Ethiopians may this week heave a collective sigh of relief after the government reached a cessation of hostilities agreement with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), signalling an end to a two-year war in the north of the country.
But the deal signed in Pretoria, South Africa, Tuesday, would not have been realised had the parties not seen the “cost” of war, sources told The EastAfrican on Thursday. One of the ‘facts’ tabled before the parties — officials from the Ethiopian government and TPLF representative — was the mounting toll on civilians.
The death toll in the conflict has been a matter of debate. Researchers at Ghent University put the toll at 600,000, including up to 100,000 civilian deaths from direct violence, with the rest coming as the indirect consequence of war: Starvation or lack of medical supplies. Other independent estimates put the figure higher. Another two million may have been displaced, internally, or as refugees in neighbouring Sudan.
“The TPLF would better know that soon or later, they would have no civilians backing them, mostly because those people would be dead from starvation or disease,” explained an African Union official familiar with the behind-the-scenes happenings in Pretoria.
“The Ethiopian government would win militarily but lose a significant portion of the population. That would have a reputation costs to the governments, so it was a burden nonetheless.”
The talks had begun a week earlier, mediated by African Union-appointed panelists dubbed “Troika of negotiators.” Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo who is AU High Representative for the Horn of Africa, former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and Dr Phumuzile Mlalmbo, former Deputy President of the Republic of South Africa led the talks.
The talks did not yield a thing initially, largely because the Ethiopian delegation had to rely on approvals from Addis Ababa to decide anything.
The terror tag
Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen who had been drafted to lead the Ethiopian government side did not travel and the delegation had to appoint Redwan Hussien, the National Security Advisor to take over.
“The agreement was made after multiple back and forth, open and close, larger and small group debates,” Mr Redwan said on Thursday.
Eventually, the parties adopted a proposal by former Mr Kenyatta on the future of TPLF and Tigray. It stated that a peace deal will be reached if terror tag on TPLF is dropped, but as long as the group abandons violence and stops recruiting fighters.
In fact, Kenyatta had tabled this proposal last year to the Ethiopian government, when he was still in power but Addis Ababa declined it.
Officially at the time, officials in Addis claimed the national parliament had not yet been reformed after elections to decide on the terror tag.
This time, Ethiopia agreed to the proposal because officials saw the burden would be on the TPLF to disarm.
“It is called negotiation brinkmanship. It is also got to do with the fact that protagonists made themselves clear they are tired of the war,” explained an aide of Mr Kenyatta on Friday.
Respect is king
“And it also has to do with the fact that there has been a lot of international pressure. Actually, our leaders, the mediators, did a lot more to demonstrate the losses likely to befall both sides. It seemed to work but the next steps would be respecting their commitments,” he said.
The deal titled, Agreement for Lasting Peace through a Permanent Cessation of Hostilities, says its objectives is to reach an immediate and permanent cessation of hostilities and allow return to constitutional order as well as unfettered humanitarian access.
But it placed a burden on the TPLF. The rebel group is barred from calling themselves ‘government of Tigray’, barred from engineering a coup or illegal cessation and ordered to respect the constitution and government of Ethiopia.
“The devil will be in the implementation,” argued President Kenyatta at the signing ceremony on Tuesday.
“From the commitments we have seen from the parties today, it is our belief that they will honour their pledges as indicated in the agreement. We will continue to call for peace.”
Silencing of guns
A joint statement read by Mr Redwan and TPLF representative Getachew Reda indicated the parties had agreed “in principle” to cessation of hostilities and silencing of guns.
And Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said the deal was “monumental in moving Ethiopia forward on the path of the reforms we embarked upon four and half years ago.”
“Our commitment to peace remains steadfast. And our commitment to collaborating for the implementation of the agreement is equally strong,” Dr Abiy said without referring to the TPLF by name.
Violation grey area
Critics charged that the deal promised peace without explaining how to deal with breakers of the peace.
Mehari Taddele Maru, an Ethiopian academic and a part-time professor at the School of Transnational Governance and Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute, argued that the deal is welcome in promising an end to violence, but leaves questions unanswered.
“The CoHA unmistakably fails to mention the withdrawal of Eritrean and other forces,” he said referring to the Eritrean forces who have fought alongside Ethiopian forces. Eritrea did not participate in the talks although Addis Ababa claimed it represented their side of the story.
“How can Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) disarm in the presence of Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF) in Tigray? Can Ethiopia National Defence Forces (ENDF) and EDF — accused of atrocity crimes against Tigrayans, provide the security to the same population? Will the Tigray population trust these forces?” he posed.
According to the agreement, TPLF leaders and ENDF commanders are supposed to meet within five days from Wednesday to “work out detailed modalities of disarmament for the TPLF combatants, taking into account the security situation on the ground.”
This bit was not defined but TPLF are also supposed to start disarming their heavy weapons within 10 days after the commanders’ meeting.
By Friday, there had been no indication of the meeting and TPLF claimed that their zone had been struck in an aerial raid.
“The cessation of hostilities in northern Ethiopia after nearly two years of bloodshed is a critical moment to end atrocities and the immense suffering of millions of civilians,” said Carine Nantulya, Deputy Africa Director for Human Rights Watch.
“International scrutiny will be key to ensuring that the warring parties, which committed widespread abuses, don’t prolong the harm to the civilian population.”
The deal says a joint monitoring team composed of representatives from both sides, regional bloc Igad and the AU will monitor violations but didn’t say what penalties they face. It says disarmament of TPLF’s light weapons should begin four weeks after the deal, but authorises the ENDF to deploy anywhere in Tigray as both parties hold dialogue to discuss flow of internal boundaries.