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, has been in stalemate. Neither can defeat the other, and, it appears, each no longer has the ambition to try to do so. Since early May, stories have been circulating about secret talks between them.
On June 14, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed spoke to Parliament and said he wanted peace — pointedly adding “just because we want peace does not mean that we are doing secret negotiations.” It was a rambling address, part sermon, part chastisement, and part revisiting his grand vision of Ethiopia’s future greatness, symbolized by his lavish spending on beautifying the capital city with pleasure parks and palaces, and he repeated the point that he would keep the parliamentarians informed. It was grist to the rumor mill that he had been doing the opposite.
The key point in Abiy’s speech was that he was setting up a committee, headed by his deputy prime minister and foreign minister Demeke Mekonnen, to investigate whether peace with Tigray is possible.
A few days earlier, Le Monde had reported that former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, the African Union Commissioner’s “High Representative for the Horn of Africa,” was planning to convene talks in the Tanzanian city of Arusha. Obasanjo has been close to Abiy, and his appointment to the role followed his controversial blessing of the Ethiopian elections a year ago. Since then, his peace efforts have been marked by a combination of leisurely pace and his insistence that he is the sole mediator.
Abiy’s steps towards peace have been faltering. This follows his halting steps towards meeting an essential demand of the Tigrayans, which is ending the starvation blockade and allowing humanitarian aid to flow. The reason is that Abiy is indebted to powerful forces that are determined to crush Tigray, namely the Amhara regional government and neighboring Eritrea, ruled by its bellicose dictator, Isaias Afewerki. Eritrea signaled its displeasure with Abiy’s peace overtures, claiming that the Tigrayans were planning to attack Eritrea — a sure sign that Eritrea is seeking a pretext for a military action of its own.
Obasanjo’s sudden burst of energy appears to have been prompted by progress in the parallel Kenyan initiative — and a signal from Abiy that he was at last ready.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta took up the mantle of mediator following his meeting with President Joe Biden in October. As a concerned neighbor, the favored 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 discreetly built a credible peace initiative. It’s backed by Washington and the United Arab Emirates.
The Tigrayan president, Debretsion Gebremichael, wrote an open letter to Kenyatta and other leading international figures, in which he made “crystal clear” his position — that he was ready to negotiate under Kenyan auspices, not Obasanjo. He made no reference to Obasanjo’s Arusha meeting, but pointedly included Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan as one of the addressees, implicitly inviting her to support the Kenyans.
He also addressed Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan, now president of the UAE. Having been an enthusiastic supporter of both Abiy and Eritrea’s Isaias, the UAE has recently moderated its stance. It sent aid directly to Tigray and, with U.S. encouragement, now sees itself as a broker of peace.
Most significantly, Debretsion wrote, “we hold firm to the existing agreement among the Parties to meet in Nairobi for negotiations hosted and facilitated by the President of Kenya.” This called Abiy’s bluff: the TPLF leader signaled that talks had already been held and that agreement on the mediator had been reached.
Debretsion’s challenge is that his leadership is no less secretive than Abiy’s. It is now a year since the Tigrayan forces recaptured their capital, Mekelle. During that time, they have built a formidable military machine and re-established administration across Tigray but haven’t opened any political space at home. After the atrocities inflicted on them during the war, most of the Tigrayan population want nothing to do with the rest of Ethiopia and worry that the TPLF leaders are cutting deals behind their backs.
Speaking to the BBC, Tigrayan diplomat Fisseha Asgedom enumerated five key negotiating points: (1) the restoration of Tigray’s pre-conflict boundaries, (2) a referendum on self-determination, (3) an international process of accountability for atrocities, (4) compensation for the losses, and (5) Tigray retaining its own army.
Tigrayans are also negotiating against a deadline. The famine is deepening. The rainy season has arrived, and crops are now being planted, but they will need fertilizer in the next month if there is to be a decent harvest. Tigray is blockaded, with no commercial traffic, no banking services, and no telecoms. There’s only a trickle of aid. If the siege isn’t lifted, the popular clamor for the TPLF to use its army to break the encirclement will be hard for the leadership to resist.
There’s a third major component to the peace conundrum — the escalating war in the vast Oromiya Region that sprawls across the center, east, west and south of Ethiopia. An insurgency led by the Oromo Liberation Army has been gathering strength, and despite Abiy’s pledge to destroy them, the fighting has only been spreading. An old rebel group, the Gambela Liberation Front, recently announced its resurrection and its military alliance with the OLA.
In January, the most prominent Oromo opposition leader, Jawar Mohammed of the Oromo Federalist Congress, was released from prison. Five years ago, Jawar was the mobilizer of disenfranchised Oromo youth demanding radical change. That movement ended up triggering much-needed reform, which subsequently went catastrophically off the rails. For the Oromos, the betrayal was symbolized by the assassination of the singer Hachalu Hundessa, who became the voice of the protests, and the jailing of Jawar, the embodiment of their hopes, in June 2020.
When Jawar stepped out of his jail cell, he found the country in a crisis even worse than he had feared. He listened to opinions from every quarter while keeping his own counsel.
Three weeks ago, Jawar finally broke his silence, making a clear and impassioned call for peace. Without peace among all Ethiopians, he said, there is no road out of the crisis for the Oromo or anyone else. It is a brave stand. Many of the young Oromo radicals now support the OLA and don’t want to hear calls for compromise. Some accuse Jawar of wanting to step into the shoes of the man who, they say, hijacked their revolution — Abiy.
Meanwhile the violence in Oromiya continues to escalate. Government and rebels are blaming one another for the slaughter of 200 ethnic Amhara civilians living within western Oromiya state over the weekend.
The outlines of a peace process are beginning to emerge. It’s hosted and convened by President Kenyatta of Kenya, supported by Washington and Abu Dhabi, with the door open for the African Union to join as a junior partner — if it agrees to that status. The TPLF leaders and many in the Federal Government and army want it to work, and Jawar does too — on the assumption that the Oromos will also join the process.
Abiy faces the trickiest path. When he built a coalition for war, he dismantled the constituency for peace. He now faces the ruins of both, but needs a credible peace process for his own survival.
Abiy’s political talents lie in style, not in substance, and he has shown no understanding of how peace negotiations should be managed. His political philosophy of medemer (‘synergy’) was warmly received because it had no content — anyone could make of it what they wanted. His PhD thesis betrays ignorance of the theories and precepts of peacemaking — the photographs of his examination show an array of security bosses in the seats behind him, which no doubt impressed his examiners. Abiy’s political skill is keeping his rivals and opponents off guard, and doesn’t extend to hammering out a political settlement or running a state. A workable peace process will demand patience and forbearance from Ethiopians and from the mediators.