Defend Truth


African Union’s flawed handling of war in Ethiopia bodes ill for peace and security in Africa by 2063


Dr Hafte Gebreselassie Gebrihet is a postdoctoral fellow at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, University of Cape Town.

The African Union’s complacency regarding Ethiopia’s Tigray genocide starkly underscores its failure in achieving its goal of ‘silencing the guns’ in Africa by 2030 in pursuit of excessively lofty goals such as Africa Agenda 2063.

In 2016 the African Union (AU) adopted the Master Roadmap of Practical Steps to Silence the Guns by Year 2020Its primary aim is to stop human rights violations, humanitarian disasters and violent conflicts, and prevent genocide. It is one of the Flagship Projects of Africa Agenda 2063, described by the AU as “Africa’s blueprint and master plan for transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future”.

In December 2020 the AU extended this deadline to 2030. 

However, today Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan are experiencing high levels of instability and violence, and it is unlikely that Africa will silence guns by 2030.

Ironically, in the same year the continent had to assess the progress of its silencing guns by 2020 plan, a devastating war with possible genocide outcomes (see the UN Convention for the definition of genocide) occurred in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region.

Genesis of a genocide

To provide some background: After assuming office in 2018 the current Ethiopian prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, established the Prosperity Party to replace the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) opposed this and after the 2020 national elections were postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the TPLF carried out regional elections in the Tigray Region in September 2020. 

The Ethiopian federal government and the national electoral board of Ethiopia (NEBE) did not recognise the election. They argued that no request for a vote had been submitted by the TPLF and no organisation other than the NEBE had a mandate to conduct any type of election. 

Consequently, the Tigray genocide occurred between 4 November 2020 and 3 November 2022. 

The war was waged with the Ethiopian government and its allies, notably Eritrea, Amhara Militia Groups and the Amhara Special Forces on one side, and the TPLF on the other. It broke out when the northern command was attacked by Tigray forces. However, this was an excuse for starting the war. Both parties had spent years preparing for war after the Prosperity Party had disbanded the former coalition EPRDF.  

The war claimed more than 600,000 civilians. Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces gang-raped more than 120,000 Tigrayan women and girls and more than 2.2 million people were internally displaced. More than 70,000 refugees fled to Sudan within two years. 

The historical and cultural environment of Tigray, including world heritage sites such as Al-Nejashi and the Debre-Damo monastery, was destroyed. 

The war cost the federal government 1.5 trillion birr ($28-billion) that could have been used for infrastructural development.

In the name of sovereignty 

The Tigray genocide has been classified by Genocide Watch as Genocide Stage 9. Nevertheless the AU indirectly allowed Abiy to annihilate its citizens by opposing any external intervention to stop the war under the pretext of sovereignty and territorial integrity. This negligence costs more than 600,000 civilian lives. The AU leadership could be considered partially accountable for this outcome.

As the location of the AU headquarters, Ethiopia has been able to exert a disproportionate influence on the organisation’s workings. Instead of ending the war, the AU chairperson and his special envoy serve the Ethiopian government, throwing doubt on the AU’s integrity and legitimacy as a conflict resolution institution. 

Abiy used sovereignty as a smokescreen to commit atrocities. In fact, the Ethiopian government jeopardised its own sovereignty by enabling the Eritrean army to invade the Tigray Region and kill, rape and starve civilians in the name of destroying the TPLF. 

The cost of the war on both sides and pressure from the US and the European Union (EU) forced the warring parties to engage in peace talks. The federal government reluctantly joined the talks due to rising inflation, rising external debt-servicing costs and the suspension of budgetary support and assistance programmes by the US, EU and other international partners. 

The TPLF changed its stance after suffering a series of tactical defeats caused by the federal forces using drones to hit crucial targets deep within its territories. 

A deeply flawed peace 

After months of shuttle diplomacy by Mike Hammer, US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, and Annette Weber, EU Special Representative for the Horn of Africa, a peace negotiations framework for mediation emerged. In August 2021 the AU appointed former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo as its high representative for the Horn of Africa to handle the negotiations.

The cessation-of-hostilities agreement was signed on 3 November 2022  in Pretoria. An implementation agreement was signed in Nairobi on 12 November 2022. The contribution of the AU to the resolution of the war should not be discounted. 

However, in the face of ongoing genocide, this contribution is insufficient.     

Read more in Daily Maverick: How political polarisation eclipsed State Capture in Ethiopia

First, the genocide is still taking place in many forms. According to Human Rights Watch, despite the peace deal of 3 November 2022, Amhara authorities and soldiers in the Western Tigray Zone have continued to forcibly remove Tigrayans as part of a so-called ethnic cleansing attempt, committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in the process. The federal government and the AU-appointed Monitoring, Verification and Compliance Mission (MVCM) are doing nothing to stop it. 

Second, seven months after the agreement, Eritrea still controls several territories of Tigray and commits heinous crimes, especially against indigenous communities like the minority Irob and Kunama people, who face eradication as a result. It also hinders humanitarian groups from accessing Tigray and the MVCM from operating in the region.

Third, the agreement does not single out Eritrean troops, even though they were the principal aggressors in the war. Instead, the AU designated them as non-Ethiopian National Defence Force soldiers. 

The apparent reason for this designation is that, although the Eritrean forces were invited to join the war by the Ethiopian government, Abiy put significant pressure on the AU to not include Eritrea in the peace agreement. 

There are several reasons for this. First, to demonstrate that he could handle the war independently. Second, to reduce international pressure by justifying that the issue should be handled internally. Third, considering the crimes perpetrated by Eritrean troops, the Eritrean government, which is Abiy’s friend and TPLF’s enemy, is unwilling to be involved and held accountable. 

Neither the TPLF nor the federal government explained why a known aggressor, Eritrea, is not named in the agreement. The AU and federal government may have forced the TPLF to remain silent over Eritrea’s exclusion from the deal.

Questions surrounding the TPLF

Although Ethiopian officials, including Abiy, have referred to TPLF officials as cancer, he awarded them certificates of appreciation for their role in the negotiation agreement as part of the federal government’s End War – Maintain Peace programme. The award was made when genocide victims are still denied justice.

War is a place where young people who don’t know each other and don’t hate each other kill each other, by the decision of old people who know each other and hate each other, but don’t kill each other. – Erich Hartmann 

TPLF cadres were heavily involved in the theft of life-saving humanitarian assistance. Concerns over considerable quantities of assistance being diverted and sold led the UN World Food Programme and Usaid to halt food delivery in the region. Tigrayans continue to bear the weight of the consequences.

Betrayal or hope for genocide victims?

The cessation-of-hostilities agreement stipulates a “comprehensive national transitional justice policy aimed at accountability, ascertaining the truth, redress for victims, reconciliation and healing consistent with the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Constitution and the AU Transitional Justice Policy Framework”. 

The transitional justice system does not satisfy genocide victims because it is a technical instrument designed to facilitate impunity. It was deliberately constructed to undermine an investigation by the international community.

The federal government has no legal or moral legitimacy to investigate its own genocide. In addition, Ethiopia’s court system is complicit in Tigray’s genocide. An old Amharic proverb comes to mind: “If you search for your lost oxen with the thief, you will not find it.”

Seven months have passed since the cessation-of-hostilities agreement was signed, but the government has yet to release any investigations or hold anyone accountable for grave violations.  

The proposal for transitional justice serves political purposes rather than justice. The Ethiopian Ministry of Justice established an interministerial task force in September 2022 to conduct investigations. However, it lacks political independence, political will and the institutional capacity to hold perpetrators accountable. 

The level of mass atrocities committed by the parties in conflict meets the genocide threshold and deserves independent investigation to hold the perpetrators (including Eritrean forces) of the war accountable. Eritrea is an independent country and should not become part of Ethiopia’s transitional justice process.

The lack of accountability and justice will fuel Tigrayans’ thirst for vengeance. From 1889 to 2023 Ethiopia had five governments, all of which perpetrated heinous crimes against the Ethiopian people. The victims were denied justice because their governing structure is linked to ethnicity. 

Those who think they are not represented associate atrocities with innocent people and wait for their turn to exact revenge. This miserable past can only be reversed if justice is served. 

No hope for Africa Agenda 2063 without peace

The lack of progress in silencing guns in Africa and the AU’s complacency on the Tigray genocide have had detrimental effects on efforts to promote peace and security in Africa. 

The AU has no shortage of declarations, plans or agendas, and has many other goals that failed in practice. Its self-financing via an import charge by 2017 was a hollow gesture. Foreign donors and partners account for 61% of the AU budget in 2023. 

The AU is obsessed with setting deadlines for excessively lofty goals. It is unclear on what grounds the silencing guns deadline was set for 2020 and then extended until 2030, although conflict statistics in Africa from 1989 to 2021 show an increasing trend with a slight fluctuation. 

To achieve Agenda 2063, Silencing the Guns should be a priority, since peace and security are crucial to all other agendas. DM 

Dr Hafte Gebreselassie Gebrihet is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance at the University of Cape Town. His research focuses on building democratic governance and resilient institutions in Africa, with particular emphasis on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.


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