George Yeshih has not talked to his family living in Tigray for almost a year. Ever since the region was cut from telecom and electricity services, he has not been able to know the whereabouts of his family members, let alone talk with them.
“I have not heard anything from them since last year,” said George adding, “And, I never had a proper sleep ever since the region was disconnected from everything.”
He is not alone in these hard times. Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians living across the country with loved ones in Tigray are worried too. Making a call is unthinkable and only those with an access to satellite phones are able to talk with their families in Addis and other parts of the country.
The suspension of banking service in the region did not only prevent many from accessing their own fund but also made sending money via formal channels impossible, paving a way for the creation of a parallel market to transfer money. George is now hopeful, as both the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) announced their decision to sit for negotiations.
“Leaving the politics aside, it is news that everyone with a family in Tigray would like to hear,” said George, calling the negotiations “a big step forward.”
When the war started, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) called the fighting necessary to enforce law in the region, telling the public it was just “a law enforcement operation.” Assisted by Eritrean troops and Special Forces of the Amhara region, Abiy took only two weeks to oust TPLF leaders from the region. However, that was until the national army left the region’s capital, leaving the state to TPLF forces.
The war however continued, as the TPLF occupied areas in Amhara Region, though they were later pushed out of the region, soon after Abiy joined the army to lead troops on the battlefield.
This did not end the war.
Even after the federal government declared a humanitarian truce, a baby step taken to end the war; there were fighting in Afar, Waghmera, West and North Tigray. The latest fighting broke out between the forces of the Eritrean government and the TPLF.
It appears hope is now on the horizon, as the two major warring parties agree to sit for negotiations.
Peace is what everyone would like to see happen in Ethiopia. The war in Northern Ethiopia did not only cause the death of hundreds of thousands of troops on both sides but also paralyzed the once-thriving economy. It forced the government to cut expenditure allotted for development projects to increase the budget needed to build the national army.
It also cost the country lose its hard-fought status of being the preferred choice of industrialists. Losing hope, factories that joined the economy have left the nation. Dozens have sustained damages and are in a position where they are required to begin building their factories from scratch.
Abiy, in his latest appearance, also admitted the war has brought more cost than benefit to the country. It is a statement made just months after his administration started to undertake several measures that were seen as baby steps to end the war with the TPLFites. Abiy also allowed more aid to be transported to Tigray.
Last week, the biggest food convoy since entering the humanitarian truce arrived in the region, where more than five million people have become dependent on food aid due to the war. That was followed by an approval of a 12 billion birr budget to the region, though nothing has been said on how it is going to be allocated.
Utility service providers, including ethio telecom and the Ethiopian Electric Power, as well as Ethiopian Airlines have been told to wait on standby to resume services in the region, according to sources. Banks are also bracing to begin services, hoping they will get a permit once the negotiation starts.
But it has been almost half a year since efforts are underway to begin negotiations among the warring parties. Olesungun Obasanjo, former President of Nigeria, has been in talks with officials of the TPLF, Amhara region and the federal government. Obasanjo was travelling to Mekelle at least once a month since last year, if not more, though that did not bear any fruit thus far.
He is not the only one attempting to mediate between the government and the TPLF.
Salva Kiir, President of South Sudan, on his part, has tried to persuade the warring parties to sit for negotiation. That however did not go far.
Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya, made headways to inch closer to realizing a peace deal in the country. While time will tell who will play the leading role when negotiations begin, if it is going to be him or Obasanjo, the TPLF want the East African leader to handle the mediation.
“We express our confidence in the government of Kenya and our appreciation to President Uhuru Kenyatta for his sustained, principled, impartial, inclusive and discreet efforts to broker peace and negotiations with a view of a comprehensive resolution to the crisis,” said Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of the TPLF.
“On this basis, we hold firm to the existing agreement among the parties to meet in Nairobi for negotiations hosted and facilitated by the President of Kenya,” added Debretsion.
Last week, Abiy told lawmakers that his administration is under preparations for the negotiation, though he refrained from stating where exactly it will be held.
“A committee led by Deputy Prime Minister, Demeke Mekonnen, has been formed to undertake a study on the negotiation,” said Abiy. His speech indicated the government is in pre-negotiation stages, which involve selecting mediators. The conflicting parties are yet to reach a consensus on choosing an acceptable mediator.
The move, however, does not seem to be enough for some MPs. “Negotiations should not exclude forces of Tigray and Eritrea,” said Desalegn Chanie, member of the National Movement of Amhara Party (NAMA).
Not only the inclusiveness of the negotiation is questioned, the disagreement over points that will be put up for negotiations also casted a shadow on the success of the mediation process.
Both the Amhara Region and the TPLF have a firm position over Wolkayit and Humera areas. Both claim the area should remain under their administration.
Two weeks ago, president of Amhara Region, Yilkal Kefale, said “The issue of these areas is not up for negotiation,” adding they belong to his region. Soon after Le Monde, a French Media outlet, published a story last week, indicating TPLF leaders are ready to renounce claims over Wolkait, Getachew K. Reda, TPLF spokesperson, called this “a mendacious claim.”
“It is the declared intention and position of the government of Tigray to reclaim every square inch of Tigray’s territory by every possible means available,” he said.
In a tweet made yesterday, Kindeya Gebrehiwot, senior official of the TPLF and former president of Mekelle University, also listed things that are not up for negotiation.
While referendum is stated under his list, this makes observers doubt the success of the mediation process. It is also a remark made just a week after Legesse Tulu, head of the Government Communication Service with a rank of minister, said “the territorial integrity of Ethiopia is not up for negotiation, though the government is ready to make a peace deal” with the TPLF.
But for Ibrahim Mulushewa, a political analyst, compromise is a must to bring a lasting peace in the country.
“First to boost the publics’ confidence and heal war victims, an official ceasefire must be declared and that should be followed by ensuring unfettered humanitarian access. Setting discussion points for the negotiation comes next but that requires compromise and settlement,” said Ibrahim, who is also a director for Center for National and Regional Integration Studies.