Ethiopian and Tigray negotiators begin peace talks in South Africa

Ethiopia and Tigray begin peace talks in desperate attempt to end two-year war which has plunged hundreds of thousands into famine in ‘one of world’s worst humanitarian crises’

  • Talks between Ethiopian govt. and Tigrayan rebels began in South Africa today 
  • Two-year war displaced millions and pushed hundreds of thousands into famine
  • White House described the situation as one of world’s worst humanitarian crises 
  • Up to 500,000 are thought to have been killed in the conflict so far but journalists have been banned from visiting the region

Desperate peace talks aimed at ending two years of brutal war between the Ethiopian army and forces from the country’s northern region of Tigray are now underway in South Africa, the government said today. 

The conflict, which began in November 2020 and was this week described by the White House as one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, has left hundreds of thousands in famine and displaced millions from their homes.

Some estimates put the death toll as a result of the fighting at nearly half a million – though this is impossible to determine because journalists have been banned from visiting the region by the Ethiopian government.

The negotiations, led by the African Union (AU), follow a fierce surge in fighting in recent weeks that has triggered yet more fears for civilians caught in the crossfire.

‘South Africa is hosting peace talks to end the conflict in the Tigray region,’ Vincent Magwenya, spokesman for President Cyril Ramaphosa, told reporters.

The talks ‘have been convened to find a peaceful and sustainable solution to the devastating conflict,’ he said, adding that they would run until October 30.

Negotiators from the Ethiopian government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the regional authorities in war-stricken Tigray will now attempt to negotiate a resolution, facilitated by AU Horn of Africa envoy and Nigeria’s former president Olusegun Obasanjo as well as several other delegates from neighbouring countries.

Residents and militias stand next to houses destroyed by an airstrike during the fight between the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces in Kasagita town, Afar region, Ethiopia, February 25, 2022

Members of the Tigrayan community protest against the conflict between Ethiopia and Tigray rebels in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region in Pretoria, South Africa on Oct. 12, 2022

People gather in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on October 22, 2022 during a demonstration in support of Ethiopia armed forces

The conflict between the Ethiopian federal government and people in the Tigray region stems from grievances dating back to a period during which the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), an ethno-political group, held considerable sway as part of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition.

The TPLF was instrumental in helping to overthrow the Derg – a ruthless Marxist military dictatorship which killed tens of thousands of its own people – in 1991 and subsequently formed a coalition government (EPRDF) made up of four political parties representing different ethnic groups in Ethiopia.

This system was praised for its attempts to share power among various ethnic groups, but critics said the decision to formally split the country into several ethnic regions only led to greater divisions.

Since that coalition lost power at the national level in 2018 amid a wave of protests, the TPLF, still powerful in the north, fell out with the new federal government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

The government has accused the TPLF of seeking to restore its national dominance, while the TPLF has accused the Abiy government of oppressing Tigrayans and trying to centralise power.

Each side denies the other’s accusations, but their fighting has brought utter chaos to the region and has plunged huge swathes of the population into famine and poverty.

There have also been widespread reports of soldiers on both sides committing heinous human rights abuses. 

Abiy won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his ‘efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation’ after he played a key role in bringing an end to a 20-year conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea stemming from a border war in 1998.

His peacemaking efforts led to the signing of an historic peace deal between the two countries which opened borders.

But his reputation as a peacemaker quickly deteriorated when he ordered a blockade of Tigray in June 2021, which severed Internet connections and phone lines, closed banks and prevented essential food and medicine from entering the region.

A man waves an Ethiopian flag as he join others gathering in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on October 22, 2022 during a demonstration in support of Ethiopia armed forces

The conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in the north of the country began in November 2020 and was this week described by the White House as one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world (residents in Ethiopian city of Dire Dawa pictured selling food on the streets)

Ethiopians protest against what they say is interference by outsiders in the country’s internal affairs

The Tigrayan delegation has said its focus at the talks in South Africa this week would be on an immediate cessation of hostilities, unfettered access to Tigray for humanitarian aid, and the withdrawal of Eritrean forces – soldiers from the neighbouring country which are fighting on the side of the Ethiopian government.

Abiy’s representatives meanwhile view the talks as an opportunity to resolve the conflict and ‘consolidate the improvement of the situation on the ground’, apparently a reference to the advances of federal government forces and their Eritrean allies which seized a string of towns in Tigray in recent weeks.

An initial effort by the AU to bring the two sides to the negotiating table earlier this month failed, with diplomats suggesting logistical issues and a lack of preparedness were to blame.

The war has compounded other serious problems in Ethiopia including a drought – the worst in four decades – that has caused a food crisis and send the economy into a downward spiral.

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