How the African Union Failed Tigray

How the African Union Failed Tigray

Creation of the African Union

On May 25, 1963, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was established in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, by 32 African nations. In 2002, the OAU evolved into the African Union (AU) with a more ambitious agenda of promoting peace and democracy on the continent. Relying on soft power, the member states normalized using diplomacy to avoid conflicts or resolve them. 

Ethiopia played a key role in creating the African Union, leading the organization’s headquarters to be established in the heart of Ethiopia’s capital – Addis Ababa. A generation later, Ethiopia is terrorizing its citizens, ethnic Tigrayans, while jeopardizing the institution’s founding principles and AU’s Agenda 2063 that seeks “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens, representing a dynamic force in the international arena.”

The Genocidal War on Tigray 

On November 4, 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed began his “law enforcement operation” by declaring war on Tigray.  Abiy claimed that the war would bring Tigrayan elected leaders under the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to justice, but it quickly became clear that Abiy’s mission was to destroy Tigray and its people through a state-sanctioned genocidal war conducted by the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), the Eritrean army, Amhara Special Forces, Fano Militia, and other foreign forces.

Three weeks after waging war on Tigray, on November 22, 2020, the Ethiopian government warned Tigrayans that they would be shown “no mercy” if they did not distance themselves from Tigray’s elected leaders. Soon after that statement, the ENDF, Eritrean army, and Amhara militia joined forces to capture Tigray’s capital city of Mekelle, indiscriminately bombing civilians on their way to the capital. 

From the outset, this genocidal war has been an internationalized one, with foreign forces heavily involved, including Eritrean and Somali forces joining the war on Tigray from the onset, Tigrayan civilians fleeing to Sudan in the thousands.  The fighting has destabilized Ethiopia and the strategic Horn of Africa as a whole, yet the African Union remains incapable and unwilling to bring about any significant change. 

The Failure of Mediation 

A globally-renowned and funded institution of the African Union is the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). It is composed of five segments that collaboratively seek to resolve and manage conflicts: the Peace and Security Council, the Panel of the Wise, the Continental Early Warning System, the Standby Forces, and the Peace Fund. European Union (EU) members, Nordic countries, and the United States are among the most consistent donors to the APSA. With the current conflict in Ethiopia and the African Union’s neglect of the genocidal war on Tigray, the APSA’s performance has become questionable. 

Days after Abiy officially waged war on Tigray on November 4, 2022, the Government of Tigray pleaded to world leaders, including AU’s Chairperson Cyril Ramaphosa, to help Ethiopia find a  peaceful solution. About two weeks into the conflict, the African Union proposed sending a special envoy to mediate talks between the federal government and Tigray’s regional government.

Shortly after, they sent three former African heads of states to Addis Ababa to seek a peaceful resolution: Joaquim Chissano, former President of Mozambique, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, former Liberian President, and Kgalema Motlanth, former President of South Africa.  However, their negotiation efforts proved ineffective, with Abiy unwilling to compromise to stop the genocidal war on Tigray. 

In fact, just a few days before the trio arrived in the capital, Abiy ordered “the final phase of rule of law enforcement operations,” which entirely rejected the mediation efforts and challenged the foundational principles of the African Union. 

Later in August 2021, the African Union reattempted its previously unsuccessful mediation efforts through another special envoy, the former Nigerian President, Olesegun Obasanjo. “There is no military solution to the conflict and battlefield victory cannot guarantee political stability in Ethiopia,” he said. “This will allow an opportunity for dialogue to continue to progress. Such talks cannot deliver in an environment of escalated military hostilities.” Similar to its previous attempts, the actions of the African Union remained entirely uninfluential, indicating how impotent the African Union is as an institution.

Interference: The AU’s Diplomatic Responsibility to Intervene in Tigray

Although Abiy has expressed his appreciation for AU envoys’ “elderly concern,” he has resisted international mediation by labeling it as “interference” in domestic matters. Abiy knew he could rely on article 4(g) of the AU’s Constitutive Act, which specifies “non-interference by any member state in the internal affairs of another.” 

However, there has been a clear path for AU intervention through Article 4(h), which gives the African Union the right “to intervene in a member state, in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes and genocide,” both of which have been proven to be present in the Tigray conflict by credible sources, despite the lack of an official genocide designation. The United Nations, foreign diplomats, international journalists, and international humanitarian organizations around the world have confirmed war crimes and acts amounting to genocide being committed in Tigray since the war began. Genocide Watch has placed Ethiopia at Stage 9 of Genocide.

In a UN Security Council meeting in November 2021, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo,  stated: “In a country of over 110 million people, over 90 different ethnic groups and 80 languages, no one can predict what continued fighting and insecurity will bring.”

This statement highlights the importance of meaningful action from those considered both capable and responsible for intervening and stopping the conflict, namely the African Union in this case, in maintaining peace throughout the country. If action is not taken, conflict, instability, and insecurity will spread more than it already has.  

Why Hasn’t the African Union Done More?

Because Ethiopia hosts the AU headquarters, it has had an outsized influence on the day-to-day affairs of the institution. Other African countries have long suspected that Ethiopia does not hold itself to the principles and mission of the African Union. As a senior AU diplomat remarked, “Abiy thinks that the [African Union] is for others, not for Ethiopia.” 

The Ethiopian government has even purged Tigrayan officers from the AU and UN peacekeeping missions and demanded the AU Commission dismiss its Tigrayan head of security soon after the war on Tigray began–all without any kind of justified reproach. 

The dire situation, aside from reflecting the egocentric and discriminative values of the Ethiopian regime, also serves as a reflection of the African Union’s overall involvement and performance with regards to the conflict. The recognition and blatant acceptance of Ethiopia’s rejection of mediation makes a mockery of the AU’s principles of peacemaking.

Because of its lack of influence, the African Union has gone as far as asking foreign nations for assistance on the matter. In the previously mentioned UN Security Council meeting that took place in November 2021, the AU’s special envoy Olusegun Obasanjo asked the council to “press the Federal Government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front to engage in political dialogue without preconditions and to call for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire, as well as a cessation of hostilities.” He also added that the world needs to support the “African Union-led peacemaking efforts.” Although Obasanjo expressed concern and his will to voice it is understandable, it also serves as proof of the power imbalance between the African Union and the Abiy-led government.

The African Union’s continued attempt to mediate for the past two years should not be discredited, but it is not sufficient in the face of an active genocide. The institution does not appear to be reacting to a war that has caused chaos in the Horn of Africa and destabilized the country. The lack of urgency to respond to one of the deadliest conflicts in the region has only undermined the role of the institution. 

With ineffective efforts to stop the genocidal war, the African Union has failed Tigray.  The institution remains unqualified to bring about any significant change as the severe atrocities continue to escalate, with the complete siege of Tigray and occupation of Western and parts of northern Tigray by Amhara and Eritrean forces. Instead of adhering to the principles of its foundation, the organization has become a place where leaders like Abiy can use their charm and regional influence to commit unimaginable crimes on African lives.

Luna – Omna Tigray Contributor, April 2022