African leaders must continue to press for talks: Ethiopia is too big to fail

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In the days following the start of the conflict between Ethiopia’s federal government and Tigray region’s leadership, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, as head of East African regional bloc, the Intergovernmental Agency for Development (Igad), called his Ethiopian counterpart Abiy Ahmed, offering to mediate. But the Ethiopian leader resisted Hamdok’s offer and similar ones from Kenya and Uganda, with both parties ignoring calls for restraint and dialogue from Igad and the African Union.

Seemingly in response to this mounting pressure, on 16 November Abiy dispatched Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen Hassen to Igad countries with a message to regional leaders that Addis Ababa needed time to settle hostilities internally and that mediation would incentivise impunity.

Ethiopia’s African friends should not give up. They should continue to press all sides for talks. What they know all too well must become a rallying cry on the continent: Ethiopia is simply too big to fail. It is the continent’s diplomatic capital. Beyond the dire consequences of a civil war, which threatens to spread to other parts of a country of more than 100-million inhabitants, a prolonged conflict would also reverberate disastrously across Ethiopia’s borders.

To avoid further destabilisation of Africa’s second-most populous state and to prevent other countries being drawn into the conflict, the continent’s most influential voices must urgently speak in unison, and work with Ethiopian mediators — former military leaders and senior diplomats — to try to dissuade the belligerents from pursuing a military solution to what is, at its core, a political dispute.

Despite Addis Ababa’s insistence that Tigray’s “treasonous” leadership be held accountable for a reported 4 November attack on national troops stationed in the region, and those leaders’ determination to resist the ensuing federal offensive, African partners need to try to pressure the parties into a ceasefire to prevent the war from intensifying. The first step towards that is to try to get the combatants to start walking back from their pre-conflict labelling of each other as illegitimate actors.

A prolonged war will wreak enormous harm. Accounts of alleged killings of civilians from both sides are starting to surface. Danger looms outside of Tigray as well: multiple ethnic and political fault lines run through Ethiopia, which have caused violence in recent years. The risk of the current conflict sparking others is high.

Graver still is the potential for the conflict to suck in neighbouring countries. Eritrea — which shares a frontier with Tigray, and whose President Isaias Afwerki is close to Abiy and who sees the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) as an arch-enemy — has been drawn into the conflict. Tigray’s leader confirmed that his region’s forces had fired rockets on Asmara airport, claiming the action was in response to Eritrea’s dispatching of tanks and troops to Tigray in support of the federal government’s offensive. 

Facing Eritrea’s hostile forces to Tigray’s north and federal forces to its west and south, the TPLF is looking toward Sudan to ensure it can obtain crucial supplies. However, Sudan has already closed its border with Tigray, potentially blockading the region, although it is not clear whether it will be able to enforce that. Already more than 25 000 refugees have crossed the border into Sudan, although whether supplies are flowing the other way is unclear.

Given the domestic strife, Ethiopia’s stabilising role in the Horn of Africa region will inevitably be affected. Recently, 2019 Nobel peace prize winner Abiy and his government supported efforts to help Sudan’s transition and South Sudan’s peace process.

Addis Ababa has already recalled some troops from Somalia, where it also supports the AU mission to fight the al-Shabaab insurgency, threatening to create a security vacuum in a fragile country just about to embark on critical elections.

Catastrophic scenarios can still be averted, but this will require Africa’s leaders to mobilise at the highest level and find ways to be heard in Addis Ababa and Mekelle, Tigray’s capital. They must do so quickly or face a rude awakening.

Former and current heads of state, including continental powers like Nigeria and South Africa, whose President Cyril Ramaphosa is the current chair of the AU; as well as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose President Félix Tshisekedi will become the next AU chair in February, can play a significant role. They should back Igad’s call for dialogue and reconciliation, further amplified by AU chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat’s call for an intra-Ethiopian process.

African leaders’ first task is to convince Addis Ababa that regardless of the nature of TPLF’s alleged crimes, military intervention is not the wise way to bring them to justice. Tigray’s leadership now commands a chunk of the federal military, having taken over much of the Northern Command units stationed in the region. It already had a strong regional security force, and apparently has support from many Tigrayans in regards to its dispute over autonomy with Addis Ababa.

Continental statesmen, working with Ethiopian dignitaries who still have the ear of TPLF leaders, must simultaneously convince the party to explicitly recognise the federal government as the legitimate authority to discuss a resolution to the conflict. That may help to pave the way for Addis Ababa to suspend military efforts and return to a political approach. 

Significantly, Addis Ababa hosts the AU headquarters. A war on its doorstep would be a disturbing symbol for an organisation that pledged to “silence the guns” on the continent. African leaders need to act now and speak with a purposeful and united voice.

Comfort Ero is the Africa programme director of International Crisis Group. This op-ed is published jointly by the East African and the Mail & Guardian.


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