Ethiopia’s offer of talks signals breakthrough in Tigrayan conflict

Ethiopia’s offer of talks signals breakthrough in Tigrayan conflict

Release of prisoners after string of military victories seen as sign of tentative softening by Addis Ababa
Amhara militia men walk among a crowd of pilgrims in the northern Amhara region of Ethiopia earlier this month © Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty

During this month’s Orthodox Christmas, the Ethiopian government delivered its war-weary citizens a festive surprise — Addis Ababa released several opposition leaders from prison and signalled its willingness to talk to its opponents.

After more than a year of a brutal civil war, during which thousands have been killed and thousands more arrested, the federal government on Friday said that “the key to lasting unity is dialogue”. In the wake of a string of military victories over Tigrayan forces, the government said: “One of the moral obligations of the victor is mercy.

” The suggestion of dialogue, analysts say, is arguably the most significant breakthrough since war broke out in the northern Tigray region in November 2020 — a war that endangered the unity of a federal patchwork of about 80 ethnic groups and an economic powerhouse in the Horn of Africa. António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, hailed the release of the prisoners, and called for “a credible and inclusive national dialogue and reconciliation process”.

Moussa Faki Mahamat, chair of the African Union, echoed this sentiment. But many remain cautious. Adem Abebe, an Ethiopian expert with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, said he felt “simultaneously more nervous and more hopeful than I felt in a long time”. Jawar Mohammed, a leading opposition figure, was released.

Some leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the party fighting Abiy Ahmed’s central government, were also freed. It is unclear if both sides will finally engage in talks or what the outcome of those talks would be. From his first days in office in 2018, Abiy pushed pan-Ethiopian unity, welcomed by many after almost three decades of Tigrayan domination.

Yet, far from achieving reconciliation, ethnic and political tensions bubbled to the surface, leading to war in Tigray. Just two months ago, the TPLF was threatening to march on Addis Ababa as it did in 1991 when it toppled the Marxist Derg regime, but since then troops loyal to it have retreated. They have been beaten back by federal air power, mainly new drones bought from Turkey and other allies, according to senior diplomats and analysts. In late December, federal troops retook Lalibela, a storied city of rock-hewn churches in Amhara.

The situation in Tigray remains bleak. Dozens were killed in air strikes last week, humanitarian officials said, including in refugee camps. No humanitarian aid has entered Ethiopia’s northernmost region since mid-December, according to UN officials. The federal government has repeatedly denied it has blocked aid. Doctors at a top hospital in Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, told the Financial Times: “We have run out of almost all types of medications and medical supplies . . . we are just counting deaths that happen due to totally preventable causes,” as some patients arrived in famine-like conditions.

Oromos groups call for the release of opposition figures from prison last year. Addis Ababa has now freed several of them and signalled it is willing to engage with its opponents © AP

Guterres asked on Friday for “a meaningful improvement in humanitarian access to all areas affected by the year-long conflict”. On Monday, Abiy spoke with US president Joe Biden who commended him on the prisoners’ release but expressed concern over the recent air strikes. Filsan Ahmed, a former minister under Abiy turned critic, said: “The government deserves praise for the release of ‘some’ political prisoners.

It is the first step to the path to peace.” But she added: “Ethiopians should draw lessons from these appalling atrocities committed by ‘their’ government with the help of drones.” In late December, Debretsion Gebremichael, TPLF leader, sent a missive to Guterres demanding an “arms embargo” on Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea, whose forces have been fighting alongside Abiy’s, and a “no-fly zone for hostile flights or aircraft and drones over Tigray” as, he said, “we seek to free ourselves from genocidal assault”.

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