NAIROBI — The Ethiopian government and Tigrayan forces formally signed a truce Wednesday, raising hopes that two years of devastating war that threatened to tear apart Africa’s second-most-populous country might be coming to an end.
The document promised unhindered access for humanitarian aid, the restoration of services such as telecommunications and banking to the country’s Tigray region, and the cessation of hate speech. The federal government would take control of Mekelle, the capital of the rebellious region, and Ethiopia’s unity would be restored.
Tigrayan forces are to be disarmed and refrain from supporting any other armed groups — Ethiopia is battling several ethnically based uprisings around the vast country.
In return, government troops would ensure there was no “foreign incursion” — a reference widely interpreted to mean troops from neighboring Eritrea would leave Tigray. The ban on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls much of the rebellious region, would be lifted, and it would be recognized as a political party again.
The agreement was announced on live television and was praised by Redwan Hussien, the national security adviser to Ethiopia’s federal government, and Getachew Reda from the TPLF.
Redwan thanked countries that had supported Ethiopia and took a slight swipe at others. The European Union froze budget support to Ethiopia, and the United States suspended Ethiopia’s much-valued preferential trading status over human rights abuses committed during the war, including gang rapes and mass killings of civilians by the Ethiopian military and its allies.
“Our sisters and brothers from Africa remained true to their principled stance that Ethiopians must own and resolve their difference,” he said. “We hope others will learn … such a generous and firm direction.” But, he added, “it is now time to revitalize relations with our partners.”
Getachew said fighters and civilians were dying as he spoke, calling for the deal to be “immediately implemented.”
The conflict broke out in November 2020, after Tigrayan soldiers seized military bases across Tigray following months of worsening relations between the central government and the TPLF, which dominated national politics for nearly three decades until the appointment of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018.
It will be the second time during the conflict that the two sides cease hostilities. A five-month cease-fire declared by the government in March allowed convoys of desperately needed food aid to enter the region, but that agreement fell apart with renewed fighting at the end of August. Since then, the Ethiopian military has captured swaths of western, northern and southern Tigray with assistance from Eritrean forces. There have been several airstrikes that have killed large numbers of civilians.
Two important parties to the conflict were not represented in the talks: Eritrea, which has troops occupying large parts of Tigray, and representatives from Ethiopia’s Amhara region, which has a long-running border dispute with Tigray and also sent forces to the conflict.
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki has long been an enemy of the TPLF and sees its leadership as an existential threat. Some Amhara leaders determined to keep control of their disputed territory have forged a strong relationship with Eritrea, rooted in distrust of Ethiopia’s central government and deep animosity for the TPLF.
Dessalegn Chanie Dagnew, a member of Parliament for the opposition National Movement of Amhara, said he welcomed the announcement but was disappointed that it did not formally recognize Amhara’s jurisdiction over the disputed territory. He also said the agreement “lacks clarity on justice and accountability.” Tigrayan fighters also committed gang rapes and killed civilians in Amhara territory, the United Nations has said, albeit on a smaller scale than the forces allied with the central government.
Eritrea’s information minister was not immediately available for comment.
The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people, left hundreds of thousands facing famine, and destroyed health and education infrastructure across large parts of northern Ethiopia.
Doctors at Ayder Referral Hospital, the biggest in Tigray, said Wednesday that they had stopped offering dialysis because they had run out of medical supplies. One described nurses weeping as they sent home a much-loved patient to die a few weeks ago, his lungs filling with fluid because he could not be treated.
One resident of Mekelle said there had been fierce fighting even on Wednesday afternoon, hours before the deal was signed, around the town of Hawzen.
The response to the deal in Mekelle was muted, he said, with many citizens fearing crimes committed against them would go unpunished and saying they did not trust the central government to implement it fairly.
“Yesterday, tears came to my eyes when I saw the deal being signed. How vulnerable we have become, how helpless we have become,” he said. But he wanted to believe in the deal, he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety.
“We have had enough death in Ethiopia, in Tigray.”