The glimmer of hope that came from the joint announcement by the Special Envoys of the United States (US), Ambassador Mike Hammer, European Union (EU), Dr Annette Weber, and the United Nations’ (UN), Dr Hannah Tetteh, that negotiations to end the war on Tigray would begin, the siege lifted and humanitarian access fully granted, is now dimmed by the recent relapse to war. The many people who were skeptical about the start of the talks are not surprised by this resumption of the war that will consume many more young lives. Reports of killings of children in Mekelle from the indiscriminate aerial bombardment and drone strikes add more setbacks to the commencement of negotiations.
Peace is what all Ethiopians crave now. The fighting need to stop and negotiation need to commence now before more young lives are consumed by this phase of the war. The siege need to be lifted in its entirety right immediately, and adequate and unimpeded humanitarian relief need to reach right now to all the needy. All non-Tigrayan forces need to leave Tigray.
For the negotiations to start, African Union (AU) mediator, former Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo and his role has faced accusation and reservations of a key party to the negotiations. In order to prevent further bloodshed, the honorable thing for President Obasanjo to do is to resign.
The AU needs to avoid political wrangling with Tigray about keeping its mediator and instead focus on fast-tracking the appointment of a new envoy who has the approval of all parties, and begin negotiations on substantive politico-military agenda items.
The continued lack of progress in implementing confidence and trust-building measures (primarily, to end to aid blockages, the lifting of the siege, the resumption of all public services and the withdrawal of forces from Tigrayan territory) has precipitated a dangerous waiting game.
As the war on Tigray approaches its second year, Ethiopian, Amhara, and Eritrean forces still control some areas of the region. Legitimately expected and essential public services such as ground and air transportation, electricity, telecommunications, banking services, fuel deliveries, remain blocked. Humanitarian assistance has been contained to a trickle despite the readiness of the UN and other agencies to supply aid. It would seem the aim is to exterminate Tigrayans by starving them to death.
The continued lack of progress in implementing confidence and trust-building measures (primarily, to end to aid blockages, the lifting of the siege, the resumption of all public services and the withdrawal of forces from Tigrayan territory) has precipitated a dangerous waiting game. The statements by the envoys has become meaningless.
Without the lifting of the siege, it is highly likely that fighting will resume at the slightest provocation. This waiting game could constitute a ‘slow death’ for Tigrayans – an abominable result that should be rejected. The relapse into military confrontation is a disastrous for the long-suffering people of Tigray who have already gone through unimaginable suffering, for the people of Ethiopia and any hope of peace in the Horn of Africa. Everyone, including the AU mediator, should be working tirelessly to avoid such an outcome.
It is important to note here that empires do not collapse overnight. What is at stake is nothing but the survival of the Ethiopian state, with dreadful implications for its 110 million population and the Horn of Africa region. The AU Commission leaders knew about the war, the atrocities and Eritrea’s full involvement, but they remained silent and later provided tacit legal coverup. The failure of African leaders to intervene fast and de-link an individual mediator from the process will render AU irrelevant in the resolution of the war on Tigray.
Why should Obasanjo resign?
Mediation is only as effective as the political will and trust the parties invest in ending the conflict. The mediator is the guarantor of the parties’ trust in the process. According to the UN Guidance for Effective Mediation, the ‘acceptability of the mediator and the mediating entity’ are critical factors in determining the success of the process. President Obasanjo neither inspires trust nor meets the other tests of a mediator, as outlined by the UN.
The ‘non-rejectability’ test
The UN states that ‘mediation is a voluntary process that requires the consent of the parties to the conflict to be effective. Without consent, it is unlikely that parties will negotiate in good faith or be committed to the mediation process. A mediator cannot be imposed on the parties to negotiation; he or she must get their unreserved consent before the appointment. In other words, the choice of a mediator needs to pass what one may call ‘non-rejectability’ test.
Mr Obasanjo fails to meet this test, as Tigray has expressly rejected his role as mediator.
Impartiality, in appearance and in fact
The UN further states that ‘impartiality is a cornerstone of mediation – if a mediation process is perceived to be biased, this can undermine meaningful progress to resolve the conflict’.
Impartiality, both in fact and in appearance, is an essential requirement for a mediator. The principle of omni-partiality requires that the mediator is always on both sides of the negotiation to guide the parties to points of agreement and narrow areas of divergence. Thus, an accusation against, or even a reservation regarding the mediator’s impartiality by parties to the negotiation is a sufficient condition for the mediator to step aside. Whether the partiality is real or perceived does not matter, as reservations of this kind damage confidence in the mediator and undermine trust in the mediation process.
Several factors place the impartiality of Mr Obasanjo in serious question. He was appointed by the leadership of the AU Commission, which has been accused of taking a partisan position on the war on Tigray. Furthermore, he served as head of the AU Election Observation Mission during the August 2020 elections in Ethiopia, which were denounced and boycotted by the Tigray government and other Ethiopian forces. Despite this, Mr Obasanjo’s team judged the election to be free and fair, thereby endorsing the rejected polls. This created an image collision.
Moreover, once appointed as mediator, Mr Obasanjo failed to ensure impartiality, both in appearance. He has conducted official and publicly televised visits with the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, to areas and regarding issues that have nothing to do with the mediation. The aim of these visits has been to showcase the country’s ‘progress’ and convey an aura of ‘stability’ and ‘development’ at a time when Ethiopia is facing its highest number of deaths and displacements yet due to conflict and starvation, with an economy that is in a free fall.
In addition, reports indicate that Mr Obasanjo enjoys unique access to the highest levels of the Ethiopian government – a privilege not granted to other diplomats. Mr Obasanjo should have avoided the social and publicity events that show him being overly close to one of the parties to the mediation. These visits have been perceived as illustrations of the ‘proximity of the High Representative to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia’.
While the cardinal rule of a mediator is to objectively understand both a context and specificity of a conflict, Mr Obasanjo is already armed with prescriptive templates that narrowly profile the resolutions of the conflicts in Ethiopia and, in particular, Tigray, Oromia, Gambella, Benishangul and Gumuz
Moreover, his efforts thus far have yielded no concrete outcomes. On the contrary, his pronouncements and actions have created even more confusion. In a BBC interview, Mr Obasanjo backed a stance that makes lifting the siege and the humanitarian blockade a precondition for the start of negotiations – a position that the Ethiopian government believes is its only leverage over Tigray. Linking humanitarian aid to millions of civilians with peace negotiations is contrary to international human rights and humanitarian laws.
While the cardinal rule of a mediator is to objectively understand both a context and specificity of a conflict, Mr Obasanjo is already armed with prescriptive templates that narrowly profile the resolutions of the conflicts in Ethiopia and, in particular, Tigray, Oromia, Gambella, Benishangul and Gumuz. Perhaps more concerning is Mr Obasanjo’s recent brief to the AU’s Peace and Security Council. The report characterizes the armed conflicts in Ethiopia as ‘internal ethnic tensions in western Ethiopia; on and off tensions between Eritrea and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF); recent deteriorating security situation between Ethiopia and Sudan over alleged skirmishes at the common border; reports of the arrest of suspects allegedly plotting terror attacks in Addis Ababa; and the attacks by al Shabaab in the Ferfer district of Ethiopia near the border with Somalia’.
While supporting the negotiations with Tigray, Mr Obasanjo proposes ‘re-establishing strained intercommunal relations’ to address armed conflicts in parts of the Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions. Does this mean the armed conflicts outside Tigray could be dealt with within the current dialogue, and not through negotiations?
Mr Obasanjo’s report dramatically underplays the war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide caused by the nationwide internal and war on Tigray, and grossly underreports their true human and economic costs. The internal wars within Ethiopia, the intervention by Eritrean armed forces, and the armed conflict with Sudan in the border areas and Al Shabaab in the Somali region have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced more than 6 million people. More than half a million lives have been lost in the war on Tigray. Mr Obasanjo has shown no genuine interest in the atrocities committed by Eritrea, accountability, and reparations for the victims of the war. His report failed to express empathy and demonstrate solidarity with victims of the war.
After expressing qualms about the impartiality and integrity of Mr Obasanjo and the lack of consultation regarding his appointment by the AU, in the first letter written to the UN Security Council on 23 August 2021, the Tigrayan government announced that it would ‘only accept impartial and neutral mediators and not those that have displayed partiality towards the Government of Ethiopia. Those who endorsed the war on Tigray publicly or tacitly supported and attempted to bestow credibility to the sham elections conducted in June 2021 will not be accepted by the Government of Tigray.’
It further accused the AU of failing ‘to rise to the occasion when the war broke. They abandoned their core mandate of preventing the war when the Government of Tigray repeatedly appealed for their preventive diplomacy before and in the early stages of the war. The AU was proven incapable of pronouncing itself when combined Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara forces aided by non-African forces invaded Tigray and committed atrocious crimes. The Government of Tigray is deeply disappointed by Mr Moussa Faki, AU Commission Chairperson, who even went further to endorse the genocide and war on Tigray officially. The Government of Tigray strongly believes that the AU cannot provide any solution to the war in Tigray, which it has officially endorsed.’ It added that ‘the Government of Tigray reserves its right to reject any imposition of mediation without prior substantive consultations’.
In a recent open letter, the President of Tigray accused the AU of betraying the foundational principles of the Union. “The silence of the African Union over the war and the atrocities perpetrated by the forces ranged against us was a betrayal of the Foundational Principles of the Union. We have consistently condemned the failure of the African Union Chairperson and his High Representative to take a position consistent with their solemn obligations under the Constitutive Act of the Union, the Protocol establishing the Peace and Security Council, and a host of other commitments entered into. In the considered view of the People and Government of Tigray, the leadership of the African Union Commission has yet to redeem its failures and restore our trust.” This latest letter from the President was the final nail in the coffin of Mr Obasanjo’s mediation role. Tigray has decided that Mr Obasanjo is not impartial enough to mediate the war.
Possibly due to pressure from the regimes in Addis Abeba and Asmara, the Obasanjo brief recommends inviting Eritrea into the mediation effort, requesting the AU Commission ‘to extend a formal invitation to the Republic of Eritrea to join ongoing AU-led efforts aimed at finding lasting diplomatic solutions to the conflict between the Federal Government of Ethiopia and the TPLF.’ The brief notes that ‘Eritrea has sided with Ethiopia in the conflict with TPLF’, significantly under-reporting the role that Eritrea played and is still playing as an omnipotent foreign force in the war on Tigray. It then states that ‘realities continue to prove that brokering genuine peace between Addis Abeba and Mekelle requires the involvement of Asmara’.
The proposal reveals the inconsistencies of the AU’s position on the war on Tigray. Despite the presence of incontrovertible evidence since the beginning of the war, the AU has long maintained a policy of silence and turned a blind eye to the major role of the Eritrean armed forces in the war on Tigray and the ensuing atrocities. This policy of ignoring Eritrea’s destructive role in Ethiopia’s current conflicts is to be contrasted with the EU and US positions, which publicly confirmed the participation of Eritrean armed forces in the war on Tigray and called for their immediate withdrawal and for perpetrators to be held accountable. The US government went further to issue an executive order that sanctioned the Eritrean regime for the atrocities in Tigray.
Without mentioning Eritrea’s role in the war on Tigray, the reasons forwarded to justify its involvement in the mediation speak volumes about the AU’s inability to master the intricacies of Ethiopian, Tigrayan, and Eritrean relations, or to decipher where Mr Obasanjo’s actual bias lies. What is more, if the AU were to endorse such a recommendation, it would fly in the face of everything the AU stands for.
Furthermore, with the proposal to invite Eritrea into the negotiations, the AU mediation is entering a legal minefield. As with previous statements by the AU Commission, the Obasanjo report mentions nothing about the circumstances and legality of the Eritrean armed forces’ entry into the war, nor of the crucial role they played. While the Ethiopian government had not made an official statement inviting Eritrea’s intervention, Eritrea, along with the Amhara and Ethiopian forces, played a crucial part in the execution of the war on Tigray.
For many months, and despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary, the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed denied the participation of Eritrean soldiers in the conflict. Eritrea also vehemently denied its involvement. This suddenly changed on 23 March 2021, when the Prime Minister cautiously admitted before parliament that Eritrean forces had been in Tigray since the beginning of the conflict. Eritrea then followed suit. Both parties, by and large, hinted that Eritrea had sent its forces to Tigray in self-defence, without providing further details. These admissions did not clarify whether Ethiopia had invited the Eritrean forces into Tigray. What is clear, nonetheless, is that Ethiopia has never openly criticized the Eritrean intervention or the atrocities Eritrean forces have been accused of committing in Tigray, much less demanded that these forces leave Tigray. In addition, Eritrea still occupies certain areas of Tigray and is heavily deployed alongside the federal and Amhara forces in west Tigray.
Eritrea’s involvement, as such, does not change the situation into that of international armed conflict, as it is helping the Ethiopian government and its allies.
In light of these developments, it is apparent that the Eritrean forces are working closely with the federal government forces. This has also been established by independent investigations, including by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which showed that Ethiopian and Eritrean forces regularly conduct joint operations. Thus, the war on Tigray is not an international armed conflict where internationally recognized states use force against each other.
Eritrea’s involvement, as such, does not change the situation into that of international armed conflict, as it is helping the Ethiopian government and its allies.
Since Tigray is not an independent country, it has no business negotiating with any entity except the federal government of Ethiopia. The negotiation is an internal Ethiopian issue. Although this fact is easily overlooked, the negotiations will determine Tigray’s relations with Ethiopia, not (only indirectly) with Eritrea. There is no legal basis to involve Eritrea in the mediation effort without the consent of the negotiating parties.
In addition to the legal, practical, and ethical considerations, on what political basis should Eritrea take part in mediation to resolve the causes of an internal war in Ethiopia?
The Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara governments grew very close during the months before the war on Tigray. They have a shared antagonism towards Tigray and its government. The Ethiopian regime allowed Eritrean forces to kill, displace, destroy, and commit atrocities in Tigray. Eritrea has few allies – the Ethiopian and Amhara governments are the only two in the region – and it will sacrifice its own people to avoid losing these two newly made friends. The regime in Asmara thrives only in a region that is besieged with instability, not a peaceful one, let alone a successful one. The very mediation effort between Tigray and Ethiopia threatens the Eritrean regime. A successful peaceful resolution of the war between Tigray and Ethiopia has the potential to unravel the entirety of Eritrea’s regional influence after the end of the triumvirate Abiy–Isaias–Farmaajo security pact. Thus, Eritrea is the most significant threat to the mediation process.
The negotiations will, among others, look at Ethiopia’s relations with neighbouring countries bordering Tigray, including Eritrea and Sudan. The post-war future of Ethiopia will determine how Eritrea will interact with Tigray. That’s why Mr Obasanjo’s suggestion to invite Eritrea to the negotiation table never boded well for Tigray. While Ethiopia may welcome this, for Tigray it is likely to be a non-starter. There is no reason why Eritrea should have the unique privilege of being invited to a negotiation process that will define Tigray’s relations with Ethiopia.
The same Obasanjo brief mentions that ‘unresolved disputes between Ethiopia and Sudan over the Al-Fashaqa area remain a source of tension… with Ethiopia accusing its neighbour of harbouring elements of the TPLF in its territories’. Thus, in applying the same logic, one is forced to ask why Mr Obasanjo did not propose to invite Sudan – which, according to the report, supports Tigray – to the mediation table. Why propose an invitation to Eritrea but not Sudan? With Eritrea, Sudan, and more countries on the table, the mediation will only become more complex and unlikely to bear any peace.
Never before has a mediator insisted on staying put when one of the parties opposed their participation
In mediation lingo, impartiality is often ensured by objectively answering big picture questions: has the mediator passed the non-rejectability test, which requires that parties to the conflict must unreservedly consent to the mediator’s role? Is the mediator impartial? The principles of omni-impartiality, where the mediator need to associate with all parties. These principles is not only informed by but also consistent with African mediation experience. Mr Obasanjo himself has become an issue in this process, and he needs to recuse himself for the sake of peace in Ethiopia and Horn of Africa. When the mediator’s impartiality comes into question, or even when a mediation effort lacks progress, or any conflicting parties refuses to cooperate, the long-standing practice is for the mediator to resign. The experiences of Said Dijinnit in the Burundi mediation, Kofi Annan, and Lakhdar Brahimi in the Syria process are instructive. Never before has a mediator insisted on staying put when one of the parties opposed their participation. What explains Mr Obasanjo’s unprecedented inclination to remain as a mediator contrary to established principles and practices?
What is to be done?
As a mediator, Mr Obasanjo’s impartiality has been questioned by one of the parties, and it is only natural that he should step aside. His resignation would help avoid unnecessary political wrangling, prevent forum shopping, fast-track the selection of new mediators, and commence the negotiation on substantive agenda items.
The AU has no legal or political basis for ignoring Tigray’s position and has no right – legal or political – for opposing the selection of a mutually agreeable mediator. The AU must prevent the current rhetoric from becoming a political handicap, rendering the body irrelevant to the resolution of the war on Tigray.
A new mediator needs to be appointed quickly with the consultation and consent of all parties.
Mediating such a war requires neutrality, impartiality, undivided attention, and freedom of action unencumbered by institutional and individual conflicts of interest. Thus, the full-time availability of the mediators is a prerequisite for the successful engagement of the parties. An additional prerequisite for a successful mediation is a deep understanding of the context of the war on Tigray, the crises in Ethiopia, and the situation in the Horn of Africa, a quality some of the potential mediators possess.
Negotiations also require enforcement mechanisms and punitive measures against spoilers and violators of agreements. These necessitate strong government backing by states with influence with both parties as guarantors of such a process.
So far, none of the parties has rejected Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s offer to lead the mediation. As an outgoing president he remains a viable option if the incoming government of Kenya, the AU, IGAD, and the UN were to support him. Given that he has been officially engaging the parties with the support of international actors, continuing what he has started would allow the smooth and speedy resumption of mediation.
Given that state backing is crucial to any mediator’s success, political, diplomatic, and financial support for the of the mediator, as well as the AU, IGAD, UN, EU, US and China is necessary. If for any reason President Uhuru is unable to take up the role, there are several other potential mediators that could be acceptable to and posses leverage with both parties and the international community. As is often the case, the US and EU may not explicitly show their preference on this and other matters related to the mediation to avoid being accused of undermining AU and African mediation efforts. At the same time, to avoid competing and fragmented mediation, it is crucial to ensure that there is only a single mediation process. A consultative approach helps to avoid parallel initiatives and build confidence.
Dr. Mehari Taddele Maru is an academic focused on peace and security, law and governance, and humanitarian and migration issues. He tweets @DrMehari