Ethiopia/Tigray: ‘UN and AU silence reveals a widespread embarrassment’

By Achraf Tijani
Posted on Thursday, 22 July 2021 16:29

Tigrayan soldiers in Mekele in the aftermath of the Tigrayan capital’s recapture, 29 June 2021. AP/SIPA

The recapture of Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, by rebels of the Tigray Defence Force (TDF) on 28 June, shows that the conflict in Ethiopia's northern region is far from over.

On 17 July, Tigrayan rebels continued their offensive in Afar Region, in the eastern part of the country.

The war in Tigray, which began in November 2020 after Addis Ababa’s central government launched an attack against the breakaway region, has resulted in a number of abuses and plunged part of the country into a humanitarian crisis. At the beginning of July, a senior UN official stated that more than 400,000 people had “crossed the threshold of famine”.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was emboldened by the success of his Prosperity Party (PP) in the 21 June legislative elections, has gained a significant amount of support.

On 16 July, three regions announced that they were dispatching ‘special forces’ to support the federal army in Tigray: 1) Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest region, 2) Sidama and 3) the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR). They will be supporting the Amhara forces who have been in Tigray since the hostilities began.

Marc Lavergne, a French researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and specialist in the Horn of Africa, shares his thoughts on these latest announcements.

Should we be worried that the situation may worsen after deployment of troops from these three regions?

Marc Lavergne: We are witnessing a stalemate. Prime Minister Abiy, who thinks he has been entrusted with a divine mission, doesn’t really know what to do. This war is the result of the stranglehold that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front has exerted on the Ethiopian political scene for nearly three decades.

The Tigrayan rebels are prepared – militarily and psychologically – to face an offensive from Addis Ababa. They [won’t] be taken by surprise. The troops that Abiy has mobilised from these three regions may not be trained, but they are armed. The Tigrayan rebels will be able to deal with them, but Tigray’s civilian population will end up paying a heavy price.

Has the landslide victory of Abiy’s PP during the parliamentary elections given him a free hand to restart this offensive?

This election victory is a sign of support, despite the fact that a fifth of the constituencies did not vote. Even before the elections, a racist crusade against Tigrayans had emerged within [the] Ethiopian society. Those who voted for Ahmed’s Prosperity Party take the party’s name literally. Popular assent is not a blank cheque, but rather a mission to turn Ethiopia around. And that is what Ahmed must understand, because this war is weakening the country.

Could we describe this as a diplomatic achievement for Ethiopia, in light of the African Union (AU) and UN’s joint inaction on the war in Tigray?

The UN and AU’s silence should not be interpreted as an Ethiopian diplomatic achievement but rather a widespread embarrassment. The AU’s headquarters are in Addis Ababa. Attempts have been made, at the continental level, to spare Ethiopia, given that it has the right to act in this way. Tigray is a secessionist province. It is every state’s nightmare that a part of its territory may one day want to gain independence.

Atrocities in Tigray have shocked NGOs and the international community. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – regional players that have a history of diplomatic intervention in the region – are likely to take a dim view of the situation. Indeed, this current state of affairs may hinder economic opportunities.

Which international partners can Abiy Ahmed still count on?

Ahmed’s manoeuvre is not only criminal, but also politically and diplomatically clumsy. Instead of attempting to calm the situation by negotiating with the Tigrayan rebels, he has decided to shoot at his own people, thereby alienating the international community and regional powers like Egypt. Greater recriminations from the AU, the US and Europe are expected in future; however, Ahmed may receive support from China. This confrontation in Tigray is likely to have global resonance.

As far as Eritrea is concerned, Ahmed has been somewhat duped by Issayas Afeworki. The Eritrean president gave him the ‘kiss of death’. Ahmed has allied himself with someone who is in fact a traitor, and whose aim is to dismember Ethiopia.

Given that Ahmed is trying to gain regional support, is it plausible that he might soften his stance on the Great Renaissance Dam?

For the record, it was a Tigrayan – former prime minister Meles Zenawi – who laid the dam’s foundation stone in 2011. Despite the diplomatic controversy related to this dam, Ahmed cannot turn his back on it, even though the Egyptians have stated that the water flow may no longer be sufficient for their needs and the Sudanese have expressed fears about the dam’s dikes. On a day-to-day basis, there is constant communication between tripartite committees working in Addis Ababa. But they are mere executors with technical skills, not political ones.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options