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Ethiopia-Tigray peace talks: What’s at stake?

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander / African News Agency (ANA) – The AU, as mediator in the peace talks in South Africa, has the authority and possibly sufficient heft and clout to bring the conflict to some respite before it engulfs even more innocent civilians.

By David Monyae

On 25 October 2022, the South African government announced that the two warring sides in Ethiopia’s two-year conflict were in South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, for talks.

The talks come at a time when fighting has intensified in Ethiopia.

It is fitting that the African Union (AU) leads the talks. The AU has the authority and possibly sufficient heft and clout to bring the conflict to some respite before it engulfs even more innocent civilians. The message from the United Nations has been to urge the two parties to seize this moment to establish a lasting peace. What is happening in Ethiopia is of continental importance, as the country is host to Addis Ababa, colloquially but fittingly known as “the capital city of Africa”. Before venturing into what the outcomes of the negotiations might be, it is advisable to state the circumstances that presaged them.

It has been almost two years since hostilities commenced between the Ethiopian federal government and Tigrayan nationalists. The development was a cruel irony to the backdrop of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his and Eritrean President Isias Afwerki’s breakthrough to end the conflict between their respective countries.

Of even greater irony is that the Ethiopian federal government and its Eritrean counterpart, the presumed peace-seeking dual seem to have colluded in the hostilities against the Tigrayan militants. There was a five-month truce in the conflict in the first part of 2022, but this was shattered in late August. The lull was established to provide the passage of aid to the Tigray region. After the resumption of hostilities, both parties accused the other of being the initiator. Since then, aid workers have accused federal actors of shelling a school that was sheltering civilians fleeing hostilities and killing more than 50 of them in the process.

Informal talks in Djibouti in September collapsed when federal officials baulked at restoring services for six million Tigrayans that had been shut down in the Tigrayan region for more than a year. In addition, the Tigrayan side has made four crucial demands of the federal government: “unfettered” humanitarian access to Tigray; the withdrawal of Eritrean troops; the restoration of the Tigray’s communication and banking services; and the return of territory lost in the conflict.

The choice of mediators was another issue that delayed holding formal talks. Tigrayans were loath to have the former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, as a mediator, accusing him of having biased sympathies for the federal government. The fact that Obasanjo, accompanied by former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and former South African deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, is presiding over the Pretoria talks speaks about the Tigrayan side’s willingness to give a chance to a process that might stanch the bloodletting. Also in attendance are Mike Hammer, America’s regional envoy and Workneh Gebeyehu, the executive secretary of IGAD.

While the Tigrayans have misgivings about Obasanjo, there is a perception that they are American beneficiaries. A well-placed source has it that the Tigrayan delegation in South Africa was under American rather than South African protection. This further complicates an already complex situation. The role of outsiders, especially non-African actors should be an ancillary one, rather than central to the negotiations.

Two questions are crucial as people are scrambling to divine the secret talks: What is the likely outcome of the talks? The second question is, what is at stake?

To be candid, only the over-optimistic would hope that the Pretoria talks will yield an enduring resolution or final cessation of the impasse. Ethiopia has a notorious history of cutting service, chiefly the internet, in its attempts to quell dissidence. Predictably, this has been the case during the current conflict. It has to make some movement on this score.

The other side has already made some concessions, as Obasanjo’s presence testifies, and the fact that the four aforementioned demands are yet to be met. The salience of ethnicity and constitutional guarantees to end ethnic-based fissures underline the conflict to a considerable degree and should thus be a seminal part of any solution. This is unlikely to be accomplished during these talks, which end on 30 October.

Another complication to the talks is the involvement of Eritrean forces in the conflict. Even if the federal government and the Tigrayans achieve a cease-fire, where does that leave Eritrea, with its seeming commitment to a military rather than a solely political solution to the conflict? Anything short of a total defeat of the TPLF might not be to Eritrea’s satisfaction.

The responsibility to temper Eritrea’s involvement and methods resides with the federal government and, to some extent, the AU.

It is noteworthy that Eritrea’s involvement has a historical background. The TPLF was the party in power when Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bloody border war from 1998-2000. And judging from Eritrea’s involvement, its absence in the talks is somewhat conspicuous and could spell uncertainty about the effect of the talks. All indications are that the momentum of the war is with the Ethiopia-Eritrea tandem, and this will likely have an impact on how the negotiations go.

Debretsion Gebremichael, the Tigrayan leader, seems unfazed by the gains of his nemeses and, even on the eve of the Pretoria talks, maintained his line that a Tigrayan victory is unavoidable.

Having noted the notion that the outcomes of the talks could be temporary, what exactly is at stake in the conflict? As noted above, Ethiopia is host to Africa’s capital, the seat of the African Union. Instability in that country has continental repercussions. The Horn of Africa, the arena of the conflict, has a notorious history of instability, but one must appreciate the political progress that Ethiopia, the most populous country of the region, has made.

Internecine conflict in Ethiopia threatens to deal a bloody blow to its clout in promoting regional peace.

Still, within the scope of regional politics, Ethiopia has to navigate the knotty issues of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

While the GERD offers Ethiopia bountiful opportunities for industrialisation, electricity and chances of lifting millions out of poverty, to Egypt the colossal dam is a menace to the country’s almost unilateral source of water. Sudan is also heavily dependent on the Nile River, and thus forms a part of the trinity of countries that have to work out a modus vivendi vis-à-vis the GERD. More than just being a dam, the GERD has aroused nationalistic passions in Egypt and Ethiopia.

Ethiopia needs all the domestic concord that it can muster before it negotiates with other nations, chiefly Egypt and Sudan over the GERD.

The government’s current momentum in Tigray allows it to be gracious and magnanimous. It has to extend overtures such as restoring services to people in the war zone, and opening up aid passages to all regions in the Tigray, not just those that are now under federal government hands.

David Monyae is an Associate Professor in International Relations and Political Sciences and Director of the Centre for Africa – China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.