In a move that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed described as geared towards promoting reconciliation, the release of several opposition figures detained by the federal government, including some members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), was announced on January 7.
The announcement of the release of the political opponents took place in conjunction with the Orthodox Christmas celebrations, and, according to the Prime Minister’s announcement, the release will be marked by a pronouncement of amnesty for the crimes previously charged against the opponents.
Among the names listed in the release order are those of Sebhat Nega, 88 years old and among the founders of the TPLF, who was arrested exactly one year ago, and Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba, members of the Oromo opposition accused of inciting the violence that followed the murder of the popular singer Hachalu Hundessa in June 2020.
Other TPLF members would also figure in the release list, including Sebhat Nega’s sister Kedusan Nega, former Tigray president Abay Woldu, former TPLF central committee member Abadi Zemu, and Eskinder Nega, former head of the Baladera for a True Democracy party.
The announcement of the release of the political opponents came in the aftermath of the mission to Ethiopia of the U.S. government envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, who on January 6 met with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed asking for an immediate cessation of hostilities. Jeffrey Feltman announced his resignation from the post only the day before his mission to Ethiopia, apparently as a result of divergencies with President Biden over the handling of U.S. policy in Ethiopia and Sudan. He will be replaced by former ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s decision to release and pardon some prominent members of the Tigrinya and Oromo opposition has fueled much speculation, most notably that related to the beginning of secret negotiations with the TPLF.
Despite the fact that the federal government denies the possibility of any negotiation with entities it considers as terrorist organizations, the suspicion of a secret negotiation has also been reinforced by the speech made in recent days by the Tigrinya president (and head of the TPLF) Debretsion Gebremichael, who, during an interview granted to the American television network CNN, claimed that the conflict must be resolved peacefully, confirming the willingness of the TPLF to support any option in this direction.
A further element reinforcing the possibility of a compromise is that connected with the previous day’s visit by the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, who may have presented Abiy Ahmed with a package of incentives, especially in terms of sanctions and the economy, just a few days after the news of Ethiopia’s suspension from the AGOA duty-free agreement.
Any hypothesis of a negotiated solution to the crisis in Tigray, however, cannot ignore the variable posed by the government of Eritrea, which has supported Abiy Ahmed and the federal government in the conflict with the specific intent to permanently eradicate what Asmara considers as the existential threat posed by the political and military survival of the TPLF.
With the Eritrean forces still firmly present within a vast border area between Tigray and Eritrea, any negotiation between the government in Mekelle and the federal government in Addis Ababa that does not include the Eritrean approval, risks determining a deep and lasting instability in the region. At the same time, it is difficult to understand what interest Eritrea might have in a negotiation solution that crystallizes the role and position of the TPLF, especially in light of Asmara’s difficult position on the international stage, now affected by sanctions and largely politically isolated.