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Tigray: no end in sight to conflict as ceasefire breaks down

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Picture: AFP – Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) fighters arrive in Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region in Ethiopia, in June last year. The left-wing ethnic nationalist paramilitary group and liberation movement was designated as a terrorist organisation by the Ethiopian government.

By Yonas Berhané

On June 14, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced the establishment of a committee to negotiate peace talks with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

After several months without large-scale clashes between their respective troops, the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray regional authorities had confirmed their desire to join efforts to end the war that began in November 2020.

However, on Wednesday, fighting broke out between the two sides, along the northern border of Tigray province. Hopes for a negotiated settlement, which have stalled for weeks, had been dwindling over the past few weeks. Positions on both sides had hardened.

The Tigray position to demand the return of Western Tigray, under the control of Amhara groups who believe the area historically belongs to them, has emerged as one of the key issues. The Tigray National Regional State is Ethiopia’s northernmost regional state. The region is bordered to the north by Eritrea, to the west by Sudan (claimed and occupied by the neighbouring Amhara Regional State), to the south by the Amhara Region, and to the east and south-east by the Afar Region.

The TPLF, a small band of insurgents who became a guerrilla army, was formed in 1975. By the end of the 1980s, the TPLF was by far the largest and most effective member of the coalition of Ethiopian armed rebel groups that had come together to fight the Marxist Derg regime under the name of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

On May 28, 1991, TPLF troops, supported by their former allies, the Eritrean forces, seized control of Addis Ababa, the country’s capital, and dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades. In 2018, Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, the EPRDF, which includes the TPLF and four other parties, elected Abiy of the Oromo Democratic Party as its new chairperson to succeed Hailemariam Desalegn of the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement.

After Abiy took office, he liberalised politics, ousted prominent Tigrayan government officials accused of corruption and other offences, and founded a new party that merged some of the EPRDF coalition’s member parties to form the new Prosperity Party. The TPLF saw the merger as illegitimate and did not engage in it.

Abiy successfully resolved a long-standing territorial issue with neighbouring Eritrea, which contributed to him being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. However, TPLF’s leaders viewed Abiy’s reforms as an attempt to centralise power and demolish Ethiopia’s federal structure, which guarantees significant autonomy to ethnically-defined states such as Tigray.

In response, many of the TPLF’s leaders withdrew from federal politics and retreated to Tigray, their home region in northern Ethiopia. The tension between the federal government and Tigray regional authorities grew when the TPLF openly defied a parliamentary vote to postpone the 2021 Ethiopian general election, initially scheduled to take place in 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic, and instead held regional parliamentary elections on September 9, 2020, in which TPLF candidates won most of the seats in the election.

Abiy stated that the federal government would not recognise the election results, and lawmakers suspended funding to the Tigray regional government, resulting in a domino effect of escalation between the regional and the federal governments.

In early November 2020, the federal government accused TPLF troops of attacking the Ethiopian National Defence Force Northern Command headquarters in Tigray. The TPLF claimed it was a pre-emptive strike against the government forces planning to attack them from a neighbouring region, marking the beginning of the civil war. As a result, on November 4, 2020, Abiy ordered a military offensive against the TPLF forces in Tigray.

The conflict further escalated when soldiers from Eritrea and militias from the neighbouring Amhara region also attacked the Tigray region. While Eritrean troops took control of border towns in northern Tigray, the Amhara militias took over parts of western Tigray, the areas known as Welkait, Tsegede (Tegede), Tselemti (Telemt), and Humera.

The Amhara militias claimed that thee territories were part of the Begemder and Gonder provinces (parts of the Amhara region) dating from at least the era of Emperor Menelik II (1889-1913) before the TPLF incorporated them into Tigray, under the federal structure in 1995. The Tigray regional administration declared its willingness to participate in the negotiation from November 10, 2020. The Ethiopian government, however, has, in the past, rejected mediation efforts.

These included calls from the then-AU chairperson, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, a proposal from Sudan to mediate the conflict, and a cease-fire proposal recommended by US Senator Chris Coons on behalf of US President Joe Biden.

On November 8, last year, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo and the AU’s High Representative for the Horn of Africa, met separately with Abiy and Debretsion Gebremichael, the current president of the Tigray Region and the TPLF chairperson, giving the potential for negotiations between the two governments reason for optimism. Obasanjo stated that both agreed that “the differences opposing them are political and require political solution through dialogue”.

After seven months of shuttle diplomacy by Obasanjo, Abiy announced the establishment of an Ethiopian Federal Government’s peace committee to start peace negotiations with the TPLF. Although the committee’s plan was widely welcomed by the international community, the TPLF dismissed it as “obfuscation”, stating that Abiy’s government had demonstrated no real willingness to negotiate. The federal government also accused the TPLF of not taking “measures toward peace”.

Furthermore, although Abiy initially announced peace talks in June, no date, location or structure for future negotiations have been determined. A TPLF spokesperson, Getachew Reda, said the status of the contested Western Tigray zone was nonnegotiable. During the civil war, Amhara troops annexed the districts, which are administered by the Amhara regional government.

However, the forced annexation remains unconstitutional and the federal government has not legally recognised the change. The mediator has announced that both sides were willing to negotiate, but formal negotiations have not yet started. One can thus assume that Obasanjo is continuing his shuttle diplomacy with both sides to explore the form and agenda of the negotiations.

Meanwhile, the ceasefire has broken down and the potential for a negotiated end to the war in the next few months seems unlikely.

Berhané is head of the Communications and Profile Management Unit, and research expert, at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies

This article was first published in Accord