Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – September 11 marked the first day of the new Ethiopian calendar year in the war-torn country. But so far, little in terms of change has been ushered in with the new year, as fighting broke out between the federal government and the Tigray rebels late last month, rupturing a five-month ceasefire.
At least 10 people were killed in air raids on Tuesday that targeted a residential area in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray region, as air strikes and drone bombings continue to kill, wound and terrorise civilians.
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Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) fighters and the Ethiopian army – which have blamed each other for the eruption of the violence on August 24 – have been engaged in some of the fiercest fightings this year, threatening to undermine prospects for peace talks.
“It’s a total of eighteen dead [since fighting resumed] according to our count,” Dr Fasika Amdeslasie, a surgeon at Mekelle’s biggest Ayder Referral Hospital, told Al Jazeera. “Then there are those who suffered cuts, amputations, and other injuries. None of them were armed combatants.”
Pleas from the United Nations for an immediate halt to fighting and resumption of dialogue have been ignored, as fighting across multiple fronts saw Eritrean soldiers shell towns and villages in central Tigray. Eritrean troops have fought alongside Ethiopian forces since fighting erupted in November 2020.
Tigrayan forces meanwhile, retook territory in parts of the Afar and Amhara regions, leading to a new round of death and mass displacement. Special forces from both regions are allied with the Ethiopian army and have been engaged in recent fighting.
The deteriorating situation likely contributed to US President Joe Biden’s decision earlier this month to extend sanctions targeting Ethiopian government officials by another year.
Ethiopia’s war in the north has already killed tens, if not hundreds, of thousands over the past 22 months, with the country also ravaged by fighting in its Oromia and Benishangul Gumuz regions west of the country.
Millions have been displaced and exposed to famine since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent his troops to Tigray, accusing the regional government of defying the federal government and carrying out attacks on its army.
The conflict in Africa’s second-most populous nation has become an enduring quagmire for Ethiopian and Eritrean troops, as well as allied militias.
The war has seen civilians bear the brunt of atrocities, with massacres, sexual violence and ethnic cleansing contributing to Ethiopia’s world record tally of 5.1 million internally displaced people in 2021.
A southward drive towards the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, by Tigrayan forces was beaten back by a drone-backed Ethiopian army counteroffensive late last year, resulting in a bloody impasse and a lull in fighting among the war-weary fighting factions.
The end of the ceasefire coincided with the end of the country’s rainy season, making conditions ripe again for renewed fighting and for tanks and military convoys to manoeuvre the highlands.
It is a far cry from what the diplomatic community had hoped to see earlier this year. The news of a unilateral truce announced by the Ethiopian prime minister in March was welcomed by everyone from the US and the European Union, to China.
Further instilling hope that a mediated settlement could be reached, was Ethiopia’s pledge to permit aid convoys to deliver life-saving humanitarian supplies to the famine-wracked Tigray region, ending its then eight-month-long humanitarian blockade.
A flurry of diplomatic efforts ensued, with US’s then Horn of Africa envoy David Satterfield travelling to Addis Ababa to reinforce a fledgeling peace talks initiative chaired by the African Union (AU) and overseen by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.
‘Indulging in appeasement’
The TPLF and the federal government repeatedly stated their willingness, in theory, to commit to a ceasefire.
However, ensuring that the ceasefire lasted would have required Prime Minister Abiy to acquiesce to requests from mediators to restore severed electricity and telecom services, which the Tigray region has been without since November 2020. Publicly, high-ranking Ethiopian officials largely chose to avoid the topic altogether throughout the duration of the five-month ceasefire.
In an emailed statement to Al Jazeera, the World Health Organization stated that its humanitarian operations have been restricted considerably because of the outages.
“It impaired the ability of the Regional Health Bureau and WHO to coordinate partners for an effective, coordinated response (no one has access to telecommunications and only the UN has access to the internet). All meetings have to be held in person.”
But weeks before the recent round of hostilities broke out, Redwan Hussein, national security adviser and a lead negotiator for the Ethiopian government, tweeted a thread that appeared to clarify his government’s stance on the restoration of services.
Addressing a recent visit of US and EU envoys to Tigray, and their subsequent calling for “a swift restoration of electricity, telecom, banking, and other basic services in Tigray”, Hussein slammed the foreign dignitaries for “failing to press for unequivocal commitment for peace talks, rather indulging in appeasement and fulfilling preconditions placed by the other party”.
By the other party, he was referring to his foes in Tigray. To the TPLF, the remarks were perceived as meaning that the restoration of such services would have to be bargained for.
“They are saying that basic services and unfettered humanitarian access ought to be part of the negotiation,” Fesseha Tessema, adviser to the Tigrayan leadership, told Al Jazeera. “We are ready for direct talks anytime, but we won’t negotiate for basic services and humanitarian aid.”
Getachew Reda, a spokesman for the Tigrayan authorities, has since claimed that a number of unannounced meetings were held in which Ethiopian officials made pledges they are yet to honour. The meetings being secret rendered it even more difficult to confirm if negotiations were being held in good faith.
While the restoration of services remains a sticking point, the secrecy of alleged meetings and the lack of transparency and updates on proceedings means additional factors that may have contributed to last month’s breakdown in talks remain up for speculation.
The AU was largely mum about its envoy Obasanjo’s trips between the Tigrayan and Ethiopian capitals, making it unclear for months whether any progress was being made.
It is not clear if the elder statesman, who is yet to publicly address the relapse in fighting, was apparently caught off guard by it. In mid-August, weeks before bullets began flying, the US charge d’affaires in Addis Ababa, Tracy Jacobson, had stated that she was still waiting for the former Nigerian president to announce a time and location for the talks, touted to be Kenya.
There’s also the issue of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, who is opposed to the idea of a mediated settlement. This week, Eritrea began conscripting men aged 55 and under to replenish the military and possibly be deployed into the war. The jury is out on whether he may attempt to render any talks moot.
The Tigrayans have called for Obasanjo to be replaced as a mediator, accusing him of lacking impartiality and taking issue with his proximity to Abiy. Obasanjo and Abiy were seen holding hands in June as they enjoyed a stroll through agricultural sites in southern Ethiopia during a visit that was not linked to his AU negotiator mandate. Also raising Tigrayan mistrust of the AU were the statements by the chairperson that were supportive of the Ethiopian war effort.
But Ethiopia has refused to entertain the prospects of another entity replacing the AU. Ethiopian officials, who regularly described Western states as the backers of the TPLF, were clearly irritated by the visit of foreign dignitaries and their posing for pictures with Tigrayan regional President Debretsion Gebremichael. Ethiopian state media slammed the diplomatic contingent for the “selfie” session on the tarmac of Mekelle’s Alula Aba Nega Airport.
On Sunday, Ethiopian New Year’s Day, Tigrayan authorities suddenly announced a shift in stance, expressing a willingness to participate “in a robust peace process under the auspices of the African Union”.
The AU hailed the move as a positive development. Coming on the heels of reports of yet another face-to-face secret meeting between the feuding entities, this time in Djibouti, it has instilled hope that suspended talks may resume soon. Addis Ababa has since reciprocated, saying it remained committed to the prospect of a mediated settlement as well.
The appointment of Uhuru Kenyatta, the former Kenyan president, as his country’s peace envoy for Ethiopia will likely further boost diplomatic efforts as Nairobi is an influential regional player.
A touted return to the round table could prevent the exacerbation of what is already one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
Still, navigating round-table talks would not be a straightforward affair. Grievances range from the occupation of territories in the Afar and Amhara regions under Tigrayan control to the expulsion of hundreds of thousands from western Tigray, a territory which the Amhara region currently patrols and claims as its own.
And of course, talks could unravel yet again without an agreement to restore basic services to Tigray.