Ethiopian peace talks begin as rebel TPLF suffers military setbacks

Negotiations between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) began in South Africa on October 25, as the latter’s military defeat appears imminent. The civil war in Ethiopia started after the TPLF attacked a federal army base in November 2020.

October 26, 2022 by Pavan Kulkarni, reproduced from  People’s Dispatch, with thanks

The African Union (AU)-led peace negotiations between the Ethiopian federal government and the US-backed Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which were scheduled to begin in South Africa on Monday, began on Tuesday, October 25.

Representatives of both the TPLF and the Ethiopian federal government arrived in South Africa’s executive capital Pretoria on Monday. The negotiations will reportedly be mediated by the AU chairperson’s High Representative for Horn of Africa Olusegun Obasanjo, South Africa’s former Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, and former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

The civil war in northern Ethiopia appears to be nearing an end after nearly two years since it began on November 4, 2020, when the TPLF attacked an army base of the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) in Mekele, capital of Ethiopia’s northernmost State of Tigray.

Several reports claim that the ENDF has already entered Mekele, and that the TPLF leaders have fled the city. While these reports remain unverified at this time, the TPLF’s capacity to defend its positions in its stronghold has been severely hampered after the federal army captured several strategically important towns and cities around Mekele.

Under the circumstances, the question remains whether the current negotiations will be ‘peace talks’ or ‘about an exit strategy for the TPLF,’ observed Kenyan journalist Karanja Gacuca, who has been following the developments closely.

While reiterating that “the ENDF will endeavour to avoid fighting in urban areas,” a statement on October 18 by the Government Communication Service (GCS) of the federal government confirmed that the “ENDF has taken control of the towns of Shire, Alamata and Korem, without fighting in urban areas.” 

Among the largest cities in the Tigray State, Shire lies only 140 kilometres to Mekele’s northwest and is equipped with an airport. Between 170 and 180 kilometres to Mekele’s south are the towns of Korem and Alamata.

Predicting that the “capture of Shire” was “imminent,” French journalist René Lefort, who takes pro-TPLF positions, had tweeted on October 16 that once Shire is taken, the TPLF will “no longer have the military capacity to prevent” the ENDF “from eventually reaching Mekele.” The TPLF has been incapacitated “essentially due to lack of munition,” he asserted.

With a military defeat thus appearing imminent for the TPLF, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres raised the alarm that the conflict was “spiralling out of control.” The Ethiopian prime minister’s national security adviser Redwan Hussein retorted back by saying that the conflict “was spiralling when being expanded to other regions.”

TPLF’s two failed offensives

The TPLF has twice taken the war to Tigray’s neighbouring regional States. Its first offensive beyond the border of Tigray came after the federal government declared a unilateral ceasefire on June 29, 2021, and withdrew from Tigray the troops it had ordered in soon after the TPLF’s attack on its base in Mekele.

The TPLF made rapid advances southward, stealing over a thousand trucks of the World Food Programme (WFP) and using them to transport Tigrayans, including child soldiers, who were allegedly conscripted under threat and used as cannon fodder in human-wave attacks.

During its assault on the neighbouring States of Amhara and Afar, the TPLF was accused of committing atrocities on civilians, including burning of villages, mass-killings of civilians, and gang-rapes. The TPLF reached almost 200 kilometres from Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa by the end of last year.

At the time, the US government of President Joe Biden, whose diplomatic manoeuvres were all aimed at depicting Ethiopia’s federal government as the aggressor, appeared to openly throw its weight behind the TPLF.

On November 5, 2021, a ceremony was hosted in Washington DC to inaugurate a new coalition against the federal government, comprised of the TPLF and eight other armed groups, some which were allegedly fictitious and created only on paper to amplify the size of the armed opposition.

The TPLF’s advances were reversed despite the foreign support it received and what many Ethiopians perceived as the UN’s partiality in joining in the Western attempts to depict the federal government as the aggressor while largely ignoring the TPLF’s atrocities.

The ENDF, along with the militias of Amhara and Afar regional States, drove the TPLF back to Tigray. However, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered his troops not to pursue the TPLF into Tigray. After encircling the TPLF inside Tigray by the start of this year, the federal government declared a ceasefire in March in order to enable the much needed flow of humanitarian aid.

The TPLF reciprocated and the ceasefire held out till August. However, in August, the TPLF dismissed the credibility of AU, which had been working to lay the basis for negotiations, and called for Western intervention. This happened shortly after envoys of the US and EU met TPLF leaders in Mekele. On August 24, the rebel group resumed warfare.

The TPLF invaded the neighbouring State of Amhara once again, on two fronts. Its westward offensive aimed to open a corridor to Sudan, which is known to be supporting the TPLF, while the southward offensive was an attack on the strategic district of Raya Kobo that borders Tigray to its north and Afar to its east. The highway between Mekele and Addis Ababa passes through this strategically important district in northeast Amhara’s North Wollo zone.

Successfully defeating both these offensives, the ENDF went on the offensive, wresting control of several strategic towns and cities from the TPLF and advancing towards Mekele.

Coming in the backdrop of a looming military defeat for the TPLF, Guterres’ remarks about the conflict “spiralling out of control” provoked a quick response from Redwan Hussein, who pointed out that the conflict had in fact been spiralling out when the TPLF was on the offensive in the neighbouring State. “Now, it’s just being extinguished. Aid & services to follow soon,” Hussein remarked.

The Ethiopian GCS’ statement on October 18 added that the “Government of Ethiopia is carrying out the necessary preparations and will coordinate with the relevant humanitarian agencies to provide humanitarian aid through these areas that have come under the control of ENDF, including via the Shire Airport.

Videos have since surfaced from ENDF-controlled areas showing the distribution of food aid that had apparently been hoarded by the TPLF. The TPLF’s denial of food aid to the families of those unable or unwilling to fight in the war against the federal government has been well-documented.

By the time the TPLF broke the ceasefire and resumed hostilities on August 24, nearly half of the population in Tigray was in “severe” need of food-aid, according to the WFP.

The situation in northern Ethiopia will come to an end, peace will prevail. We will not continue fighting forever,” Prime Minister Ahmed said on October 20, the day when the federal government accepted the AU’s invitation to take part in the peace talks in South Africa. He added, “I believe that in a short period of time, we will stand with our Tigrayan brothers for peace and development.”

Eritrea’s stake and Western intervention

On October 14, US State Secretary Antony Blinken again referred to the TPLF as “Tigrayan authorities,” and called on the ENDF, which is alleged to be receiving support from Eritrea, to “cease their joint offensive.”

Repeating Blinken’s insistence on a negotiated settlement, the Council of European Union (EU) said in a statement on October 17, “The EU calls for an immediate halt to the joint offensives launched by Ethiopian National Defence Forces in collaboration with Eritrean Defence Forces, and a full withdrawal of Eritrean troops from the sovereign territory of Ethiopia.”

While neither Ethiopia nor Eritrea have acknowledged the presence of Eritrean troops on Ethiopia’s territory, the two governments have a cooperation agreement.

Eritrea has a considerable stake in ensuring that the TPLF is not resurrected. It was the TPLF which had led Ethiopia into a war with Eritrea while it ruled the country with the backing of the US after coming to power in 1991. Opposition parties and free press had no space in Ethiopia under the TPLF’s rule.

After being deposed from federal power in 2018 following massive pro-democracy protests, the TPLF was reduced to a regional party – in power in Tigray alone. It opposed the peace agreement signed between Eritrea and the new Ethiopian federal government led by Abiy Ahmed. This peace agreement was followed by a tripartite agreement for cooperation between Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia.

Historian and former Ethiopian diplomat Mohamed Hassan maintains that these agreements toward resolving the conflicts between the countries and people in the Horn of Africa undermine the ability of Western governments to pursue their interests by projecting military power. He therefore argues that the US and the EU are using the TPLF as a proxy to reignite conflicts in this region.

The TPLF “has taken away a convoy of 1,700 trucks from humanitarian organisations as well as from the government. These foreign powers didn’t utter a word. The huge amount of fuel was robbed by the TPLF. These foreign governments didn’t say anything to condemn the act of this terrorist organisation,” remarked Aregawi Berhe, chairperson of the Tigray Democratic Party. 

He added that “they are doing this simply because, the TPLF was a loyal servant of them and they want to push the legitimate government of Ethiopia to accept the TPLF and give it a share of power, so that they will come again through the TPLF to execute their own selfish desires.”

While the US and the EU have been calling on Eritrea to not intervene in this conflict, the Ethiopian diaspora demonstrated near the White House in Washington DC on October 23, condemning US interference in the TPLF’s favour.

At a similar demonstration outside the EU commission on October 20, one protester held up a placard confronting Josep Borrell, its vice-president, who recently provoked a controversy by referring to Europe as a “garden” and the developing world as “jungle.” The protester’s placard read: “Joseph Borrell, don’t forget that African lions live in the jungle.”

On October 22, millions took part in mass demonstrations held in over 20 cities across different regional States of Ethiopia, reported the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA). “No More Proxy War!”, “Disarm TPLF!”, “Stop elongating TPLF’s survival in the guise of negotiation!”, and “Tigrayans are our people and TPLF is our enemy!” – were among the common slogans raised at the demonstrations across the country.

We had a state before the European states, the US and the rest. We had a structured government, religion, language and law. We had never surrendered to colonialism and never allowed foreign powers to run our country,” said renowned Ethiopian actor Debebe Eshetu while addressing the demonstration in Addis Ababa.

Taking aim at Borrell’s garden-and-jungle comparison which was widely condemned as racist, Eshetu said, “Some with colonial mindset call our part of the world a jungle. We want to remind them about the Victory of Adwa,” referring to Ethiopia’s victory against the invading Italian forces in 1896. “We are the lions in the jungle [whose] roar has silenced a colonial ambition,” he added.