The announcement by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (FLPT) of the release of 4 prisoners of war in Ethiopia is one of the first concrete gestures of appeasement with Addis Ababa. China plays a significant role in the negotiations.
Last week, more than 300 humanitarian aid trucks were able to reach Tigray, in northern Ethiopia. On Friday, Tigrayan FLPT rebels announced the release of 4 POWs. Two events that mark the realization of the ceasefire between the Ethiopian army and the FLPT. But which could also be harbingers of lasting peace.
According to the media group China International Publishing Group (CIPG), informal negotiations took place between the leaders of the Ethiopian Federal Army, Amharic and Afar troops on the one hand, and the leaders of the FLPT on the other, in order to facilitate the passage of humanitarian aid. Indeed, the three northern regions of Ethiopia are experiencing a severe shortage of basic necessities. A first factor which encouraged the Ethiopian belligerents to show restraint, despite the refusal of Addis Ababa, in the past, to authorize UN humanitarian convoys, for fear that the cargoes contained weapons.
On the other hand, videos are circulating on the active participation of the Chinese contingent of blue helmets in the transport and distribution of aid. Which confirms two things.
First, China will throw its weight behind the Horn of Africa. Second, China's new special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Xue Bing, is seeking to make China more visible in Ethiopia, and throughout the sub-region.
A booster shot from China
Indeed, during a visit to Kenya at the end of April, the Chinese diplomat declared: “The Horn of Africa is experiencing many difficulties, which vary from border disputes to ethnic or religious conflicts. We believe that these problems must be solved, otherwise there can be no real development”.
According to Africa Intelligence, Chinese diplomacy is currently negotiating dozens of projects in the Horn of Africa. Especially in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Projects concerning road and port infrastructure, but also two new military bases.
As a reminder, the first — the only functional — Chinese military base abroad is in Djibouti. The Middle Kingdom has always had a lot of influence in the Horn of Africa. On the other hand, on April 19, China concluded a military agreement with the Solomon Islands, allowing him to set foot in Oceania.
According to the researcher at the Asia Center of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), Sophie Boisseau du Rocher, “anything that can weaken Western positions is good for the Chinese”.
This recalls on the one hand the recent financing agreement of the World Bank with the Ethiopian government, and on the other the American deployment in Somalia. A western thrust into a region of Africa where China, Turkey and Russia to a lesser extent are very influential.
A catastrophic humanitarian situation in Ethiopia
If the diplomatic issues around the appeasement between the Ethiopian state and the rebels raise questions, peace in Tigray is also an immediate and inevitable issue. Indeed, with 700 starving people, 000 million displaced and 2 million in need of food aid, according to the UN, northern Ethiopia is the scene of a humanitarian catastrophe.
“These releases are probably both a sign of goodwill and also of the acute food shortage in Tigray,” said William Davison, Ethiopia specialist at the International Crisis Group (ICG).
“Now that aid flows to Tigray have increased, (…) the federal government should restore vital services such as banking and advance the peace process by opening talks on a permanent ceasefire with the leaders of Tigray," said the analyst.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), a total of 571 cargo trucks have reached Mekelle, Tigray since April 1. A number far exceeding that recorded since the start of the conflict in Tigray in November 2020.