Analysis: Can Ethiopia iron out issues after AU peace deal?

On Wednesday, representatives of the Ethiopian federal and Tigrayan regional administrations signed a landmark ceasefire agreement to end a two-year civil war that has led to the death of thousands across the northern Ethiopian region – and displaced millions while hurting the economy.

Coming on the eve of the war’s two-year mark, the breakthrough is the result of face-to-face negotiations mediated by an African Union (AU) delegation in Pretoria, South Africa for 10 days.

“Today is the beginning of a new dawn for Ethiopia,” said former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the AU’s lead envoy overseeing the talks, moments after Ethiopia’s lead negotiator Redwan Hussein and Tigrayan counterpart Getachew Reda signed and shook hands.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed hailed the deal as a victory for Ethiopia and thanked the AU for spearheading the initiative.

However, a day after its signing, local Tigrayan media reported that an Ethiopian drone attack had caused civilian casualties in the southern Tigrayan town of Maychew, which would be in violation of Article 3 of the agreement, raising doubts about Ethiopia’s willingness to commit to the terms.

As per a joint statement published shortly after the signing ceremony, the warring parties had agreed to a cessation of all hostilities.

The full agreement, which Hussein released publicly, outlines some of the concessions made by both sides.

The Ethiopian government will permit aid agencies to deliver humanitarian assistance to the famine-wrecked Tigray, ending a humanitarian blockade. It will also restore communications services, which is partly why a previous ceasefire unravelled within five months.

For those caught up in the war, implementation is key to avoiding another breakdown in relations.

“Our very survival depends on it,” Dr Fasika Amdeslasie, a surgeon at the Ayder Referral Hospital, the largest in Tigray, told Al Jazeera. “Food and medicine must come in. We have adults and children awaiting their death even as we speak.”

Concessions and disarmament

Meanwhile, Article 6 of the agreement states that Tigrayan military commanders have agreed to meet with their Ethiopian army counterparts to organise total disarmament of all rebel forces, within 30 days. The move would pave the way for the Ethiopian government’s takeover of the region.

The promise of immediate respite for millions affected by air raids and atrocities by both parties has been welcomed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who called on the parties to “build on this encouraging development to take the necessary steps towards a long-term ceasefire”.

Ethiopian troops were first deployed to Tigray to neutralise the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) security apparatus in November 2020. But a planned blitzkrieg involving troops from neighbouring Eritrea and militias from nearby Amhara region turned into bloodshed, with all factions involved employing sexual violence and orchestrating mass killings against civilians.

In recent weeks, Ethiopian and Eritrean troops made big advances, capturing key cities en route to the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle, including Sheraro and Shire. While communications outages meant any updates on fighting were few and far between, new reports of killings there have emerged as recently as Saturday.

Indeed, the decision of the TPLF leadership to disarm and allow a takeover by federal troops has surprised many who suggest that its battlefield losses have been costlier than the organisation would like to admit or that the ceasefire was inevitable.

“In principle, if the Tigray government must strike a deal with Addis Ababa that includes the imposition of ‘the constitutional order,’ it would be expected to offer a significant concession,” said Etana Habte, an assistant professor of History at James Madison University, Virginia. “In this sense, it wasn’t surprising for their delegates to agree to demobilise.”

The Eritrean factor

There are concerns about whether the AU has a monitoring mechanism for implementation of key sections of the agreement.

For one, it does not explicitly address the presence of allied Eritrean soldiers, with long-ruling hardline leader Isaias Afwerki previously being averse to a negotiated settlement. Eritrea recently launched a mass conscription drive of males aged 55 and under to fight in its army.

There are also worries the Ethiopian government may not have the ability to reel in Eritrean troops.

Etana suggested that this could be intentional and part of a process to coax Eritrea into engagement.

“There is no doubt that Eritrea would be angry about the deal,” he said. “If the AU-led mission singled Eritrea out by naming it in its statement, then it loses a means to engage Eritrea. The AU doesn’t have the military ability to enforce its decisions and relies on the support and alliance of member countries.”

Perhaps to preempt certain parties playing a spoiler role, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield warned in an October 23 tweet that the US was “prepared to take appropriate measures against those who obstruct a resolution of this conflict”.

It also remains unclear if other discussion points, such as the status of prisoners of war (POWs) on either side and the disputed territories encompassed as part of western Tigray – yet claimed by the Amhara region – were properly addressed.

For its part, the Amhara Association of America, which has probed rights violations against Ethiopia’s Amhara people throughout the war, welcomed the peace deal but warned it would oppose any initiative to return disputed territory to Tigray.

There is also the matter of whether the peace process will address Ethiopia’s other wars, including in the Oromia region, where drone attacks last month killed dozens of civilians.

Authorities in Addis Ababa or Mekelle are yet to provide clarity on these issues and members of both negotiating teams did not respond to questions emailed to them by Al Jazeera.

Justice and accountability

The Pretoria agreement also stipulates an end to all forms of “hostile propaganda”. But within hours of the agreement, both sides were violating that part.

Ethiopian state broadcaster Fana Broadcasting Corporate tweeted news of the ceasefire as an agreement with the “terrorist TPLF”. In Mekelle, a news segment televised by the regional Tigrai TV announced a ceasefire between the “Tigray government and the [Ethiopian] fascist clique”.

These outbursts are unlikely to curtail what Obasanjo has described as the “beginning of the peace process”. However, plans by the AU to facilitate the pursuit of justice and accountability in the context of the war have raised questions.

None of the parties acknowledge abuses committed by their forces and documented by international rights groups and the government-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

There is also no evidence that Ethiopia has held members of its forces accountable for abuses in Tigray, raising further doubt about the objectivity of federal judicial institutions in dispensing justice in the future.

In September, a federal inter-ministerial task force set up to probe alleged war crimes released their findings, which focused largely on abuses by Tigrayan forces. The taskforce controversially claimed the majority of victims of the November 2020 Axum mass killings, among the single worst atrocities of the war, were armed combatants.

“Without justice and true accountability, there will no healing and a vicious cycle that began decades ago will continue,” Filsan Abdi, the former Ethiopian Minister of Women and Children Affairs told Al Jazeera.

Horrified by reports of sexual violence and institutional efforts to block her from publishing a report on it, in September 2021, Filsan resigned from her post and later denounced the federal government’s handling of the conflict.

The latest ceasefire may have set the framework for immediate peace but she fears that what has been a mazy and complex process could be derailed again.

“If we leave this in the hands of the federal government alone, we can’t expect accountability to be delivered, we missed the opportunity,” Filsan said. “From what I’ve seen and know personally, I believe [it] will be buried. An independent, international human rights body should handle this. The accuser cannot be the one overseeing it and investigating its own crimes. Similarly, we couldn’t expect the TPLF to do the same.”

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