In Ethiopia, rebel group TPLF makes peace overtures after facing military setbacks |The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which had dismissed the African Union’s mediation before launching an attack, has now agreed to a process led by the organization. Analysts have expressed skepticism of the sincerity of the offerSeptember 14, 2022 by Pavan Kulkarni

TPLF Ethiopia

TPLF forces tells stories of forced conscription. (Photo: screenshot from Ethiopian state media video via Borkena)

In a statement on Sunday, September 11, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had resumed the war against the Ethiopian federal government after breaking five months of truce on August 24, agreed to cease hostilities and accept an African Union (AU)-led negotiation.

Prior to resuming its offensive from Ethiopia’s northernmost State of Tigray westward and southward into the neighboring State of Amhara, the TPLF had dismissed the AU’s credibility as a forum for facilitating peace negotiations and effectively called for Western intervention.

TPLF’s volte face only weeks after renewing the war comes as its military defeat is imminent, as per several analysts who noted that the peace overture may only be a means to gain more time and avoid a surrender.

“All their offensives have faced decisive military defeats, especially on the crucial western front on which they were counting to open a corridor to Sudan. Now they are left with no choice but to seek time by claiming willingness for peace negotiations,” former Ethiopian diplomat and historian Mohamed Hassan told Peoples Dispatch.

Hassan said that the former UN peacekeepers, reportedly numbering the thousands, who had defected to fight on TPLF’s side, had been decimated, ending the rebel group’s western offensive. The defectors, about whom AP had reported in April, were Ethiopian federal army soldiers of Tigrayan ethnicity, delegated to serve as UN peacekeepers in neighboring Sudan.

Instead of returning to Ethiopia after their service, they applied for asylum in Sudan and moved to the country’s east, close to the Ethiopia border, to join several other TPLF troops who had regrouped there under the guise of being Tigrayan refugees to launch this offensive. Earlier this month, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had also reported “forced” recruitment of Ethiopian refugees in Sudan’s eastern camps, although without specifying who the recruiting party was.

Hassan maintains that the former peacekeepers “were trained in Sudan by Israeli commandos for nearly a year.” Despite alleged foreign backing, these troops, along with the other TPLF fighters based in Sudan, failed in their mission to recapture Humera and Wolkait, which the TPLF calls “Western Tigray.” Originally Amharan lands, they were annexed into Tigray State when the TPLF took central power in Ethiopia in 1991.

After ruling over Ethiopia with US-backing for the next 27 years – during which it banned opposition parties and free press and led a war against northern neighbor Eritrea – the TPLF was pushed out of power from the center by pro-democracy protests in 2018.

Abiy Ahmed, who became the prime minister in this context, gained popularity with reforms including freeing of political prisoners and lifting the ban on free press and opposition parties. He also signed the peace deal with Eritrea, putting the TPLF’s war to an end. His work for the trilateral agreement for peace and cooperation between Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia won him popular approval across the Horn of Africa.

The TPLF, in the meantime, was reduced to a regional force in power only in the State of Tigray, whose population amounts to little over 6% of Ethiopia’s total. In this backdrop, at the alleged instigation of the then incoming Biden administration, which found these agreements a threat to US interests, the TPLF started the war in northern Ethiopia by attacking a federal army base in Tigray’s capital Mekele in November 2020.

Read: TPLF’s war on Ethiopian gov’t is a US-EU backed ploy to thwart cooperation in the Horn of Africa, says former Ethiopian diplomat

Wolkait and Humera

In the military response that followed, the annexed Amharan regions of Wolkait and Humera were retaken by federal troops and Amharan militias. This cut off the Tigray State’s corridor to Sudan, which is known to be supporting the TPLF.

“Re-establishing that corridor was TPLF’s primary military objective when it restarted the war last month,” Hassan said. Soon after the TPLF resumed the fighting, the Ethiopian air force said it shot down a plane that had illegally crossed from Sudan into Ethiopian airspace carrying weapons to be supplied to the TPLF.

“Now those thousands of former peacekeepers who came in from Sudan have been decimated. Several other battalions which came westward from Tigray for this offensive have been encircled in parts of Wolkait,” Hassan informed.

Another major setback for the TPLF was “the loss of the Dedebit,” he added. This town on the north-western periphery of Tigray proper (i.e not including Wolkait and Humera) “is a mountainous and very difficult terrain that was used as a hideout by the TPLF. Even this stronghold, which was the birthplace of TPLF, was overrun by the federal troops.”

There are also reports of thousands of surrenders by the TPLF’s troops, who are documented to be young and under-trained Tigrayan conscripts forced into fighting by the TPLF which is depriving food aid to families unwilling or unable to contribute a member to the war. Threats of arrests of family members of those unwilling to fight are also documented.

Explaining the reasons for the large number of surrenders, Hassan pointed to the recently intercepted radio communication that was leaked online, allegedly revealing TPLF’s Brigadier General Teklai Ashebir ordering his commanders to shoot their own retreating conscripts.

Fighting is still underway on the southern front in Raya Kobo, a strategic district in the northeast of North Wollo Zone in Amhara, along the border with Tigray to the north and Afar to the east. However, Hassan explained, the southern front was TPLF’s secondary objective where progress was to be made only once the primary objective of re-establishing the corridor to Sudan in Tigray’s west was accomplished.

With this mission having failed, he argues, “the federal troops can march into Mekele from the west in only a week or two. Once that happens, those fighting in Raya Kobo will automatically surrender.” It was in these circumstances that the US special envoy to the Horn of Africa Mike Hammer, who had met with the TPLF leaders only weeks before it resumed the war, returned to Ethiopia last week.

A call for military intervention under guise of conditional truce

Soon after, the TPLF offered a conditional truce, not to the federal government which had left the door open to negotiate under the AU, but to the UN. In a letter to the UN Secretary General António Guterres on September 7, TPLF chairman Debretsion Gebremichael called on the UN Security Council to remove Ethiopian troops from the Humera and Wolkait region of Amhara, which it continues to call “Western Tigray.” This was one of the conditions it had laid for the truce.

Under the guise of offering a conditional truce, the TPLF was effectively calling for foreign military intervention against the Ethiopian government, Hassan noted. It is also an attempt to undermine the AU, which had put in months of work during the truce period meeting with leaders from the TPLF as well as the federal government to work out a framework for peace negotiations. “But, of course, the UNSC was not going to intervene after the TPLF had effectively lost this war militarily,” Hassan remarked.

Nevertheless, Western attempts to undermine the AU continued. US Congressman Brad Sherman told the BBC that the US, and not the AU, should be ideally mediating the negotiation because “There is a tendency at the AU to support national governments. And this is a national government responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans. So I don’t think they are entitled to a slant in this direction.”

He made no reference to the numerous reports documenting the TPLF’s forced conscription, including of children, as soldiers for this war. Neither did he raise concern over the TPLF looting 570,000 liters of fuel from the UN World Food Programme, undermining its distribution of food aid in Tigray, or comment on allegations of  TPLF fighters being caught with the vast quantities of food aid meant for civilians.

The TPLF had acknowledged its attack on the federal army base in 2020, which started this war. It however justified the act as a pre-emptive strike. When the federal army declared a unilateral ceasefire at the end of June 2021 and withdrew from Tigray proper after retaking the annexed Amharan lands of Wolkait and Humera, it was the TPLF which invaded southward into the neighboring States of Amhara and Afar.

The TPLF’s atrcoties on the civilian population in these States, including massacres and gang-rapes in several towns, are also well-documented. After the TPLF was beaten back into Tigray, it was the federal government that had initiated a humanitarian truce, which was violated by the TPLF on August 24.

Nevertheless, the Western media and governments persist in their efforts to depict the Ethiopian federal government as the aggressor, despite repeated complaints by Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry and by the Horn of Africa’s diasporas who are staging protests in the US and EU.

Africa’s Ukraine?

Speaking at the UK’s House of Lords, the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eritrea, David Alton, attacked Eritrea for its alleged support to the Ethiopian troops, describing Tigray as “Africa’s Ukraine.”

“The British Lord unwittingly made an apt analogy,” the editor of Horn of Africa TV, Elias Amare, remarked. He went on to note the similarities between the “Azov neo-nazis” who “control the gov’t & army in Ukraine” and “the ethno-fascist TPLF.. waging war on Ethiopia & Eritrea,” both of which are forces enjoying Western backing.

Hassan observed that “this unelected Lord was essentially calling for an armed intervention against the elected government of Ethiopia.” He however said that such an intervention has become untenable after the military losses faced by the TPLF, whose “time has now come for surrender. On whose behalf will the US and its allies then intervene with no one to do their bidding on the ground? They had to go back to the AU to find a lifeline for the TPLF.”

On September 9, Mike Hammer met with AU’s High Representative for the Horn of Africa Olusegun Obasanjo in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. Wishing Ethiopians on their New Year on the intervening night of September 10 and 11, Hammer tweeted: “May the parties in the conflict have the courage to choose talks over fighting, and participate in an @_AfricanUnion led process that produces a lasting peace.”

The following day, on September 11, the TPLF’s handle tweeted an unsigned statement under the letterhead of the “External Affairs office” of the “Government of Tigray,” explaining, “we are ready to abide by an immediate and mutually agreed cessation of hostilities… We are convinced that only through a peaceful dialogue can we achieve a lasting solution to this tragic conflict.”

The TPLF said that it expected “a credible AU-led peace process” that will also include “international observers” and “international experts to provide necessary guidance and advice on the integrity of the peace process.”

After the TPLF’s statement was welcomed by the AU, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on September 12, “The United States welcomes Tigray regional authority statement yesterday on the occasion of Ethiopia’s New Year, which indicated its readiness to cessation, participate in African Union talks, and abide — oh, I’m sorry, I messed that up — which indicated its readiness to participate in African American [Union] talks and abide by a cessation of hostilities.”

Then, she declared, “It is high time for both sides to stop fighting and turn to dialogue to resolve their differences.” This call by the US “for both sides to stop fighting” at a time when the TPLF’s military defeat is said to be imminent stands in stark contrast with its posture late last year when the TPLF had marched south halfway from Mekele to Addis Ababa. At that time, on November 5, 2021, a ceremony was hosted in Washington DC for the formation of a coalition between nine-armed groups against the Ethiopian federal government, including the TPLF. Nothing has since been heard of this coalition, which was dismissed as a psy-op.

Even though the TPLF was still 300 kilometers from Addis Ababa, the US embassy issued a statement the same day calling on “U.S citizens in Ethiopia to depart now using commercially available options. The US embassy is unlikely to be able to assist U.S. citizens in Ethiopia with departure if commercial options become unavailable.” While the US government was thus triggering panic, CNN was falsely reporting that the TPLF had reached just outside the capital.

Despite such a record in this conflict, White House Press Secretary Jean-Pierre demanded that “Eritrea and others should stay out of the conflict.” Activists in Horn of Africa are instead calling for the US to stay out, and insisting that Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalians all have a stake in regional peace and cooperation which is threatened by any rehabilitation of the TPLF.

While there are reports about Mike Hammer having already initiated peace talks in Djibouti, Hassan insists that it is “propaganda.” The federal government “was fooled once by the TPLF and its Western backers, it will not be fooled again. There are no negotiations underway. Only a day after TPLF’s statement, it is attacking the federal troops in Humera again,” Hassan said. Reports also indicate that the TPLF is shelling Dedebit.