Take a look at these three photographs. They encapsulate what we understand about the negotiations to end the war in Tigray that erupted in November 2020.
The photograph on the left shows Tigray’s President Debretsion Gebremichael in conversation with former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.
It was taken in Mekelle at the end of May this year, and was the first clear evidence that Obasanjo – the African Union mediator – was in discussions with Debretsion. There had been many reports of previous visits and negotiations, but this made it clear that talks were under way.
The photograph in the centre and the right were taken during the inauguration of Somali president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, on 9 June. The leaders of several nations from the Horn of Africa can be seen, including (from left to right) Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy, President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, Djibouti President Omar Ismael Guelleh and Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.
Several countries, including Uganda, Egypt, South Sudan sent high-powered delegations. Notable by his absence was Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki.
Which brings us to the final photograph on the right. This shows Somalia’s President Mohamud greeting Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed. It can be contrasted with the photograph below, which show President Mohamud’s predecessor, President Farmaajo in the centre, with President Isaias and Prime Minister Abiy.
What began as the 2018 peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, celebrated by the international community, morphed into preparations for war over the following two years. This was sealed at a summit meeting between the leaders of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia on 27 January 2020 held in Asmara. Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo joined Prime Minister Abiy at a tripartite summit hosted by President Isaias Afwerki. The formal declaration, although bland, revealed a plan to co-operate across a wide range of sectors – including security.
The three leaders adopted a Joint Plan of Action for 2020 and beyond focusing on the two main and intertwined objectives of consolidating peace, stability, and security as well as promoting economic and social development. They also agreed to bolster their joint efforts to foster effective regional cooperation.
On the security front, the three leaders formulated a comprehensive plan to combat and neutralize the common threats they face, including terrorism, arms and human trafficking and drug smuggling.
What was being outlined was an entirely novel re-organisation of the Horn of Africa, with the Somali leader being offered a junior partner role in re-shaping the region. They provided a blueprint for the conflict that lay ahead, designed to re-shape the Horn of Africa by providing a new structure which might have seen a form of federation between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a new regional relationship to include Somalia and replace the regional organisation, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, IGAD, which President Isaias had long held in contempt.
Many in the region saw President Isaias as the lynchpin of this new relationship.
The latest negotiations appear to have isolated President Isaias. This was highlighted by Le Monde, which gave a detailed analysis of the negotiations they said were under way.
Le Monde made three important claims that:
- Talks between the Ethiopian and Tigrayan governments could start as early as the end of June in Tanzania, probably in the city of Arusha
- The Tigrayans had given an impression that they could abandon claims to western Tigray – a region also claimed by the Amhara
- TIgray has been recruiting troops to strengthen its military and is now “looking north” towards Eritrea.
There had been no confirmation of these claims. Rather, the second – about western Tigray – has been rejected by the Tigray spokesman, Getachew Reda.
It is worth noting that Getachew made no comment on the other issues, which probably amounts to something of a confirmation of the Le Monde report.
What we know for sure is that serious talks are underway. President Obasanjo’s presence in Mekelle is proof positive. It appears that the old axis of influence – Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia – has been replaced by a new relationship. This includes Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, together with other members of IGAD. President Isaias appears to be isolated once more.
Two further points are worth making.
First, that Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy appears to have distanced himself from the Amhara, upon whom he relied heavily at the start of the war. At the end of May the Guardian reported:
Ethiopia has launched a sweeping crackdown against an influential armed militia in its Amhara region that has led to the arrest of more than 4,000 people, including journalists, activists and a former general.
The militia group, known as the Fano, played a key role alongside the federal military in beating back November’s southward advance through the Amhara region by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is fighting an 18-month-long civil war against the government and its allies.
Secondly, aid has begun to flow into Tigray in substantial quantities for the first time since June 2021, when the Tigrayans re-captured Mekelle. As US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken said on 1 June:
In the past seven days, more than 1,100 trucks have reached Tigray to deliver life-saving food, malnutrition treatment and health supplies, and other essential relief items to those who are most vulnerable as a result of the hard work of all the humanitarians committed to saving lives.
These are both positive indications that Prime Minister Abiy appears to be gaining control. There was a time in late 2021 when it appeared that he might lose Addis Ababa to the Tigrayans, while the Amhara-Eritrean relationship was so strong it was undermining his standing in the rest of Ethiopia.
This process is far from over, but for the first time since the Tigray war began the first outline of a peace deal to end the conflict appears to be emerging.