Internally displaced people in Shire, Tigray, April 2021
Internally displaced people in Shire, Tigray, April 2021. | Foto: User Rastakwere via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed

Potentially Vital AU Meeting on Tigray Leaves Communities of Interest in the Dark

Politics, violence, and secrecy have held back progress in post-war Tigray. This highlights not just the need to directly address security issues. It also emphasises the importance of improving transparency and giving marginalised stakeholders adequate information about current developments in the peace process.

On 11 March 2023, the African Union (AU) convened what it described as the first Strategic Reflection Meeting on the Permanent Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA), meant to end the civil war in Tigray, Ethiopia. According to an AU media release, the purpose of the meeting held at the AU’s headquarters in Addis Ababa was to “review progress, identify key challenges, and propose ways to address gaps in the implementation of the CoHA”. The Reflection Meeting was facilitated by the AU’s three-member High-Level Panel for the Ethiopian Peace Process which had mediated the CoHA, with the background involvement of the United States (US). It brought together representatives of the Ethiopian Federal Government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the only participants in the tightly controlled peace talks, as well as the Tigray Interim Regional Administration, established by the Ethiopian federal government in March 2023, as part of the CoHA provisions.

As has become customary of the AU’s handling of the Tigray peace process, the meeting was closed to the public. However, prominent international partners and observers were in attendance, namely the United Nations (UN), European Union (EU), US, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the African Development Bank (AfDB). The AfDB has provided substantial financial support for the Ethiopian peace initiative. The AU and the Ethiopian government insisted on funding exclusively from Africa, to preserve African ownership of the initiative and prevent foreign meddling. They have since modified their stance and are seeking additional international backing for the agreement’s execution.

The AU’s Political Affairs, Peace and Security division emphasised in a separate communication that the purpose of the Reflection Meeting was to rally support for crucial CoHA provisions, including humanitarian aid disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR); and post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction. The meeting was also to allow the parties to discuss contentious and outstanding issues.

Beyond occasional carefully worded AU media releases, information about the intricacies of the CoHA negotiations and the agreement’s implementation has been sparse, and Ethiopian civil society and Ethiopia’s development partners, among others, have remained mostly in the dark. As a result, expectations were high that the meeting would cast light on key issues surrounding the agreement’s partially stalled implementation. Fifteen months after the signing of the CoHA, the Tigray region is expected to be in recovery; however, the region’s inhabitants continue to be besieged and in crisis. 

There were muted celebrations when the CoHA was signed in November 2022. On paper, it ended Tigray’s deadly two-year civil war, waged by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Ethiopian federal government, and allies from the neighbouring Eritrea, Afar and Amhara regions. At least 600,000 people are said to have been killed, and about three million people displaced. Unaccounted-for war crimes and the destruction of infrastructure have left Tigray in shambles.

Ongoing and Unresolved Conflicts

However, in the signing of the CoHA, Tigray’s population and Tigrayans in the diaspora have grown sceptical about the agreement due to a perceived lack of progress with its implementation. One of the disappointments has been the poor efforts to relocate Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), which the UN estimates to number more than a million people. They continue to seek refuge in IDP camps around the region, which lack food, clean water, and health care. Most IDPs come from Western Tigray, which is still held by militias, thereby preventing the displaced from returning to their homes. Atrocities against civilians appear to continue, leaving it unclear how those responsible will be held accountable.

Meanwhile, the Tigray Interim Regional Administration and the TPLF are at odds over other CoHA clauses, such as the return of contested territories in Western Tigray, which are still occupied by Amhara and Eritrean forces. The CoHA also excluded many of the belligerents, including Eritrean and Amhara forces (which it merely describes as ‘non-ENDF’ forces) that have since violated its provisions, and complicated the DDR process.

Reports of Eritrean troops looting towns and displacing, arresting, and killing civilians in Tigray persist. The Amhara militias that fought with the Eritrean National Defence Force (ENDF) throughout the conflict have refused to be disarmed and ‘reintegrated’.  Moreover, Amhara defectors have joined up with Fano militias and carried out coordinated attacks on local and regional leaders. The Amhara region, the country’s second most populous state, is currently in a state of emergency, as the federal government battles to stem out a new violent rebellion. Amhara’s political elites have questioned the CoHA’s legitimacy as it did not involve Amhara regional representatives. They suspected that the government’s prior loyalty had shifted to Tigray. Meanwhile, the TPLF claims that the Ethiopian Federal government, Amharas, and Eritreans have secretly agreed to seize Western Tigray.

Ethnic relations within Ethiopia have thus been deteriorating, and the CoHA has added to the numerous unresolved issues. The absence of a common adversary in the TPLF following the signing of the CoHA has intensified animosity between Ethiopia’s two major ethnic groupings, the Amhara and the Oromo. The Amhara and Oromia regions form the backbone of Ethiopian president Abiy Ahmed Ali’s ruling coalition – but Oromia’s regional army allied itself with the Tigrayans during the civil war. Since the agreement, Ethiopia’s federal government has run into violent confrontations with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) rebels, who have expanded their long-running insurgency. Covert peace talks in Tanzania with the OLA failed for the third time in late 2023.

The CoHA has thus been implemented in the context of the complex aftermath and partial continuation of the Tigray crisis, which also threatens Prime Minister Abiy’s fragile balance of power between old allies and new foes. 

High Expectations

Given the foregoing, expectations were high that the Strategic Reflection Meeting would provide greater clarity about how the various role players would implement the CoHA’s most intractable provisions, and attend to the other outstanding issues. These include contestations of the DDR process, the return of IDPs, the ongoing humanitarian and food crises, and accountability and transitional justice processes. 

However, the only publicly communicated result of the meeting has been a brief AU media release, which stated:

“The parties reaffirmed their commitment to implementing the CoHA and agreed to hold multifaceted consultations to advance peace, security and stability in the Tigray region. They also decided to consult regularly and to convene in a similar format within the next few months. The parties acknowledged the progress made and identified areas requiring additional joint efforts towards fully implementing the CoHA.”

Deciphering What Was Left Unsaid

This has to be one of the most heavily redacted AU media releases about the Tigray peace process to date. Clearly, the discussions would have been sensitive. However, given the popular desire for greater transparency, certain precise details may not be too sensitive to make public. Instead, the press release was so cryptic that we need to decipher what was left unsaid. 

First, it made no mention of the DDR process and the total withdrawal of non-ENDF forces from Tigray. DDR is meant to be administered separately by the National Demobilisation and Rehabilitation Commission (NRC), within the framework of the National Demobilisation and Reintegration Programme (NDRP). The NRC has been absent from Tigray, resulting in periodic demonstrations in Tigray’s capital of Mekelle, against the sluggish pace of the DDR process.

Demobilisation and reintegration strategies must also take into account the economic and social welfare of former combatants. This is an extensive and expensive undertaking, involving more than 270,000 fighters from the Tigray region. Last month, the EU pledged 16 million Euro to the NRC, which should go a long way towards supporting DDR initiatives.

The statement also fails to address the predicament of IDPs, as well as humanitarian assistance and access, as stipulated in the CoHA. The TPLF and the Ethiopian federal government have been at odds over IDPs resettlements, owing in large part to the fact that non-ENDF soldiers continue to occupy the contested territories. The aid community has repeatedly urged the federal government to help improve the operational space for it to access IDPs. Granted, this topic may be unpleasant in light of the Tigray aid diversion scandal, which involved Ethiopian federal and regional authorities. Nonetheless, the plight of IDPs should not be minimised.

The statement neglects to clarify the agreement’s enforcement mechanisms. While there is some semblance of peace in Tigray, there are fears of a relapse if more is not done to enforce the CoHA and bring perpetrators of atrocities to account. The International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE), established to investigate rights abuses, expired in October 2023, despite appeals for its extension in the face of ongoing atrocities. In his opening speech, the AU Commission Chairperson, Faki Mahamat, made reference to a working group on transitional justice. However, no genuine accountability or transitional justice process has begun to address the serious human rights violations perpetrated during the two-year conflict.

The AU cannot afford to let the Tigray peace process stall due to inaction or apathy, or for it to be overwhelmed by violence and political disputes among the parties. In a volatile and rapidly changing environment, the implementation of the CoHA must be accompanied by tangible reforms and direct public participation, thereby giving the affected populations a sense of ownership of and control over the post-conflict and rehabilitation process. Official declarations from the AU that lack practical details about how things will be done, and keep important communities of interest in the dark, will not help move the process forward. Future AU CoHA reflection meetings must be more transparent about how the peace process is progressing and support the agency of Tigrayans in contributing to local solutions.

Dimpho Deleglise

Dimpho Deleglise

Dr Dimpho Deleglise is a Senior researcher in PRIF's research department “Glocal Junctions” and the research group “African Intervention Politics”. She focuses on the African Union and IGAD Special Envoys’ diplomatic initiatives in Tigray, Ethiopia, and South Sudan respectively. Her research interests include fragility and resilience interventions, inclusive peacebuilding, and post conflict policies and practices.

Dimpho Deleglise

Dr Dimpho Deleglise is a Senior researcher in PRIF's research department “Glocal Junctions” and the research group “African Intervention Politics”. She focuses on the African Union and IGAD Special Envoys’ diplomatic initiatives in Tigray, Ethiopia, and South Sudan respectively. Her research interests include fragility and resilience interventions, inclusive peacebuilding, and post conflict policies and practices.

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