By Tesfa-Alem Tekl
October 25, 2022 (NAIROBI) – Africa Union brokered the first direct talks between the Ethiopian government delegation and regional Tigray authorities have started in South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesperson confirmed.
The first-ever talks since the Tigray conflict broke out in November 2020 “started today, the 25th of October, and will end on the 30th of October,” Vincent Magwenya, told reporters on Tuesday.
He said the talks “have been convened to find a peaceful and sustainable solution to the devastating conflict.”
The talks initially planned to start yesterday were delayed after the government delegation failed to arrive in time.
Sources from Addis Ababa said that Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Demeke Mekonnen, who chairs the government delegation, didn’t travel to South Africa along with his team last night.
It’s not yet clear if he travelled and arrived at the venue today.
Addis Ababa didn’t disclose the names of the negotiators it sent to the venue of the talks.
But Tigray leaders yesterday confirmed sending a seven-member delegation namely Mr Getachew Reda, General Tsadkan Gebretensae, Ambassador Wondimu Asamnew, Dr Fisseha Haftetsion, Mr Tewolde G/Tensay, Mr Kassa Gebreyonnes and Mr Assefa Abraha.
A team of five security personnel is also accompanying this delegation.
As the long-awaited talks start, Mr. Magwenya said that South Africa as a host nation will serve and extend all the necessary assistance for the ongoing peace talks.
“As a country committed to the Africa Union’s objectives of silencing the guns, South Africa is ready to provide assistance,” he said.
The spokesperson added that hosting such peace talks is in line with South Africa’s foreign policy objectives to secure a conflict-free continent.
The AU, along with the UN and US, has for months been putting maximum pressure on the Ethiopian federal government to sit down for talks with its Tigrayan leaders in a bid to end the nearly two-year-long bloody conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.
The U.S. is said to have played a major role in the start of the direct talks between the two warring parties.
U.S. and UN and IGAD representatives are also attending the talks as observers, AU said.
The AU didn’t yet disclose agendas for talks. Also, it is not clear if the two sides have agreed upon an agenda prior to sending their delegations.
However, Tigrayan official, Professor Kindeya in his tweet yesterday said “Pressing: an immediate cessation of hostilities, unfettered humanitarian access & withdrawal of Eritrean forces. There can’t be a military solution!”
The Six-day talks are being facilitated by AU Horn of Africa envoy and Nigeria’s former president Olusegun Obasanjo, supported by Kenya’s former president Uhuru Kenyatta and South Africa’s ex-vice president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, said Magwenya.
South Africa hopes “the talks will proceed constructively and result in a successful outcome that leads to peace for all the people of our dear sister country,” he said.
William Davison, Ethiopia Senior Analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the talks are a major step to resolving the Ethiopian conflict in a peaceful means.
“With neither the federal coalition nor the Tigray side likely to sustainably achieve their goals militarily without huge amounts of further suffering, negotiations are the only reasonable way to try and resolve the conflict”
“This planned federal-Tigray meeting is, therefore, a positive development on a path to the parties trying to renew a truce and then discuss the differences that caused and are perpetuating this war”.
However, Mr Davison said major obstacles to peace remain, not least that the federal government and its Eritrean allies are in the midst of an attempt to take control of all federal facilities in the region, a situation that Tigray’s forces are highly likely to continue to resist.
“The first objective for mediators is therefore to try and get the federal and Tigray delegations to agree to a truce despite the momentum towards continued military confrontation,” Davison added.
The talks come as federal government forces and their allies in the Eritrean army seize key towns in Tigray in offensives backed by heavy shelling, which is forcing thousands of civilians to flee from their homes.