Kept on the Sidelines: The AU’s Non-Intervention in Ethiopia

18 May 2021 Patrick Rabbitte, FDI Associate

The civil war that has consumed the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia has highlighted the inability of the African Union to respond effectively to the possible atrocities committed by one of its most powerful members.



The seven month-long civil war that has consumed the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia is an example of how the African Union (AU) has taken a partisan approach to the conflict. From the war’s beginning, the AU’s statements have been at odds with its actions, with Ethiopia’s importance in the AU making it difficult for real action to be taken against it. US pressure has led Ethiopia to request an AU investigation into reports of atrocities, but sceptics say that a more likely reason is to head off a more thorough UN assessment of possible war crimes.



The ongoing conflict in Tigray was sparked by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s recently formed Prosperity Party moving to centralise administration at the federal level, thereby diminishing the power of the ethnically-focussed state governments. Despite promises to reduce political corruption, the move angered the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the party that previously ruled Ethiopia for 27 years. Following the TPLF’s decision to hold a state election in defiance of the federal government, its militia attacked an Ethiopian army base on 4 November 2020. Since then, the resulting fighting has displaced over 50,000 refugees and massacres of civilians have taken place in Tigray, assisted by Eritrean troops who were invited by Prime Minister Ahmed to suppress the TPLF. AU Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat called that ‘legitimate military action’.

That statement, which opened the 38th Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) summit in Djibouti, contradicted Cyril Ramaphosa, the AU Chair in 2020, and worked against AU attempts to prevent the escalation of violence against civilians and ethnic groups. Ramaphosa had already dispatched a diplomatic mission to establish a ceasefire to protect civilian populations, led by Former heads of state in Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique and Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa, who travelled to Addis Ababa in an effort to de-escalate tensions. Upon arrival, however, they were brusquely informed that the conflict had entered the ‘final phase of our rule of law operations’.

Mahamat’s statement contradicts statements and acts by other AU leaders and institutions and is at the heart of the AU’s problems regarding the atrocities and massacres in Ethiopia, as well as its overall mission: its inability to take its most prominent founding member to task. Ethiopia occupies a key position as the host of the AU and is a strong power in an unstable part of Africa. The AU employs around two thousand people in Addis Ababa, hosts many offices of the United Nations – including the UN Economic Commission for Africa headquarters – and over 100 embassies are maintained in the city. It is a sign of the growing importance of the AU that Addis Ababa has become an almost obligatory stop for non-African leaders visiting the continent, such as former US President Obama in 2015 and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in 2018. This heightened level of external attention, and the fact that Ethiopia hosts the AU’s headquarters, means that the level of influence that Ethiopia possesses over the AU could allow it a considerable amount of leeway, which is not afforded to other countries. This was not an issue when Ethiopia was critical to the AU’s ongoing peacekeeping operations; on the contrary, it was considered crucial to the continued stability of East Africa and the Horn.

Now that Ethiopia is engaged in a civil war that has caused a flood of refugees into neighbouring Sudan and resulted in an undeclared war between Tigray and neighbouring Eritrea, Ethiopia has seen its position as a bedrock of stability within the AU crack. That has seen occurrences such as the acquiescence of the AU Commission to an ultimatum from the Government of Ethiopia to sack ethnic Tigrayans from its staff. The chief concern for most outside observers such as the UN and Amnesty International is to investigate continued allegations of war crimes. Amnesty International has stated that Eritrean troops systematically killed hundreds of unarmed civilians in the northern Tigrayan city of Axum last November. Incidents such as those being overlooked by an African organisation has only confirmed in the minds of many that the AU’s status as a neutral arbiter and a defender of the norms and values contained in its constitutive act has been compromised.

The perceived inability of the AU to prevent violence and ethnic profiling is a major reason why the United States has become involved in negotiating a potential end to hostilities. The US has consistently called for an international investigation into allegations of massacres and atrocities committed in the region, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling on the AU and other international partners to help address the crisis in the Tigray region and condemning any alleged atrocities committed there. As of 27 April, that has also included a pause to non-humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia to pressure Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government to do more to stop the ‘deteriorating humanitarian and human rights crisis’. That has forced Ethiopia to allow an AU investigation into alleged massacres in the Tigray, with Prime Minister Ahmed calling for ‘African solutions to African problems’, but many in Africa believe that call to have been made in the hope of locking out a more thorough UN-led investigation.

The seven months of the civil war has made it clear that the AU is ill-equipped to face a major member pushing back against its soft power approach to African diplomacy. While the central TPLF leadership has been ousted from the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle and national elections are scheduled to be held on 5 June, fighting continues in Tigray itself, Eritrean troops refuse to withdraw from the region, and elections have been cancelled there. While devastating to Ethiopia’s economy and population, the war in the Tigray has had the far greater knock-on effect of dealing a crucial blow to the credibility of the AU’s status as a neutral arbitrator, a role it was specifically built by previous Ethiopian governments to fulfil. Ethiopia’s casual disregard of the AU can only have destabilising effects, as member states grapple with increasingly legitimate complains of favouritism. The AU must investigate Addis Ababa’s alleged crimes in the civil war. The results of that investigation will play a significant role in demonstrating how impartial a peacekeeper it truly is.

About the Author

Patrick Rabbitte is a Perth-based FDI Associate.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

Published by Future Directions International Pty Ltd.
Suite 5, 202 Hampden Road, Nedlands WA 6009, Australia.