Can the African Union solve Ethiopia’s year-long conflict?
More than a year into Ethiopia’s war, shuttle diplomacy by leaders from far and near has failed to yield any tangible outcome for the millions in the country and beyond waiting for the guns to fall silent.
In recent weeks, the African Union (AU) has been leading a renewed international push to bring an end to hostilities and prevent the descent into a “widening civil war” that could further destabilise the wider region.
The continental bloc, whose headquarters are based in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, had early on appointed three former presidents – Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from Liberia and South Africa’s Kgalema Motlanthe – as envoys to mediate the conflict that erupted in November 2020 between the federal government and forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the northern Tigray region.
The appointment of the high-profile officials was welcomed at the time by United Nations chief Antonio Guterres who called it an “initiative for peace”. The trio, however, after months of talks, were unable to make a breakthrough.
In August, the AU appointed former Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo as special envoy for the Horn of Africa in the hope he would have better luck in striking a deal between the warring sides.
On Sunday, after holding numerous meetings with government and Tigrayan leaders, Obasanjo said he was hopeful dialogue could end the violence that in recent months has spread beyond Tigray, with the Tigrayan forces and their allies now threatening a march towards Addis Ababa.
“There is no military solution to the conflict and battlefield victory cannot guarantee political stability in Ethiopia,” Obasanjo said in a statement, appealing to all sides to halt their military offensives. “This will allow an opportunity for dialogue to continue to progress. Such talks cannot deliver in an environment of escalated military hostilities,” he added.
Ahmed Soliman, Horn of Africa research fellow at Chatham House, told Al Jazeera both the AU and Ethiopia’s neighbours “have an important role to play in mediating between the conflict parties and moving them towards a ceasefire and dialogue”.
He noted, however, that the pan-African bloc “is in a delicate position given it’s headquartered in Addis Ababa, and that decision making requires a coalition of the willing”.
Soliman said the regional body, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), has also called for a ceasefire but “is hamstrung in its ability to act”.
“This is because the current chair, Sudan, is in turmoil due to the recent military coup, while its bilateral relations with Addis Ababa have deteriorated significantly – both of which mean it is not able to intervene,” Soliman added.
Sudan has been at odds with Ethiopia over a massive hydroelectric dam built by the latter on the Blue Nile, with the two countries also locked in a dispute over the use of fertile farmland near their border.
“Furthermore, IGAD’s Executive Secretary, Dr Workneh, is a former foreign minister in Ethiopia, and close ally of the Prime Minister [Abiy Ahmed] – so would not be seen as a neutral interlocutor,” Soliman said.
Emmanuel Kwesi Aning, director of research at Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre, agreed with Soliman, and stressed the AU must do all it could to resolve the conflict.
“It [AU] is in a tight corner between a rock and a hard place. It is a guest to the people of Ethiopia and it needs to walk this tightrope to bring the parties together. I know earlier efforts have been rejected. There are suspicions around the present initiative. But I think the African Union must, by all means, become one of the critical holders in trying to bring the warring factions together,” Aning told Al Jazeera.
“There isn’t much time. The opposing forces have laid down the gauntlet,” he said. “The forces seeking to come into Addis think that they have the momentum on their side. The rhetoric from Addis shows increasing desperation. And I think there will be a lot of hardcore forces within the Tigrayan and Oromia forces who will want a quick and decisive entry into Addis.”
The Tigrayan forces and allied Oromo fighters have announced a number of battleground victories in recent weeks, but the central government accuses them of exaggerating their territorial gains and insists the conflict “is not coming to the capital”.
A communications blackout and restrictions in journalists’ access for much of northern Ethiopia have made claims from both sides hard to verify.
Rights groups have accused both sides of atrocities in a conflict that has displaced millions of people and left hundreds of thousands in famine-like conditions, according to the UN. This week, UN officials also warned that hundreds of people have been rounded up in a crackdown since the government announced a state of emergency earlier in November, with millions in northern Ethiopia living “on a knife-edge” as the humanitarian crisis deepens.
The warnings came two days after Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who has also participated in regional mediation efforts for a ceasefire and has decried “the lack of meaningful dialogue”, visited Addis Ababa on Sunday and held talks with Abiy.
His visit came as United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to arrive in Kenya this week during his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa. It will follow several trips to both Nairobi and Addis Ababa by the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, which seem to have had little effect.
Blinken told reporters on Friday that he was very concerned “about the potential for Ethiopia to implode” and threatened to impose sanctions against the Ethiopian government and their Tigrayan rivals unless they moved forward on talks.
The threat of sanctions could help force the warring sides to compromise and strike a deal, according to Hassan Khannenje, director of Horn International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“They [Uhuru and Obasanjo] can communicate potential incentives but also sanctions if the conflict continues … If this message is loud enough, it is going to have an impact,” Khannenje told Al Jazeera.
“In the absence of some sort of pressure and of course incentives, it is going to be difficult to reach a resolution to the conflict,” he said. “Sanctions are always one aspect of forcing parties to behave responsibly but it is not enough. It is not sufficient to bring parties to the negotiating table. That is why it is important to consider incentives for the parties who are willing to strike a deal.”