The African Union and the Tigray crisis

Opinion

(Source: ORF, By Gurjit Singh) –

The African Union (AU) since 2002 is building on the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), but with a difference. The OAU had not effectively dealt with peace and security (P&S) in Africa. The expectations from the slogan ‘African solutions for African problems’ is amongst the biggest challenges faced by them. The limitations in dealing with P&S in Africa have bedeviled the AU itself, however, a saving grace is the AU constitution. In Article 4(h)  the AU acquired the right to intervene in a member state, following a decision of the Assembly, if circumstances like war crimes, genocides, or crimes against humanity occurred. It is also authorized to reject unconstitutional changes of government in the member states.

The AU lived up to some expectations by establishing African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). Amongst the AU institutions, this drew the maximum interest of donors.  EU members, the Nordic countries, the USA, amongst others, are always ahead in funding, guiding, and cajoling the AUPSA. The continuous interest of donors was ostensibly to build its capacity and fund its shortfall, but also lead to influencing its decisions.

The APSA, essentially has five segments. They work towards the prevention, management, and resolution of conflicts, for which they can collaborate with different African institutions. These  segments are the Peace and Security Council (PSC); The Panel of the Wise; The Continental Early Warning System (CEWS); The Standby Forces, and the Peace Fund. If all the segments are cohesive, the AU could play an important role; however, not all have functioned as envisaged.

The role of the AU in dealing with problems within its member states or amongst them is a function of the PSC and the initiative of the chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC), along with the commissioner for peace, security and political affairs. Besides, the role of the Head of State chairing the AU for the year can be decisive.

The PSC is the 15-member decision-making entity which implements peacemaking and defence policies, oversees peace missions, and recommends interventions when situations envisaged by Article 4 occur. From its inception, the PSC has had a mixed record. In 2020, it suspended the membership of Mali from the AU, after President Ibrahim Keita was removed in a coup. Earlier too it had dealt with Mali on similar grounds. Egypt was suspended in 2013 after a coup and reinstated  within a year in a rare action against a big country and Sudan too faced this after its coup in 2019. However, the responses are not even, either in pace or in depth. Thus, no intervention in Cameroon has occurred for several years despite internal problems.

The PSC has several constraints. Though it requires a simple majority, it often ends up dealing with proxies who support the country being discussed. Countries scramble to remain in it, more to prevent action against themselves or their allies than to do something. The PSC is hampered by inadequate finances and human resources. The Peace Fund and the Standby Brigades are not fully functional. Politics is prioritized over human lives; it is peer solidarity over effective action. On occasion, the PSC finds its efforts overtaken by other foreign intervention, as in Libya, or the Sahel, as its donors do not await its decision and take their own strategic course. This is happening to the UN Security Council too.

The Ethiopian crises

The 2020 conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, challenged the role of the APSA in dealing with a situation which is internal to a member state. Ironically the AU theme for 2020 was ‘Silencing the Guns’. Since Sudan and Eritrea are involved in this conflict, a new balance in the Horn of Africa is emerging. Similarly, the issue pertaining to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD),  sees Egypt and Sudan challenging Ethiopian control of the Nile waters.

In both these cases, more was done by the Chair of the AU, than the AUC and its APSA. In the pandemic-stricken year, the AU chair was held by South Africa, and its president, Cyril Ramaphosa took initiatives on both issues with limited success.

He appointed a team to discuss the vexed issue of the GERD and had the political weight of the Bureau of the AU behind it. This was quite unprecedented. Now that South Africa has handed over the chair to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) President Félix Tshisekedi, efforts are underway to continue the initiative. The committees of ministers and experts beat about the bush, while Ethiopia filled the first stage of the dam. Now, Ethiopia seems apprehensive, because the DRC President, while participating in the bureau meetings, seemed open to the Egyptian position. Such political apprehensions mar the institutional strengthening of the APSA. The latest effort in Kinshasa has hardened positions and Ethiopia is keen to move to the second filling of the dam.

Similarly, the Tigray issue caught many people in Africa off guard. The CEWS had clearly failed. The AUC located in Addis Ababa is dependent on the host country. There is an unstated pressure to be nice to the host. The AU Commission took no initiative, and there is little evidence that the PSC even discussed about Tigray. In its meeting on 19 November 2020, it ironically discussed protecting children in warzones!

As the Tigrayan conflict continued, victory was claimed by Addis Ababa but  tales of civilian casualties, rape, denial of food, and lack of humanitarian access dominated the press. Confirmations were hard to come by, but evidently there was a breach of peace and a poor humanitarian situation. The spillover of refugees into Sudan and its assertiveness over lands which Ethiopia had been utilizing, led to further tensions in the absence of any effort by the APSA. The AU Chairman once again took an initiative and appointed a three-member team of former heads of State. The selection of the envoys was not based on the AU Panel of the Wise.

The AU envoys visited Ethiopia, and were received by PM Abiy. Ethiopia made it clear that the Tigray operation is a law enforcement operation and efforts for mediation by the AU or anybody else would be rejected since Addis Ababa did not see itself at par with Mekelle, the capital city of the Tigray region.

The APSA and how it reacted to the Tigray situation.

An analysis of the PSC meetings shows little concern in formal terms with what is happening in Tigray. From November 2020 to March 2021, the PSC held 19 meetings. These were on Boko Haram, Central African Republic, Sudan, Somalia and on various themes related to APSA. On 9 November 2020, AUC Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat called for peace, reiterating this at the December Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) summit.

On 9 March at a summit level PSC, PM Abiy proposed an investigation on human rights violations in Tigray and on 21 March, the AUC Chair accepted it in a meeting with the Ethiopian FM. This was a surprise strike to ward off international pressure and seek ‘African Solution to African Problems’ The Abiy intervention was under ‘other business’ and now the PSC may bring it on its agenda. He offered that the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights could undertake investigations jointly with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

Abiy chose one of three options: The African HRC. The PSC could have set up a HOS committee as it did for South Sudan in 2013, or a PSC investigation as for Mali in 2012. The African HRC was used in Darfur and in Zimbabwe.

Ethiopia has come willingly to the PSC and sought an investigation. As the host country of the AU, it has a large influence over it. Some analysts believe that AU rules are for others and not applicable to Ethiopia! The PSC took no action, and it is now used as a thoroughfare to the ACHPR by Ethiopia’s own volition, not by PSC decision. On 17 March, the Ethiopian offer for a joint investigation with the UNHRC was accepted too, leaving the AU in the lurch.

There is no record to show that the Panel of the Wise was tapped to start possible mediation efforts or a ceasefire. There are efforts by former heads of state, like President Obasanjo of Nigeria, which quietly hope to have a breakthrough. They are neither guided nor supported by the APSA.

The Tigray crisis erupted at an uncomfortable time when the AUC was dealing with the pandemic and its election for a new commission was due in February 2021. Since every member state’s vote counts towards the election, nobody was willing to act to antagonize any member state, leave alone the host country, Ethiopia.

There is work-in progress on the AU working with Regional organisations (RECs) for peace. In December 2020, the IGAD supported the Ethiopian position leaving the AUC free to also do so.

It is a perception, that since the fall of Gaddafi, there is no African strongman who can threaten Ethiopian influence over the AUC. Thus, after Meles, Ethiopian leaders, though not in his mould, have enjoyed stronger leeway at the AUC even when it is not a member of the PSC. This is evident by the AU’s faithfulness to the Ethiopian position in this crisis. In that lie’s Ethiopian diplomatic success.

 

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