Ethiopia: The Hard Road to Peace

Viktor Mikhin
ETCThere has been a lot of talk about peace in Ethiopia lately, and, according to many international observers, this is a truly new trend in domestic politics. But at the same time, there is a long and winding road ahead before the country can see the end of hostilities, famine and delayed state collapse.  For six months, the war between the federal government in Addis Ababa and the Tigray region and its ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has stalled. Neither side can beat the other, and it seems that each no longer has the ambition to try to do so. Since the beginning of May, there have been constant rumors about secret negotiations between the two warring parties.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addressed members of Parliament on June 14 and said that he wants peace for his country, while adding: “Just because we want peace, it does not mean that we are conducting secret negotiations.” The key point in Abiy’s speech was that he decided to create a special committee headed by his deputy and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen to find out whether a lasting peace with Tigray is possible, and how it can be done. At the same time, the High Representative of the African Union Commissioner for the Horn of Africa, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, plans to hold talks in the Tanzanian city of Arusha to establish peace in Tigray province. But it should be remembered that Obasanjo fully agrees with Abiy’s policy, and his appointment to the post of High Representative followed the approval of controversial elections in Ethiopia a year ago. Since then, Obasanjo’s peace efforts have been marked by a combination of unhurried pace and his insistence that he alone is the only effective mediator in the Ethiopian negotiations. In this regard, he is unlikely to be able to become an impartial arbiter and succeed in the difficult Ethiopian problem.

Abiy’s steps towards peace were very uncertain from the very beginning. This follows from his indecisive measures to meet the basic demand of the Tigrayans, which is to end the hunger blockade and ensure the flow of humanitarian aid. The reason is that Abiy is “indebted” to powerful forces inside the country who are determined to crush Tigray militarily, namely, the troops of the regional government of Amhara province and neighboring Eritrea ruled by its militant president Isaias Afwerki. He has repeatedly expressed his dissatisfaction with Abiy’s peace initiatives, saying that the Tigrayans allegedly planned to attack his country, a sure sign that Eritrea is looking for a pretext for its own military actions.

At the same time, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta assumed the role of Ethiopian mediator after his meeting with President Joe Biden. As a concerned neighbor, a beloved partner of the United States and Europe in East Africa and a member of both the UN Security Council and the African Union Peace and Security Council, Kenya has put forward and is aggressively promoting its so-called peace initiative. In this regard, this initiative is actively supported by Washington and the United Arab Emirates, because it corresponds to their vision of strengthening their positions in this large African country. On this occasion, Tigray President Debretsion Gebremichael wrote an open letter to Kenyatta and other leading international figures, in which he “crystal clear” stated his position of being ready to negotiate under the auspices of Kenya, not Obasanjo. He did not mention the meeting with Obasanjo in Arusha, but pointedly included Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan among the addressees, while indirectly inviting her to support Kenyans.  He also addressed a letter to the President of the UAE, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, explaining his position on establishing peace in his province. Despite the fact that the Emirati president is an “enthusiastic supporter” of both Abia and Isaias, the UAE has recently softened its position. They sent aid directly to Tigray and, with the support of the United States, now consider themselves an active mediator in establishing peace.

It is quite difficult to make an accurate analysis of the Tigray problem, since the policy of Debretsion and his Tigray entourage is no less secretive than Abiy. A year has passed since Tigray troops recaptured Mekelle, the capital. During this time, according to Western experts, they have created a strong military machine and restored administration throughout the province, but so far they clearly and rigidly control political freedoms at home. Tigrayans can be understood to some extent. After the atrocities committed against them during the war, the majority of the population of the province do not want to have anything to do with the rest of Ethiopia and are concerned that its leaders will be able to make a deal secretly behind their backs and at their expense.

At the same time, the situation in the province is quite complicated and is getting worse literally every day. And that is why Tigrayans are also negotiating a deadline for signing a peace treaty with Addis Ababa. The rainy season has come, and now crops are being sown and fertilizers will be needed next month if it is necessary to harvest a decent harvest. Tigray is under blockade, with no commercial traffic, no banking services and no telecommunications. If the siege is not lifted, it will be difficult for the leadership to resist popular calls for the TPLF to use its army to break through the encirclement. And this means that new militant actions will be launched. Speaking to the British media, Tigray diplomat Fisseha Asgedom listed five key points of negotiations:

– restoration of the Tigray borders that existed before the conflict;

– referendum on self-determination;

– international process of bringing those responsible to justice for military atrocities by Ethiopia;

– compensation for losses; and

– Tigray keeps his own army.

There is a third important component of the peace puzzle, namely, the escalation of the war in the vast Oromia region, which covers large areas of Ethiopia. The rebel movement led by the Oromo Liberation Army is gaining strength, and despite Abiy’s promise to destroy them, the fighting is only growing. In January, the most prominent Oromo opposition leader, Jawar Mohammed of the Federalist Oromo Congress, was released from prison. Five years ago, Jawar was a mobilizer of disenfranchised Oromo youth who demanded radical changes. This movement eventually led to much-needed reform, which subsequently catastrophically “came to naught.” The end of the reformist changes was the murder of the singer Hachalu Hundessa, who became the voice of the protests, and the imprisonment of Jawar in June 2020.  Meanwhile, violence in Oromia continues to escalate. The Government and the rebels blame each other for the recent killing of 200 civilians of the Amhara ethnic group living in the western state of Oromia.

It should be said that in solving its internal problems, Ethiopia relies on those who sincerely want peace and tranquility in this country. Russia has always stood for these principles, which was again confirmed on July 26-27 during the visit of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov on a working visit to the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. He was received by the President of the country Sahle-Work Zewde and held talks with the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia Demeke Mekonnen. Sergey Lavrov had a telephone conversation with the Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed, who received a personal message from the President of the Russian Federation V.V. Putin.

When considering the situation in the Horn of Africa region and other “hot spots” of the continent, Sergey Lavrov emphasized the need to respect the principle of “African problems need an African solution.” At the same time, Russian support for the efforts of the Ethiopian government to normalize the situation in Tigray and launch an inclusive national dialogue in the country was confirmed. Moscow will continue to stand in solidarity with the principled position of Ethiopia, which rejects interference in its internal affairs and defends sovereignty and territorial integrity.

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