Tigray leaders are highly critical of African Union-led efforts to bring peace to Ethiopia – including AU negotiator Olusegun Obasanjo’s suggestion that Eritrea should join the peace process.
A peaceful resolution of Ethiopia’s current crisis is not imminent. The genocidal war on Tigray rages unabated. Western Tigray remains under brutal occupation by Amhara regional forces and their Eritrean patron. Tigrayans in Western Tigray continue to be subjected to a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing by the invading forces.
As a result, hundreds of thousands Tigrayans have been forcibly uprooted from their homes. The Eritrean army also continues to occupy parts of Eastern, Central and Northwestern Zones of Tigray, transgressing international humanitarian and human rights laws in areas under its brutal occupation.
For its part, the Abiy regime continues its relentless assault on Tigray through an all-encompassing siege. Even after the much-ballyhooed humanitarian truce, the aid trickling into Tigray is far from sufficient to meet staggering needs on the ground. The ban on fuel along with limits on operational cash has forced aid agencies to reduce the scale and scope of humanitarian operations across Tigray.
Peace, what peace?
Severely aggravating this manmade crisis is the suspension of essential socioeconomic services, such as banking, electricity, and communications. The suspension of banking services has been particularly injurious, preventing millions of Tigrayans from accessing their hard-earned savings, exposing them to extreme hardship, and violating their basic right to life—a non-derogable right under international law.
Any peace process that doesn’t, at a minimum, reckon with these realities is bound to be fail. Against this backdrop, it’s baffling to claim that a peaceful resolution of the current conflict is in the offing.
Following a recent briefing to the African Union (AU)’s Peace and Security Council by the its High Representative for the Horn of Africa, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the AU claims that there is hope for an imminent diplomatic breakthrough with respect to peace talks between Tigray and the Abiy regime.
However, the fact is that a negotiated ceasefire and a comprehensive political settlement are nowhere closer to being achieved now than they were at the time of Mr. Obasanjo’s appointment a year ago. For that reason, this optimistic assessment reflects a troubling loss of touch with reality, suggesting that the AU is groping in the dark.
At the same time, the AU’s rosy assessment is contradicted elsewhere in the briefing notes when the High Representative presumably recommends that the AU commission “welcome” the Abiy regime’s embrace of an AU-led peace process, and “encourage” the ‘TPLF’ to do the same.
This curious recommendation raises some questions. Since Mr. Obasanjo has been engaged in shuttle diplomacy for a year now, what was the underlying rationale for his efforts if the AU did not think the Government of Tigray was sincerely committed to entertaining serious peace proposals?
Second, if the AU Commission does not think that the parties to the conflict are in agreement as to the role of the AU in any peace process, why conclude that a breakthrough was imminent, presumably under its auspices? Only the AU Commission could answer these questions.
Meanwhile, the Abiy regime has made it clear that it is willing to partake only in an AU-led peace initiative. Like all repressive regimes that prefer to do their dirty work without any scrutiny, the Abiy regime recoils at the possibility of the democratic West taking direct or indirect part in the mediation process.
Abiy hides behind AU
Its persistent blockage of diplomats and Special Envoys of the EU, the US and the UN from visiting Tigray until recently reflects its fear of being compelled to give peace a chance.
By contrast, the Abiy regime understandably sees the AU Commission as an ally, since, under the leadership of Moussa Faki Mahamat, it has provided tacit approval to the regime’s genocidal assault on Tigray.
Consequently, the Abiy regime has taken no practical steps to demonstrate a sincere commitment to peace. Nor has it done anything to instill confidence that it wants Mr. Obasanjo to succeed in his mission. Seen through this prism, Mr. Obasanjo’s lack of substantive achievements to show for his efforts thus far is not surprising.
The Abiy regime has also repeatedly undermined Mr. Obasanjo, guaranteeing that there would be no progress in his year-long shuttle diplomacy. During one of his shuttles, Mr. Obasanjo had urged the parties to undertake confidence-building measures. We made a promise to Mr. Obasanjo that we would release prisoners of war as a gesture of goodwill.
Per that promise, we released over 4000 prisoners of war in May. Nevertheless, the Abiy regime declined to have anything to do with Mr. Obasanjo’s peacemaking efforts by turning a deaf ear to his plea for some sign of goodwill.
But the Abiy regime did not simply fail to reciprocate our gesture of goodwill by at least releasing the thousands of innocent Tigrayans rounded up solely because of their identity and being held in concentration camps throughout Ethiopia. It actually denied it had prisoners of war in Tigray. Apparently, disowning one’s own soldiers was more palatable to Abiy than admitting battlefield setbacks or needing to make concessions in the interest of peace.
Sadly, Mr. Obasanjo and the AU remained silent in the face of this brazen disavowal of thousands of prisoners of war captured while waging the regime’s genocidal war on Tigray. Even worse, the prisoners are languishing in internment camps in the Afar Region and nobody seems to say a word in their defence.
This sort of silence has undoubtedly emboldened the regime to continue trafficking in disingenuous rhetoric while undermining peace efforts in practice. Despite the Government of Tigray’s politically risky but bold gesture of goodwill, the AU Commission and Mr. Obasanjo seemed enthralled by the Abiy regime’s empty promises and public relations gimmicks.
It should be clear that Mr. Obasanjo’s appointment as a High Representative was not an offer of a formal position to be maintained at any cost. He was appointed with specific assignments in mind. The longevity of his tenure is, thus, purely a function of his ability to achieve specific results. So far, those results have proved elusive.
Absent drastic changes in how they operate, Mr. Obasanjo and the AU cannot shake off the widespread perception that they are excessively bending over backwards to accommodate a contemptuous regime at the expense of their own credibility. Without the confidence to draw red lines on Mr. Obasanjo’s part, the Abiy regime will continue to drag the process indefinitely.
Under these circumstances, it is better to leave with one’s head high than engage in an elusive quest for results from a regime staunchly opposed to one’s success.
Indeed, there are also clear indications that the Abiy regime sees expressing a perfunctory interest in peace talks as a way out of the economic, political and diplomatic predicament it finds itself in. Uninterested in settling political differences through dialogue and enamoured of coercion, the Abiy regime has left a long trail of death, mayhem and destruction.
An ineffective African Union
As a result, it sees publicly committing itself to a largely ineffective AU-led peace process as a cost-effective strategy to present itself as a champion of peace, and avoid being subjected to international opprobrium and sanctions, while still trying to siege-starve the people of Tigray into submission.
But even this duplicitous embrace of the AU-led peace process has earned the Abiy regime undeserved praise from the AU-PSC as well as some elements of the international community eager to see even a faint interest in peace coming from a regime otherwise known for committing large-scale human rights violations.
Despite the AU Commission’s demonstrable and demonstrated ineffectiveness in moving the peace process forward, the rest of the international community remains reluctant to intervene on account of a well-intentioned but misplaced commitment to the idea of “African solutions for African problems.”
Predictably, the Abiy regime has exploited this understandable sensitivity to impede genuine efforts towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict by disingenuously dismissing non-African proposals for peace as a form of “neocolonialism.”
The international community must see through this transparent subterfuge and hold the Abiy regime accountable for its persistent foot-dragging, and fraudulent narratives.
The people and Government of Tigray fully subscribe to the principle of Pan-Africanism and the prioritisation of African solutions for African problems. However, the AU, under the leadership of Moussa Faki Mahamat, has become an apologist for a brutal regime seeking to starve and bomb its own people into submission.
Despite attempts to stave off critical scrutiny by draping itself with the mantle of Pan-Africanism, it is the Abiy regime that continues to solicit and receive financial, diplomatic and military backing from non-African nations as it brutalizes the people of Tigray. In fact, had Abiy been sincere about his fondness for African mediation, he wouldn’t have rebuffed prior efforts by preeminent African personalities to mediate a negotiated end to the current conflict.
It was also Abiy along with his authoritarian counterparts in Asmara and Mogadishu that did the most damage to the AU and IGAD’s ability to manage conflicts and ensure peace and stability. It was also Abiy, at the behest of Isaias Afewerki, that disinvited the then Chairman of the AU, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, from the signing ceremony of the so-called peace deal between Abiy and Isaias in Saudi Arabia.
In short, Abiy is using the AU for his own narrow political interests, not to secure peace in Ethiopia. That the AU Commission appears to be a willing participant in this deceptive scheme is a stain on its credibility and impartiality.
Importantly, some of the ideas that appeared in Mr. Obasanjo’s briefing to the Peace and Security Council confirm the AU’s serious limitations as a mediator.
To start with, the briefing drips with a stunning lack of appreciation for the extent of suffering in Tigray or even a rudimentary understanding of the dynamics of the conflict. A case in point is the AU Commission’s counterproductive idea of negotiations “without preconditions,” effectively regurgitating the Abiy regime’s talking points.
The AU Commission and some members of the international community seem to presume that the restoration of the pre-war status quo ante and the resumption of essential life-saving services in Tigray—two of the few trust building measures that the international community and the Government of Tigray have presented—are inimical to peace talks.
It is small surprise, then, that the Abiy regime and its allies—the principal architects of Tigray’s unimaginable suffering—are the ones latching onto this insipid idea.
After all, it is the people of Tigray that are being asked to negotiate while starving; it is the people of Tigray that are being asked to negotiate with their constitutionally-recognised, legitimate territory under brutal occupation; and it is the people of Tigray that are being asked to negotiate while their fundamental rights are being violated through the suspension of basic services and the weaponisation of aid.
Despite its persistent assault on the constitutional order, the Abiy regime unconvincingly claims that the “status” of Western Tigray will be determined based on the constitution. But nowhere in the constitution does it instruct the federal government or regional states to revise the country’s internal boundaries through force.
If this regime is truly invested in preserving the constitutional order, it cannot enforce only constitutional provisions that dovetail with its political interests.
Survival, a ‘problematic precondition’
The AU and other concerned bodies that frame our demands to be allowed to survive as problematic preconditions impeding the quest for peace should reflect on their suppositions for, in so doing, they are complicating efforts to put this tragic conflict to an end.
Any dialogue with an adversary that has forcibly seized one’s territory and placed a deadly chokehold on millions of one’s people is anything but negotiation. It is blackmail of the worst kind.
Most worryingly, the AU Commission peddles some dangerous ideas that, if implemented, would make any peace talks dead on arrival. Mr. Obasanjo recommends that the AU Commission “extend a formal invitation to the Republic of Eritrea to join ongoing AU-led efforts aimed at finding lasting diplomatic solutions to the conflict between the Federal Government of Ethiopia and the TPLF.” In the annals of bad ideas, this one takes a front row seat.
Sustaining the notion that Eritrea possesses the capacity for a constructive role in resolving the current conflict requires the suspension of disbelief. It also requires disregarding unambiguous evidence establishing Eritrea’s guilt in instigating, and participating in, the genocidal assault on Tigray, and its long and well-established track-record of destabilising the region.
In fact, since joining the international system as an independent state some three decades ago, Eritrea has been a destabilising force in the region. In 2009, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Eritrea for its role as a destabilising force in the Horn of Africa.
The Security Council levied even tougher sanctions on Eritrea in 2011 over its support for al-Shabaab and destabilisation of neighbouring states. These sanctions were lifted in 2018 following a war pact against Tigray with Abiy masqueraded as a peace agreement. When the moment came, Abiy would let Eritrea’s murderous army loose across Tigray.
Eritrea partners with Abiy and Amhara allies
Since November 2020, Eritrea has partnered with the Abiy regime and its domestic Amhara allies in the brutal war on Tigray. The Eritrean army has deliberately destroyed infrastructure, engaged in large scale extrajudicial killings, looted private and public wealth, and weaponised sexual violence, among the myriad atrocities its forces committed, and continue to commit, in Tigray.
Despite Abiy’s claims that Eritrean troops were withdrawing last year, they continued to commit heinous atrocities in Tigray. The most glaring example of Eritrea’s flagrant transgression of the laws of armed conflict is the merciless massacre of hundreds of civilians in Axum.
The Eritrean army has also violated international humanitarian laws by blocking and looting food aid. In fact, Eritrea’s conduct was so egregious that the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs at the time, Mark Lowcock, publicly accused Eritrea of using starvation as a weapon of war in June 2021.
In addition to its massive military presence in Western Tigray, the Eritrean army also occupies parts of the North-Western, Central and Eastern Zones of Tigray. That it continues to occupy large swaths of Tigrayan territory is evidence of Isaias’s unrelenting desire to subdue Tigray.
To that end, Isaias has formed an alliance with Amhara expansionist elites with insatiable appetite for territorial acquisition. Isaias’s cultivation of links with sub-state groups within Ethiopia undermines efforts towards the peaceful resolution of the current conflict by reducing Abiy’s room to manoeuvre.
What is more, Eritrean intelligence, security and military officers have also penetrated various state institutions in Ethiopia, placing themselves in critical positions to destabilise the country. These covert and overt operatives engage in illicit activities, plundering the country’s wealth, sowing social discord, and bankrupting the country.
The state of Eritrea has not altered its malign activities in the region. It thrives on turmoil. Isaias cannot point to socioeconomic progress to legitimate his repressive reign. Subjugating citizens and fomenting conflict and instability in neighbouring countries remain the Eritrean dictator’s strategy for consolidating his grip on power at home. After all, Eritrea does not have high-demand commodities to export to the rest of the world.
What it does have, however, is the ability to sell the services of its intelligence, security and military officers to the highest bidder. The viability of such an ‘export sector’ rests on the prevalence of regional instability. Creating and maintaining instability across the region is, thus, good for business. Given the logic of this peculiar political economy, the despotic regime in Eritrea sees peace as bad for business, and, by extension, an existential threat.
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It is, thus, no secret that a divided and weakened Ethiopia is the Eritrean despot’s dream scenario. Only such an Ethiopia can be a playground for Eritrean operatives. Only such an Ethiopia can entertain Isaias’s delusions of grandeur and fantasy as a regional kingmaker.
Given Isaias’s obvious conflict of interest, the notion that he would serve as a peacemaker strains credulity. Following through on this idea would deal a fatal blow to the peace process.
Isiais as spoiler
The resolution of Ethiopia’s conflict and the maintenance of regional stability, instead, require a strategy to neutralise this classic spoiler—an actor to whom peace is anathema and is, therefore, willing to do whatever it takes to impede efforts to bring it about. Inviting such an actor to help resolve the very conflict it is largely responsible for, as the AU does with respect to Eritrea, is the antithesis of such a strategy.
Regurgitating the Abiy regime’s exhausting talking points and making a mockery of justice and accountability by inviting one of the principal architects of the genocidal campaign against Tigray – Eritrea – to join mediation efforts are steps in the wrong direction.
What would be helpful and worthy of the AU’s time and resources is for it to call for the immediate restoration of the prewar status quo ante—the withdrawal of all invading forces from constitutionally-recognised Tigrayan territories—the resumption of suspended services, and unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray.
But time is of the essence. The people and Government of Tigray cannot and should not be expected to continue to be strung along with the Abiy regime’s nonstop deception. For its part, the international community should stop being complicit in prolonging Tigray’s ongoing humanitarian calamity.
The AU Commission’s conduct under the current leadership has done considerable damage to the institution, turning it into a champion of the oppressor at the expense of the victim. Having failed to play a constructive role in preventing the outbreak of the war on Tigray, the AU Commission would also go on to bless the genocidal war once underway, turning a blind eye to the unimaginable atrocities committed, and being committed, against the people of Tigray.
Despite our well-justified concerns about the AU’s impartiality, we have too much respect for the AU as an institution to insist on its complete exclusion from the peace process. For that reason, we welcome some role for the AU in efforts to help us bring the current conflict to an end.