The South African government is hosting peace talks to end the Tigray conflict, with delegates from the Ethiopia government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) arriving here this week.
The talks are facilitated by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, the former deputy president of South Africa, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, and former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta.
Obasanjo is an experienced statesman who has led peace efforts in Africa in the past, including talks between Darfur’s rebels and the Sudanese government. Mlambo-Ngcuka, as executive director of United Nations Women, brings international experience to these talks. Kenyatta is not new to peace talks either, having been involved in talks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
These talks, hosted on behalf of the African Union, will entrench President Cyril Ramaphosa’s status as a leading statesman on the continent. He led discussions with the World Health Organisation and international financial institutions during the Covid-19 pandemic as the chairperson of the AU. And Ramaphosa has championed efforts towards a just transition to sustainable and clean energy.
The talks commenced in Pretoria on 24 October and are set to last till 30 October.
What led to the conflict in Tigray?
When Ahmed Abiy was elected Ethiopia’s prime minister in 2018, he freed thousands of political prisoners and loosened restrictions on the media. He also undertook to deal with past and present perpetrators of corruption. And he signed a peace deal with President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea ending more than decade-long conflict between the two countries.
The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated politics inside the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front, a political coalition which governed Ethiopia until the election of Abiy, was accused and implicated in corruption and human rights violations. Fearing possible persecution, they retreated to Mekelle in the Tigray region.
At the time Debretsion Gebremichael, chairperson of the TPLF, accused Abiy of “conducting ethnic profiling in the name of fighting corruption”. The TPLF entrenched itself in Tigray, establishing and reinforcing an armed force against the government. Tensions between the TPLF and the government reached a new level in November 2020. The federal government instructed that elections, which were due to take place in Tigray, be postponed because of Covid-19.
The Tigray regional state went ahead with the elections, defying the instructions of the federal government. According to the chairperson of the Tigrayan Electoral Commission, competing parties ran for the acquisition of 152 seats in the regional parliament. The TPLF won 98.2%, taking all seats in the regional parliament in Tigray.
What followed were sporadic acts undermining the federal government’s authority. It was the attack on the installations of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces’ Northern Command headquarters in Mekelle and other bases in Tigray by forces loyal to TPLF that exacerbated matters.
Since the start of this war on 4 November 2022, thousands have been killed and millions displaced in Tigray and neighbouring provinces. Human rights organisations estimate that more than 400 000 people are facing famine and two million people have been displaced in Tigray. Senior political analyst Louw Nel, of consulting firm NKC African Economics, estimates that the war in Tigray has cost the country $2.5-billion.
The aims of the peace talks in South Africa are to build trust between the parties and to draft a framework for future discussions. The cessation of hostilities while negotiations continue will be a priority. The negotiators will also want guarantees of safe passage of aid and food to territories affected by the war. They will also facilitate residence in South Africa for key negotiators from both sides of this conflict.
The Ethiopian government enters these peace talks emboldened. Over the past couple of months, the Ethiopian army has made serious gains in Tigray. The TPLF, once a dominating force in the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front, was forced to enter these peace talks. The TPLF armed forces are currently cornered in their stronghold in Mekelle.
Given the reality on the ground in this civil war, the government is unlikely to give in easily to the demands of the TPLF when negotiations intensify.
It is likely that the government will insist on the disarmament of the TPLF and an end to armed resistance. The government will also demand new elections. The TPLF will probably push for a general amnesty for its leaders and fighters.
(This article was first published by Mail and Guardian in South Africa)