Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – September 11 marked the first day of the new Ethiopian calendar year in the war-torn country. But so far little has changed with the new year, as fighting erupted between the federal government and the Tigray rebels late last month, breaking a five-month truce.
At least 10 people were killed in airstrikes on a residential area in Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region, on Tuesday, while airstrikes and drone strikes continue to kill, wound and terrorize civilians.
Fighters from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian Army, who have blamed each other for the outbreak of violence on August 24, have been embroiled in some of the fiercest fighting this year and threatened to undermine prospects for peace talks.
“There are a total of eighteen dead [since fighting resumed] by our count,” said Dr. Fasika Amdeslasie, a surgeon at Mekelle’s largest Ayder Referral Hospital, told Al Jazeera. “Then there are those who have suffered cuts, amputations and other injuries. None of them were armed combatants.”
United Nations appeals for an immediate cessation of fighting and a resumption of dialogue were ignored as Eritrean soldiers shelled towns and villages in central Tigray amid fighting on multiple fronts. Eritrean troops have fought alongside Ethiopian forces since fighting broke out in November 2020.
Meanwhile, Tigrayan forces retook territory in parts of the Afar and Amhara regions, leading to a new round of deaths and mass displacement. Special forces from both regions are allied with the Ethiopian army and have recently been involved in fighting.
The worsening situation likely contributed to US President Joe Biden’s decision earlier this month to extend sanctions against Ethiopian government officials for 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 devastated by fighting in the Oromia and Benishangul Gumuz regions of the country’s west.
Millions have been displaced and starved to death since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent his troops to Tigray, accusing the regional government of defying the federal government and launching attacks on its army.
The conflict in Africa’s second most populous nation has become a permanent quagmire for Ethiopian and Eritrean troops and allied militias.
During the war, civilians bore the brunt of the atrocities, with massacres, sexual violence and ethnic cleansing contributing to Ethiopia’s world-record 5.1 million internally displaced people in 2021.
A push south by Tigrayan forces towards the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa was repulsed by a drone-supported counter-offensive by the Ethiopian army late last year, leading to a bloody impasse and a lull in fighting between the war-weary fighting factions.
The end of the truce coincided with the end of the country’s rainy season, ripening the conditions for renewed fighting and for tanks and military convoys to maneuver in the highlands.
It’s a far cry from what the diplomatic community was hoping for earlier this year. News of a unilateral ceasefire announced by Ethiopia’s prime minister in March was welcomed by everyone from the US and the European Union to China.
Adding further hope for a brokered deal, Ethiopia pledged to allow aid convoys to deliver life-saving supplies to the famine-stricken Tigray region, ending what was then an eight-month humanitarian blockade.
A flurry of diplomatic efforts ensued when then-US envoy to the Horn of Africa David Satterfield traveled to Addis Ababa to discuss a fledgling peace talks initiative chaired by the African Union (AU) and overseen by former Nigerian President Olusegun to reinforce Obasanjo.
“Indulge in Appeasement”
The TPLF and the federal government have repeatedly stated their theoretical readiness to commit to a ceasefire.
However, to ensure the ceasefire would last, Prime Minister Abiy would have had to give in to demands from mediators to restore disrupted power and telecom services, which have been missing in the Tigray region since November 2020. In public, senior Ethiopian officials largely chose to avoid the issue altogether throughout the duration of the five-month ceasefire.
In a statement emailed to Al Jazeera, the World Health Organization said its humanitarian operations have been significantly curtailed as a result of the outages.
“It hampered the ability of the regional health office 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 must be held in person.”
But weeks before the latest round of hostilities erupted, Redwan Hussein, national security adviser and chief negotiator for the Ethiopian government, said tweeted a thread that seemed to clarify his government’s stance on restoring services.
Following a recent visit by US and EU envoys to Tigray and their subsequent call for “a speedy restoration of electricity, telecommunications, banking and other essential services in Tigray,” Hussein criticized the foreign dignitaries for “not pressing for a clear commitment have peace talks but surrender to appeasement and fulfill preconditions set by the other party”.
With the other party he referred to his enemies in Tigray. For the TPLF, the statements were understood to mean that the restoration of such services would have to be negotiated.
“They say that basic services and unhindered humanitarian access should be part of the negotiations,” Fesseha Tessema, adviser to the Tigrayan leadership, told Al Jazeera. “We are ready for direct talks at any time, but we will not negotiate on basic services and humanitarian aid.”
Getachew Reda, a spokesman for the Tigrayan authorities, has since claimed that a series of unannounced meetings were held at which Ethiopian officials made pledges they are yet to honor. Because the meetings were secret, it was even more difficult to determine whether the negotiations were conducted in good faith.
While restoring services remains a sticking point, the secrecy of alleged meetings and the lack of transparency and updates on procedures mean additional factors that may have contributed to the collapse of talks last month can continue to be speculated.
The AU was largely silent on its envoy Obasanjo’s travels between the capitals of Tigrayan and Ethiopia, making it unclear for months if any progress was being made.
It’s not clear if the elder statesman, who has yet to publicly address the combat relapse, appeared to have been caught off guard. In mid-August, weeks before the bullets started flying, the US secretary in Addis Ababa, Tracy Jacobson, had said she was still waiting for the former Nigerian president to announce the time and place for the talks, which are said to be Kenya .
There is also the problem of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, who opposes the idea of a mediated solution. This week Eritrea began recruiting men aged 55 and under to bolster the military and potentially be deployed to war. The jury is out on whether he’s allowed to attempt to dispute any conversations.
The Tigrayans have demanded that Obasanjo be replaced as mediator, citing his lack of impartiality and his closeness to Abiy. Obasanjo and Abiy were seen holding hands in June while enjoying a stroll through agricultural sites in southern Ethiopia during a visit unrelated to his AU negotiating mandate. The chairman’s statements supporting the Ethiopian war effort also aroused Tigrayans’ suspicions about the AU.
But Ethiopia has refused to entertain the prospect of another entity replacing the AU. Ethiopian officials, who regularly label Western states as supporters of the TPLF, were visibly irritated by foreign dignitaries visiting and posing for photos with Tigrayan regional president Debretsion Gebremichael. Ethiopian state media slammed the diplomatic contingent for the “selfie” session on the tarmac at Alula Aba Nega Airport in Mekele.
On Sunday, the Ethiopian New Year’s Day, the Tigrayan authorities suddenly announced a change in stance, expressing their willingness to participate “in a robust peace process under the auspices of the African Union.”
The AU welcomed the move as a positive development. Following reports of another face-to-face clandestine meeting between the warring forces, this time in Djibouti, it has raised hopes that the stalled talks can be resumed soon. Addis Ababa has since retaliated, saying it remains committed to the prospect of a brokered deal.
The appointment of former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta as his country’s Ambassador for Peace to Ethiopia is likely to further boost diplomatic efforts as Nairobi is an influential regional player.
A touted return to the Round Table could prevent the worsening of what is already one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
Still, navigating round table discussions would not be a simple matter. The grievances range from the occupation of areas in the Afar and Amhara regions under Tigrayan control to the expulsion of hundreds of thousands from western Tigray, an area currently patrolled by the Amhara region and claimed as its own.
And of course, without an agreement to restore basic services to Tigray, talks could go off the rails again.