Almost three months after it was signed, the ceasefire agreement between Ethiopia’s federal government and forces from the northern Tigray region is mostly holding, while humanitarian aid is flowing more freely to the millions of people in need.
The 2 November deal was struck as fighting raged in Tigray, drawing in forces from the Amhara region and neighbouring Eritrea on the side of the government. Hundreds of thousands are thought to have died in one of the world's deadliest recent wars.
Over the past few weeks, Tigrayan forces have handed over heavy weapons as stipulated by the deal, which was signed in South Africa. Eritrean troops also appear to be withdrawing as part of the pact, residents in Tigray told The New Humanitarian.
However, Eritrean forces remain on the border and are yet to fully leave Ethiopian soil, according to the United States. And other other contentious aspects of the accord, including plans to install a transitional Tigray administration, have not yet advanced.
Though levels of humanitarian aid are increasing in Tigray, some areas remain off limits, according to aid officials, and high levels of need persist in much of the region, which has a population of around six million people.
“The issue we are facing now is scale,” said a senior aid worker, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject. “We are going into communities that haven’t received support for five months, and we’re seeing very high demand for services.”
The war erupted in late 2020 following tensions between the federal government and Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which dominated Ethiopian national politics until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018.
Access for aid groups delivering food and medical supplies in Tigray was restricted for large parts of the war, while essential services such as telecommunications, banking, and electricity were also cut off, prompting accusations of a government-imposed "blockade”.
The balance of power on the battlefield has swung back and forth, but the peace deal was signed as the TPLF suffered a series of significant defeats to Ethiopia's federal military and its allies.
The agreements core provisions – that the TPLF disarms, replenishes control of key infrastructure in Tigray, and dissolves its regional administration in exchange for unfettered aid access and an end to the fighting – favour the federal government and skirt over the thorny political issues that led to the conflict.
Though the ceasefire has ended major hostilities, atrocities have continued, according to a report from the Tigray Emergency Coordination Centre (ECC), a humanitarian body that brings together local government offices, UN agencies, and international NGOs.
Seen by The New Humanitarian, the report states that Eritrean troops and Amhara militias killed 3,708 civilians in Tigray in the eight weeks between the signing of the deal and 30 December. It also documents the abduction of 645 people over the same period.
Two previous reports from the ECC detail dozens of rapes in Tigray after the ceasefire – which was mediated by the African Union and backed by the United States and the UN – as well as instances of looting.
Eritrean troops withdraw
Still, there have been signs of progress, including some noticeable movement over the past week. Eight Tigray residents from the towns of Shire, Axum, and Adwa told The New Humanitarian they had seen Eritrean troops leaving their towns in recent days.
In late January, images were posted on social media appearing to show buses and trucks of Eritrean troops leaving Adwa and Shire. Some of the soldiers were carrying banners with victorious slogans, such as “Game Over”.
Diplomats and the TPLF have long demanded Eritrean troops – accused of rampant human rights abuses in Tigray – leave Ethiopian soil, and their withdrawal from major towns will give the ceasefire a much-needed boost.
“We see the beginning of a withdrawal, but it is not complete. They are still in some parts of Tigray."
However, the troops have not fully departed and are still present along the Ethiopia-Eritrea border, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, told reporters on Saturday.
“We see the beginning of a withdrawal, but it is not complete. They are still in some parts of Tigray," said a diplomat in Addis Ababa, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid damaging relations with the federal government.
That line contradicts a senior Ethiopian commander, who told foreign officials over the weekend that "there is no other security force in the Tigray region except the FDRE Defense Forces", using an acronym for the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
Weapons handed over
The Eritrean military's partial withdrawal comes after TPLF forces handed over several tanks and artillery pieces to the federal government. That fulfils a key part of a follow-up agreement that both sides committed to on 12 November in Kenya.
It states that TPLF forces will disband their heavy weaponry “concurrently with the withdrawal of foreign and non-ENDF [federal] forces from the region”.
The disarmament process was overseen by the African Union’s monitoring and verification team, which is composed of military officers from across the continent. After several weeks of delays, they deployed to Mekelle, Tigray's capital, on 29 December.
However, it is unclear if the TPLF has handed over its entire arsenal. The diplomat in Addis Ababa said the group may have relinquished “the least relevant or most outdated” heavy weapons and kept others, “while waiting for a complete retreat of the Eritreans”.
Increased humanitarian aid
Humanitarian supplies, meanwhile, are flowing freely into most of Tigray after being subject to repeated restrictions throughout the two-year conflict that the UN said brought 400,000 people close to famine.
In total, 3.9 million of the 5.4 million people in Tigray who need humanitarian support have received aid since the ceasefire, according to unpublished UN figures shared with The New Humanitarian.
In the first weeks after the ceasefire was signed, aid agencies reported limitations being placed on their movements within Tigray and the amount of cash they could bring into the region, but these have mostly been lifted, said the senior aid official in Addis Ababa.
“Up until a month ago, we could only work in areas controlled by the government.”
“Up until a month ago, we could only work in areas controlled by the government,” they said. “But since the last week of December, they started letting us into areas outside their control.”
Yet despite these improvements, some areas are still cut off from aid. These include Mai Tsebri, an area claimed by the Amhara region where its forces are allegedly blocking distributions, and Hitsats, which previously housed Eritrean refugees.
Though banks are re-opening Tigray branches – their closure during the war meant people couldn’t access savings to buy food – a lack of cash means withdrawals and transfers are still unavailable.
And while flights have been restored to the region – alongside phone lines and mobile internet after a two-year blackout – journalists have not yet been granted permission to travel to Tigray.
The ceasefire deal makes no mention of the disputed territory of western Tigray, which was annexed during the war by Amhara forces. They forcibly deported much of the area’s Tigrayan population, leading to accusations of ethnic cleansing by the US.
In a speech to parliament in November, Abiy said a referendum could be held to determine the territory’s fate. However, such a poll appears a long way off, and it’s not clear whether displaced people would be able to return home before it is held.
Nor is it clear when Tigray's government will be dissolved and replaced with a transitional administration ahead of fresh regional elections.
The TPLF's decision to hold a local election in September 2020 when national ones were suspended on account of the COVID-19 pandemic was a key spark for the conflict.
Though some aspects of the ceasefire are dragging, Ethiopia’s government is keen to rehabilitate its international image and bring back foreign investment after the war cost almost $20 billion in damaged infrastructure and depleted foreign currency reserves.
Western donors are keen to welcome Ethiopia back into the fold – especially as competition for influence in Africa ramps up – though the EU has said this depends upon progress regarding transitional justice and accountability.
Such developments have been limited so far. Only a handful of Ethiopian troops have been convicted for war crimes, and there’s little prospect of justice for victims of Eritrea’s military, which has not indicated it would allow prosecutors to investigate its troops.
Amnesty International, meanwhile, has criticised the ceasefire deal, saying it “fails to offer a clear roadmap on how to ensure accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and overlooks rampant impunity in the country, which could lead to violations being repeated.”
Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.