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Many hurdles to peace in Tigray remain after Pretoria and Nairobi deals

16 mins read

The peace agreements are not a total capitulation by Tigray’s leaders, but it’s clear federal authorities are in the driver’s seat.

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After two years of civil war and unimaginable suffering, Ethiopian and Tigrayan negotiators signed a peace deal on 2 November which, owing to painful concessions by Tigray’s leaders, has been celebrated as a victory by the federal government and its supporters.

This drastic shift in events came as a surprise, as many observers expected a more limited truce and for the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) to adopt an elastic defense strategy after recently being forced to retreat from key towns in Tigray.

The agreement was the result of ten days of formal peace talks in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, mediated by the African Union with support from the US, UN, and East Africa’s regional body. Getachew Reda from Tigray’s ruling party and Redwan Hussien on the federal government’s side signed the final document.

Some key features of the deal include a permanent cessation of hostilities, a monitoring and verification mechanism, disarmament of Tigrayan fighters, the restoration of essential services, unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray, and a commitment to pursue accountability.

The stipulation that federal authority will be restored in Tigray illustrates which side is in the power position. Despite some uncertainties, it’s clear that Tigray’s autonomy has been either temporarily or permanently suspended.

Enormous challenges lie ahead, including getting the Tigray forces to disarm and resolving numerous ambiguities in the deal that jeopardize its durability, such as the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray and the status of Western Tigray.

The mediators, led by AU representative Olusegun Obasanjo, see this as a first step in a long series of negotiations to end the war. In line with this, the second round of talks began on 7 November in Nairobi, Kenya and produced a document on 12 November outlining the modalities for the peace deal’s implementation.

The Nairobi document was the outcome of talks between military commanders from the two sides. In some ways, it supports the Pretoria agreement, while, in others, it supersedes and even contradicts it.

It remains to be seen whether the two sides will stop fighting as agreed and implement the peace deal’s stipulations, succeed in quelling any divisions or dissent in Addis Abeba and Mekelle, effectively deal with potential spoilers such as Eritrea and Amhara elites, and resolve the document’s glaring ambiguities.

Most troublingly, the Pretoria and Nairobi agreements—out of necessity to secure peace in the immediate term, one could argue—send the message to Addis Abeba and Asmara that military force and manmade famine are effective weapons in pursuit of their military objectives.

Mixed reception

Abiy championed the deal as a victory for his government and spoke of the need to replicate the victory on the battlefield at the negotiating table. He boasted that “100 percent” of the ideas Ethiopia proposed in the negotiations were accepted.

Although Tigray’s army is bigger than ever in terms of manpower, the effects of the siege, the humanitarian crisis, and a series of territorial losses likely forced its political leaders to make major concessions.

Outmanned, encircled by hostile forces, subjected to one of the most comprehensive sieges in modern history, and deprived of access to international borders, it appears TDF lacked the ammunition, fuel, and other necessary items to continue its war effort. As such, the federal government’s barbaric and inhumane “drain the sea to catch the fish” strategy has apparently worked.

The TPLF’s relative silence and refusal to explain its rationale in signing the deal has contributed to a sense of unease on the part of many Tigrayans. This is likely the case, though, because many final details are still being ironed out.

Divisions among Tigray’s politicians, military leaders, and Tigrayan diaspora and citizens risk sparking intra-Tigray rifts that could fragment the conflict and undermine the fragile truce.

Tigrayan commanders may not abide by what they see as humiliating peace terms. Many Tigrayans justifiably fear what unilateral disarmament will lead to in the context of a war they view as an existential struggle to repel invading Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces with exterminationist ambitions.

If anything near the atrocities inflicted on Tigray during the first phase of the war is reproduced, when invading forces roamed freely throughout the region, Tigrayans may band together once again and fight back.

Monitoring and verification

Both sides have agreed to end all forms of hostilities, including acts of violence, sabotage, and air strikes. The Monitoring, Verification, and Compliance Mechanism (MVCM) will report directly to an AU panel chaired by Obasanjo.

The MVCM will be composed of a Joint Committee consisting of a representative from each party and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), East Africa’s regional body, and chaired by the AU High Level Panel, which will be assisted by a team of ten African experts appointed by the AU.

A Monitoring and Verification Team will be developed through consultation between the parties and must be set up within ten days of the Nairobi agreement.

The EU, UN, and US are excluded from the MVCM, which represents a success in Ethiopia’s diplomatic strategy of keeping Western powers at bay. This will allow Abiy and Isaias to prey upon the AU’s bias in favor of the government, and the international communities’ fecklessness and inability to enforce the agreement.

Continued fighting raises concerns Addis Abeba may not intend to implement its side of the deal, that Asmara is determined to prosecute the war to the finish, and that TDF generals may not abide by the accord signed by TPLF leaders.

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Amid government airstrikes in Maychew on 2 November that reportedly killed 40 people, continued low-level clashes mainly implicating Eritrea, and reported atrocities in occupied areas, Tigrayans have legitimate security concerns.

The MVCM does not apply to Ethiopia’s other war, in Oromia, where drone attacks have ramped up. Having reached a settlement on the Tigray war, Abiy and Amhara leaders see the main conflict now as being in Oromia.

Humanitarian relief

The warring parties committed to allow unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray, which federal authorities obstructed to varying degrees throughout the war.

The Ethiopian government also agreed to restore basic services to Tigray, where transport, communications, electricity, and banking links have mostly been severed since the conflict began and are not yet restored.

These two outstanding issues partly explain why—despite Addis Abeba declaring a truce on 24 March and allowing in a trickle of aid—fighting resumed on 24 August after a five-month lull, leading to some of the deadliest battles yet in which over a hundred thousand combatants reportedly lost their lives.

Thereafter, humanitarian agencies were once again unable to get any aid into Tigray. Access has yet to resume fully, and is being used as a bargaining chip by federal authorities to force TPLF to implement its side of the deal.

Redwan, Ethiopia’s national security advisor, claimed on 11 November that “aid is flowing like never before,” stating that 35 trucks filled with food and three with medicine arrived in Shire. Senior humanitarian officials said this is a “gross exaggeration” as their access to Tigray is still restricted by Ethiopian authorities.

The next day, Ethiopian authorities claimed that aid transports into Tigray now only have to face two checkpoints manned by the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), rather than upwards of seven as was previously the case.

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The World Food Programme (WFP) has since tested all four road corridors and reported no issues moving by road. Flights were successfully completed to Shire but the Mekelle airport has yet to be approved.

These deliveries follow a pattern in which humanitarian access—much like essential services—is only granted to areas under the government’s control.

UN human rights investigators have accused the Ethiopian government of using starvation of civilians as a weapon of war. The UN has repeatedly issued warnings that the de facto humanitarian blockade is causing widespread famine.

Owing to two years of massacres and blockade causing excess mortality from starvation, medicine shortages, and the purposeful destruction of Tigray’s health system, an estimated 385,000 to 600,000 Tigrayan civilians have perished.

This all has set in motion a dangerous precedent whereby mass starvation has been legitimated as a means to achieve political goals in war.

TDF disarmament

Most controversially for Tigrayans, TPLF agreed to the phased disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of its possibly 200,000-strong fighting force to pave the way for the federal government’s takeover of the region.

TPLF negotiators secured inclusion of the condition that the “security situation on the ground” must be permissible for disarmament. This provision seemingly refers to the withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara forces.

While the TPLF agreed to “uphold the constitutional order” by disabling its capacity to recruit, train, and mobilize soldiers, there is no mention of whether Addis Abeba must also abide by the constitution, for instance, by allowing Tigray to invoke articles of secession.

In essence, the parties agreed to recognize that Ethiopia has only one defense force. But it’s unclear whether this implies that Amhara, Afar, and Oromo regional forces must also be disarmed, or only TDF.

Under the 2 November agreement, the process must be completed within 30 days of the deal’s signing. However, the 12 November document signed by military commanders on both sides doesn’t mention a specific timeline. It states that disarmament of TDF’s heavy weapons will be “done concurrently with the withdrawal of foreign and non-ENDF forces from the region.”

What a “concurrent” disarmament of TDF and withdrawal of Eritrean troops looks like in practice is anyone’s guess. It would be positive if this means the alarmingly rapid disarmament provisions agreed to in Pretoria will be delayed.

Even so, this process could still provide an immediate flashpoint that may cause the deal to unravel and Tigrayans to delay disarming if the government doesn’t uphold its own commitments. Hardliners within the TPLF, TDF generals, and the broader Tigrayan society may not accept this arrangement and continue fighting.

It remains unclear who should provide security guarantees for Tigray’s population after the TDF has been disarmed. The Ethiopian and Eritrean armies have committed war crimes, crimes against humanity, and, arguably, genocide against Tigrayans, and so cannot be trusted to work in their best interest.

The Global Society of Tigray Scholars (GSTS) argues that TDF is the sole provider of security that can be trusted by Tigrayans and its maintenance constitutes a matter of survival. “Genocidaires cannot offer protection to their victims,” the GSTS concludes.

Ultimately, disarmament may consist of TDF fighters surrendering and being “reintegrated” by locking them up like prisoners of war. One Western diplomat warned that Ethiopia and Eritrea could be planning to place Tigrayans in concentration camps to prevent the local population from supporting the TDF.

Such predictions are not far-fetched given that tens of thousands of Tigrayans have been arbitrarily detained based on their ethnicity during this war.

Regional administration

The Pretoria deal states that federal security forces will take full control of the international boundaries along with federal facilities and infrastructure in Tigray, such as airports and highways.

Subject to further dialogue between the parties, an “inclusive interim regional administration” will be put in place until federally supervised elections are held.

Boasting that “Ethiopia has prevailed,” Ambassador General Balcha Debele said federal authorities will administer the Tigray region through a command post. On 11 November, Redwan claimed “70 percent” of Tigray is under the ENDF, but this assertion has not been verified.

Given the nature of the current regime and the 2021 national elections, it’s doubtful this election will be free and fair.

This is an implicit acceptance that Tigray’s controversial September 2020 election, one of the immediate sparks of the war, was illegitimate under the constitution. This means that Tigray’s election has been rendered null and void.

The federal government has not, however, achieved the TPLF’s complete surrender, as it has promised to remove the designation of TPLF as a terrorist organization and to enter into negotiations with it on how Tigray should be run.

The deal ensures that Tigray is represented in federal institutions, including parliament, but it’s unclear whether the interim administration will be composed of TPLF representatives or politicians handpicked by federal authorities.

One can only hope federal authorities have taken a proper lesson from the fiasco that occurred when they took over the regional administration in November 2020. The lack of self-determination and scale of atrocities targeting civilians fuelled armed resistance within Tigrayan society that coalesced and, after Operation Alula was launched in June 2021, toppled the interim government.

There is nothing to suggest, though, that federal authorities have given up on their ultimate objective, which is to submit a recalcitrant region.

Territorial dispute

The Pretoria deal is ambiguous as to the fate of Western Tigray, the disputed territory between Tigray and Amhara that is under the control of the federal military and forces from the Amhara region with support from Eritrean troops.

These areas were seized unconstitutionally by Amhara militias and special forces at the war’s outset and ethnically cleansed of Tigrayans. Human rights organizations estimate as many as 723,000 Tigrayans were forcibly expelled.

Ethiopian officials have promised to facilitate the return and reintegration of IDPs and refugees, but it’s unclear whether this applies to Tigrayans forcibly displaced from the disputed territories. A further complication relates to the status of the around 200,000 Amharas who resettled there after the takeover.

The Pretoria deal states that the territorial dispute will be resolved through further political dialogue according to the existing federal constitution. However, the agreement fails to explicitly stipulate the withdrawal of Amhara forces and return of Tigray’s territories in accordance with Ethiopia’s constitution.

On the surface, this wording appears to side with Tigray, given that Tigrayans have long been comfortably the majority in these areas. According to Ethiopia’s ethno-territorial federation, this indicates Tigray should administer these lands.

Given that the House of Federation is a purely political body, Abiy’s position that territorial conflicts must be handled according to the constitution effectively means that his administration has a free hand to decide on this matter.

Meanwhile, the Nairobi document calls for all “non-ENDF” forces to withdraw from “the region,” which should presumably apply to Amhara special forces and Fano militias in Western Tigray. Given that Western Tigray is under de facto Amhara administration, the indirect wording is notable and raises questions.

Speaking before parliament on 15 November, Abiy said that the Pretoria agreement was not meant to settle any territorial disputes, which must be determined according to the “laws and regulations of our country.”

Abiy also said the people of “Welkait” should be allowed to determine their own destiny, but pointed to the displacement of Tigrayans during this war and Amharas under the EPRDF as complicating factors for any referendum.

Amhara nationalists supported Abiy’s war as a means to capture lands in Tigray and are equally concerned with the land dispute with Sudan over the al-Fashaga triangle, which has been occupied by Amhara farmers.

Given the fragility of Abiy’s power base, from a tactical perspective, it appears more likely he sides with Amhara on the territorial dispute. His attempts to reel in Amhara elements this past May, including by cracking down on Fano militias and detaining more than 4,000 people, caused his support in Amhara to wane.

Amhara advocacy groups objected to Amharas and Eritrea being excluded from the negotiations and refer to Amhara’s continued administration of Welkait and Raya as a “red line” that, if crossed, would spark conflict between federal authorities and dissident Amhara armed forces.

For instance, Hone Mandefro, director of the Amhara Association of America (AAA), has threatened that, “if the final deal implies Amharas should give up control of these areas until a final resolution is reached, the agreement will likely only hold for a short time.”

TPLF has minimal leverage to transfer these lands back to Tigray and Amhara elites will not give them up through negotiation but only by force.

As such, the focus on respecting the constitution appears to be a reprimand of Tigrayan authorities rather than a rebuke of Amhara forces’ well-armed mission to destroy the ethno-territorial constitution through violence.

Eritrea factor

Eritrea’s withdrawal from Tigray was another problem not addressed in Pretoria. Without mentioning Eritrea by name, the agreement states that both sides commit to stop “collusion with any external force hostile to either party.”

Although the agreement regularly mentions the “sovereignty” of Ethiopia, federal authorities have always said that the Eritrean army has been invited to fight against Tigray’s army and, as such, is not violating Ethiopia’s sovereignty.

As per the 12 November agreement by the Senior Commanders on the modalities to implement the peace deal, all “foreign forces” must leave Tigray at the same time as the TDF’s heavy weapons are being disarmed.

Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s totalitarian dictator, doesn’t only have persuasive military power but also has the ears of Abiy and Ethiopia’s military decision makers. This raises fears that Isaias could derail Ethiopia’s peace deal.

Isaias has made it his life’s mission to ensure that the TPLF or “Weyane” does not survive him. His goal is not only to destroy the TPLF but also to destroy Tigray as a society, as a political force, a land and people with their own cultural, linguistic, and political rights, and aspirations to govern themselves.

Eritrea has been fighting in Tigray since the war began and currently occupies several towns in Tigray. During the latest escalation, Eritrean involvement was stronger and more coordinated with the Ethiopian army.

Eritrea was not part of the mediation process and Isaias recently launched a mass conscription drive to finish off his Tigrayan adversaries. While Isaias has long been against pursuing a negotiated settlement, it’s unclear whether he will be satisfied with disarming the TDF.

It would be naïve to believe he will now treat Tigrayans benevolently as Eritrean soldiers have been responsible for some of the war’s greatest atrocities, such as the massacres in Axum and Maryam Dengelat.

Because Eritrean forces saved Abiy’s regime from collapsing, Isaias has gained significant leverage over him. The possibility of a political fallout could invite some form of military confrontation between the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies.

Abiy can’t afford to turn against his Eritrean patron and this explains why there are worries the Ethiopian government won’t be able to reel in Eritrean troops.

If Eritrea does withdraw, Isaias may continue to fight against Tigray forces through his proxies, most notably the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement (TPDM) and armed groups from Amhara, such as the Fano militias.

Given these realities, it’s not clear whether Eritrea will respect the deal and what TDF disarmament would mean for Tigrayans in the context of a heavily armed neighbor with deep-seated animosities towards them.

It’s worrisome that Isaias has the means to continue pursuing the war regardless of any agreement reached by Abiy. No sustainable peace process will be possible if Eritrean troops are still on the ground in Tigray.

Transitional justice

On transitional justice, the agreement states that the Ethiopian government will establish a mechanism to ascertain the truth and hold anyone guilty of wartime abuses to account, along with heading a truth and reconciliation process.

Exactly how that accountability might come about remains opaque in the deal. Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary-General, stated that the peace accord “fails to offer a clear roadmap on how to ensure accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and overlooks impunity in the country.”

No mention is made of any international transitional justice mechanism or investigation, such as the UN Human Rights Council or the stalled AU Commission of Inquiry. Ethiopian authorities have rejected the findings of UN experts and prevented international, regional, and other human rights investigators from conducting independent investigations in Tigray.

Concerns have been raised about the objectivity of federal judicial institutions. The GSTS believes “the Ethiopian justice system has neither the political independence nor the institutional capacity to dispense fair, free, and speedy justice and hold perpetrators to account.”

The Ethiopian government has not held members of its forces accountable for abuses in Tigray, even when summary executions were captured on videotape. While 53 Ethiopian government soldiers were accused and tried for wartime abuses, they were never sentenced and no further news was reported.

Filsan Abdi, the former Ethiopian Minister of Women and Children Affairs who stepped down owing to the government’s failure to hold perpetrators of mass rape to account, believes that the Ethiopian government, much like the TPLF, cannot be trusted to investigate its own crimes.

She claims that, while she was a minister, senior officials “obfuscated and lied, and tried to omit any mention of rape by the government and Eritrean forces from the official investigation.”

While there is evidence that all actors in the conflict have committed atrocities, Eritrean forces have been linked to some of the most gruesome and widespread abuses. Eritrea’s leader is so isolated from the international community that he doesn’t feel the need to even pretend to be seeking accountability.

While Abiy and his generals are among those who should be held to account, they would obviously never sign off on an agreement that leads to their criminal prosecution.

Accountability should not be one-sided, however, and any members of the TDF must also be held responsible for human rights abuses. TDF forces are also accused of war crimes, such as rape and widespread damage to homes, schools, and health centers after they advanced into Amhara and Afar regions.

As such, there is a need for the UN Security Council to refer the Tigray situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC), or some other regional or international tribunal. In the absence of such mechanisms, transitional justice will be entirely in the hands of the victors and genuine accountability will not be delivered.

Justice can also be sequenced, meaning that criminal accountability may need to wait until peace has taken root so as to not disrupt the peace process. Although this approach is more realistic, it often leads to justice ultimately being shelved.

If atrocities committed during the war are not prosecuted, this would further entrench impunity in Ethiopia and the legacy of state violence against civilians.

Reconstruction aid

Now that a peace deal has been signed, Abiy is soliciting reconstruction aid from bilateral and multilateral donors. Ethiopia’s Ministry of Finance has estimated the cost of rebuilding war-ravaged areas in northern Ethiopia at nearly $20 billion.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) welcomed the declaration of a ceasefire and said it’s weighing the next steps on a potential funding program amid ongoing discussions with Ethiopian authorities on their reform plans.

Abiy is in need of financial help because the economy is cratering. The peace talks are designed to resuscitate Ethiopia’s international image and supply the regime with a lifeline through World Bank and IMF funding.

Federal authorities have essentially admitted they are practically insolvent due in part to the assault on Tigray. The Abiy administration now expects the world to reimburse him and foot the bill for the devastation caused by the war.

Given that Ethiopia desperately needs aid, Abiy’s government and the AU will be counting on international endorsement of the peace deal. Such requests are audacious given that the AU’s largest donor, the EU, was barred from observing the talks while the UN, US, and IGAD were only permitted to observe.

The danger in channeling reconstruction assistance too soon and through the federal government is that Abiy will use these resources to solidify his grip on power while only partially implementing his side of the deal.

Given that the federal government “cannot be trusted” to rebuild Tigray, some Tigrayans have argued that aid should be channeled through the regional authorities. However, the recent agreement undermines the usefulness of such an approach given that federal authorities will also control Tigray’s government.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: Tigray forces commander Tadesse Werede and federal military chief of staff Birhanu Jula sign the implementation plan; Nairobi, Kenya; Twitter, Redwan Hussien; 12 November 2022.

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