The Ethiopian government and regional forces from Tigray agreed on Wednesday to cease hostilities, a dramatic diplomatic breakthrough two years into a war that has killed thousands, displaced millions and left hundreds of thousands facing famine.
Just over a week after formal peace talks mediated by the African Union (AU) began in the South African capital Pretoria, delegates from both sides signed an agreement on a "permanent cessation of hostilities."
"The two parties in the Ethiopian conflict have formally agreed to the cessation of hostilities as well as to systematic, orderly, smooth and coordinated disarmament," said Olusegun Obasanjo, head of the AU mediation team, at a ceremony.
"The two parties in the Ethiopian conflict have formally agreed to the cessation of hostilities as well as to systematic, orderly, smooth and coordinated disarmament,"Olusegun Obasanjo, head of the AU mediation team
Obasanjo, a former Nigerian president, said the agreement also included "restoration of law and order, restoration of services, unhindered access to humanitarian supplies, protection of civilians."
An agreement had not been expected so soon. Earlier on Wednesday, the AU had invited media to what it described as a briefing by Obasanjo. It was only when the event began, about three hours behind schedule, that it became clear a truce was about to be signed.
"This moment is not the end of the peace process. Implementation of the peace agreement signed today is critical for its success," said Obasanjo, adding that this would be supervised and monitored by a high-level AU panel.
Obasanjo, who stepped down as Nigeria's president in 2007 and has since mediated conflicts across Africa, praised the process as an African solution to an African problem.
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed expressed gratitude to Obasanjo and other mediators on the conclusion of the peace talks, saying in a statement the government's commitment to the implementation of the agreement was strong.
"Our commitment to peace remains steadfast. And our commitment to collaborating for the implementation of the agreement is equally strong," the statement on Twitter said.
In a later twitter post, Ahmed posted a letter expressing gratitude on the conclusion of the peace talks.
Expression of Gratitude on the Conclusion of the Peace Talks pic.twitter.com/mB7Q0jLwsZ— Abiy Ahmed Ali (@AbiyAhmedAli) November 2, 2022
At the Pretoria ceremony, Getachew Reda, a spokesman for the Tigray authorities, spoke of the wide scale death and destruction in the region and said it was his hope and expectation that both parties would honor their commitments.
In Washington, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said the United States remained committed to supporting an African-led peace process for Ethiopia.
UN hopeful it can restart aid into Ethiopia's Tigray region "in days"
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the truce was a welcome first step that would bring solace to millions of civilians who have suffered in the conflict, according to a UN spokesman.
Alan Boswell, Project Director for the Horn of Africa at the International Crisis Group, said the first huge test would be whether the parties immediately stopped fighting as agreed.
"This is a huge breakthrough that involved major concessions from both sides, even if the parties punted the thorniest details to future peace talks," he said.
"If they do stop fighting, then today will just be the start of what will surely prove a very bumpy, long, and difficult peace process."
UN agencies have been talking to federal and Tigrayan authorities since late October about resuming aid convoys into Tigray and those conversations have intensified since the truce, said Michel Saad, the head of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) for Ethiopia.
"So far we are getting feedback and good assurances but we are still waiting for the final go-ahead," Saad told Reuters during a telephone interview.
"We are making progress, some small steps but in the right direction," he said. "I’m hopeful it's going to be days." UN agencies had been gathering supplies and Saad said they needed 24-48 hours to get aid moving once they got the green light.
Troops from Eritrea, a separate country which borders Tigray, as well as forces from other Ethiopian regions, have taken part in the conflict on the side of the Ethiopian army.
Neither Eritrea nor the regional forces participated in the talks in South Africa and there was no mention at Wednesday's ceremony of whether they would abide by the truce.
For survivors of Ethiopia's Tigray war, truce brings cautious hope
"I’m very happy, because this will put a hold on the suffering," said one Tigrayan man in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa who declined to be identified for fear of repercussions at his workplace.
"The positivity comes from humanitarian assistance and the restoration of basic services," he said, referring to pledges made by Tigrayan regional forces and the federal government in a joint statement on Wednesday after eight days of formal peace talks.
"We still have questions on the agreement ... we didn’t hear anything about Eritrea. I hope that it will be in the details."
Another man, Molla, who declined to use his full name, said he was in his home in the northern Amhara town of Kobo when Tigrayan fighters attacked in September last year.
Human Rights Watch, citing witnesses, said 23 civilians were killed by Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) fighters in Kobo at that time. Tigray leaders said they would punish any fighters targeting non-combatants.
"They shot at us. My brothers died, we had to bury (them)," said Molla, who escaped with a bullet wound in his shoulder. "We would be happy if this is a real peace. We would be so relieved. We will have to find a way to stop re-living the past."
"We lost everything. Just, literally everything," said Andom Gebreyesus, who ran a tour company in Tigray before the war.
He managed to escape to Kenya with his children but, like many, has not heard from the rest of his family in more than a year.
The cessation of hostilities may bring relief to them, he said, but is unlikely to offer lasting peace.
"It's the most...the most unreachable place. No communication, no power, no banking system. I don't even know if they are alive. I don't know."
Deep political tensions
The war stems from a catastrophic breakdown in relations between the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), a guerrilla movement turned political party which dominated Ethiopia for 27 years, and Abiy, who was once part of their ruling coalition but whose appointment in 2018 ended the TPLF’s dominance.
Escalating tensions in 2018-20, including over Abiy's peace deal with the TPLF's sworn enemy Eritrea, and the TPLF's decision to defy him by holding regional elections in Tigray that he had postponed nationwide, tipped the parties into war.
Wednesday's agreement does not address the deeper political tensions that contributed to the conflict.
The AU said in a statement it stood ready to continue accompanying the Ethiopian peace process "towards a more democratic, just and inclusive Ethiopia in which youth, women and men participate fully and in peace."
"The lasting solution can only be dialog," said former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, a co-mediator in the talks.
The TPLF has accused Abiy of centralizing power at the expense of the regions and oppressing Tigrayans, which he denies, while Abiy has accused the TPLF of seeking to return to power at the national level, which it rejects.
The United Nations says the war has led to a de facto blockade of Tigray that has lasted close to two years, with humanitarian supplies of food and medicines unable to get through most of the time.
Some aid supplies did get delivered to Tigray between March and August this year during a temporary ceasefire, but fighting restarted in August and the World Health Organization said last week Tigray had run out of vaccines, antibiotics and insulin.
It said health facilities were resorting to using saline solutions and rags to treat and dress wounds.
The government has consistently denied blocking aid and has said it was distributing food and restoring electricity and other services to areas under its control.
Human rights violations by all sides in the war, including extra-judicial killings, raping, looting and displacing people by force, have been documented by UN bodies, Ethiopia's state-appointed human rights commission, independent aid groups and media including Reuters.