Viewpoint

The African Union must intervene to stop the war in Ethiopia

The AU must unshackle itself from history to broker a ceasefire and mediate a peace talk.

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.

That 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 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, 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 African Union put a stop to this war and save lives?

Before answering that question, we must first give credit to the organization. The Chairperson at the time, 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 sent no envoy, nor it offered any peace proposal. This contrasts with the efforts of the United States and the European Union, 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 the thirty-two African States signed the Charter establishing the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

Ethiopia was not only the founding member of the OAU, but it was its nucleus. The leadership of Haile Selassie’s government to the creation of the organization has left a permanent legacy.

Ethiopia’s anti-colonial successes are the bedrock of the organization’s founding principles.

In short, Ethiopia has a special place in the AU. The country is the organization’s heartbeat, embedded in the Union’s collective psyche.

It seems the AU and its member states carry the burden of history. They dare not go against the Ethiopian government. One example is the official statement on the war from the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, favoring the Ethiopian government’s position.

The curse of geography

The AU, after fifty-eight years of stay in Addis Abeba, is both a landmark and a focus of the city’s flurry of diplomatic activities.

The organization has a special relationship with the Ethiopian government. The 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 Abeba is the main restraint on its ability to influence its host. The upshot is that the war in Tigray gets a silent treatment.

Perhaps one demonstration of how geography is important relates to the decision by the AU’s Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to probe into the alleged violations of 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 Abeba.

The dearth of institutions

The diplomatic efforts of the US and the EU can partly be explained by the pressures coming from human rights institutions and the media.

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

But there are no such African human rights institutions or media houses that could 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 skeptical 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 those “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 African Union going to sit and watch its mother nation destroy herself?

That will 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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Main photo: The headquarters of the African Union building in Addis Abeba; Reuters.

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About the author

Fassil Hailu

Fassil is a pen name for a regular Ethiopia Insight columnist. He is an independent analyst and writes on development and political economy, with a special focus on the Horn of Africa.

13 Comments

  • Axum the birthplace of ancient Ethiopian civilization: if they , Tigrians , want to move forward, the political power should be transferred from the old guards to the younger generation.Sadly the older politicians will adamantly refuse to cede power. For three decades they were in power ,but delivered not much in the economic sense; the majority of Tigrians are still very poor; the old guards have not allowed dissenting voices to be heard and partly they are responsible for this horrendous war.I am afraid if they secede from Ethiopia their fate could be the same as Eritreans living under absolute dictatorship were people flee their country in millions! economically they will be much worse; hence they should live in Ethiopia with respect and dignity;this war that is raging now must stop; a country or perhaps “countries “who live on alms and charities should not spend so much wealth on war rather than feeding their starving populations!The border problem between Amhara and Tigrai states should be handed over to international bodies for lasting peace; accession by force is only a temporary solution or victory for either side. Up until now Tigrai people are Ethiopians and they should be treated as such;they are not enemies of Ethiopia! All these rages and vituperations on this site do not change the facts on the ground.Tigrai should be given time and space to heal ;once this is done they will come back to the fold.

  • The article ”The African Union (AU) must intervene to stop the war in Ethiopia” might be written with good intentions. But, the question is whether the AU has the capacity to intervene and solve the Tigray crisis. According to the H.E. Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, AU has no institutional capacity to resolve conflicts in the continent. This means that the crisis in Tigray is beyond the AU. Moreover, many doubt AU, for its credibility and neutrality, particularly when it comes to the Tigray crisis. Because the commissioner of the AU, H.E. Musa Faki, has publically and officially expressed his support to Ethiopian government and its allied forces on the war they waged against the people of Tigray. This implies that the AU could no longer be a credible and neutral organ to solve the conflict between the Tigray and Ethiopian governments.
    In conclusion: Regarding to the Tigray crisis, AU is not credible and impartial. Further, this continental organization lacks the capacity to resolve conflicts in Africa. Therefore looking for alternatives is necessary to end the conflict in Ethiopia, for example, the UN through its security council.
    Victory to the people of Tigray!!

  • TPLF elites, deep inside know they have no bargaining chips. Ethiopia won the war. TPLF cannot in any shape or form march to Addis. March to Addis to do what? In 2018, EPRDF was ousted by the struggle of the Ethiopian people. EPRDF begged for forgiveness from the Ethiopian people. PM Hailemariam Dessalegn resigned and Abiy came to power through an internal process and vote in which Debretsion participated. A regime rises and falls, what is the big deal here? Thirty years of iron fist rule, one entire generation wasted. From the first Woyane movement of the 1940s (refusal to pay taxes, cooperation with the Italian remnant fascists to attack the Imperial central government after the defeat of Mussolini), Woyane has wasted three generations on war against rest of Ethiopia. Yet after all this, after all the looting and stealing, Tigray still remains in abject poverty. A few members of the TPLF live in luxury and plump, while rest of Tigreans live in poverty and tears. The threat of secession by TPLF elites should mean nothing to Ethiopia. If the majority want to secede, go ahead. A division of the debt incurred by the country should be assessed, those who do not want to be a citizen of Ethiopia proper, should be registered as foreigners and leave the country. Simple.

    The country has enormous problems. They will be solved through data driven technocratic force. The past three years have clearly shown the fruits of ethnocentrism, ethnic federalism and tribal nepotism. They all show lack of patriotism, empty bravado, moral decay, mental stagnation, collapse of morality and ethics, lack of accountability, insatiable greed, war, hatred of the other and finally demise of the crazy Marxist-Leninist die hard ideologues and their finally disappearance into the dustbins of horrific history. Text book example of “though shall not run a country like the TPLF did”!!!

  • Asking the most corrupted and useless organization in the face of the earth to solve the very complicated crisis in the continent is just naivety. when the Ethiopian mad man decided to go to war in crushing fashion with help of Eritrea and UEA, it was well and dandy for most Ethiopians, they were dancing and flag-waving jubilation in the streets of Addis Ababa, the home of the African Union as if tegrayans are not Ethiopians or Africans.
    Now the table has been turned and the TPLF are marching toward Addis. it is expected the ዉታፍ ነቃይ association will start begging for a peaceful solution but the TPLF will not accept it until abiy is down on his knees.

  • The author is either conveniently or naturally ignorant. Why else would he miss the most basic and fundamental of all reasons why AU is not intervening– to respect non-interference, territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of a nation is *CLEARLY* enshrined in its charter.

    I don’t understand why just because the foolhardy USA can openly flout international laws and norms and act like the world police does not mean EU should follow same madness and police African states, too.

    Ethiopia will prevail. Tigray people will reject Terrorist Tplf just like the rest of Ethiopian states have. Simple as that!

  • Ethiopia is going in the right direction against all odds, things could be done better than this. TPLF is the cancer of Ethiopia which need to be uprooted for good. The illusion of most Tigre elites will be clear soon. The sabotage is sponsored and directed by western powers in the name of democracy. Welkait and Raya belongs to Gondar and Wollo Amhara, respectively and the residents right should be respected. Ethiopia will prevail.

  • Let’s be clear about this – while horrendous crimes were being committed against *civilians* with only parallels to the rwanda genocide all was well but once the tigrayans were awakened by these brutal evil ethnic cleansing unforgivable attempt at mass extinction and have not only regained control of most of their territory but stand to eliminate the aggressors now you cry wolf and want AU to intervene. The game is over and the amhara elites have shown their true colors i.e. ‘the people of tigray are the enemies of ethiopia’ – good riddance ethiopia – it was only a facade of an empire built on the template of european colonial empires – it is hollow. Tigray will be independent and just as you saw massive investment on its people and development it is poised to succeed. The Tigrayan people are fighting a just fight and Abiy+Isaias are bound to be stars at the ICC – master criminals of unimaginable evil

  • In one of the discussions held a few years ago,Tsadikan was asked why they (TPLF) drafted the Ethiopian federal regions as killels ( enclosures), his answer was surprising, something to the effect: “it was our understanding then”. The ethno federalist enclosures should be an affront to any thinking individual.The traditional regional provinces actually respected the autonomy and historical background of the various ethnic groups in Ethiopia. The contempt and marginalization of over 30 million people as SNNPR is not only absurd but out right offensive. How funny it is that TPLF accuses others as unitary and expansionist after bulldozing several provinces with their own distinct history and language as one region so as to give its 6% minority population an over enlarged and aggrandize importance for representation at the federal level. The Somali region much larger in size and more likely in population as well received virtually nothing in 30 years of TPLF rule. Recall that the cities of Harar and Dire Dawa were among the more advanced and metropolitan in Ethiopia as a whole. Especially, the city of Dire Dawa, an industry magnet, with her easy going metropolitan, multi lingual, multi ethnic population suffered the most blow under TPLF. Dire Dawa and Harar now look so dilapidated, much poorer and neglected, frozen in time and stuck to 30 to 40 years back. Yet Harar had running tap water as early as the 1940s, many more shops and was the fruit basket of Ethiopia, with its warm climate, famous for Harar bananas, papaya, guavas, the unique Gishta (wild apple custard) and more. Dire, its famous cement factory, textile industries ,breweries all weakened and destroyed thanks to ethnic federalism. Great job. 👏

  • Tigray is a regional government, it must accept the supremacy of the federal government. TPLF has violated the constitution it wrote and idolized as untouchable by running an illegitimate election in November 2020, to delegitimize the PM. From 2018 through 2021, a reported 113 provocations, skirmishes and mini wars have occurred in Ethiopia. According to the federal government, these were orchestrated and financed by TPLF. In social media, there are some admissions from TPLF group of that sad fact. These incidents have resulted in the deaths of thousands of Ethiopians and displacement and disenfranchisement of millions more. From 2018 through 2021, Debre Tsion has been hostile and beating the drums of war against the regional Amhara state. In 2019, he was mocking the chaos and destruction that occurred in Bahir Dar. PM Abiy became the chairman of the EPRDF and the interim PM through an internal mechanism and vote of the EPRDF parties. Debre Tsion was there.

    To come out of the current impasse, the Tigray region should hand over 1)Debretsion, 2)Tsadikan, 3)Getachew Reda, 4)Getachew Assefa and all other individuals who participated and orchestrated the November attack. Without this first move, everything else is a non starter. The claim of annexation of land by the author is meritless. It was actually the TPLF that annexed land from the previous Gonder province in 1991.

    The TPLF has violated the constitution and insurrection against the federal government is treason. No ifs or buts. It has damaged the interests of the nation, violated the laws of the land. Its name must be dissolved. Tigreans are the true brothers and sisters of Ethiopians. Many Ethiopians have Tigrean ancestry. There is a difference between TPLF and people of Tigray. Children should not under any circumstances be exploited as soldiers for political gain.

    • Ezana
      I am sure this isn’t your real name. You can’t bring peace by what you wrote. It’s the Amhara elites wrong rhetoric such as yours which is leading the imperial Ethiopia to a failed state in the near future.

    • Yes indeed. I am mixed Ethiopian (Amhara and Tigrean ancestry). I always love Tigrean brothers and Sisters of mine but unconditionally opposed TPLF’s Far Left Tigrean Ultra-nationalist ideology… Good points. Thanks!

  • 🇪🇹there are many options available for Ethiopia🇪🇹. if it listens a word. In fact, huge numbers of Ethiopian haven’t understood, Ethiopia is poor nation in a part of Africa that whatever happens in Africa possibly can happen in🇪🇹Ethiopia.

    first step is PM AbiyAxmed speaks directly to Tigrey people on live Tv📺, & clearly simlply requests 3 options plus..

    1- If Tigrey🇻🇳wants independence now, Ethiopia is ready for peaceful solution or referendum.

    2- If Tigrey🇻🇳prefers an union, Ethiopia🇪🇹 is ready to reform the structure for new Confederation system that lets administer their local affairs @ official map of Tigrey.

    3- or Tigrey🇻🇳proposes their agenda to Ethiopia🇪🇹in public to facilitate stakeholder conference for all nations & politicians.

    however, if🇪🇹Ethiopia gov. stays the course & assumes a magic is coming from wait & see, they are making a big mistake because 5 more months Ethiopia🇪🇹solution might be very dangerous or fragile state if not a failed state. its a matter of time that Tigrey forces & Oromo opposition (ONF) or other opportunities (Amhara) join forces. No one was expected Afar crisis a week ago.

    AU or African countries’ peacekeepers can’t do much other than protect properties or some areas. AU peacekeepers is in🇸🇴Somalia🇸🇴for 17 years still in-progress though they done appreciated services for🇸🇴Somalia🇸🇴.

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