Ethiopian soldiers

Ethiopian soldiers rest in front of the entrance to the 5th Battalion of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian Army in Dansha, Ethiopia, on November 25, 2020. 

| Eduardo Soteras | AFP

Ethiopia ceasefire: Peace or calm before a storm?

So what exactly will the ceasefire in Tigray mean or achieve? Depending on who you ask, the battle may just be starting.

On Monday, Ethiopia announced a unilateral ceasefire in Tigray, ostensibly to help deal with a humanitarian situation and allow farmers to till their land for the planting season, the prime minister’s office said.

“Fighters loyal to the TPLF, who are presently dispersed in the desert will return to peace if conditions are made conducive for it, the Ethiopian government has accepted the Tigray interim administration's request for ceasefire positively,” the statement, referring to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front [TPLF], once a ruling party in the country but now considered a terrorist group by Addis Ababa.

“For the farmer to till the land peacefully, for the aid work to be distributed free from military pressure, for TPLF remnants to return to peaceful road, an unconditional unilateral ceasefire has been declared from June 28 to last until the end of farming season.” the statement added.

The real reasons, however, may be a tactical retreat to strategise, especially after the eight-month war cost the country some $2.3 billion worth of infrastructure damage, according to Redwan Hussein, spokesman for the Tigray Emergency Taskforce.

Tigray Defence Forces

Redwan was quick to warn, however, that Ethiopia could still return to Mekelle if the Tigray Defence Forces, the militia that includes former TPLF and other loyal fighters, violates the ceasefire.

Analysts were quick to point out that the move by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government was more a tactical manoeuvre than a gesture of peace.

Mehari Taddele Maru, a policy researcher, argued the Ethiopian government must ensure foreign fighters are removed from Tigray if the ceasefire is to last.

Since November when Ethiopia launched an operation against TPLF, Eritrean forces and militia from neighbouring Amhara state have fought alongside Ethiopian troops. But their presence has been associated with atrocities, according to reports by various rights watchdogs including Amnesty International.

“Security and well-being of the population including from famine [is important],” Prof Maru argued on Tuesday, saying Ethiopia must guarantee no more atrocities.

“Respect for the will of the people, right to self-determination…Hold criminals accountable…Effective remedies and satisfaction,” he said on Twitter.

As the ceasefire was unilateral, some say the Tigray forces may as well ignore it, or Eritreans who have an old axe to grind against the TPLF to launch ambushes. Dr Rashid Abdi, a Kenyan political analyst on the Horn of Africa, says the alliance formed between Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki and Dr Aby against Tigray may also fray in the ceasefire, as well as what he calls “Amhara backlash against Abiy” escalating, which could destablise the regime.

Military operation

Indeed, on Tuesday evening, the Tigray forces announced they had taken full control of Shire, a city near the Eritrean border. The city, has been under the control of Eritrean forces since November, when Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) supported by Eritrean forces launched a military operation in Tigray to oust former Tigray ruling party TPLF, which previously dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades.

Sources told Nation.Africa that Eritrean forces had finally withdrawn from Tigray territories. In a new development, Tigray forces also announced they had taken control of the historic and major tourist destination city of Axum. They seized the holy city in the central Tigray without any resistance from the Eritrean and Ethiopian defence forces, sources told Nation.Africa.

This is the city where hundreds of unarmed civilians had been systematically massacred by Eritrean troops mainly over two days during the early days of the conflict, according to an Amnesty International report.

The ceasefire, however, may give Ethiopia some respite, following international pressure to tame rising atrocities by both the military and TPLF fighters. Ethiopia had refused the ceasefire calls, until one incident last week forced their hand.

Maria Hernandez, a Spaniard, was barely a year on her Ethiopian assignment as emergency coordinator for medical charity group MSF when she met her end on Thursday. Aged only 35, she was found murdered alongside her Ethiopian colleagues Yohannes Halefom Reda, 31, a coordination assistant, and Tedros Gebremariam Gebremichael, 31, who worked for MSF as a driver.

The Ethiopian staffers had only joined the group this year. Their death has elicited a confusing narrative on who exactly was responsible. But at least it shows just how information flow from Tigray has been difficult to verify.

MSF, which provided emergency medical care to refugees in Tigray, said the killings had been a “devastating blow” especially as Hernandez had worked in more dangerous zones, including Yemen, before she arrived in Ethiopia.

“We condemn this attack on our colleagues in the strongest possible terms and will be relentless in understanding what happened,” MSF said on Friday evening.

“Maria, Yohannes and Tedros were in Tigray providing assistance to people and it is unthinkable that they paid for this work with their lives.”

In the aftermath of the incident, both the Ethiopian government and TPLF accused one another of being responsible.

Addis Ababa suggested the aid workers endangered their lives by not getting a military escort, saying the area they were travelling to was a base for TPLF.

“The Ethiopian government would like to express condolences on the death of three MSF staffers, a Spaniard and two Ethiopians, in Abi Adi, Tigray, where TPLF actively operates,” the Ethiopian foreign affairs ministry said in a statement.

“The government's call for military escort in such areas was to avoid such tragic killings by the irresponsible group.”

Last week, Ethiopia rejected a move by the African Union to launch an investigation into atrocities, and has gone back on its word on when Eritrean troops will leave. Ethiopia said it prefers a joint investigation with the local human rights commission.

Denied targeting civilians

As the country held elections last week, heavy fighting was reported in Tigray, negating the possibility of the polls to unify the country. On Tuesday an air raid on a market in Togogo town killed over 50 people, but the government denied targeting civilians.

“We haven't carried out air strikes on a market place. How can this be? The army has the capability to hit the target with precision," Col Getnet Adane, a spokesman for the Ethiopian Defence Forces, told reporters on Friday.

He admitted that there were air strikes carried out but they only targeted rebels operating near Togogo. “Therefore, the allegations of market attacks are completely false,” he added.

For much of the eight months of the war, Ethiopia has refused to have the world peek in and help resolve it. Addis Ababa argues TPLF must surrender or be annihilated.

“This act and the terrible massacre at Togoga highlight the urgent need for a ceasefire and political dialogue. The international community must impose costs NOW on those who reject peace,” the US Senate foreign relations committee chaired by Senator Bob Menendez tweeted after reports about the slain MSF workers emerged.

On Thursday, the European Union said it will place Ethiopia on the July agenda of the bloc’s Foreign Council, which usually discusses individual member’s responses to particular countries. The bloc fell short of threatening sanctions but said Ethiopian authorities had violated wartime laws.