Uncertainty in Horn of Africa as war resumes
The war in Ethiopia, between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has resumed at full scale. As a result, a route back to negotiations is uncertain at best.
The two sides agree that the first shots were fired in the early morning of August 24 on the southern borders of Tigray, where it adjoins the neighbouring Amhara state at the town of Kobo. Each side blames the other for firing those shots.
What is clear — from information obtained from Western diplomats — is that the Ethiopian National Defence Force and its allied Amhara militia, known as the Fano, had mobilised a huge force to that location in recent weeks. Meanwhile, mass conscription by the TPLF had swelled its ranks and it had devoted much of its resources to training and rearming, although it has denied forced recruitment.
It captured a huge arsenal from the federal army in last year’s fighting, and there are rumours that it had also bought new weapons from abroad.
Tensions were building. And yet, just a few weeks ago there was optimism that peace talks might soon be under way.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had authorized his deputy, Demeke Mekonnen, to head a peace committee, which began work in July.
Even before that, Abiy had reportedly sent senior officials to secretly meet the TPLF. In sessions in the Seychelles and Djibouti, it appears that agreement was reached that Ethiopian forces would lift their blockade of Tigray, that Eritrea would withdraw the troops it had sent to support the government and that the two sides would open full talks in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, hosted by President Uhuru Kenyatta. The first agenda item would be a permanent ceasefire.
Behind the scenes, the US was strongly backing these talks and was working in partnership with Kenya.
Visiting the Tigrayan capital Mekelle on August 2, US Special Envoy Mike Hammer and envoys of the European Union and United Nations called for “a swift restoration of electricity, telecom, banking, and other basic services”, and “unfettered humanitarian access”, hinting that Abiy had agreed to do these things.
However, the African Union envoy, Olusegun Obasanjo, remained silent on the siege.
Briefing the envoys, Gen Obasanjo insisted that he was the sole mediator and surprised them by proposing to invite Ethiopia’s ally, Eritrea, to the talks.
The TPLF accuses the government of reneging on its commitments. The government doesn’t admit that any meetings took place. International envoys are also staying silent on exactly why the talks broke down.
Throughout July and August, Addis Ababa largely kept the blockade of essential services in place, permitting only a trickle of food, medicine and fertilizers for this season’s crops.
The TPLF is unimpressed by international praise for a five-month “humanitarian truce”, which allowed the World Food Programme (WFP) to resume operations in Tigray, albeit on a limited scale. It insists that Addis Ababa’s continued blockade amounts to using hunger as a weapon of war and that the aid operations were pitifully insufficient.