A ceasefire deal struck this week between representatives of Ethiopia’s federal government and their rivals in the northern Tigray region has kindled hopes of an end to a war that is believed to have killed hundreds of thousands of people.
But while the international community hails it as a chance to secure peace after two years of war, key stumbling blocks remain, most notably the withdrawal of Eritrean troops and the shape of Tigray’s future borders – issues the deal leaves unresolved.
Negotiators from the two sides signed the agreement on Wednesday evening after 10 days of negotiations in South Africa. The talks were mediated by the African Union and supported by the UN, the United States, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) – an East African regional bloc.
As part of the deal, the parties agreed to observe an immediate cessation of hostilities, and to allow the restoration of humanitarian aid and telecommunication services to Tigray, where millions are in need of immediate relief.
Significantly, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party of Tigray, has agreed to the phased disarmament of its fighting force, estimated to number around 200,000 combatants. The process, which will start with the TPLF’s “heavy armaments”, is to be completed within 30 days of the signing of the deal.
The parties also agreed that the federal government will resume control over Tigray’s airports, roads, and international borders. This will involve the federal military’s “expeditious, smooth, peaceful and coordinated entry” into Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, according to the signed, final version of the deal.
Terms also stipulate that the TPLF will relinquish full control of Tigray’s regional government. An “inclusive Interim Regional Administration” will be put in place until federally supervised elections are held. The make-up of this interim administration will be “settled through political dialogue between the parties”, the deal says.
The agreement “marks an important step in efforts to silence the guns, and provides a solid foundation for the preservation of Ethiopia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the immediate cessation of hostilities, the resumption of unhindered humanitarian access, the restoration of services as well as healing and reconciliation," African Union Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat said in a statement.
Winners and losers
These terms represent a victory for the federal government, restoring its authority over Tigray and neutralising the TPLF as a military force.
It is unclear why the TPLF agreed to such terms, which its lead negotiator, Getachew Reda, described as “painful concessions”, but recent weeks had been difficult on the battlefield.
Under pressure on multiple fronts in Tigray, and without access to international borders through which it could have brought in fresh supplies, it is possible the TPLF lacked the ammunition and spare parts needed to sustain the war.
Ahead of the talks, federal Ethiopian and allied Eritrean forces made a series of significant gains in Tigray, capturing a series of major towns and heaping pressure on the TPLF’s political leadership.
In a speech in southern Ethiopia on Thursday, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said the deal fulfilled his administration's aims. “During the negotiation in South Africa, Ethiopia’s peace proposal has been accepted 100%,” Abiy said.
Thorny issues remain
Both sides have emphasised their commitment to following through on the accord.
“The fact we have reached a point where we have now signed an agreement speaks volumes about [the commitment] of the two sides to put the past behind them to chart a new path of peace,” Getachew said, speaking in South Africa at the signing ceremony.
Opposite him, Redwan Hussein, who represented the federal government’s delegation at the talks, said, “we must be true to the letter and spirit of this agreement”. After the deal had been inked, he tweeted that he felt “overwhelmed”, adding: "We should & could have avoided all that mess."
Implementation will be no easy task, however. It will be overseen by the African Union’s high-level panel – chaired by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo – as well as representatives from both sides and IGAD, with the assistance of an “African team of experts”, whose membership is not confirmed yet.
“This moment is not the end of the peace process but the beginning of it,” Obasanjo told journalists at the signing ceremony. “Implementation of the peace agreement signed today is critical to the success of the process.”
“This moment is not the end of the peace process but the beginning of it.”
One key issue will be the demobilisation of the Tigrayan rebel forces. After two years of fighting, hardliners within the TPLF may resist the process, especially given the short timeline for disarming fighters.
Another knotty problem is Eritrea’s withdrawal from Tigray. The country’s troops were in the thick of the recent fighting and currently occupy several towns, alongside Ethiopia’s federal military. Yet there are no direct provisions in the deal for Eritrea’s pullout.
The agreement does not refer to Eritrea by name, and the country was not part of the talks. The closest the text comes to mentioning Eritrea is a clause committing the sides to stop “collusion with any external force hostile to either party,” although this could equally refer to foreign governments thought to have supplied arms to the Tigray rebels.
Eritrea’s secretive dictator, Isaias Afwerki, is believed to be committed to wiping out the TPLF, which led Ethiopia in a bloody border war against his country in 1998-2000. He could yet spoil the deal if he refuses to call off his troops.
The fate of western Tigray is also left unresolved. The area is currently under the control of the federal military and forces from the Amhara region, whose leaders claim the land. The TPLF wants the region back in full.
Road to a lasting peace
The deal states a political dialogue will be held by the parties "to find lasting solutions to the underlying political differences between them". This process is likely to be fraught, with Amhara groups complaining that their voices were not heard at the peace talks.
Perhaps with these issues in mind, officials including UN Secretary-General António Guterres, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and the African Union Commission’s Mahamat, welcomed the agreement cautiously, as a first “step” towards a lasting peace.
Even as the negotiators were hammering out the final details of the deal in the meeting rooms of South Africa’s foreign ministry in Pretoria, fighting continued to rage in Tigray.
On Wednesday, hours before the cessation of hostilities came into effect, an airstrike hit the southern Tigray town of Maychew, killing 40 people, according to Kibrom Gebreselassie, the medical director of the region’s flagship Ayder Hospital, in Mekelle.
Kibrom added that three rape victims from the towns of Shire and Sheraro had arrived at the hospital this week. One of them, he told The New Humanitarian via WhatsApp, had been gang-raped by “seven Eritrean soldiers”, who had killed her child and burnt her with cigarettes.
The deal states a political dialogue will be held by the parties “to find lasting solutions to the underlying political differences between them”.
All sides have been accused of human rights abuses during the conflict: UN investigators have concluded that the government has likely used starvation as a war tactic against Tigray, where aid access has been heavily restricted; while the Amhara Association of America recently accused TPLF forces of dozens of rapes and killings in parts of the Amhara region in August and September.
"International scrutiny will be key to ensuring that warring parties, which committed widespread abuses, don't prolong the harm to the civilian population," Carine Kaneza Nantulya, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a written statement.
The peace deal states that the federal government will implement a “comprehensive national transitional justice policy” to deliver “accountability” and “redress for victims”. But a Tigrayan living outside the region – who asked not to be named to avoid repercussions – said she was fearful of more abuses in Tigray if federal forces assumed control of the region.
Two years after the war erupted, on 4 November 2020, others were more hopeful about the prospects of bringing to an end the world’s deadliest current conflict – one that has uprooted millions, brought hundreds of thousands in Tigray to the brink of famine, and spread to the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara.
“I am delighted about the peace deal,” one resident of Mekelle told The New Humanitarian via WhatsApp. “I hope it holds.”
Edited by Obi Anyadike.