Ethiopia: Cautious Optimism Ahead of Ethiopia-Tigray Peace Talks

Analysts have welcomed peace talks in South Africa between regional leaders of Ethiopia’s Tigray region and the federal government but say both sides must get serious this time amid a war that has killed thousands.

Ahead of the much anticipated African Union-facilitated peace talks between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) regional government this weekend, African analysts have warned that resolving the conflict could prove challenging unless the two factions show sincerity and serious commitment.

The African Union hopes the talks in South Africa can end the fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. It is unclear how many people have died in the nearly two-year-old conflict, but some estimates put the figure at almost 500,000.

Around 3 million have been internally displaced, according to the United Nations.

Befekadu Hailu, an Ethiopian social and political analyst, praised the two parties for agreeing to meet at the negotiating table.

“The fact that a date and place is decided for the warring factions to talk peace is a very pleasing news because, there have been attempts in the past, but they have never been transparent,” he told DW.

‘A major development’

Hailu stressed that “this is a major development, and it is a good thing to hear.”

But this is not the first time the two parties will be committing to peace negotiations. Past efforts to cease hostitilies and negotiate a way out have failed to achieve results.

Representatives from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and Tigray’s regional capital, Mekelle, have met twice for face-to-face negotiations this year — in Seychelles and Djibouti.

Mediators have also reached out to both parties facilitating indirect talks, but the terms of these talks haven’t been observed and respected.

African security analyst Adib Saani who has also welcomed the latest peace talks has warned that “no amount of talks can bring peace to the area unless both parties show the right level of commitment” to end the conflict.

He told DW that “it is not just about showing, but demonstrating it and that has been lacking” in previous efforts to resolve the conflict.

How different are these peace talks?

In a letter addressed to the African Union Commission president, the head of the Tigray regional government, Debretsion Gebremichael confirmed his team’s participation in the talks.

The Ethiopian government has also accepted the invitation. The country’s national security adviser Redwan Hussein said in a statement that the government considered the invitation “consistent with the Ethiopian government’s prior positions” that the AU must mediate the talks.

Representatives from the European Union, the United Nations, and the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) are expected to attend the talks as observers supporting the AU’s mediation team.

According to the letter from the chair of the AU Commission the talks would be “aimed at laying the foundation for a structured and sustained mediation” between the two sides toward a “durable resolution of the conflict.”

Analyst Hailu said all parties must commit seriously to the peace process for significant results.

“There is a lack of commitment by both parties. Both parties used the war for their political agenda. They do not show full commitment,” Hailu added.

Mistrust in mediators

According to Hailu, the Ethiopian government and the TPLF representatives did not trust mediators in previous talks. He explained that “they [warring factions] did not have enough trust in different bodies trying to moderate” the negotiations.

For example, some members of the Tigray negotiating team rejected earlier moves by the AU to mediate the talks. In addition, the Ethiopian federal government initially had reservations about AU mediation, focusing instead on achieving a military victory.

Addis Ababa also rejected any external mediation efforts.

This time, the AU special envoy and former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, with the support of former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and former South African Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, will facilitate the peace talks.

Nigussie Belay, a professor at Hawassa University in Southern Ethiopia, told DW that Obasanjo has been doing a good job for the past ten months to try and end the war.

Talks amid fighting in Tigray

The upcoming talks come more than a month after renewed fighting in Tigray following months of relative calm.

Forces from neighboring Eritrea, allied with Ethiopia’s government, are joining the battle in what Tigray forces have described as a large-scale offensive. An airstrike hit the Tigray town of Adi Daero on Tuesday, where displaced people were sheltering.

The Tigray negotiation team has sought unfettered access to humanitarian aid, the resumption of basic services, respect for constitutional boundary arrangements and the withdrawal of foreign forces.

The Tigrayan faction had in the past also demanded that talks take place in Kenya’s Nairobi with the country’s former president, Uhuru Kenyatta leading negotiations. However, the TPLF’s leader’s decision to be silent on such a condition is viewed as a positive signal.

Ato Geresu Tufa, director of the East African initiative for Change, a civil society organization, told DW that pre-conditions by both parties could make the talks difficult.

“On the part of the [Ethiopian] government, Kenya’s negotiating position was not particularly opposed,” Tufa said. “However, TPLFs interest has repeatedly made it clear that the negotiations should be held in Nairobi and that Uhuru Kenyatta should be the negotiator. So, if this is the interest of the two parties, it can be complicated,” he said.

Shutting out external interests

Security expert Saani said the rival factions must avoid allowing external interests to influence their positions and commitment to peace.

“It almost looks like there are third-party forces who are feeding into the situation,” he said without mentioning the exact external interests.

Saani also wondered how the Ethiopian government and TPLF fighters continue to access weapons and ammunition for the conflict.

“The question is how are they able to get the weapons? I would have thought that by now there would be a united international arms embargo in the area. Because the more weapons get to the area the more the various parties become emboldened and the more fighting would happen,” he explained.

There has rarely been any significant involvement of countries like China and Russia in bringing pressure to bear on ending the conflict, just like the United States and the European Union.

“The powers of the Eastern world, China and Russia, are rare in terms of assigning their own diplomats to work for lasting peace in Ethiopia,” Nigussie said, adding that it likely stems from the fact that the two powers consider the conflict “an internal matter of Ethiopia.”

The Tigray authorities have, for example, said they would accept whatever comes out of what they will describe as an impartial, agreed-upon peace process. Still, Hailu is not optimistic about much progress after this weekend.

“But I hope they would agree on the first talks to cease fire completely and if there is a cease fire in resumption of humanitarian aid, a protection mechanism for civilians suffering, then I think that is when we start to hope,” he said.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu

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