On Friday, February 3, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed held the first face-to-face meeting with a delegation from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) since the beginning of the civil war in the country—to take stock of the progress made in implementing the peace deal signed on November 2, 2022.
The Prime Minister has reportedly decided to increase flights to and banking services in the region, which were only restored in the war-torn northernmost state of Tigray following the peace deal. The TPLF had agreed to full disarmament as part of the deal signed in South Africa capital Pretoria.
Redwan Hussien, national security advisor to the Prime Minister, said that as per Ahmed’s decision, the “National Bank [of Ethiopia] has begun sending 5 billion Birr to Mekele to be dispensed starting Monday. It’s a multifold increment from hitherto 20 million.” He further added that Ethiopian Airlines has increased the number of flights to Tigray’s capital Mekelle from three to four.
Delegates from the government and the TPLF reportedly discussed the progress made so far, and acknowledged failures in the timely implementation of the deal.
The peace agreement had brought to an end to the two-year-long civil war that began after the TPLF attacked a federal army base in Mekelle on November 3, 2020. The war expanded to neighboring states in the subsequent year when the TPLF invaded Afar and Amhara.
About 600,000 lives were reportedly lost in northern Ethiopia as a result of the civil war, which concluded with the signing of a peace deal only after the TPLF’s forces had been beaten back and encircled in Mekelle. The peace agreement “stopped an average of 1,000 deaths per day,” Olusegun Obasanjo, the African Union (AU) envoy to the Horn of Africa, who had led the peace negotiations, told the Financial Times.
TPLF’s disarmament delayed
However, implementation of key aspects of the agreement have fallen well behind schedule. The agreement had set the “the disarmament of the heavy armaments of the TPLF combatants as a matter of priority,” to be completed within 15 days of its signing. However, it was only on January 11 that the TPLF began to hand over its heavy weaponry.
The agreement included a provision to extend the 15-day deadline, if endorsed by senior commanders on both sides. However, it stipulated that “the overall disarmament of the TPLF combatants, including light weapons,” had to be completed “within 30 days from the signing of this Agreement,” that is, by December 2, 2022.
“But the TPLF are still hoarding light weapons,” historian and former Ethiopian ambassador Mohamed Hassan told Peoples Dispatch. Last Sunday, January 29, when Tigrayan protesters took to streets in Mekelle to demonstrate against the TPLF’s continued hold on political power, “well-armed groups of TPLF surrounded the city and took over key areas to stop the demonstration,” he said.
Acknowledging that there was a discussion in the meeting on February 3 over “back-logged works,” TPLF delegate Wondimu Asaminew told the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA),
we have agreed to quickly reach the goal of [the peace agreement].
Admitting that “there is much work to be done,” Peace Minister Binalf Andualem added, “by protecting and strengthening the work done [thus far], both sides should work on the delayed issues quickly.” He also said that “there is a determination and desire on all sides that this peace agreement should never be reversed.”
In the meantime, the US, which had backed the TPLF in its war against the federal government, has been escalating its efforts to place Eritrea at the center of this conflict. Eritrea had sent troops to assist the federal Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) in defeating the TPLF, which, soon after starting the war against the Ethiopian federal government, had also fired rockets into Eritrea.
Eritrea and Ethiopia’s common interest in protecting their peace deal from TPLF
Eritrea and Ethiopia had a common stake in defeating the TPLF. The TPLF had in 2018 opposed the peace deal between the two countries, for which Prime Minister Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. The decades-long conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia began under the TPLF’s US-backed authoritarian rule of Ethiopia (1990-2018), until it was overthrown by mass pro-democracy protests, against the backdrop of which Ahmed became Prime Minister.
Soon after taking charge, Ahmed undertook a slew of political reforms, including the release of political prisoners incarcerated by the TPLF, welcoming back political exiles, and lifting the bans on free press and on opposition political parties that had been instituted under the TPLF’s rule.
He also ended the war with Eritrea, and followed up the 2018 peace-deal with a Tripartite Agreement for peace and cooperation between Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia in 2019. Threatened by the prospect of unity between the countries of the geopolitically crucial Horn of Africa, the Biden administration, which was waiting to take the White House in late 2020, instigated the TPLF to start this war in an attempt to unravel the progress made, maintains Hassan.
Throughout the war, the US, the UK, and the EU, as well as the Western media, portrayed the Ethiopian federal government, and Eritrea—which had come to its assistance—as the aggressors. Forced conscription of Tigrayan children and youth into the war as cannon fodder for human wave attacks, massacres and gang-rapes in Amhara and Afar, burning of villages, looting of hospitals and food stores, and other atrocities by the TPLF were largely ignored or understated.
This attempt to paint the Ethiopian federal government as the aggressor appears to have halted after the peace agreement, which was signed only when the TPLF was said to be on the verge of a total military defeat. However, the US continues to train its guns on Eritrea, denying the widely reported withdrawal of its troops.
10 days after the Pretoria agreement, the joint declaration by senior commanders issued in Kenyan capital Nairobi on November 12, 2022, stated:
Disarmament of [TPLF’s] heavy weapons will be done concurrently with the withdrawal of foreign and non-ENDF forces from the region.
On November 15, the US State Department threatened more sanctions if Eritrean troops and the militias of Amhara and Afar, which had fought alongside the ENDF, did not accordingly withdraw from Tigray.
While the TPLF began to hand over its heavy weapons only on January 11, 2023, well over a month after its full disarmament—including of light weapons—should have been completed as per the agreement, the withdrawal of Eritrean troops had already begun by December 30, 2022.
On January 15, AU envoy Olusegun Obasanjo confirmed that Eritrean troops had already withdrawn to the border. Large-scale withdrawal back into Eritrea was widely reported on January 20. In a phone call with Prime Minister Ahmed, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also “welcomed” the “significant progress to date on implementation of the November 2 Cessation of Hostilities Agreement” including “the ongoing withdrawal of Eritrean troops from northern Ethiopia,” according to a statement by his own spokespeople.
Nevertheless, only days later, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US Representative to the UN, said at a press briefing in Nairobi on January 28 that the Eritrean troops “have moved back to the border and that they’ve been asked to leave Ethiopia.”
While implying that the Eritrean troops remained in Ethiopia against the wishes of the Ethiopian government, “she did not provide any evidence or source for this assessment,” Reuters reported. Later that same day, TPLF’s spokesperson Getachew Reda repeated her claim, saying that “thousands” of Eritrean troops were still present in the country.
Denying this claim, Major General Teshome Gemechu, ENDF’s Director-General of International Relations and Military Cooperation, stated that “There is no other security force in the Tigray region except the FDRE [Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia] Defense Forces.”
Thomas-Greenfield’s statement, aimed at sowing discord between Ethiopia and Eritrea, “is absolutely false,” Simon Tesfamariam, Eritrean activist and director of the New Africa Institute, told Peoples Dispatch. “There are agreements between the two countries extending to military cooperation. There is this desire to portray that the relation between Ethiopia and Eritrea is headed in a sour direction. But this is untrue. The cooperation between the two countries has only strengthened,” he added.
Hassan, who is also an adviser to the president of Ethiopia’s Somali regional state, concurs. “In fact, when the Eritrean troops were leaving, people in the northern part of Tigray, who were fearing a return of the TPLF, were pleading with them to stay,” he said.
But the Eritrean forces left, and the area is in control of federal troops.
The attempts by the US and other Western countries to provoke tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea “will not be successful because the majority of the Ethiopian people are grateful for the Eritrean army’s help in defeating the TPLF,” he said. While the US was hoping to disrupt the strengthening of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea by instigating the TPLF into waging this war, it has only resulted in solidifying their relations further, Hassan argued.