After a two day visit to Asmara, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has issued this announcement.
But how should we interpret it?
First: it will not result in a ceasefire in Tigray
This has been ruled out by PM Abiy.
Reuters reported that Senator Chris Coons, whom President Joe Biden sent as an emissary to Ethiopia, said he urged Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to declare a cease-fire in the embattled Tigray region, but his appeal was rejected.
“I pressed for a unilateral declaration of a cease-fire, something the prime minister did not agree to, and pressed for a rapid move towards a full political dialogue on Tigray’s future political structure,” Senator Chris Coons told reporters during a briefing call Thursday.
Second: it is unlikely to see Eritrean forces withdraw from all of Tigray
The borders of what should be recognised as Tigray is disputed.
For a start, areas along the border with Eritrea were awarded to Eritrea by the International Boundary Commission established at the end of the 1998 – 2000 border war. Some areas were awarded to Ethiopia, but key areas like Badme, Zalambessa and Irob were declared to be part of Eritrea.
This is where the internationally recognised border runs, even if they were held by Ethiopia until the November 2020 war with Tigray erupted.
It’s not clear just how much of what was Tigray before November 2020 the Tigrayan forces now hold.
This is one estimate, by Ethiopia Map.
If this is accurate, then it might result in re-defining Tigray, which could look like this.
This interpretation would allow Eritrean forces to remain in areas to the West of Shire, which were previously part of Tigray.
Already the Amhara are calling areas north of the Tekeze river the “New Zone” – Wolqait, Tsegede and Setit-Humera. It would, of course, cut off Tigray from Sudan.
It was no coincidence that some of the earliest offensives by the Eritreans when the war broke out was around Humera – where the borders of Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia meet.
Would Tigrayans accept this? Unlikely, and the war might not end on these terms, but this is hard to predict.
Third: The Abiy-Isaias agreement says nothing about a Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses
Earlier this month the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights agreed to a joint Inquiry with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.
“United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has agreed to an Ethiopian request for a joint investigation in the country’s northern Tigray region, where Bachelet says possible war crimes may have been committed.
The United Nations has raised concerns about atrocities being committed in Tigray, while U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described acts carried out in the region as ethnic cleansing. Ethiopia has rejected Blinken’s allegation.
Bachelet “responded positively” to a request from the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) for joint investigations in Tigray, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesman Jonathan Fowler said. “The U.N. Human Rights Office and the EHRC are now developing an investigation plan, which includes resources needed and practical modalities, in order to launch the missions as soon as possible,” Fowler said.
Will this now quietly be dropped? Or will President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken, supported by the European Union, insist that Eritrean and Ethiopian forces (together with Tigrayan forces) had to be held to account.
Finally: Will the withdrawal be a prelude to a peace agreement in Tigray?
Peace would require a number of steps.
Here are some that might be involved:
- Opening talks with the TPLF leadership who won the 2020 election in Tigray by a landslide. This would mean dropping talk (in the communique above) of them being a “criminal clique” and accepting them as legitimate partners.
- The involvement of the African Union in talks. The AU has already appointed mediators, who were then rejected by PM Abiy.
- An end to the dispute with Sudan over the al-Fashaga triangle. The UN reported that Eritrean troops were involved in the conflict.
- A resolution of the dispute over the waters of the Nile between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, since the building of the Great Renaissance Dam
- Reparations and reconstruction in Tigray, together with a return of the looted historic treasures which have been taken by the Eritrean troops.
These are only some of the issues that will have to be resolved.
Even a glance at this list shows how difficult it will be.
Might the UAE play a role in bringing the dispute to an end? They were involved in the 2018 peace agreement between Abiy and Isaias. And they have offered to mediate in the Nile dispute over the GERD.
But the alternative to “jaw-jaw” is “war-war” and that could continue for years, if this opportunity is not grasped.