During this month’s Orthodox Christmas, the Ethiopian government delivered a festive surprise to its war-weary citizens – Addis Ababa has released several opposition leaders from prison and indicated its willingness to speak to its opponents.
After more than a year of a brutal civil war, in which thousands were killed and thousands more arrested, the federal government said Friday that “the key to lasting unity is dialogue”. In the wake of a series of military victories over Tigrayan forces, the government said: “One of the moral obligations of the conqueror is mercy.”
The proposal for dialogue, analysts say, is likely to be the most important breakthrough since war broke out in the northern Tigray region in November 2020 – a war that endangered the unit of a federal patchwork quilt of about 80 ethnic groups and an economic powerhouse in the Horn of Africa.
António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, welcomed the release of the prisoners, and called for “a credible and inclusive national dialogue and reconciliation process”. Moussa Faki Mahamat, President of the African Union, echo this sentiment.
But many remain cautious. Adem Abebe, an Ethiopian expert from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, said he “at the same time felt more nervous and more hopeful than I had felt in a long time”.
Jawar Mohammed, a leading opposition figure, was released. Some leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the party fighting Abiy Ahmed’s central government, have also been liberated. It is unclear whether both sides will eventually get involved in talks or what the outcome of those talks will be.
From his first days in office in 2018, Abiy promoted pan-Ethiopian unity, which was welcomed by many after nearly three decades of Tigrayan domination. Yet, far from reaching reconciliation, ethnic and political tensions bubbled to the surface, leading to war in Tigray.
Just two months ago, the TPLF threatened to march on Addis Ababa as in 1991 when it overthrew the Marxist Derg regime, but since then troops loyal to it have withdrawn. They were repulsed by federal air force, mainly new drones purchased from Turkey and other allies, according to senior diplomats and analysts. In late December, federal troops Lalibela taken over, a large city of rock-hewn churches in Amhara.
The situation in Tigray remains dark. Dozens were killed in airstrikes last week, humanitarian officials said, including in refugee camps. No humanitarian aid has entered Ethiopia’s northernmost region since mid-December, according to UN officials. The federal government has repeatedly denied that it blocked aid.
Doctors at a top hospital in Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, told the Financial Times: “We have almost all kinds of medication and medical supplies. . . we only count deaths that occur due to completely preventable causes, ”as some patients showed up in starvation conditions.
Guterres on Friday called for “a significant improvement in humanitarian access to all areas affected by the years-long conflict”. Monday, Abiy spoke with US President Joe Biden who praised him for the release of the prisoners, but expressed concern about the recent airstrikes.
Filsan Ahmed, a former minister under Abiy who became critical, said: “The government deserves praise for the release of ‘some’ political prisoners. It is the first step towards peace. ” But she added: “Ethiopians must learn lessons from these horrific atrocities committed by ‘their’ government with the help of drones.”
At the end of December, Debretsion Gebremichael, TPLF leader, sent a message to Guterres demanding a “ceasefire” on Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea, whose forces fought alongside Abiyas, and a “no-fly zone for enemy flights or aircraft and drones over Tigray” since, he said, “we seeks to free ourselves from genocide ”.
He also accused Amhara and Eritrean forces of committing “ethnic cleansing” in western Tigray, and demanded that they withdraw from the area, which is subject to a long-standing land dispute.
William Davison, senior Ethiopian analyst at Crisis Group, cautiously welcomed the latest developments, including the release of political prisoners.
“The fact that the Tigraye is making proposals for a negotiated settlement involving strong international action is also positive, but these are ultimately unrealistic proposals, and therefore there is no real progress with the peaceful resolution of the thorny western Tigray issue. ”
Another obstacle to peace was that Tigray now had a large standing army – “probably numbered in the hundreds of thousands”, added Davison, who was built “to protect Tigray because they see an existential threat in the facing “. But from the perspective of Addis Ababa, and its allies in Amhara and Eritrea, “that great Tigrayan force is also an existential threat to them”.
After 14 months of fights and a string of atrocities, there may be a settlement in the making. “We entered the war because we could not bring peace in any other way,” Abiy said on Friday. “War is the final option to maintain the assurance of peace. It is the power to bring to the table those who could not come to peace. “