Tigray crisis: Kenya speaks as Ethiopia counts losses

Yasuyoshi Chiba | AFP

Captive Ethiopian soldiers carry a soldier on a makeshift stretcher as they arrive at the Mekele Rehabilitation Center in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia, on July 2, 2021. 

Photo credit: Yasuyoshi Chiba | AFP

Kenya and peers at the UN Security Council have endorsed an African Union commission of inquiry into atrocities in Tigray even as the Ethiopian government began to count the cost of the war it began in November.

On Thursday, Ethiopia, while admitting financial losses, suggested that it could now consider dialogue as a path to permanent resolution in Tigray. The country had declared a unilateral ceasefire against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

At a session of the Council on Friday, Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN Martin Kimani urged parties in Tigray to lay down the arms. He said the commission of inquiry formed last month should be the appropriate channel to punish perpetrators of rights violations.

Speaking on behalf of other African members in the Council known as A3 Plus 1, the Kenyan diplomat said all non-Ethiopian troops must leave Tigray and that all parties should allow humanitarian access.

Thorough investigations

 “Among the tools that Africa has built [to resolve conflicts,” is the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. We note its 17th June launch of a Commission of Inquiry on Tigray. We look forward to its thorough investigations that allow for perpetrators being held to account.

“[It’s] the key to holding perpetrators to account and establishing truth that will serve the cause of peace and nation building.”

The A3 Plus 1 includes Kenya, Niger and Tunisia, as well as Saint Vincent and Grenadines which is not from Africa but routinely works in concert with the African stance. While the continent had always said it will allow Ethiopia to use its local institutions to resolve the matter, Addis Ababa was furious last month when the African Commission for Human and People’s Rights launched the inquiry seen as parallel to what Ethiopia wanted.

On Friday, Demeke Mekonnen, Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs suggested his country will allow both UN and AU investigators to gather evidence on perpetrators of the violations.

“The Ethiopian government has elaborated a roadmap for inclusive dialogue to resolve the Tigray crisis and ensure lasting peace and stability in the region.

“This dialogue process is expected to involve legal opposition parties, rank and file members of the TPLF who show readiness to choose a peaceful path, the business community, civil society organisations, elders, other prominent personalities,” he told members of the diplomatic corps in Addis Ababa.

 This position was in contrast to weeks earlier when Ethiopia indicated it closed the door on dialogue when TPLF attacked its military command in Tigray. Was it signal that war was no longer the appropriate option?

On Friday, the TPLF paraded soldiers they had captured from the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, in the latest move to embarrass the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Debretsion Gebremichael the leader of TPLF told the New York Times on Friday his fighters were holding as many as 6,000 Ethiopian soldiers most of whom surrendered in the past week after falling short on food supplies.

The parade through the streets of Makelle, Tigray’s capital, brought the captured soldiers closer to a jeering crowd, as TPLF said it was sending them to prison to await handover to refugee organisations.  Public scrutiny like this may violate international law on prisoners of war, but the TPLF used this occasion to reap maximum publicity.

In Addis Ababa, however, Demeke suggested Ethiopia withdrew from Tigray after achieving its targets.

“We were able to defeat the TPLF and meet our major objectives within a short period. But we also had to face new realities and lingering problems whose genesis dates back to irresponsible governance of the group while it was at the helm of power for much of the past three decades,” he told the diplomats.

“As the major objectives of the law enforcement operation in Tigray have been largely addressed and the threat by the TPLF is neutralised, we also believe that engaging in a protracted conflict that unnecessarily costs human lives and financial resources becomes a futile exercise that would unnecessarily divert us from our developmental objectives.”

National attention

After eight months of a bloody war, officially known as the Law Enforcement Operation, officials started admitting there were other priorities requiring national attention. But it is the cost which may be the underlying factor.

The ceasefire may have been motivated by “pushing and pulling factors,” says Metta-Alem Sinishaw, a political analyst on Ethiopia and the East African region.

“Growing international criticism, adversarial ethnocentric sentiment, lack of public cooperation, and relentless mobilisation and incessant propaganda from diaspora based TPLF supporters could be pushing factors that prompted the unilateral ceasefire,” he told Nation.Africa on Thursday.

“Economic pressure and national security concern could be pulling factors that led to the military withdrawal, partly to shift the onus of addressing the impending humanitarian crisis.”

Redwan Hussein, the Spokesman for Ethiopia’s Tigray Emergency Response Taskforce, a team meant to rebuild the region, said the country had lost about $2.3 billion in damaged infrastructure which will need to be repaired.

The cost did not include the military spend, lost livelihoods, civilian deaths or injuries as well as hours of economic productivity lost as civilians fled for dear life. If included, the country may have incurred a higher loss.

The next problem, argued Metta-Alem, is how to keep the peace between Amhara and Tigray, especially since the former, which has been fighting alongside the national army, took control of certain territories initially in Tigray. As it is now, ideological differences between Addis Ababa and the TPLF make negotiations difficult, meaning the war could erupt again in future.

“The withdrawal of the Ethiopian federal military and administrators from Tigray’s capital, Mekele, is a major victory for Tigray’s armed resistance. It shows that the Tigray Defence Forces not only consolidated its position in recent months but also strengthened so it could launch a major counter-offensive last week,” said William Davison, a senior analyst on Ethiopia for the International Crisis Group.

“It did this mainly through mass popular support and capturing arms and supplies from adversaries,” Davison told The EastAfrican.

Major towns

With Tigray Defence Forces now in control of most of the region, including major towns, William says a critical question now for the conflict is whether Eritrea’s military will withdraw fully from Tigray and also what will be the Tigrayan approach to Amhara regional state’s administration of the west and south of the region.

In the wake of the withdrawal of troops, it was expected that calm will immediately follow. But the TDF announced they had taken over Tigray capital Makelle and other towns such as Shire near the border with Eritrea, without breaking a sweat. 

On Thursday, the crucial Tekeze Bridge connecting Tigray to neighbouring Amhara was destroyed by unknown people, bringing a new challenge to the delivery of aid. Ethiopia responded by accusing TPLF of destroying the bridge, saying it will “take two to tango” in the ceasefire, and suggesting it was no longer responsible for any hampering of aid delivery.

$2.3 billion

The losses of $2.3 billion felt so far are equal to half of the cost of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam [GERD], which incidentally is supposed to be refilled for the second time this month, even as downstream countries Sudan and Egypt protest.

When Abiy took the premiership, he targeted the stranglehold of TPLF, accused by some of atrocities against ethnic communities like Somalis and Oromos. In December 2019, it finally led to the disintegration of the former ruling coalition, the Ethiopian National Democratic Revolutionary Front, and was replaced by the Prosperity Party. 

TPLF refused to dissolve and raised tension whose climax was the attack on a national army command in the north last November. Abiy launched an offensive then.

However, Abiy is also credited with quietly transforming the leadership and arming the military with new military technology with which it has swiftly disarmed the TPLF to an extent.