Hopes of a negotiated political settlement to the war that erupted in northern Ethiopia in November 2020 following the attack on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces based in the Tigray region by the forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have been high ever since the Ethiopian government established in June a committee tasked with holding peace talks. The government’s announcement in late July that it was ready to hold peace talks with the TPLF “anytime, anywhere” and the TPLF’s expression of its willingness to ending the war through peaceful means, albeit the fulfillment of certain preconditions, led many to believe that peace was finally within Ethiopians’ grasp. The apparent readiness of the two parties to engage in peace talks was hailed as an important initiative in bringing a conflict that has exacted a terrible toll on the country and its people to an end.
Efforts to start the peace talks seem to have hit a snag lately though. First, this week the Main Peace Committee—the committee the Ethiopian government established to explore the possibility of talks with the TPLF—declared while announcing it had drawn a “peace proposal” that the resumption of basic services to the war-stricken region was contingent up on the creation of an enabling environment once a formal ceasefire is concluded. Meanwhile, the TPLF immediately dismissed the committee’s statement as “obfuscation”, blaming the Ethiopian government for openly defying “their oft-repeated promise to take measures aimed at creating conducive environment for peaceful negotiations”. It further accused it of “taking provocative actions against [Tigrayan] forces” and warned that “it will be solely responsible for the eruption of a second round of war that will lead to the total destruction of the country”.
The condition laid down by the Main Peace Committee in a statement it issued, namely that the declaration of a formal cessation of hostilities is a prerequisite to resume the provision to Tigray of, among others, electricity and telephone services belies the Ethiopian government’s recent unambiguous assertion that it was committed to hold negotiations without any precondition and as such represents a step backwards. While the committee has legitimate security concerns regarding the safety of federal government employees that need to be deployed to Tigray in order to restart the basic services, it should also be mindful of the fact that the continued disruption of the services only serves to exacerbate the plight of ordinary Tigrayans, not the leadership of the TPLF. It needs to demonstrate in deeds its avowed commitment to alleviate the suffering of citizens in the conflict-affected parts of the Tigray, Afar, and Amhara regional states. On its part the TPLF must stop beating the drums of war in the realization that throwing around belligerent statements is counterproductive to peace-building endeavors and just prolongs the ordeals of the very people it claims to stand for.
A host of hurdles stand in the way of the proposed talks. TPLF forces still occupy parts of the Amhara and Afar regions they invaded. Similarly, the Amhara region has ruled out negotiating over the fate of areas its forces wrested from Tigray soon after the war erupted, arguing they were forcefully incorporated under the Tigray region in 1991. The continued presence of the Eritrean troops in some of the territories they occupied in Tigray poses a challenge that complicates negotiations. Moreover, disagreements over who leads the mediation process—the African Union (AU) as the Ethiopian government insists or Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, the preferred choice of the TPLF—can torpedo the entire process.
Trying to bring about a complete end to the fighting in northern Ethiopia followed by a political settlement which leads to a lasting peace is an arduous task to say the least. Nevertheless, no price is too high to pay for peace. Now is the time for the warring parties to show a genuine determination and commitment to peace. The deep-seated antagonism between the two sides understandably makes it difficult to strike a peace deal. Engaging in dialogue and making the necessary compromise requires more courage than continuing the war. Embarking on a peace process should not be about total victory for one party and a defeat for the other. It is about achieving an outcome in which all the protagonists and more importantly the people of Ethiopia emerge victorious. For the sake of Ethiopia and its people the Ethiopian government and TPLF must recommit themselves to peace.