Seventeen months into a brutal civil war, the Ethiopian government announced on Friday that it had declared a unilateral truce, ostensibly to facilitate the flow of humanitarian aid and end the conflict without further bloodshed.
The UN, US and a host of European states have already commended the development.
“The United States welcomes and strongly supports the declaration today [by Ethiopia] of an indefinite humanitarian truce,” read a statement by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Hours later, the development was acknowledged by the other warring faction in the TPLF (Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front)-led Tigray regional government, which itself issued a statement expressing readiness to end the war if badly needed humanitarian aid is delivered to millions of Tigrayans threatened by famine.
It is the first time since hostilities broke out that both sides have expressed willingness to halt fighting, a breakthrough of sorts in an atmosphere where threats of annihilation and even hate speech have become commonplace, on both sides.
Aid agencies have previously accused the Ethiopian government of enacting a humanitarian aid blockade to Tigray, where UN agencies estimate that some 40% of the region’s six million inhabitants suffer from an “extreme” lack of food.
And now, neither the TPLF nor the government has disclosed details of the ceasefire, when aid will arrive or even how aid convoys carrying urgent aid will navigate the heavily militarized roads to Tigray. There has also been no word on whether Ethiopia is contemplating restoring Tigray’s banking and communications services severed since July.
“Our position is clear,” Fesseha Tessema, TPLF adviser and a former Ethiopian diplomat told Al Jazeera. “We are ready to observe a ceasefire for humanitarian operations and for public services to be restored. But there have been no developments on the ground until this day.”
Fesseha explained that the truce was not the result of any agreement, and that despite ongoing peace talks, the announcement had caught the TPLF off guard.
Billene Seyoum, spokeswoman for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, did not respond to an email requesting clarity on the matter.
With hostile forces sealing off its frontiers, Tigrayan forces had pledged to continue fighting to break a siege that has prevented aid agencies from replenishing the famished region’s emptying food and hospital supplies.
Without secure supply lines for aid workers, the ceasefire could quickly unravel.
War and Peace
In November 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed first sent troops into Tigray backed by allied Eritrean soldiers with the task of removing the TPLF-led regional government. A brutal campaign led to rampant abuses including ethnic cleansing and gang rapes by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers, displacing millions.
Counterattacking Tigrayan forces also committed a slew of atrocities in the neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions during a drive to overthrow Abiy’s government in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Ethiopian troops backed by an arsenal of newly procured drones managed to stave off the planned assault on Addis Ababa, forcing Tigrayan forces to retreat north.
After a year of outright refusal to contemplate round-table dialogue with the TPLF, which Ethiopian parliament had designated a terrorist organization, the federal government was forced to soften its stance due to military fatigue, diplomatic pressure and the strain on the national economy.
An African Union-led mediation effort, however, overseen by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo resulted in several trips to meet with authorities in Addis Ababa and Mekelle, but little else.
Since the mediation process began, an Ethiopian drone strike has killed more than 50 civilians at a displaced people camp in rural Tigray. International watchdog Human Rights Watch has since called the attack a war crime.
Weeks after the attack, General Abebaw Tadesse, deputy chief of the Ethiopian army openly threatened to launch a ground offensive against Tigray.
Within months into Obasanjo’s shuttle diplomacy initiative, Tigrayan forces also launched a renewed offensive in the Afar region, with hundreds of thousands fleeing artillery barrages targeting residential areas of the region’s villages and towns.
With no de-escalation in the fighting, there is little to suggest that the warring factions were negotiating in good faith. Some observers also believe that the nature of the truce suggests a lack of sincerity.
“To begin with, under international law, humanitarian assistance can’t be held hostage to political or military negotiations,” explained Tsedale Lemma, founder of the influential Addis Standard news magazine. “All parties have an obligation under international humanitarian law to provide unimpeded access to those in need.”
“There’s also no explanation for why the government isn’t lifting the blockade on telecom, electricity and banking services. These would alleviate a great deal of the suffering, especially for the working class who can’t access their own savings to buy whatever is available in the local market.”
With peace elusive and millions suffering as a result of one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, the announcement of a truce had been deemed a breakthrough.
But the opacity of the agreement and the lack of an implementation mechanism renders it difficult to ascertain if concrete action is set to follow.
Less than a month into the war and when famine was barely a brewing threat, news of the Ethiopian government signing a deal with the UN securing unimpeded humanitarian access to Tigray made headlines.
That access was never granted.
Instead, UN workers were denied access for months to two UNHCR-run refugee camps which hosted more than 25,000 Eritrean refugees prior to the war. The camps were systemically razed to the ground between December 2020 and January 2021. By May 2021, UN staff were finally granted access to the ruins of the camps.
Aid workers operating in areas under Ethiopian control were also regularly harassed, arrested and murdered. According to UN data, 23 aid workers had been killed across Tigray by July 2021. A New York Times investigation revealed that Ethiopian troops summarily executed three Doctors Without Borders staffers – Ethiopians Yohannes Halefom, 32, Tedros Gebremariam, 31, and Spanish national Maria Hernandez, 35, on June 24, 2021.
With no one holding Ethiopia accountable for its failure to honour an agreement with the UN to facilitate aid flow in 2020, it has become difficult to believe that the latest truce is enforceable.
“Abiy has continuously lied on humanitarian aid and the presence of Eritrean soldiers, among other things,” said Goitom Gebreluel, a researcher and political analyst on the Horn of Africa. “It wouldn’t be rational to take his word. A truce as with any other peace deal should be formalized and transparent, with mediators providing some guarantees. With such a framework absent, one shouldn’t be hopeful.”
But there are other hurdles, too.
Reports of growing rifts between Ethiopian troops under Abiy’s command and irregular fighter groups involved in the war have led to breakouts of fighting among erstwhile allies in recent weeks.
There is also the issue of whether Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki would fall in line with any peace deal. Unlike Abiy Ahmed and Tigrayan counterpart Debretsion Gebremichael, the Eritrean president’s recent statements appear to highlight an aversion to dialogue with the TPLF.
The war, initially contained in the Tigray region, has since spilled over into neighbouring regions but there is no word on how encompassing the truce is. The Afar People’s Party, for instance, has criticised the truce for lacking transparency and neglecting the needs of the Afar people.
Transparency has indeed been an issue, with Olusegun Obasanjo last providing updates on the mediation he is supposedly overseeing, in November.
Open-source intelligence sleuths have discovered that US Army aircraft made roundtrips between Mekelle and Addis Ababa earlier this month, suggesting American mediators may be involved.
The trips and truce come as the US Congress debates passing a bill to introduce further sanctions against the warring entities in Ethiopia. Ethiopian officials have previously complained that the bill would threaten “peace initiatives that the government is undertaking”.
But another Ethiopian government official, Amhara regional President Yilikal Kefale, told a gathering of local press and officials over the weekend that the Ethiopian government had instructed the national military to finalize preparations for the next phase of the war.
All of this has left a lot open to speculation and continues to further shroud the truce in mystery.