Even though we are all in the dark and could not tell what really is happening but we can try to connect the dots by analyzing some hints that may give us a better picture to understand why the TPLF officials were released.
In my view, the release of TPLF officials and the huge risk PM Abiy is willing to take in the process is a clear indication that not only there has been a serious backdoor negotiation going on between the federal government and TPLF but a deal has already been struck.
What are the clues/dots that point to a possible negotiation/deal between PP and TPLF and what is in the deal?
- Few days ago, opposition parties in Tigray seem to have got leaked information about the ongoing negotiation between the federal government and TPLF. They were alarmed that TPLF alone is negotiating without including them. They issued a statement demanding they also should be part of the ongoing negotiation.
- Debretsion on his recent CNN interview talked about "formalization of the secession of hostilities" indicating to an already existing informal negotiation/deal.
- The high risk the federal government is taking to release TPLF officials Sebehat Nega & Co. This is almost unthinkable without a deal with TPLF. The federal government would have never risked so much just to show some mercy. This is a clear indication that a deal has been struck.
- PM pouring highly exaggerated military promotions the day after the release of TPLF officials. The timing and the exaggerated nature of the promotions may indicate the PMs attempt to appease the military. But why does he need to appease the military unless there is something that he did or is doing that may not sit well with the military? It looks like he fears some in the military may not be happy about his backdoor negotiation with the TPLF. After all, the war started because of the massacre of ENDF soldiers in Tigray.
- Getachew Reda today accused the Eritrean president of "sabotaging all peacemaking efforts", indicating there is already some kind of peacemaking effort going on.
- Getachew Reda in one of his interviews said that the AU mediator Obasanjo asked TPLF to accept Wolkait aka "western Tigray" as part of Gonder just like it was prior to 1991. If true, this gives us a clue what one of the demands of the federal government look like. It seems one of the demands of the federal government is that TPLF accepts that it can't administer Wolkait.
- In his latest letter to the UN, Debretsion claimed to withdraw his forces from Amhara and Afar and to be ready for peace despite the fact that "western Tigray was still occupied". It seems that he is indirectly saying that TPLF is ready for negotiations and peace process even if Wolkait aka "western Tigray" is not under his administration.
We really don't know for sure what is in the deal but from all the hints and dots we can try to guess what the deal may include.
In my view, the deal seem to include the following:
- TPLF accepts it can't administer Welkait ("western Tigray") at least until the case is reviewed by the border commission.
- Amhara region on the other hand accepts Raya waja/azebo ("southern Tigray") to stay in and administered by Tigray. We are hearing from unconfirmed reports that most of ENDF and Amhara special forces have already left or are leaving "southern Tigray" (Alamata, Waja etc.). In my view it is a matter of time until TPLF completely controls the area up to the "official" Amhara-Tigray border.
- The federal government releases TPLF officials since this was one of the constant demands of TPLF.
- The federal government also accepts TPLF to administer Tigray. The deal most likely also include the delivery of aid, the resumption of services such as telecom, banking and electricity and may also include indirect budget to Tigray.
In my view there is no best deal in this crisis. Those who reject the negotiation/the deal (from both sides) do not seem to come up with a better alternative other than to continue the war. Continuing the war is no more possible for both the federal government and TPLF. PM Abiy has a vision that is based on economic transformation. He is not like Mengistu that makes war the center of his job. To fulfill his vision, he needs economic development and prosperity. For this purpose he has no other alternative other than to end the war an soon as possible. It seems he is not ready to sacrifice his vision and stuck in the war forever.
TPLF on the other had does not have the resources to wage a conventional war for long. It's out of resources, military supplies and most likely also human resources. The only possibility to continue the war for TPLF is to switch to a guerrilla war of insurgency but that can only work if ENDF was to settle in Tigray, otherwise it has very low chance of success and only cost Tigray for years. TPLF knows it can't force the federal government with insurgency and it can't win a conventional war.
As I said, this is not the best deal as there is no best deal in this crises but at least if this helps to stop the war, I'm ready to accept it. Of course we all know this is can only postpone the war for a later time if things are not settled politically.
Thinking back, the sequence of events and the ultimate acceptance by TPLF of the offer made by PM could be as follows:
- While TPLF was in Wollo and nearing northern Showa, the AU mediator Obasanjo went to Mekele and presented PM Abiy's offer for peace. We know now for sure that the federal government demanded among others two main points. TPLF leaves Amahra and Afar regions and accepts Wolkait will be part of Gonder. This offer was hinted by both Getachew Reda and also PP spokesperson Zadig Abraha. Zadig Abraha at that time confirmed that Government will negotiate if TPLF withdraws from Amhara/Afar regions and Getachew Reda told us the federal government demanded Wolkait to be administrated by Gonder.
- TPLF rejected the offer and continued the war hopping to reach Addis Ababa and remove PM Abiy from power.
- ENDF and Ethiopian forces started a counter offensive and while the offensive was going, PM Abiy from battlefield spoke on the media and called the driving out of TPLF forces from Amhara and Afar regions the first phase of the operation. He hinted that there will be a second phase and is in preparation. Many thought the second phase could be marching to Mekele.
- PP officials including high ranking military officers were talking about marching to Mekele. General Berhanu Jula on camera told soldiers that their next mission was to march to Mekele. General Bacha Debele told to his troops that they will celebrate the final victory in Mekele. It was clear ENDF was ordered to prepare to march to Mekele.
- ENDF drives TDF out of Amhara and Afar regions and started marching to "Southern Tigray" (Waja, Alamata) and also nearing to Abergele.
- Then all of a sudden ENDF was ordered to stop its advances into Tigray. It seems that is the time when TPLF accepted the offer made by PM Abiy. TPLF was telling its supporters it was withdrawing to facilitate peace and is not defeated and the humiliation that could come by ENDF soon marching to Mekele was simply too much for TPLF and it has to accept the offer. It seems the release of Sebehat Nega & co. is only to help TPLF save face. The imminent threat of ENDF marching to Mekele did the trick!
- Tigray opposition somehow got leaked information that TPLF accepted PM's offer and cried foul.