stop the war

Ethiopia: Why hasn’t the African Union intervened in Tigray?

By Fassil Hailu

Posted on July 30, 2021 09:06

Ethiopia Tigray US Visit © FILE – In this Friday July 2, 2021 file photo, captured members of the Ethiopian National Defense Force are marched through the streets to prison under guard by Tigray Forces as hundreds of residents look on, in Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. (AP Photo/File)
FILE – In this Friday July 2, 2021 file photo, captured members of the Ethiopian National Defense Force are marched through the streets to prison under guard by Tigray Forces as hundreds of residents look on, in Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. (AP Photo/File)

The war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia has entered its second phase. The first saw an attempt to eliminate the TPLF-led Tigrayan forces by the sheer might of the Ethiopian and Eritrean national armies.

This article was first published in Ethiopia Insight. 

The first phase had succeeded, to some extent, in crippling the Tigrayan forces. But after eight months of chaos, it turned out to be a bungled operation, ending with the national armies of the two countries on the back foot. The Tigrayan forces are now back in control of the capital Mekelle and much of the region’s territory.

The second phase of the war is predicted to be deadlier, as the bone of contention is now land – vast swathes of it. The Amharas, aided by regional special forces from the rest of Ethiopia, want to hold on to their recent annexation of western and southern Tigray, which they claim are areas the TPLF took from them by force. The Tigrayans want the land back under their control.

We are witnessing an ethnically charged confrontation with consequences no observer wants even to imagine – a carnage. In his recent speech to parliament, Prime Minister Abiy said his government could assemble 100,000 special forces in no time. He then added that they could even recruit one million young men who are ready to fight.

The same rhetoric is heard from the Tigrayan side – that the people have risen and taken up arms, from young and old to militias and university professors.

This is on top of an already dire situation. For instance, UNOCHA reports that 5.2 million people in Tigray need humanitarian assistance.

About 400,000 of them have “crossed the threshold into famine”. UNICEF says 33,000 children are at imminent risk of death from starvation.

Why can’t the AU put a stop to this war and save lives? Before answering this question, we must first give credit to the organisation. AU’s former chairperson, Cyril Ramaphosa, appointed former presidents Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa as special envoys to seek a ceasefire and start mediation talks.

Unfortunately, the Ethiopian government rebuffed the AU’s effort, confident that its forces were marching to Mekelle to oust the Tigrayan forces.

Since November 2020, however, the AU has not sent any envoy nor has it offered any peace proposal. This is in contrast with the efforts of the US and the EU, who sent a series of envoys to secure a cessation of hostilities and bring the warring sides to the table. There are at least three reasons that explain why the AU has given up on resolving Africa’s most destructive conflict today.

The burden of history

In 1963, the heads of 32 African states signed the charter establishing the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Ethiopia was not only the founding member of the OAU, but also its nucleus. Consequently, the leadership of Haile Selassie’s government has left a permanent legacy.

For the AU, Ethiopia’s anti-colonial successes are the bedrock of its founding principles. In short, Ethiopia has a special place in the Union: it is the organisation’s heartbeat, embedded in its collective psyche.

It is because of this that the AU and its member states seemingly carry the burden of history. They dare not go against the Ethiopian government. One case in point is the official statement on the war from the chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, favouring the Ethiopian government’s position.

The curse of geography

The AU, after 59 years of having its headquarters in Addis Ababa, is both a landmark and a focus of the city’s flurry of diplomatic activities. The organisation has a special relationship with the Ethiopian government. AUC staffers and the ambassadors are more than acquaintances with their counterparts from Ethiopia’s ministry of foreign affairs. They frequently mingle, often wheeling and dealing at cocktails and receptions.

Therefore, the AU’s proximity to the corridors of power in Addis Ababa is the main restraint to its ability to influence its host. The upshot is that the war in Tigray gets silent treatment.

Perhaps one demonstration of how geography is important is the decision by the AU’s Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to probe alleged violations of the international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

The government of Ethiopia was unhappy and urged the AU to “immediately cease” the commission of inquiry, calling it “illegal” and “misguided”.

It’s safe to argue that this commission of inquiry benefitted from sitting in Banjul, the Gambia – a safe distance away from Addis Ababa.

The dearth of institutions

The diplomatic efforts of the US and the EU can be partly attributed to the pressure from human rights institutions and international media.

Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, CNN, AFP and others have reported on atrocities including gang rape, extrajudicial killings, destruction of properties and other crimes committed during the eight months of fighting in Tigray.

But there are no African human rights institutions or media houses that can launch similar investigations and use their findings to lobby their governments to push for a ceasefire or peace talks.

Their absence is a sad state of affairs and one reason why perhaps African leaders do not feel the urgency to urge the parties in conflict to end the war.

Having such ‘indigenous’ African institutions would also have lessened the polarisation. For instance, supporters of the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea are sceptical about the charges labelled against their governments by the ‘western’ human rights institutions and the media.

They often see them as instruments of ‘neo-colonialism’. Supporters of the Tigrayan fighters, on the other hand, see ‘western’ institutions as their voice.

Time for the AU to act

The federal government of Ethiopia and the Amhara forces have vowed to obliterate their Tigrayan adversaries once and for all. The TPLF-led forces also pledged to put up fierce resistance and even go farther out to engage their opponents.

Is the AU going to sit by and watch its ‘mother nation’ destroy itself? That would be a historic mistake. The current AU chairperson, Felix-Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo, must resuscitate Cyril Ramaphosa’s ‘initiative for peace’ and reappoint the envoys. The AU shouldn’t fail to deliver on its aspiration to achieve ‘a peaceful and secure Africa’ as set out in its Agenda 2063.

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