06.04.2022 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Ethiopia: Will the “Humanitarian Truce” Help in Resolving the Situation in Tigray

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The Ethiopian government has announced that an “indefinite humanitarian truce will take effect immediately,” they said they hoped to help accelerate delivery of emergency aid to the Tigray region, where hundreds of thousands are starving. Since the war began in the north of the country in November 2020, thousands of people have been killed and many people forced to flee as the conflict was spreading from Tigray to the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar. According to the statement made by the government headed by the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, “they are doing their best to facilitate the unhindered flow of emergency humanitarian aid to the Tigray region.” The official press says that, according to the government’s statement, the truce will significantly improve the humanitarian situation in the affected areas and will pave the way to resolve the conflict in northern Ethiopia without further bloodshed.

The conflict broke out when Abiy sent the national armed forces to Tigray to overthrow the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the former ruling party in this region, stating that he was taking this step in response to rebels attacking the army camps. The military actions lasted for over a year and caused a humanitarian crisis: there have been reports about mass rapes and murders, with both sides accused of human rights violations. According to the UN, there are over 400,000 internally displaced people in Tigray, and the region has also been subject to what the UN called a de facto blockade.  Nearly 40 percent of people in Tigray, a region with a population of six million people, are facing “extreme food shortages,” the UN said in January, and due to fuel shortages the local humanitarian staff is forced to walk by foot to deliver medicines and other critical supplies.

Diplomats led by the African Union’s Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo, have been trying for months to negotiate peace, but so far there has been little progress. Analysts said the truce was an important step, but asked the government to follow the announcement and facilitate humanitarian access to Tigray.  “The unconditional and unrestricted delivery of aid can also help build enough trust to pave the way for ceasefire negotiations and, finally, a dialogue,” said William Davison, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group on Ethiopia.

According to the UN World Food Programme, more than nine million people need food aid in Afar, Amhara and Tigray.  But humanitarian organizations were forced to gradually curtail their activities due to lack of fuel and supplies.  “WFP operations in the Tigray region have been suspended, with only emergency fuel supplies and less than one percent of the necessary food supplies remaining,” the agency said this week. This comes as Ethiopia is facing “one of the worst food crises in decades,” with nearly 30% of the 110 million people in dire need of aid, said Rene Lefort, an independent researcher on the situation in the Horn of Africa region.

TPLF also had to revise its position. The situation in Tigray – their main fortress – is getting worse right in front of our eyes and the reason for that, according to the UN, is an actual blockade of the region where famine is coming. Having encountered the smoldering insurgency by a rebel group in the Oromia region, the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, meanwhile, has given up his attempts to break down the Tigray rebels, which disappointed his allies in the Amhara region. Thus, in recent months Abiy Ahmed has changed his priorities and decided not to use force to resolve his disagreements with Tigray, but to try to reach an agreement with the rebels.

The government expressed hope that the truce will speed up the delivery of aid to Tigray, where food, fuel and medicines are urgently needed. However, presently the safety convoys will have to pass through the Afar region, a zone of TPLF operations, and local authorities have refused to have the convoys passing to Tigray until the rebels leave. “There is little confidence that the convoys will continue just because a truce has been announced,” a humanitarian source at the UN mission told AFP.

This makes the situation rather difficult and tangled. Ethiopia put the truce under condition of TPLF forces pullout from Amhara and Afar regions. The TPLF, in turn, agreed to cease military actions only if food aid reaches Tigray.  TPLF may be ready for concessions in Afar, but they are unlikely to withdraw their troops from Amhara, analysts say. But the situation in Afar looks like a dead end, since the local government has little control over the territory of this region and it will be difficult to prevent the population, which is also starving, from blocking and looting convoys.  Observers said it looked rather unlikely that the TPLF opponents in Amhara would “unlock” the region to allow the convoys to move further to Tigray.

The “truce” should effectively act as a means to build trust between the TPLF and the federal government, but a comprehensive and sustainable ceasefire remains unlikely in the short term, given the tough stance of both sides on unresolved issues. The rapid recovery of basic infrastructure that was missing in Tigray for months – electricity, utilities and banking services – will be a test of the government’s goodwill, as observers said. Yes, indeed, the truce “may become a turning point, but it will depend on whether it is really effective” and whether the parties will move synchronously in the same direction. A number of international analysts believe that the truce can become a “starting point for peace negotiations,” but there are a lot of difficult unresolved issues remaining.

Even if a prolonged ceasefire was achieved with the help of TPLF leaders, these rebels are not the only armed forces in northern Ethiopia. Abiy is facing increasing pressure from those parts of the Amkhar ruling elite who are disappointed with the fact that TPLF are not being retaliated in Tigray. There are some territorial disputes between Amkharans and TPLF in the western Tigray, where they have rebels supporting them who do not fall under federal control.  “Some people in Amhara believe that you have to go all the way to Mekele to overthrow the TPLF,” Lefort said (*Mekele is the capital of Tigray region).  But allowing the humanitarian convoys to pass through to Tigray means abandoning the plan of military conquest in this region and leaving TPLF alone in that area.

Analyzing the relations between Tigray and the federal center, one should remember the political context of the events taking place. Since Abiy Ahmed took power, he has not succeeded in large-scale economic and political reforms. In September 2019 alone, the Ethiopian government published a plan of reforms for domestic economy growth, which was quite trivial. The document was based on the neoliberal methods of encouraging economic growth — increasing efficiency and privatization of state-owned enterprises, demonopolization of the banking sector, facilitating access to capital. In fact, these measures were declarative in nature and did not lead to any significant results. Although international organizations estimated the growth of Ethiopia’s GDP as 7% annually, it was largely achieved due to the speculative policy of the country’s Central Bank. The inclusion of a “printing press” to overcome the budget deficit became a reason for the double-digit inflation rate and a decrease in the real income of the population. Economic growth in the real sector of the economy was lower than 7% and was mainly supported by the construction industry, where the positions of the Tigray political elite are strong. This means there are no chances for the economic situation to improve — especially in case of large-scale redistribution of property.

In turn, an immediate ceasefire was promised if the population of the region receive humanitarian aid matching their actual needs within a reasonable time. At the same time, the readiness to resolve the situation peacefully was confirmed. At the same time, cancelling the blockade of humanitarian aid and restoring telecommunications infrastructure and banking services was emphasized as necessary. In conclusion, it was said in the statement that linking political and humanitarian issues is unacceptable.

After the TPLF announced that it had agreed to a humanitarian ceasefire, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) praised the intent of Ethiopia’s belligerent parties to reach agreement about a ceasefire. “The Executive Secretary of the East African Block, Workneh Gebeyehu, asked international partners to do everything possible to ensure that humanitarian aid program is expanded and the aid is provided in a timely and predictable manner to the Tigray region and other regions affected by drought and food insecurity,” the statement said.

Analysts believe that if the truce gradually leads to some kind of agreement to be signed, and the signatories of this agreement will comply with its provisions, this will “cool down” the situation in Ethiopia and allow the Ethiopian society to actively begin restoring the financial and economic life in the country.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

 


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