Conflict in Ethiopia not discussed at special AU peace summit

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Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
Michael Tewelde, AFP
  • Ethiopia's conflict in its Tigray region was kept off the African Union agenda at a special summit on silencing the guns in the continent this weekend.
  • This was done deliberately so as not to jeopardise the delicate process started by President Cyril Ramaphosa to engage Ethiopia on the conflict.
  • Western Sahara and the establishment of the African Standby Force were two other contentious issues at the summit.

Ethiopia’s conflict in its Tigray region was not discussed at all during the extraordinary African Union (AU) summit on silencing the guns in Africa, hosted by President Cyril Ramaphosa over the weekend.

Instead, a lengthy debate between the 14 heads of state present about the renewed conflict between the Polisario Front in Western Sahara and Morocco about the blockage of the road to Mauritania, as well as on the operationalisation of the African Standby Force (ASF), caused proceedings to finish two-and-a-half-hours late.  

An official who attended Sunday’s summit said the conflict in the AU’s host country was not mentioned at all so as not to jeopardise the process that was already underway with Ramaphosa’s high-level AU envoys, comprised of former Presidents Kgalema Motlanthe (South Africa), Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia), and Joaquim Chissano (Mozambique).  

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who last month launched what he told the envoys was a “law enforcement operation” against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, did not attend the summit, but President Sahle Work-Zewde did. Sahle travelled to South Africa last month to deliberate with Ramaphosa about the conflict, which observers fear could end up engulfing the entire region. Ahmed has sharply rebuffed subsequent mediation efforts from the AU. 

He did, however, receive the envoys in Addis Ababa about 10 days ago and briefed them about what he said was a premeditated attack on the Northern Command of the National Defence Forces, which he said constitutes high treason. The envoys did not have access to TPLF leaders as they originally wanted.  

READ | Ethiopian military has taken 'full control' of Tigray capital, government says

Although he didn't mention it in his opening or closing speeches to the summit on Sunday, Ramaphosa did talk about the "conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia" when he mentioned African peace challenges to the ANC’s national executive committee at their meeting on Monday.

The Western Sahara and the ASF were not mentioned in the draft decisions drawn up before the summit, but AU leaders in the final summit document expressed, “deep concern over the escalating military tensions between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Sahrawi Republic”, which violate the 1991 Ceasefire Agreement.  

The summit requested the AU’s Peace and Security Council to engage Morocco and the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic, “to address the unfolding situation in order to prepare conditions for a new cease-fire and to reach a just and durable solution to the conflict, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara in line with the relevant AU-UN decisions”. It also said the troika, consisting of the presidents who are the current, previous, and incoming chairs of the AU, should be revived to deal with the issue. 

Saharawi

Morocco, which joined the AU in 2017, last month launched a military operation in the buffer zone of al-Guerguerat near Mauritania after accusing the Polisario Front of blocking the road Rabat considers essential for its trade with the rest of Africa. Morocco left the Organisation of African Unity in 1984 after the majority of its members voted to admit the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic. Morocco considers Western Sahara as part of its territory and not as a separate state.  

In his opening statement to the summit, conducted on Zoom, Ramaphosa on Sunday morning expressed his, “grave concern about the current situation in Western Sahara, which demands that every effort is made to facilitate the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara”. He also made mention of the conflicts in northern Mozambique as well as in the Sahel. 

The summit also decided, on Nigeria’s behest, that the ASF should be fully operationalised, and that the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis (ACIRC) be dissolved. ACIRC was established in 2013 as a South African initiative partly due to frustration about the time it was taking to get the ASF off the ground, and it is believed that some officials are not fully convinced about its dissolution as yet.

It has, however, never been deployed, but subsequently “developed a life of its own” and diverted attention away from how the AU ought to implement peace support operations, according to Institute for Security Studies analysts Gustavo de Carvalho and Annette Leijenaa. 

Nigerian foreign minister Geoffrey Onyeama, who represented President Muhammadu Buhari, said on Twitter that Nigeria called for the dissolution of ACIRC and the operationalisation of the ASF at Sunday’s summit because the AU assembly two years ago already directed that the two should be merged and, “we have not seen much on the ground to address this yawning gap”.

He said Nigeria was dealing with a number of security challenges, particularly in the Lake Chad Basin region, while, “threats of terrorist activities, other national crimes and external interference in the internal affairs of African States are increasing”. He blamed this on the fact that the ASF had not yet been established.  

The 2020 deadline for silencing the guns, or achieving peace in Africa, was postponed by a decade at the summit.


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