Addis summit raises questions about AU’s muted stance on Ethiopia rifts

For years, AU officials have refrained from addressing atrocities in Ethiopia. Analysts say this is strategic.

AU meeting
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, AUC Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, Senegal’s President Macky Sall, Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed, Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit and others at the opening of the 36th Ordinary session of the Assembly of the Africa Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February 18, 2023 [Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]

From Thursday, African leaders will gather in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, home of the African Union (AU), for the continental body’s annual summit. According to AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, regional integration and “maintaining momentum in addressing issues of peace and security” is high on the agenda.

But in an ironic twist, the host of the summit has either initiated or been involved in multiple conflicts in the last three years. Ethiopia’s two-year civil war with the state of Tigray may have ended in November 2022 after a Pretoria pact, but federal troops are currently upping drone strikes against rebels known as Fano militia in the state of Amhara, next door to Tigray. This week, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council said “at least 45 civilians” had been killed by federal troops in Amhara.

Within the Horn of Africa, Addis Ababa’s relations with neighbouring Mogadishu are frosty after Abiy Ahmed’s government announced a port deal this January with the autonomous region of Somaliland in return for recognition of its statehood – a development that has immensely angered Somalia.

Last month, Mahamat addressed a presummit session of the AU’s Permanent Representative’s Committee, stressing the importance of continent-wide solidarity and unity, citing conflicts in Sudan and Chad. He also called for a humanitarian ceasefire to end the war in Gaza.

But there was no mention of Ethiopia.

For years, AU officials have refrained from addressing atrocities in their host nation, maintaining a somewhat passive stance – or even supporting it.

Two months after Prime Minister Abiy sent troops into Tigray in 2020 – the advent of a war some researchers are now calling the deadliest of the 21st century due to an estimated 600,000 civilian deaths – Mahamat seemingly applauded the deployment, describing it as a bold step “to preserve the unity, stability, and respect for the constitutional order of the country”.

The comments came shortly after the AU dismissed a Tigrayan serving the bloc as a security adviser, acquiescing to a request by Abiy’s government that he be fired for “disloyalty to the country”.

Nearly a year later, in a post it deleted and apologised for, the AU’s official X account (then Twitter) slammed the United States for urging the warring factions to consider dialogue.

“We’ve documented lots of massacres and worked to inform the outside world about such events,” explains Jan Nyssen, a geographer at Ghent University who led its research into the war’s casualties. “But the reaction of the African Union was very weak. The only [African leader] to express concern was Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame who had asked the international community to prioritise the Tigray war in early 2021.”

No scrutiny

Formally established in 2002, the AU’s precursor, the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) was founded in Addis Ababa in 1963 to lobby for the independence of African states from European colonial powers – and economic empowerment. Ethiopia had long been identified as a home for Pan-Africanism, as the only African country to have fended off European colonisation, militarily.

The OAU’s founders, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah are widely credited as visionaries for an integrated Africa, and statues commemorating both men are outside the AU’s Chinese-built headquarters in Addis Ababa today.

Their ideals were passed onto the AU when it launched in the 2000s, with the added objective of fostering democracy. But the body has been frequently criticised for propping up ageing dictators, often at the expense of the civil liberties of millions of young Africans.

Indeed, Ethiopia, enshrined in African history for its 19th-century battlefield victories over invading Italy, its role in the OAU’s establishment, and key diplomatic influence on the continent, has rarely come under scrutiny of any kind from the AU.

This, despite a history of domestic turmoil: for example mass arrests of street hawkers and the homeless in Addis Ababa, to keep out of view of visiting dignitaries and release after their departure, has gone unnoticed.

In the hotly contested 2005 elections, then-Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared victory for his Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party amid opposition complaints of vote rigging.

Despite allegations of fraud and killings of opposition demonstrators, AU observers declared the election results valid, much to the chagrin of observers from the European Union and human rights researchers.

In 2016, following a year of antigovernment demonstrations and police killings of hundreds of unarmed protesters in the Oromia and Amhara regions, home to two-thirds of the country’s 119 million people, the then AU Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma issued a muted call for restraint while shying away from condemning the violence.

Strategic alignment

Indeed Ethiopia has often gotten a pass from the international community despite several human rights violations and questionable foreign policies.

In the post-9/11 counterinsurgency era, Ethiopia gained influence as a strategic partner to the US and some analysts say that may have contributed to a reluctance within and outside the continent to confront Addis Ababa on domestic matters.

It was one of only two African countries to support US President George W Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. The US returned the favour a few years later, offering air support for Ethiopia’s 2006 military incursion into neighbouring Somalia to eliminate fighters of the Islamic Courts Union.

Reports of war crimes by Ethiopian troops in Somalia resulted in no diplomatic repercussions: instead, within a few years, the US was operating a drone base from Ethiopia for counterinsurgency operations against Somalia-based al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab; in 2013, reports emerged that the United Kingdom was funding an Ethiopian paramilitary force, despite its implication in war crimes in Ethiopia’s Somali region.

In 2015, US President Barack Obama visited the country and praised its democratic process, which helped the governing party win 100 percent of contested seats in elections marred by irregularities that year.

Proximity to China enhanced Ethiopia’s infrastructural development and led to its emergence as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. That, its strategic alignment with the West on security issues, and its status as a leading contributor of troops to UN peacekeeping missions also helped Addis Ababa carve a reputation as a trusted regional power.

Emboldened, Ethiopia could seemingly do no wrong even as Eritrea, its main foe since a bitter border war between them from 1998 to 2000, became a pariah state.

“The fact that Ethiopia has a legacy of training and supporting African liberation movements may also explain the reticence,” says author and researcher Mohamed Kheir Omer.

Ethiopian government representative Redwan Hussein and Tigray delegate Getachew Reda attend signing of the AU-led negotiations in South Africa
Ethiopian government representative Redwan Hussein and Tigray delegate Getachew Reda attend the signing of the AU-led negotiations to resolve the conflict in northern Ethiopia, in Pretoria, South Africa, November 2, 2022 [Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]

A controversial mediator

Even the AU’s late efforts in mediation in the Tigray conflict are mired in controversy.

For most of the war, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) baulked at the idea of the AU serving as a third-party mediator, accusing it of bias. Critics also questioned the impartiality of the AU’s appointed chief mediator, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.

Obasanjo, who shuttled between Tigray and Addis Ababa during the peace process, spent intervals travelling across Ethiopia often accompanied by Abiy, with whom he was seen smiling and holding hands during a sightseeing tour of the Oromia region’s flora.

But by September 2022, following battlefield reversals, the TPLF begrudgingly agreed to AU-led peace talks. With Obasanjo and involvement from the US and South Africa, the parties signed the November 2022 Pretoria agreement, ending two years of war.

The mediators won plaudits for their role in the truce which paved the way for the restoration of severed communications in Tigray, and the end of a deadly humanitarian siege. But the AU has since walked back on an initiative to secure accountability and justice for victims of war crimes, a core tenet of the Pretoria treaty.

In July, local news magazine Addis Standard broke the news that the AU’s Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) had quietly ended its inquiry into atrocities during the war and even deleted its webpage from the AU’s official website two years after its launch. The peace agreement was cited as the official reason for the inquiry’s termination.

“The government had expressed its displeasure with the AU’s inquiry, calling it ‘regrettable’ and ‘unilateral’,” explains journalist and Addis Standard magazine’s founder Tsedale Lemma. “It was a sign that whatever the Tigray inquiry was planning to achieve would be unwelcome by the African Union’s host state … [the ACHPR] never made a single report of the outcome public, if it had any,” she added. “Nor is there any public record of them making a trip to the then-besieged Tigray region.”

“Despite five years of war in Oromia and six months of it in Amhara, and egregious conflict-related human rights violations in its back yard, I’m yet to see the AU’s Peace and Security Council convene a single meeting to discuss helping Ethiopia end either conflict.”

Source: Al Jazeera