Negotiating an Ethiopian Peace
The delegates from Ethiopia and the Tigray People's Liberation Front conclude the agreement for lasting peace, 2 November 2022 (photo via DIRCO South Africa)
On 2 November 2022, delegates from Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front concluded ten days of negotiations in South Africa. Representatives from the two sides and mediators from the African Union signed a peace agreement aimed at securing a cessation of hostilities that may enable the achievement of a permanent peace. In doing so, they signaled the end of a ruinous, two year long war that has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, documented war crimes on both sides, and devastation to the socio-economic foundation of the Tigray region and broader Ethiopia.
The horrific toll of the fighting leads many to hope that the agreement achieved in Pretoria will bring an irreversible conclusion to the war, but while this may signal the end of hostilities, it is only one step–albeit a critical one–in the long process of negotiating and implementing a durable peace. To understand where the warring parties are and how they got there, it is necessary to examine the conditions that led to the so-called "Pretoria Dialogue," the documents that came out of those negotiations, and the status of implementation thus far.
Background on the war
The war that broke out on 3 November 2020 may be centered on conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, but its nature is far more complex. With 150 million citizens, Ethiopia is Africa's second most populous country and home to internal political struggles, border disputes between regions, and well-armed regional militias. Compounding these internal challenges, the country had intermittently been at war with neighboring Eritrea for decades.
When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali took office in 2018, his administration sought sweeping policy changes. His government focused on implementing the long-dormant peace treaty concluded with Eritrea in 2000, a move which earned Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize. The administration then set its sights on bringing about unifying changes to governance across the regions. However, unrest and isolation still existed, especially among groups who believed that Abiy’s efforts were aimed at suppressing political opposition rather than fostering a peaceful and unified Ethiopia.
This was especially true for the people of the Tigray region. The Tigrayans suffered the double impact of having to shoulder the burdens of the conflict with Eritrea, while also losing control of the government that had long been in the hands of Tigrayan leadership. This came to a head in June 2020 when Prime Minister Abiy declared that he was postponing parliamentary elections to mitigate the risk of COVID outbreaks–a move some believed was made to avoid losing seats to other parties. Eventually, skirmishes began between the military arm of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), which subsequently erupted into full scale hostilities on 3 November 2020.
The war has been brutal for both sides. Although enjoying early success in combat, the Tigrayans eventually lost ground as Eritrean troops entered the fighting and the ENDF rallied following its early losses. The Ethiopian government sought to isolate the Tigray region, cutting off communications, transit, and other lifelines. By October 2022, the World Health Organization estimated that there were around Tigrayan 5.2 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, including 3.8 million who required healthcare services.
For the Ethiopian government, the war exposed other seams. The Oromo Liberation Front joined in the fighting with an aim of ousting the current Abiy administration. Meanwhile, the entry of Eritrea introduced foreign forces inside Ethiopia’s sovereign territory, while the international community responded to the government’s conduct in the fighting with condemnation and isolation. The cost of sustaining a two year long war took its toll on Ethiopia's society, industry, and economy.
A destroyed armored vehicle sits abandoned in Hawzen, Tigray region, 6 June 2021 (photo credit: Yan Boechat)
The pre-negotiation phase
For both sides, the mounting costs of the war incentivized the initiation of the peace process. In March 2022, the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral humanitarian truce–an agreement that lasted five months until tit-for-tat exchanges prompted resumption of full scale hostilities. With continued isolation and pressure against both sides, there was impetus for the peace process to continue, but the question was how. After all, neither party wanted to yield concessions or to signal weakness, whether to the other side or internal policy audiences.
To overcome those challenges, engagement started via secret contacts. Organized by the United States, representatives from the Ethiopian government and TPLF met once in the Seychelles and twice in Djibouti. However, these behind-closed-doors engagements would not be enough to yield definitive progress in the peace negotiations.
Enter the African Union, which provided a mechanism for formal, publicized negotiations. Although signaling a willingness to broker peace early in the war, the organization reiterated its proposal when fighting resumed after the unilateral truce collapsed in summer 2022. The principle for these talks was an “African solution to African problems” that was in line with the AU’s “Silencing the Guns by 2030” initiative. The TPLF was the first to agree to this format without preconditions, with Ethiopia being slower to accept. At the time, the ENDF was gaining ground, and peace talks would have impacted the government’s ability to reclaim territory. Nevertheless, they eventually relented, but the initial talks were postponed, reportedly due to logistics issues.
The African Union came back with a second proposal. Again, the TPLF was the first to accept the talks with the Ethiopian government demonstrating more responsiveness to the invitation. This time, logistics would not be an issue, as the South African government provided a venue for the negotiations, and the United States used its military aircraft to transport the TPLF negotiating team to Pretoria on Sunday, 22 October.
With talks set to begin on Monday, 23 October, the Ethiopian negotiating team did not depart Addis Ababa until the morning of the scheduled engagement. Compounding this inauspicious start, the Ethiopia side left its lead negotiator, Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekkonen Hasse, behind in the capital. Circumstances quickly bounced back though, as National Security Advisor Redwan Hussien took the helm of the negotiations and used Monday evening to conclude discussions with the TPLF and AU mediators on the framework for the next week of engagements in Pretoria.
The Pretoria Dialogue, 23 October to 2 November 2022
Heading into the Pretoria Dialogue, both sides were compelled by the rising costs of the war to drop preconditions and negotiate in good faith. They also telegraphed their interests for the negotiation. For the TPLF, the top three objectives were an immediate cessation of hostilities, unfettered humanitarian access to the Tigray region, and withdrawal of Eritrean forces. On the Ethiopian government side, the interests included a complete cessation of hostilities, disarmament of the TPLF, and the reintegration of constitutional rule in the Tigray region.
At first, there were doubts as to whether the two sides could succeed in these negotiations. The talks were originally scheduled to conclude by 30 October, but the day came and went without any reports on progress. The complete media blackout did little to mollify observers’ concerns about the status of talks.
Later, the Ethiopian negotiating team would reveal that the talks were actually intensive and substantive. They employed both small group and plenary negotiations, and true to its word, the African Union took an active role in mediating the talks. The prominent figures supporting the peace process included former President of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo, former President of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta, and former Deputy President of South Africa, Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Ethiopian lead negotiator Redwan Hussien intimated that the mediators helped the two sides work through sticking points in the discussions.
Eventually, on 2 November 2022, the media blackout ended as the two sides were ready to publicize the fruits of their negotiating effort: a joint statement and a signed peace agreement entitled the “Agreement for Lasting Peace through a permanent cessation of hostilities between the government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front" (otherwise referred to as the “Cessation of Hostilities Agreement," or CoHA).
The joint declaration is the outward facing statement of both sides’ intention to support a lasting peace. It clearly indicated that the parties achieved their negotiating objectives in Pretoria while strongly advocating both sides' support for their peace agreement. On top of that, it delivered the key political signals necessary to launch right into the implementation phase for the agreement they concluded.
Meanwhile, the CoHA is an interim peace agreement–that is, an agreement to maintain a cessation of hostilities until the achievement of a lasting political peace. Importantly, the agreement is well designed for how quickly it was concluded. Although it includes ambitious timelines, it continues many of the features that contribute to a durable peace: it is crafted by the parties to conflict; it includes non-violent mechanisms for dispute resolution; it calls for the withdrawal of troops; it is specific; it is formal; and it includes third party oversight. All this set the foundation for meaningful progress during the implementation phase.
Redwan Hussien and Getachaw Reda exchange instruments of agreement as Uhuru Kenyatta and Olesegun Obasanjo look on, 2 November 2022 (photo via DIRCO South Africa)
The Nairobi Dialogue & Challenges ahead
While there were some doubts as to whether the Ethiopian government would honor the terms of the CoHA, the Abiy administration took immediate steps towards implementation. They passed the contact information for their senior military commander, Field Marshal Birhanu Jula to the TPLF side to establish the CoHA-mandated hotline. Prime Minister Abiy briefed the members of his central and regional governments on the agreement and his intentions for implementation. Most importantly, within five days of the signing of the CoHA, both sides reconvened for negotiations between their military commanders, as prescribed.
This time, the two sides met in Nairobi, with the AU mediation team reprising their role. The goal of these negotiations was to work out the implementation of disarmament of the TPLF’s forces, delivery of humanitarian aid, and restoration of the government services to the Tigray region. Like the negotiations in Pretoria before, achieving those goals proved to be more challenging than anticipated, and discussions extended beyond the scheduled end date.
Originally set to conclude by 10 November, the two sides encountered sequencing issues. When would Tigrayan forces disarm? When would the ENDF expel Eritrean combatants? When does unfettered humanitarian access begin? When do government services to Tigray get restored? In what order would these things happen? By 12 November, the negotiators had worked out answers to many of those questions.
The senior military commanders of the two sides signed a declaration that addressed both parties' core interests. For disarmament, they agreed to employ a graduated approach, establishing a joint committee that would focus on removal of heavy weapons first, with discussions on light arms to follow. They obliquely addressed the issue of Eritrean withdrawal by providing for ENDF protection of civilians. For humanitarian aid, they call for “unhindered” delivery, and while the section on aid lacks specificity that could be exploited by bad faith actors, the two sides agreed to create a third party “Monitoring & Verification Team” to ensure effective implementation. In sum, the declaration presented another sure step in the Ethiopian peace process and calls for additional, tangible action starting 15 November.
Ethiopian & TPLF Senior Military Commanders sign the declaration as AU mediators look on, 12 November 2022
Certainly, challenges remain for the two sides. There is a massive humanitarian crisis that will continue to generate enmity and unrest. The regional government in Amhara has not offered its formal position on the CoHA, especially as it pertains to its ongoing border dispute with Tigray. The Oromo Liberation Front has continued its fighting in the middle areas of Ethiopia, presenting continued violence against which the Ethiopian government must respond. There is also the continued presence of Eritrean forces, which the Abiy administration must work to expel.
All the while, there are the standard issues related to implementation of any peace agreement. After two years of brutal hostilities, truth, reconciliation, and transitional justice will be major issues that could plague the peace process, no matter how effective the practical measures for implementation may be. There are also internal political elements that could seek to undermine or undo negotiated terms.
Ultimately, the Abiy government, the people of the Tigray region, and Ethiopians writ large have a long road ahead in moving towards a permanent peace. The journey forward from this war indeed appears difficult, but the negotiation efforts thus far have set them on the right path.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is a seasoned international negotiator and the founder of the Parley Policy Initiative. He is the Special Adviser for Government Relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. Michael is a former East-West Center Fellow, a military veteran, and the author of “Negotiate: A Primer for Practitioners.”
Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, 2 November 2022
Joint Statement, 2 November 2022
Declaration on Modalities of Implementation, 12 November 2022
Cable No. 21: Negotiating an Ethiopian Peace