By: Mitiku Derese
The flurry of visits by envoys from the U.S and EU and briefing on 4 August 2022 by the former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo to the AU Peace and Security Council point to progress towards starting of peace talks between the Government of Ethiopia (GOE) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to end the two years long devastating conflict in the Northern part of Ethiopia. Earlier statements by the GOE confirming readiness for talks without preconditions and allowing unhindered humanitarian access to Tigray also confirm the progress made thus far.
At the same time, there are doubts about TPLF’s sincerity and commitment for talks, and concerns remain that the group is only buying time and preparing for another round of military adventure. Despite considerable improvements in the humanitarian and overall security situation, TPLF continues sending mixed signals and making further preconditions for the talks, including demands for delivery of more fuel, restoration of services, such as telecommunications, banking, and electricity. The Western envoys who recently visited Mekelle, while confirming availability of sufficient food aid, have issued a press statement echoing TPLF’s demands and urging GOE’s actions. The response of GOE has been one of disappointment about the envoys’ “failure to press TPLF for unequivocal commitment for peace talks”. GOE’s statement also highlighted the actions it took in the delivery of aid and confirmed its willingness to restore services with the creation of “enabling conditions and semblance of peace by beginning the talks”. However, according to recent reports from Mekelle, bank operations have already been restored and there are indications that other services will also resume soon.
Moreover, TPLF’s objections to the AU’s lead role in facilitating the talks also seem to be addressed with GOE’s agreement to Kenya’s hosting of the talks. In peace talks, agreement on venue often presents a challenge and has its own significance. However, even after securing GOE concurrence on Kenya’s hosting of the talks, TPLF did not relent in its objections to AU’s lead role and its demand for the involvement of the west, especially the U.S and EU, as well as the UN.
The Government of Ethiopia, which declared the AU’s sole mediation role as one of the three guiding principles for the talks was, once again, put under pressure to make yet another concession. This was apparent in the briefing of former President Obasanjo to the AU Peace and Security Council on 4 August 2022, in which he underscored ‘’the need to upscale cooperation and coordination in support of the AU process”. In plain diplomatic language, this implies an assurance to TPLF that other actors will also have a direct substantive role in the mediation, albeit described as “scaled up cooperation and support”. Such a turn of events is not unusual in “AU-led” diplomatic interventions and mediation efforts in the continent. However, due to GOE’s repeated and strong pronouncements on AU’s lead role and the public’s resentment towards some western countries and organizations for taking pro-TPLF positions during the conflict, this development has created confusion and uneasiness among Ethiopians. It has also increased doubts about GOE’s ability to resist further TPLF manipulation and external pressure, especially when substantive talks start on more sensitive matters.
The Government of Ethiopia has addressed TPLF’s demands by allowing unhindered humanitarian access and now restoring services, abandoning the minimum required conditions it had set for their resumption. However, even after all its demands having now been fulfilled, there are no clear indications from TPLF that it is ready for talks, or that it will be seriously committed to engage to the end, even if it shows up under pressure for initial talks.
As indicated above, TPLF has succeeded so far in securing a series of important concessions from the GOE and the international community. The most significant among all the concessions is for it to be able to project itself as the sole negotiating party at talks with the Federal Government of Ethiopia. This notion defies the basic tenets and guiding principles of any peace talks and mediation process: ensuring inclusivity or representation of all affected parties in a conflict. The conflict in North Ethiopia directly involved other two regional states, namely the Afra and Amhara states, which have suffered the same degree, if not greater, loss of lives and destruction. The two regions, especially the Amhara region, is often mentioned as an active party to the conflict and its forces have been accused of alleged human rights violations and occupation of the so-called “Western Tigray ”. Without getting into arguments on the substance of these allegations, one cannot deny the fact that the two regional states are directly affected by the conflict and hence have direct stakes in the talks and their potential outcome. Therefore, the Federal Government by agreeing to negotiate with another regional state -Tigray- represented by TPLF, cannot deny those two regional states their equal political and legal standing by preventing them from participating in the talks. Such action by the GOE will be discriminatory and a selective application of the country’s pollical system of ethnic federalism, stipulated in its current constitution, the respect of which the Government declared as one of the guiding principles for the peace talks.
Ensuring inclusivity is indispensable for the legitimacy and success of the talks, and ultimately for the acceptance of its potential outcome, especially by those directly affected. Therefore, it is incumbent on the GOE and the facilitators to seriously consider and resolve this important concern before the beginning of substantive talks.
In addition to ensuring the representation of the Afar and Amhara regional states, the talks should be designed to ensure transparency, which is also critical for building trust and addressing grievances, particularly the important issue of impunity. In that regard, early arrangements should be made to solicit inputs from the most affected segments of the population, especially women, internally displaced persons, and others who have suffered the most, so that their views and interests will be reflected in any outcome of the talks.
Another important consideration and guiding principle for the talks should be recognition of its limited scope of application to the conflict area, and not to delve into other significant national matters. The potential outcome of the talks should not create unreasonable and fundamental obligations and duties for the rest of the country. In other words, the country’s future should not be determined in a process dictated once again by TPLF and at the expense and exclusion of the great majority of the Ethiopian people. The talks should not deal with any constitutional matters that would affect the future of the country and the fundamental interests of the Ethiopian people. In that regard, GOE’s position on “respect for the constitutional order”, as a guiding principle for the talks, should be clarified and narrowly interpreted to assert its legitimacy, as an elected Government, for the purpose of the talks.
Mitiku Derese is an international lawyer by training and has extensive experience in international affairs and conflict management.
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