The African Union pledged in 2016 to “silence the guns” by the end of 2020, an ambitious agenda of ending armed conflicts on the continent. Just two months before that deadline, the deadliest war in years erupted in Ethiopia. On 3 November 2020, the armies of the Federal Government of Ethiopia and the State of Eritrea attacked the region of Tigray. Since then, the guns have not been silent. Instead, it is the African Union that has been silent.
That war is now two years old. Crimes against humanity and war crimes have been committed during this time. Some estimates show that over 500,000 civilians have been killed. Rape, displacement and starvation have been prevalent. Tigray has been under a complete siege with no access to land and air transport, telephone and internet access, banks and all kinds of humanitarian supplies.
The AU has shown itself to be of no use or consequence since the conflict started. During the first year of conflict, it failed to even acknowledge that there was a war. Instead, it adopted the Ethiopian government’s narrative of a “law enforcement operation” by a legitimate government against a rebellious entity. It was not until August 2021 that the AU took the first steps at mediating.
The chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki, appointed the former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, as his “high representative” to promote peace, security, stability and political dialogue all over the Horn of Africa region. This was a welcome development. But it soon became evident that the AU was not impartial. And the peace initiative was a non-starter.
One year on from Obasanjo’s appointment, the AU’s failures are as evident as they’ve been from the start. The AU Peace and Security Council – which is charged with prevention, management and resolution of conflicts – has never had any substantive agenda on Tigray. The two times it sat to discuss the war on Tigray were only to hear the briefings of Obasanjo as envoy.
The war has intensified to alarming levels. And another attempt by the AU to convene peace talks in South Africa has met delays.
The AU has failed in applying its norms and principles to the conflict in Ethiopia. Its institutions were not activated and best practices were not utilised. The AU chairperson and his special envoy have put themselves at the service of the Ethiopian government.
The AU needs to launch a credible and robust peace process with mediators mutually agreed by the conflicting parties. The guns can only be silenced by engaging genuine peace processes guided by the norms and principles of the AU.
AU’s failed diplomacy
Despite their reservations, the authorities in Tigray gave Obasanjo the benefit of the doubt, and cooperated with him for the whole year.
Obasanjo shuttled between Addis Ababa and Mekelle, the Tigrayan regional capital, six times. Tigray received him as an elderly statesperson and engaged with him constructively. They accepted his advice to release 4,500 prisoners of war as a confidence-building measure. Tigray was told that this would be reciprocated by Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed releasing an equal number of Tigrayan civilian prisoners. But when Abiy failed to deliver his end of the bargain, Obasanjo did nothing.
Before long, the Tigray leadership realised that Obasanjo was not capable of handling a complex problem that has a politico-military, historical and regional dimension. He never produced an organised agenda with measurable outputs. In three of his trips, his main agenda was to ask the authorities to release prisoners of war.
In March 2022, a “humanitarian truce” was brokered by the Americans. Obasanjo is not known to have contributed anything towards it. In August 2022, Obasanjo proposed inviting Eritrea to the negotiating table, despite knowing that this crossed a red line for Tigray.
The AU failed in other ways, too. It lost its credibility in relation to the current war when it failed to condemn the atrocities. It has never demanded that Eritrea pull out troops from the Tigray war. It was very careful to call Obasanjo’s position “high representative” and not “mediator”. Also his brief is the Horn and not Ethiopia-Tigray conflict, a clear nod to Abiy’s preference not to be seen to negotiate.
The AU was also behind the three African states represented at the United Nations Security Council. The so-called “A3” – Ghana, Gambia and Kenya – have continuously blocked any security council action, most recently in September 2022.
Litany of errors
The war in Tigray has intensified. Ethiopian and Eritrean armies have encircled Tigray in an attempt to break the resistance. Up to 60% of Ethiopian federal troops are deployed to Eritrea to fight under the command of the Eritreans. The Ethiopian Air Force has moved its operational base into Asmara. So far, several towns have been decimated by indiscriminate air raids and artillery shelling of the joint forces.
Most international actors, such as the UN, US, EU and the UK, have condemned the resumption of hostilities and the involvement of Eritrea in the war. But the AU has not.
In the middle of this, the AU chairperson invited the president of Tigray for talks in South Africa. The letter fell below the standards of the AU Commission. It did not say who else was invited. It misstated the date for the talks and didn’t say anything about logistical arrangements for the Tigrayan delegates living under a complete siege.
These mistakes are unusual from a bureaucracy that routinely organises such talks.
The letter claimed that there were continuous consultations with the parties on the issues. But the authorities in Tigray denied this.
In a strongly worded letter, former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta – a would-be co-mediator in South Africa – confirmed this lack of consultation by the AU Commission. There were also reports that the second co-mediator, former South African deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, and the South African government were not consulted on the event.
The AU’s listed agenda did not include an immediate cessation of hostilities.
The chairperson of the AU and his high representative have failed Africa and the norms, principles and institutions of the African Union. The AU needs to launch a credible, robust mediation process with mutually accepted mediators. This is what the Tigrayan authorities demanded at the outset.
The AU peace and security council should also be active enough to hold the chairperson in check and hold him to the norms and principles of the union.