The United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres on Wednesday expressed his optimism for peace in Ethiopia, following the release of high-level opposition politicians from prison. After a telephone conversation with the Africa Union High Representative to the Horn of Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo, Gutteres issued a statement expressing his hopes to make peace between the government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). For the UN and other international bodies, the possibility of making peace in Ethiopia gained optimism in recent weeks.
Various international and regional organizations took the decision by the Ethiopian army to stop further advancements into Tigray as a crucial step to start the peace process. Two weeks ago, the government made it clear that it will not continue its military offensive against the TPLF, reasoning that the people in Tigray could not provide the needed solidarity with federal forces. Although this raised some level of controversy at the time and was a subject of debate among political elites, it was also taken as an opportunity for peace.
On one part, this was in line with the international community’s demands that the TPLF withdraws from the Amhara and Afar regions and the federal allied troops stop the offensive in Tigray.
However, on Wednesday, January 19, 2022, the Deputy Chief of Staff of the ENDF, Abebaw Tadesse (Gen.) told the national broadcaster EBC and state-affiliated Fana TV that the war is not yet over. He said, “The war will be over when the anti-Ethiopian and the anti-peace TPLF rebel group are destroyed forever.”
Like Abebaw, other senior ENDF personnel and government officials often speak in a similar manner especially in recent weeks. Last week, the national army’s Chief of Staff Birhanu Jula (Field Marshal) was heard saying “If the TPLF continues making mistakes again, it will be their end.” Similarly, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) recently gave assurance to continue the military operation, if the TPLF forces do not stop aggravating the situation.
Despite the government’s decision to halt its offensives into Tigray and the optimism it created, there are little signs of tangible peace happening on the ground. Local news coming from the Afar and Amhara regions show that there is an active conflict going on in areas where the two regions share a border with the Tigray region. Different sources tell that there are exchanges of fire in border areas.
Tewodros Ayalew, who calls himself a civil rights activist, is among coordinators of the youth group called, Fano in Woldiya town. He was there when the TPLF forces controlled the town for almost six months. Woldiya is a five-hour drive or 260 km away from Mekelle, the regional capital of Tigray.
When asked about the latest development in the border areas, he confidently declared that active war is going on in the Raya and Waghimra fronts.
Speaking to The Reporter over the phone, he said the TPLF invaded Timuga and Waja areas through the Raya front on January 7, 2022. He explained that the two places are within 15 km from Kobo town and approximately 26 km away from Alamata town, adding that Kobo town is now surrounded within a 10 km radius by the TPLF forces. In the Waghimra, front, they have also controlled two districts/woredas recently.
According to Tewodros, the people who live in these border areas are in fear of an escalated war, death and displacements.
“In recent days, we heard from Alamata town that the TPLF forces are selectively picking, detaining and killing Amhara’s. More than 500 youth were taken to unknown places and we are hearing of door to door arrests and looting of their properties,” Tewodros said.
Tewodros said that while travelling to those areas, “I found plenty of captured TPLF soldiers. I often discussed with them both formally and informally. Many of them tell me similar stories that they are forcefully deployed into war.”
Many of the prisoners are sent to training camps and war fronts either to survive or to rescue their family’s lives and the people are left out of options by the TPLF, according to him.
“Tigray is not an independent and sovereign country. It is an integral part of Ethiopia. Both the government and people of Ethiopia have the duty to liberate the people of Tigray from TPLF’s captivity. I believe the TPLF and its aggression are equally threats to the stability and security of the people of Afar, Amhara and Tigray regions,” said Tewdros.
According to sources from the area, in Tekeze and Wolkait fronts, there is still a mechanized war. This does not bode well for the optimism and rising hopes of resolving the Ethiopian conflict peacefully.
Another hindrance standing in the way of peace in the northern part of Ethiopia is the case of western Tigray and the Wolkait and Raya identity issues.
Mulualem Gebremedhin, a political analyst and commentator, said “There is no lasting peace unless the Wolkait–Amhara case is legally recognized and peacefully resolved. The demand of the Wolkait Amhara people must be addressed to their best interest, if peace is needed for both sides.”
Mulualem said he has been closely monitoring the Wolkait case for several years. Residing in Gondar, he has frequently travelled to the war fronts and says he knows what is happening on the ground every day.
“The case of Wolkait is now an affair beyond Tigray and Amhara regions,” Mulualem observed.
In Mulualem’s view, Wolkait is now a hotspot that defines the Horn of Africa’s geopolitics.
He is also of the view that the TPLF is now trying to expand the conflict in Wolkaite into a regional warfare.
“The TPLF can’t survive without conflict. To address the legitimacy question arising from within people in the region, it needs the continuation of the conflict. Regional and international actors which are known profiting from continuous war in Libya, Syria, Sudan, South Sudan, Yemen and other countries, are now tied up with the TPLF. I am afraid that the TPLF and its conflict entrepreneur backers may lead Ethiopia into an eternal war if we fail to manage things quite shortly. Both the federal government and all its respective regions must cooperate not to allow the continuation of war in Tigray and its bordering regions,” said Mulualem.
According to him, the TPLF is desperately trying to open a border corridor through Wolkaite to connect to Sudan. Last week, the TPLF sent cannon fires to Eritrea and continued to fire mortars and heavy weaponry in Wolkait and Tekeze fronts. “If the war is protracted there will be no peace in all over Ethiopia,” Mulualem reflected.
“Who would think of leading a region except the TPLF, by putting an entire population into a circular war with its neighbours across all of its borderlines? They turn Tigray region into an unreachable zoo. They are at war with Eritrea, Amhara and Afar. They are passionate about moving forward into a regional chaos,” Mulualem opined.
On Sunday, in a Facebook statement made by the Afar region President, Awol Arba also briefly explained what was happening in the Eastern Tigray borders. Awol, in his statement, said the TPLF have deployed huge forces readying for a heavy fighting in the Kilbati Resu and Ab Alla fronts. He also said that the TPLF launched a huge offensive in the border areas of Megale and Ab Alla. Awol warned that, unless the TPLF stops its “genocidal campaigns against the people of Afar,” the response will be severe.
Many hoped the ENDF’s decision to stop its advance into Tigray will be a turning point for peace. But, the reality on the ground is far from what has been said and the government’s unilateral decision is not enough to secure peace.
TPLF leaders were also heard speaking about waging a war through western Tigray and other fronts on the day the ENDF announced the end of its first phase of the operation. This clearly signals that peace and war are equally available on the menu.
For the former TPLF fighter and a senior leadership member, Lilay Hailemariam, there will be no peace unless the people of Tigray are liberated from TPLF’s grip.
“I was in the TPLF since 1960. I don’t remember the TPLF having the grace and intelligence of peacefully resolving conflicts both internally and externally. TPLF is an organization that is drunk with bloodshed,” said Lilay.
He said the war is still active on border areas and suggested that the war will not be over unless the TPLF is eliminated.
“Ethiopia can’t move forward. The people of Tigray must oppose and fight against the TPLF if they want peace. The TPLF’s recent strike led to the shutdown of humanitarian response through the Afar corridor. They also opened an attack in the Amhara region, amid widespread hunger and disease in Tigray region. In my view, I see no option for the people of Tigray except to fight against the brutal TPLF dictatorship,” added Lilay.
According to him the government’s decision to end the war on the Tigray border is wrong because the “TPLF is a ghost on a verge of extinction.” He explained that the TPLF had lost a large number of their fighters and are in deep shortage of supplies and logistics. Lilay believes now is the right time to eliminate the TPLF once and for all and liberate Tigray, instead of the ceasefire which the government chose.
For some, the decision to stop the war on the Tigray border is a perfect opportunity for peace in Ethiopia. But many believe that it will create conducive environment to the TPLF to reorganize its forces and continue waging war towards neighbouring regions. If situations continue this way, many fear a full-scale war is in sight.
The recent statement from Abebaw clearly indicated towards a possible second-round of operations against the TPLF. He said “Our first phase operation is over. When we said our first phase it is clear that there will be a second phase on the table.”
Although debatable, calls for peace talks between the two forces are intensifying and phone conversations between Abiy and his western counterparts involve the subject matter. In recent calls with the US President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, issues of negotiated ceasefire were on the agenda. Voices asking for the cost benefit analysis of peace talks are increasing as the government’s release of politicians from prison was seen as a good gesture for possible peace talks.
Contributed by Yonas Amare