Viewpoint: How Ethiopia is undermining the African Union

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Ethiopia took the lead in creating the African continental organization, the African Union (AU), but Ethiopian analyst Alex de Waal argues that his actions are now jeopardizing the founding principles of the body.

Shortly before three former African heads of state arrived in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in the northern Tigray region, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the so-called “final phase of our rule of law operations”.

This was a remarkable refusal.

Former Presidents Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from Liberia, Joachim Chissano from Mozambique and Kgalema Motlanthe from South Africa met with Abiy on Friday but were informed that the Ethiopian government would continue its military operations.

Mr Abiy also said they could not meet representatives of the group fighting Ethiopia in Tigray, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which the Prime Minister dismissed as “criminal clique”.

Image rightsEPAImage descriptionMembers of the Ethiopian Tigrayan community in South Africa have protested against the conflict

Citing the United Nations charter in a statement earlier this week, the prime minister insisted that the federal government be involved in a domestic law enforcement operation and that the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign nation be applied.

However, Nigerian legal expert Chidi Odinkalu argues that Ethiopia is using the charter to escalate a war, the opposite of its peaceful intent, and says the “audacity of this position is worrying”.

He points out that the conflict is already internationalized because Eritrea is involved and refugees are entering Sudan.

In addition, the United Nations has adopted principles to prevent states from misusing the doctrine of non-interference to obtain impunity for atrocities.

Conflict resolution has been a duty and a right since 1981. Since 2005, states have been responsible for protecting civilians in conflict.

Fear of war crimes

With the rejection of the African mediator, Mr. Abiy is not only rejecting a peace initiative. He questions the basic principles of the African Union itself.

Article 4 (g) of the AU’s founding law, which Ethiopia acceded in 2002, stipulates “no interference by one Member State in the internal affairs of another”.

However, this is immediately followed by Article 4 (h), which gives the AU the right to “intervene in a Member State … in relation to serious circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity”.

This so-called “duty of indifference” was introduced in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.

It was first formulated by an international panel of eminent figures, strongly supported by Ethiopia and brought together to recommend how Africa should prevent such atrocities in the future. “Non-indifference” is Africa’s version of the United Nations’ “Responsibility to Protect”.

Image rightsGetty ImagesImage descriptionEthiopia accuses the TPLF of killing 600 civilians in Mai Kadra, which it has denied

The Ethiopian government has itself accused the TPLF of atrocities, and observers fear that if the news blackout is cleared, evidence of war crimes on both sides will emerge.

There are unconfirmed reports that Eritrean troops have crossed the border and rounded up Eritrean refugees in United Nations camps in Tigray in violation of the United Nations Refugee Convention.

Ethiopia’s diplomatic triumph

The Organization for African Unity (OAU) was founded in 1963 with headquarters in Addis Ababa to consolidate the newly won independence of the African states.

Image rightsAFPImage descriptionEthiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie (L) was a driving force in the establishment of the OAU

The localization of the OAU in Ethiopia was a diplomatic triumph for Emperor Haile Selassie, who had long campaigned for international law.

As is well known, his 1936 speech to the League of Nations predicted that the world would be bathed in blood if Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia went unpunished.

The OAU was a common front for the liberation of Africa from colonial and racist rule.

But it also served as a club of autocrats who held on to their common interest in staying in power anyway. The founding president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, complained that it had become “a union of the heads of state”.

In the 1990s it was clear that the OAU needed to be reshaped to respond to Africa’s wars, coups and atrocities, and in 2002 the AU was created with a far more ambitious agenda to promote peace and democracy.

Since then, it has developed a number of mechanisms that include the suspension of countries with unconstitutional changes of government and the provision of assistance in mediating conflicts, and the obligation of conflict-affected countries to embrace peace efforts in good faith.

How the African Union helped

Mr Abiy himself intervened in the Sudan crisis last year when he sought a peaceful solution to the confrontation between the democracy movement and the military that President Omar al-Bashir had deposed.

The formula for Sudan’s transition to democracy was based on the AU template.

But the AU is not a strong institution. It is on a tight budget and cannot get its way.

More powerful states and organizations can override this – as did NATO when the AU sought a negotiated solution to the Libya conflict in 2011, but the United States, European and Arab countries pursued regime change.

The AU’s real value lies in its soft power: it articulates the norms of peace and cooperation and convinces African leaders to join, knowing that they will rise and fall together.

Over time, it has proven its worth: Africa has become more democratic and peaceful.

A generation ago, African diplomatic efforts to avoid or resolve conflict were rare. Today they are standard.

Learn more about the Tigray crisis:

Media signatureThree consequences of the ongoing crisis in Tigray.

  • The long, medium and short story
  • Why Ethiopia may enter a guerrilla war
  • The man at the heart of the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia
  • Plagued by conflict: “My little brother needs medicine”

In a statement announcing the mission of the three envoys, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the current chairman of the AU, reiterated the organization’s position that the conflict “should end through dialogue”.

But it was formulated in the usual diplomatic courtesy and had no bite.

In comparable situations – such as Libya or Sudan – the AU chairman has called a special meeting of the heads of state of the AU Peace and Security Council. Mr. Ramaphosa did not do that.

Image rightsGetty ImagesImage descriptionTens of thousands have come to Sudan and raised international concerns about the fighting

South Africa – currently one of three African nations on the UN Security Council – postponed a discussion on Ethiopia at the United Nations on Monday, citing the need to hear the envoy’s report first.

Ethiopia has an overwhelming influence on the day-to-day affairs of the AU because of its headquarters.

Other African countries have long suspected that there is a double standard, giving Ethiopia leeway that it does not allow other countries. That was not so important when Ethiopia supported mediation efforts and peacekeeping operations, particularly in Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan.

Now many are asking whether it has brazenly crossed a red line.

“The AU is for others, not for Ethiopia”

The Ethiopian government has exempted Tigrayan officers from peacekeeping missions by the AU and the United Nations, according to a report in the journal Foreign Policy citing a UN document. She also called on the AU commission to dismiss her security chief, who was a Tigrayan and whose loyalty has been called into question due to the conflict.

And now, Mr. Abiy has effectively turned down Africa’s senior mediators, only politely saying that they have “imparted their wisdom, insights and willingness to provide support in the ways they are needed”.

After Ethiopian federal troops occupied the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle on Saturday, Mr Abiy declared his operation complete – meaning he doesn’t need peacemakers. But the African mediators – all from countries with longstanding experience of armed conflict – are likely not as confident.

The AU headquarters was built on the site of the infamous central prison in Ethiopia known as Alem Bekagn, which means “farewell to the world” in Amharic.

During the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of political prisoners were imprisoned there, many tortured and executed. This symbolism is not lost on African civil society activists, who wonder whether they will become prisoners of their Ethiopian hosts.

A senior AU diplomat remarked on Friday: “Abiy believes the AU is for others, not Ethiopia.”

Abiy’s rejection of mediation dates back to an earlier era when African civil wars ended with armed violence rather than peace agreements.

It threatens to mock the hard-won norms and principles of the African Union’s peacemaking.

Alex de Waal is the Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Global Affairs at Tufts University in the USA. From 2005 to 2012 he worked in various functions for the AU in Sudan.

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