018, Mr Abiy pushed pan-Ethiopian unity, welcomed by many after almost three decades of Tigrayan domination. Yet, far from achieving reconciliation, ethnic and political tensions bubbled to the surface, leading to war in Tigray.

Just two months ago, the TPLF was threatening to march on Addis Ababa as it did in 1991 when it toppled the Marxist Derg regime, but since then troops loyal to it have retreated. They have been beaten back by federal air power, mainly new drones bought from Turkey and other allies, according to senior diplomats and analysts. In late December, federal troops retook Lalibela, a storied city of rock-hewn churches in Amhara.

The situation in Tigray remains bleak. Dozens were killed in air strikes last week, humanitarian officials said, including in refugee camps. No humanitarian aid has entered Ethiopia’s northernmost region since mid-December, according to UN officials. The federal government has repeatedly denied it has blocked aid.

Doctors at a top hospital in Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, told the Financial Times: “We have run out of almost all types of medications and medical supplies . . . we are just counting deaths that happen due to totally preventable causes,” as some patients arrived in famine-like conditions.

Mr Guterres asked on Friday for "a meaningful improvement in humanitarian access to all areas affected by the year-long conflict". On Monday, Mr Abiy spoke with US president Joe Biden, who commended him on the prisoners' release but expressed concern over the recent air strikes.

Filsan Ahmed, a former minister under Mr Abiy turned critic, said: “The government deserves praise for the release of ‘some’ political prisoners. It is the first step to the path to peace.” But she added: “Ethiopians should draw lessons from these appalling atrocities committed by ‘their’ government with the help of drones.”

‘Arms embargo’

In late December, Debretsion Gebremichael, TPLF leader, sent a missive to Mr Guterres demanding an "arms embargo" on Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea, whose forces have been fighting alongside Mr Abiy's, and a "no-fly zone for hostile flights or aircraft and drones over Tigray" as, he said, "we seek to free ourselves from genocidal assault".

He also accused Amhara and Eritrean forces of committing an “ethnic cleansing” in western Tigray, and demanded their withdrawal from the area, which is subject to a long-running land dispute.

William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst at Crisis Group, has cautiously welcomed the latest developments, including the release of political prisoners.

“The fact that the Tigrayans are making suggestions for a negotiated settlement involving forceful international action is also positive, but these are ultimately unrealistic proposals, and therefore there is no real progress on peacefully resolving the thorny western Tigray issue.”

Another obstacle to peace was that Tigray now had a large standing army – “probably numbering in the hundreds of thousands”, added Davison, which was built “to protect Tigray because they perceive they are facing an existential threat”. But from the perspective of Addis Ababa, and its allies in Amhara and Eritrea, “that large Tigrayan force is also an existential threat to them”.

After 14 months of fighting and a string of atrocities, there may be a reckoning in the making. “We entered the war because we couldn’t bring peace any other way,” Mr Abiy said on Friday. “War is the final option to keep the assurance of peace. It’s the force to bring the ones who couldn’t come to peace to the table.”

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022

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