Ethiopia: Nobel President, Capital in Danger - Rebels Head for AU Headquarters

BY: Alhaji Irbard Ibrahim
Ethiopia: Nobel President, Capital in Danger - Rebels Head for AU Headquarters

The fast-moving events in Ethiopia have put Addis Ababa, the capital city that plays host to the headquarters of the continent’s umbrella group, in the crosshairs of a devastating civil conflict.

Ethiopia occupies a special place in the Pan-African enterprise and a direct threat to the capital could leave the headquarters of the African Union in ruins, dealing a blow to a political grouping that has survived since 1963 as a result of efforts by Dr Kwame Nkrumah and other first-generation leaders of an emerging post-colonial continent.

Nobel Peace Prize

It is an irony of a Nobel Peace Prize-winning country fighting for survival.

Only two years ago, the 2019 Nobel Peace was awarded to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, who made peace a year earlier with bitter foe Eritrea.

He was awarded the prize for his efforts to "achieve peace and international cooperation".

Mr Abiy's peace deal with Eritrea ended a 20-year military stalemate following their 1998-2000 border war.

He was named the winner of the 100th Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, where he received the award in 2019.

It, therefore, comes as a big surprise that a nation hailed abroad for peace now lacks it at home. A great surprise for a country whose military is ranked the 66th strongest army in the world according to this year’s Global Fire Power Index and coming in the same elitist army league with DR Congo, Sudan and Libya.

Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent state and second to Nigeria in population.

It has a whopping population of 115 million, coming second to only Nigeria as the most populous country on the continent.

The world has seen the devastation conflict has caused the people and economy of populous Nigeria and a repeat of that in the continent’s second largest country in population size will only deepen the notion that the black continent of Africa is a hotbed of civil strife, conflict and devastation.

Tigray, power play in region

At the core of the current war between the Ethiopian central government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front is the realignment of politics and the contest for political hegemony.

In my view, it is about Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed allying with the Amhara to destroy Tigrayan power. This is an attempt to consolidate his position and that of his Amhara supporters.

Abiy declared war on the regional government of Tigray in early November 2020. The region is led by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front. He accused the regional government of attacking and looting the armaments of the Northern Ethiopian Military Camp.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front controlled and dominated Ethiopian politics for 27 years through the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition. The coalition included the Amhara National Democratic Movement, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation, and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement. The Tigrayans were the dominant force in the coalition.

The Tigrayan elites squandered their political opportunities by attacking the Oromo Liberation Front. They violated the human rights of the Oromo and others. This is what gradually led to the demise of their power in Addis Ababa (Finfinnee).

Ethiopia has about 80 ethno-national groups. The major ones are the Oromo (the largest), the Amhara and the Tigrayans.

Emperor Menelik, the architect of the Ethiopian Empire, was from Amhara. His rule resulted in the Amhara elites and Amhara culture and language dominating the empire for more than a century. These elites now claim that they are the rightful group to shape Ethiopia today in their own image.

The other most powerful groups are the Oromo and Tigrayans who have been fighting their own corners, often through liberation armies. Abiy, a political chameleon, has been manipulating ethnic divisions among the Amhara, the Oromo and the Tigrayans.

African Union, curse of geography

The AU, after 59 years of having its headquarters in Addis Ababa, is both a landmark and a focus of the city’s flurry of diplomatic activities. The organisation has a special relationship with the Ethiopian government.

AUC staffers and the ambassadors are more than acquaintances with their counterparts from Ethiopia’s ministry of foreign affairs. They frequently mingle, often wheeling and dealing at cocktails and receptions.

Therefore, the AU’s proximity to the corridors of power in Addis Ababa is the main restraint to its ability to influence its host. The upshot is that the war in Tigray gets silent treatment.

Perhaps one demonstration of how geography is important is the decision by the AU’s Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to probe alleged violations of the international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

The government of Ethiopia was unhappy and urged the AU to “immediately cease” the commission of inquiry, calling it “illegal” and “misguided”.

It’s safe to argue that this commission of inquiry benefitted from sitting in Banjul, the Gambia – a safe distance away from Addis Ababa.

Burden of history

In 1963, the heads of 32 African states signed the charter establishing the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Ethiopia was not only the founding member of the OAU, but also its nucleus. Consequently, the leadership of Haile Selassie’s government has left a permanent legacy.

For the AU, Ethiopia’s anti-colonial successes are the bedrock of its founding principles. In short, Ethiopia has a special place in the Union: it is the organisation’s heartbeat, embedded in its collective psyche.

It is because of this that the AU and its member states seemingly carry the burden of history. They dare not go against the Ethiopian government. One case in point is the official statement on the war from the chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, favouring the Ethiopian government’s position.

Time for AU to act

The federal government of Ethiopia and the Amhara forces have vowed to obliterate their Tigrayan adversaries once and for all. The TPLF-led forces also pledged to put up fierce resistance and even go farther out to engage their opponents.

Is the AU going to sit by and watch its ‘mother nation’ destroy itself? That would be a historic mistake. The current AU chairperson, Felix-Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo, must resuscitate Cyril Ramaphosa’s ‘initiative for peace’ and reappoint the envoys. The AU shouldn’t fail to deliver on its aspiration to achieve ‘a peaceful and secure Africa’ as set out in its Agenda 2063.

The writer is an International Relations and Security Analyst.