Ethiopia has declared a conditional truce, and its rebel opponents in Tigray have agreed to cease hostilities if certain terms are met.

Does this bring Ethiopia any closer to peace? 

Why now? 

There has been sustained diplomatic pressure to end the conflict between the federal government and rebels aligned to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that has raged since November 2020.

Diplomats have been shuttling back and forth between the two sides for months. The new U.S. special envoy to the region, David Satterfield, was in Ethiopia earlier this week.

“I think international pressure has played a part in this decision,” Awet Weldemichael, a Horn of Africa security expert at Queen’s University in Canada, told AFP. 

“Ethiopia is facing economic challenges due to the war, meanwhile negotiations have been going on behind the scenes.”  

The U.S. has not imposed sanctions so far but legislation making it possible has been advanced. Limits on financial assistance from international lenders and U.S. development agencies has also been considered.

It comes as Ethiopia faces “one of its worst food crises in decades” with nearly 30% of its 110 million people in dire need of assistance, said Rene Lefort, an independent researcher on the Horn of Africa.

“Yet, Ethiopia cannot face a food crisis without international aid,” Lefort said.

The TPLF has also been forced to reconsider its position. Their stronghold of Tigray reels from what the U.N. says is a de facto blockade on the region where famine looms.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, meanwhile, has abandoned his quest to recapture Tigray to the displeasure of allies in the Amhara region, while confronting a simmering rebellion from an insurgent group in Oromia, Lefort said. 

“In recent months, there has been a change in priority for Abiy Ahmed.”

Will it work? 

The government said it hoped the truce would hasten aid delivery to Tigray, where food, fuel and medicine are desperately needed.

But at present, road convoys would need to pass through the Afar region, where the TPLF is present and local authorities have refused aid passage to Tigray until the rebels withdraw. 

“It is not certain that convoys would be able to resume quickly,” just because a truce was declared, a humanitarian source told AFP. 

Ethiopia made the truce conditional on the TPLF withdrawing from Amhara and Afar.  

The TPLF, in turn, agreed to cease hostilities only if food aid reached Tigray.  

The TPLF may be willing to make concessions on Afar but would not likely withdraw from Amhara, analysts say.  

But the impasse in Afar posed a particular challenge on its own, Lefort said.  

“The Afar government has little control over Afar territory. It will be difficult to prevent the population, which is also hungry, from blocking convoys,” he said.  

Observers said it was also unlikely the TPLF’s opponents in Amhara would open their region to allow aid convoys to travel onward to Tigray.

Is peace near?

The Eurasia Group said both sides continued to see military pressure as a means to extracting concessions ahead of any talks, even if outright victory was no longer the objective.  

“The ‘truce’ effectively acts as a trust-building exercise between the TPLF and federal government, yet a comprehensive and sustainable cease-fire remains unlikely in the short term given both sides’ hardline stances on outstanding issues,” the think tank said.  

The quick restoration of basic services denied to Tigray for months — electricity, communications and banking chief among them — would be a test of the government’s goodwill, observers said.  

The truce “could be a turning point, but it will depend on whether it’s genuinely intentioned,” said Awet.  

“I hope this is a starting point for peace talks but it’s not very promising.” 

What hurdles remain? 

Even if a lasting cease-fire was brokered with the TPLF, the rebels are not the only armed actor in northern Ethiopia.  

Abiy faces increasing pressure from hardliners in the Ahmara elite unhappy the TPLF is not being pursued in Tigray.  

The Amhara have territorial disputes with the TPLF in western Tigray, where they have militias that do not fall under federal control.  

“For some within the Amhara, you have to go all the way to Mekele to crush the TPLF,” said Lefort, referring to the capital of the Tigray region.  

“But authorizing humanitarian convoys to Tigray means giving up this military conquest, and leaving the TPLF in place.”

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