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Tigray: high hopes for silencing the guns

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Picture: Phill Magakoe/AFP – Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta (left), Ethiopian government representative Redwan Hussein, AU Horn of Africa envoy former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) representative Getachew Reda after the signing of a peace agreement brokered by the AU following negotiations held in Pretoria, South Africa this week.

By Sizo Nkala

It seems the end is finally in sight for Ethiopia’s deadly civil war between the government forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which has been raging for two years. This comes after the African Union-brokered deal which saw the two protagonists agree to a “permanent cessation of hostilities” on November 2 in Pretoria, just two days shy of the second anniversary of the civil war that began on November 4 2020.

The war has claimed thousands of lives, subjected thousands to gang rape, displaced millions in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, and left millions more living precariously under famine conditions.

The 10-day negotiations hosted by South Africa were mediated by the AU’s Horn of Africa envoy, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, and former South African deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. The terms of the deal include orderly, smooth, and co-ordinated disarmament, the restoration of law and order, restoration of services in the Tigray region, and the lifting of the blockade on Tigray imposed by the Ethiopian government forces.

The deal is a welcome respite for civilians who have endured untold suffering inflicted by both government forces and the liberation front. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed expressed his gratitude to Obasanjo and his team, adding in a post on Twitter that his government was committed to implementing the agreement soon after the signing of the agreement.

The successful negotiation of the peace agreement is a concrete expression of the mantra “African solutions for African problems”. There have been a few sterner tests of the AU’s commitment to this mantra than the resolution of a deadly conflict unfolding right in the backyard of its headquarters.

The deal is also a testament to the continued utility and vitality of the UN and other members of the international community who also worked hard to mitigate the humanitarian crisis and invite the protagonists to the negotiating table. While this is certainly a significant step towards the restoration of peace in East Africa’s most populous state, it is only just the first step in what will be a long peace process.

As one of the co-mediators, Uhuru Kenyatta, aptly pointed out in a speech just after the signing ceremony, “the devil is in the implementation”. This observation is born of the African experience, where the violation of peace deals has become the rule rather than the exception.

Disturbingly, the warring parties in the Ethiopian conflict became the latest contributors to this trend when they broke a March ceasefire agreement in August. The deal is just a roadmap to peace, so it is up to the parties to walk the talk. The implementation of a peace deal comes with great challenges and the Ethiopian one will not be immune to them.

Firstly, it is important that the leaders of the fighting camps trust each other for the deal to stick. Trust is essential particularly when the deal involves pledges of disarmament and a laundry list of promises based solely on the word of the negotiators. Transparency and consistent communication will be important in enhancing trust throughout the implementation of the peace deal.

Without mutual trust between the leaders, the deal is as good as dead. Secondly, the negotiation of a peace agreement is an exclusively elite affair led by the leaders of the warring parties with hardly any input from the rank and file of their followers. These leaders will have to take the deal back to their constituents and begin the hard work of convincing them to support it.

In most cases, constituents who have gone through a deadly and devastating conflict tend to emerge with hardline and zero-sum attitudes. Getting groups of people to switch from a confrontational to co-operative mode in an emotionally charged atmosphere is a notoriously difficult task. If it is not handled well, the resurgence of the conflict is highly likely.

Thirdly, every conflict and, correspondingly, every peace process takes place in a unique historical context. As such, there is no manual for implementing a peace process. Parties will find their way as they move. There are many moving parts in the Ethiopian conflict, which will make the peace process highly complex.

A toxic confluence of ethnic hostilities, power politics, competition for scarce resources, and fragile regional geopolitics is at the centre of the civil war. Moreover, like any other post-conflict scenario, Ethiopia will have to come up with a unique transitional justice mechanism which must be accepted by everyone. Faulty and inequitable transitional justice systems in other post-conflict societies have jeopardised the peace-building process. These are issues whose resolution will not happen within the timespan of a single administration. But Prime Minister Abiy’s administration has the important task of setting the right foundation and tone for the long-term peace-building process.

More importantly, the AU envoys must not disappear the morning after the peace deal-signing ceremony. The continental body needs to maintain consistent presence throughout the peace-building process to prevent a possible return to conflict.

* Dr Sizo Nkala is a research fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies