Not Impartial, Not Principled, Non-Starter: African Union Mediation in Ethiopia

The United Nations Guidance for Effective Mediation recognizes mediation as one of the most effective methods of preventing, managing and above all, resolving conflicts. To be effective, however, a mediation process requires more than the appointment of a high-profile individual to act as a third party. The conflicting parties should at least consent for such a process to succeed.   

Without consent it is unlikely that parties will negotiate in good faith or be committed to the mediation process and its outcomes. The UN mediation guidelines outline the integrity of the mediation process, security, and confidentiality of the mediation process as important elements in cultivating the consent of the parties, along with the acceptability of the mediator and the mediating entity.

Impartiality as a criterion for effective mediation

Lakhdar Brahimi and Salman Ahmed, reflecting on mediation experiences, highlight the “seven deadly sins” of mediators: ignorance; arrogance; partiality; impotence; haste; inflexibility; and false promises. Partiality, one of these seven sins, is not just a simple question of preferring one side to the other, but also feeds into the other sins. A partial mediator might be less interested to gain a basic understanding of the country in all its facets. He or she may adopt the narrative of their preferred party as complete and end up being ignorant or dismissive of the perspectives of the others.  

A partial mediator will not take the views of the other party sufficiently seriously. He or she may tend to justify this by saying “they caused the problems in the first place”. The particularities of the conflict in question may not be relevant and explanations such as “we already know what works and what doesn’t” may lead to arrogance—which counts among the sins of the mediator. A partial mediator is also likely to fall into the sins of: impotence, haste, inflexibility, and false promises.

For a mediation to be effective, therefore, not only must the conflicting parties be open for trying a negotiated settlement but the right mediator should also be in place. A right mediator, among other things, should be someone accepted and credible in the eyes of the conflicting parties both for capability but also impartiality. 

Impartiality is a cornerstone of mediation. Partiality contributes to a biased definition of the problem and can lead to an inappropriate agenda and structure for the mediation—a fundamental recipe for its failure.  

If either of the conflicting parties perceive the mediator as partial, that mediator is left with the difficult situation of incomplete consent to commence a mediation process. When such a problem occurs some may think to fix the problem by appointing a new impartial mediator, or having a second co-mediator, more favorable to the aggrieved party. However, a simple change in the individual might not be enough in the case in which the initial mediator had already set the structures, principles, and agenda of the talks. In a case like this it would probably be necessary to scrap the whole approach and start again.   

The AU’s engagement with Ethiopia and the controversy over the elections

The credibility and acceptability of Africa Union’s mediation initiative for the conflict in Tigrai and its designation of H.E. General Olusegun Obasanjo as its special envoy to initiate and lead the mediation process should be discussed in light of the above indicated requirements for a mediation process.

The African Union’s lack of effective engagement on the situation in the Tigrai region of Ethiopia was deplorable to any sensible African. The voice of the AU was never heard condemning the atrocities targeted against civilians in Tigrai. When Tigraians at the height of the war were being brutally murdered, raped, and cleansed from their places of origin by joint forces of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, the Eritrean Defense Forces, and assorted special police forces and militias, the Chairperson of the Commission, Moussa Faki, was heard congratulating the Ethiopian government for its “bold steps to preserve the unity, stability and respect for the constitutional order of the country; which is legitimate for all states.”

H.E. Olusegun Obasanjo, former President of Nigeria at the press conference in Kigali, Rwanda
Photo: H.E. Olusegun Obasanjo, former President of Nigeria at the press conference in Kigali, Rwanda, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The AU’s belated engagement with Ethiopia seemed to have been dictated by the Ethiopian government in an attempt to salvage through diplomacy what it had lost through its political and military errors and its crimes.

The AU was one of the few non-Ethiopian bodies that sent its delegates to observe the Ethiopian general elections held in June 2021.

The election was held at the time when leaders of the key opposition leaders were in prison and the country was caught in civil wars in several corners. Most international actors declined to observe the elections. The U.S. government, through its special envoy to the Horn of Africa advised the Ethiopian government to postpone the elections and prioritize peace making. Several US senate and congress members followed suit and came out with varying statements in a similar line. The EU declined to send election observers to Ethiopia reasoning that conditions had not been met on communication systems and its mission’s independence.

The general elections were held where in many places the ruling party ran without a single competitor. For example, it was only the ruling party that ran for election in the Oromia region, a region that has 170 of the 548 seats of the parliament. All opposition parties from Oromia boycotted the elections as most of their leaders were at prison; their members harassed; and their offices closed in most places.

After the election was held, five of the major parties (which were considered very close to the ruling party) came out with press statements expressing their dismay on how the election was conducted. The Social Democratic Party demanded the rerun of the elections in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR) as it believed the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) and the security forces in the region had operated in favor of the ruling party. Balderas for Genuine Democracy accused the ruling party of intimidating the residents of Addis Ababa by parading heavily armed security forces around the city in the days leading to the election. After listing its observations on polling day, Balderas concluded “The election was not free, fair and democratic.”

Citing the ruling party’s interference during the elections, in the Amhara, Oromia and SNNPR regions, the National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) said, “The election dimmed people’s hopes for democracy.”  Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice also reflected the views of the other opposition parties that partook in the election and warned that it will take its complaints to the court of law if the NEBE failed to look into the complaints it filed. The Afar People’s Party as well gave a statement on the day of the election rejecting the whole process of the election.  

The statement of the AU observer mission came out against this background. At the end of the election, the head of the AU observer mission, H.E. Olusegun Obasanjo, in a press conference to journalists declared the election was held in a credible manner. He further stated that the election was actually much more participatory when compared to previous elections.

Joint forces of the ENDF, EDF, Amhara militia, and assorted special forces of various regions were indiscriminately killing civilians, destroying property and infrastructure, as well as raping Tigraian women and girls at the time of the elections.  To say the least, hearing of the statements of the Chairperson of the AU and its observer mission was appalling.  

A mediation plan that failed before it even began to roll

The AU later designated Gen. Obasanjo as a High Representative to the Horn of Africa and mandated him to mediate the conflict in Ethiopia. The government of Tigrai through its spokesperson and the government later its letter addressed to the UNSG expressed its reservation on the AU initiative and its appointment of Obasanjo as its special envoy.

Indeed, the government of Tigrai has reasons for this. The AU Chairperson’s congratulatory message to the Ethiopian PM on its “bold steps” in Tigrai and the statement of its observer mission to the Ethiopian general elections clearly indicated that its and its high representative’s solidarity was not with the people of Ethiopia but instead with its government.

Though it has not yet engaged with the Tigraian leadership, the AU’s mediation plan seems to have already failed as an effective mediation. The Chairperson of the AU and by extension his envoy are rightfully considered partial to its belligerent by the Tigraian coalition fighting for the survival of its people. That partiality itself is fundamental problem for its effectiveness. Furthermore, the early indications on the AU strategy for the mediation reinforce this suggestion.

The problem begins with the willingness of the AU to legitimize the May elections and its choice of the very same individual who championed this decision to be the candidate for mediating the conflict. This is more than a question of mere partiality. It affirms the legitimacy of a political process brought about by a combination of manipulation, suppression, coercion and bribery. It indicates that the mediator will be willing to countenance, or be part of, such strategies of political management in the future.

This strategy seems to be following Ethiopian government’s intentions. Information from close circles of PM Abiy Ahmed indicate that he intends to declare that his government will be ready to talk to some Tigraians and offer them some positions in his government after the formation of his “legitimate/constitutional government.” For Abiy, sovereignty is a singular attribute, belonging to a ruler, that is indivisible and indisputable. This notion takes us back, not only to the discredited days of the 1970s when sovereignty was a cloak for impunity, but indeed even further back, to the days when the Ethiopian sovereign was the “elect of God.” This exalted notion of sovereignty is coupled with a transactional approach to political negotiation, which eschews principles in preference to striking a bargain, often a monetary one.

Every political representative and every region becomes a supplicant, with every political arrangement only as good as the will of the ruler.

This implies framing of the nature of the conflict, namely redefining the war in Tigrai as one in which the Tigraian elites just want a bigger share of the cake. Such a definition leads towards a mercenary approach that looks into determining the price that each member of the political elite will accept to join the regime. Every political representative and every region becomes a supplicant, with every political arrangement only as good as the will of the ruler. It recalls the fatal flaw of the Ethio-Eritrean federation agreement of 1952 in which Eritrea was federated “under” the Ethiopian crown.

A mediator cannot choose the parties to the conflict and must recognize them as they are and engage all of them right from the very beginning. In the case of the Ethiopian conflict in Tigray this begins with extending the normal courtesy of permitting the belligerents to identify themselves and the terms on which they are prepared to talk. PM Abiy and the Federal Government wish to identify themselves as the Government of Ethiopia and initiate talks after forming a new government. So be it. The Regional National Government of Tigray wishes to identify itself as such and enter talks on that basis.

The signs are, however, that the AU wants to follow PM Abiy’s plan. That is, to accept that he has a “legitimate” government that cannot be subject to an “unconstitutional” change (as stipulated in the Constitutive Act of the AU), and which can then lay down the terms on which it can talk to “rebels”, on an individual basis. This ignores all the other foundational principles contained in the Constitutive Act of the AU including the refusal to tolerate war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide.

The Ethiopian conflict in Tigrai is on matters more fundamental than bargaining over the positions of individuals. So far there is no indication on whether the AU is considering to negotiate a declaration of principles as a solid beginning to the talks.

This would be the correct procedure. The definition of the war is structural and founded on principles. The conflict is rooted in the intention of the Federal Government to scrap the Federal Constitution and replace it with a unitary imperial-like regime run from the center. Tigrai resisted this, holding fast to the Federal Constitution. This was the original cause of the war.

Currently, the two governments do not recognize one another. A negotiated settlement begins with each accepting the need to talk to the other. This requires establishing principles for the negotiations.

The Regional National Government of Tigrai has demanded that the existing constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia be the principle on which a negotiated settlement is based. Constitutional legitimacy is not the sole property of the central government.

To this original cause was added a second factor that has become a question of survival for the people of Tigrai: Addis Ababa and its allies violated the laws of war, declared and implemented genocide against the people of Tigrai. The war cannot be resolved unless this is properly addressed. For the people and government of Tigrai, full accountability and guarantee of non-recurrence of such crimes is an essential agenda item.

A mediation that fails to consider these fundamental issues in defining the nature of the conflict will be a non-starter. 

Abiy fails to understand sovereignty as a responsibility. He continuously accuses the international community violating his country’s sovereignty when it expresses outrage against his violation of international humanitarian law. The Ethiopian government’s expulsion of senior UN humanitarian staff for “meddling in internal affairs of the nation” following factual statements by the head of UNOCHA about the famine in Tigrai is an example.

It is also essential to agree on transitional arrangements up until a complete political settlement is reached.

In conclusion, the rightful reservation of the Tigraians on AU’s mediation plan should prompt to all responsible international actors that the process needs to be fixed such that the confidence of the belligerents on the process is boosted. To be more specific, neither the AU under the leadership of Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki nor his High Representative Gen. Obasanjo are a credible start to a mediation aimed at resolving the crisis in Ethiopia. It is important for the concerned states and institutions of the international community to come up with the required principles, structure and approaches for negotiations if they are to have a chance of making progress.

Mulugeta Gebrehiwot is a WPF-affiliated researcher. He served as the director of the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) of Addis Ababa University from 2009-2013. He holds PhD from the University of Victoria, British Columbia, an MA in Public administration from Harvard Kennedy School, an MBA from the Open University of London, a BA degree in International Management from the Amsterdam School of Business. As an expert in Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution with a focus on East Africa he has consulted with different international organizations including AU, DFID, DANIDA, ECOWAS, GIZ, IGAD, UNMIS, UNAMID, and UNDPA. He advised the AU and UN on mediation strategies and led the WPF program on African peace missions, 2015-17.

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