Written by Abdi Latif Dahir
Representatives of the Ethiopian government and rebel forces in the country’s Tigray region arrived in South Africa on Monday for their first formal peace talks, a much-anticipated effort to resolve the almost two-year civil war that has ravaged Africa’s second-most-populous nation.
The mediation, led by the African Union, has new urgency because the conflict in Tigray has intensified, raising fears that the humanitarian crisis and widespread atrocities that have left thousands dead, millions displaced and hundreds of thousands hungry will only get worse.
The Ethiopian military and its Eritrean allies captured several major towns from Tigrayan forces in recent days, too, advancing toward the regional capital, Mekelle, and leaving Tigrayan leaders with a weaker hand in the delicate negotiations.
The talks have taken months to organize and were scheduled to start earlier this month but ran into logistical and organizational challenges — including a high degree of mistrust on both sides. The negotiations are now set to begin Tuesday after the mediators finalized the framework for the talks Monday, according to a senior Western official with knowledge of the process.
The formal talks have drawn the attention of global leaders, who have urged the warring parties to seek a political resolution that would halt the indiscriminate killings, shelling and human rights violations that have surged anew since a five-month humanitarian truce was shattered in August.
“The situation in Ethiopia is spiraling out of control,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned in a speech last week. “We need the urgent resumption of talks towards an effective, lasting political settlement.”
The peacemaking efforts in South Africa are aimed at halting an internecine conflict that began in November 2020, when the Ethiopian government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a onetime rebel movement that had dominated the country’s politics for nearly three decades, began clashing in northern Ethiopia.
A new wave of violence followed the breakdown in August of a five-month cease-fire: Government airstrikes and artillery bombardment have killed civilians and aid workers, and a gush of hate speech and incitement to violence has spread through social media.
The peace talks between the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayans are being steered by a three-person team of negotiators: Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo; former South African Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka; and Uhuru Kenyatta, who was until recently the president of Kenya.
The African Union, which convened the meeting, and the South African government, which is hosting it, have not provided any details about the format of the talks, how long they will last or where they will take place.
Tigrayan officials have remained wary of Obasanjo, whom they have accused of favoring Abiy, and his presence contributed to the delay in bringing both sides together.
The United States ferried Tigrayan officials out of the war zone aboard a U.S. military aircraft over the weekend, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss operational matters. It was the latest of several secretive flights organized by the State Department since March that brought together representatives from both sides, as part of a wider international effort to kick-start formal peace talks. Mike Hammer, the U.S. envoy to the Horn of Africa region, convened a previous meeting in September at Camp Lemonnier, the U.S. military base in Djibouti, that unsuccessfully sought to broker a cessation of hostilities.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke with both President William Ruto of Kenya and the South African foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, about the peace talks and how to ensure a successful outcome.
Tigrayan forces have said their pressing demands at the talks will be for an immediate cessation of hostilities, unhindered access to humanitarian aid and the withdrawal of Eritrean forces.
But their requests, along with the entire negotiation process, observers say, could be undermined by the escalating conflict and the vow by the government to take control of all federal facilities, including airports, in the Tigray region.
Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have retaken major towns like Adwa and Shire in recent days, raising the prospect, experts say, of a quick advance toward the region’s capital.
“Given their military momentum on the ground, the federal authorities may seek a surrender, with Tigray’s leaders pledging to end their armed resistance and substantially demobilize their forces,” said William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group. “But Tigray’s negotiators are highly unlikely to accept those sorts of terms as a way to end the fighting.”
The conflict in northern Ethiopia is raging even as ethnic massacres, internal fighting and disease outbreaks grip other parts of the country. The nation is also in the throes of its worst drought in decades, which has devastated crops, killed millions of livestock and left children malnourished.
Before the peace talks scheduled in South Africa, several political and religious leaders urged the warring sides to lay down their weapons and allay the suffering of the Ethiopian people.
“I follow the persistent situation of conflict in Ethiopia with trepidation,” Pope Francis said in a tweet. “May the efforts of the parties for dialogue lead to a genuine path of reconciliation.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.