Ever since the federal government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) reached a surprise deal on November 2 in Pretoria in which they agreed to a permanent cessation of hostilities, hopes have been high that durable peace can prevail in Ethiopia. Ten days after the historic peace agreement was inked, senior commanders from the warring sides meeting in Nairobi signed a declaration fleshing out particular details addressing different aspects of the implementation of the peace deal. The parties agreed to facilitate unhindered humanitarian access to all in need of assistance in Tigray and neighboring regions and the unhindered movement of humanitarian aid workers; provide security guarantees for humanitarian aid workers and organizations as well as the protection of civilian; and establish a Joint Committee to elaborate on the modalities for the implementation of a comprehensive Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program. They also expressed their commitment to abide by the Pretoria agreement and the declaration. Although work on implementing the peace deal on the ground has begun, there remain a slew hurdles that could derail its success.
One of these obstacles is the continued presence of Eritrean troops in some of the territories they occupy in Tigray. After months of denial from Ethiopia and Eritrea Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) admitted in March 2021 in a speech he gave to Parliament that Eritrean soldiers entered Tigray following the attack on federal arm camps based in the region by TPLF forces in November 2020, saying they crossed the border and entered the region out of concern of an attack by the TPLF on Eritrea. He told lawmakers that the Eritrean government had promised to withdraw its troops from Tigray once Ethiopia’s army was able to regain control of the border between the two countries, adding the commission of atrocities in the war was unacceptable regardless of whether they were perpetrated by the Ethiopian or Eritrean armies.
The role Eritrea, which did not take part in the talks, can play in the implementation of the peace pact has engendered concerns that it could disrupt the peace process given its long-running enmity with the TPLF. Without dwelling on the legitimacy or otherwise of the involvement of Eritrea in the deadly war in northern Ethiopia, it’s a settled norm under international law that the military force of a nation cannot operate in another sovereign country’s territory absent a formal invitation. This said a nation may be entitled to take preemptive action under limited circumstances where its sovereignty is under imminent threat. The Nairobi declaration provides that the disarmament of the heavy weapons of TPLF forces will be undertaken in tandem with the withdrawal of foreign and non-ENDF (Ethiopian National Defense Forces) forces. Though the declaration does not explicitly state which foreign forces it refers to, there can be no doubt that they hail from Eritrea.
It’s not only Eritrea which may throw a spanner in the works during the implementation of the peace deal. After two years of horrific fighting in which hundreds of thousands of TPLF fighters died and several instances of sexual violence reportedly took place in Tigray, it’s plausible that a considerable number of TPLF combatants will be unwilling to surrender their arms. Emotions are still running high even after a truce was reached, making it difficult for them to accept what they see as a capitulation to the “enemy”. The ensuing refusal to abide by the terms of the agreement in spite of assurances by the TPLF’s top military commander that his fighters have been instructed to lay down their weapons within days may well wreck the deal. This is a prospect that TPLF needs to avert at all costs.
As the ultimate defender of Ethiopia’s sovereignty, the federal government has the obligation to ensure that no foreign military force operates in its territory indefinitely even if it came to the country’s help in its hour of need. Now that concrete actions paving the way for the disarming and demobilization of TPLF militants have commenced, it is imperative to set in motion the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray. True, this will require a lot of work on the part of the Ethiopian government to convince its Eritrean counterpart that it’s capable of ensuring that the TPLF will not pose a security threat to Eritrea. If the peace deal Ethiopians have long craved for is to bear fruit there is no reason why troops Eritrean have to remain in Tigray. The sooner they leave the better.