This editorial originally appeared in Business Day and was distributed by the Associated Press.
After months of high-level diplomatic talks to end a deadly conflict in Ethiopia, the US’s patience ran out when it hit several people accused of responsibility for the ongoing fighting with visa travel restrictions.
“The time for action from the international community is now,” secretary of state Antony Blinken said. “The parties to the conflict in Tigray have taken no meaningful steps to end hostilities or pursue a peaceful resolution of the political crisis.”
The conflict began in November 2020 when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered military action in the northern Tigray region in retaliation to what he described as an attack on an army base by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which rules the state and has pulled out of a coalition of ethnically based political parties that has governed the country since 1991.
Since then thousands of people have been killed, 2 million have been forced from their homes and 91% of the population of nearly 6 million are in need of aid, says the latest report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
There are also credible accounts of human rights abuses, including mass killings of civilians and gang rapes of Tigrayan women.
Almost all medical facilities in the region have been deliberately looted, vandalized or destroyed, while schools have been occupied by fighters.
It’s a situation that behooves the international community, including the AU, to protect civilians from the atrocities perpetrated by Ethiopian troops, which are fighting alongside soldiers from the neighboring country of Eritrea, and guerrilla fighters from TPLF.
Just as the US, at the risk of straining relations with an important ally in a volatile region, especially against Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militants Al-Shabaab in Somalia, rightly acknowledges that Abiy has failed to figure out the road to a ceasefire, it is time for the AU to do the same.
In November, just after the conflict erupted, the AU sent envoys to quell the conflict that threatens to spill over to neighboring countries.
Late in 2020, Abiy, a Nobel peace prize winner for ending what seemed to be an intractable military standoff with Eritrea, met former presidents Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Kgalema Motlanthe of SA, during which he laid all blame for the crisis on the TPLF leadership.
Abiy was not contemplating a ceasefire then, nor is he now given that his government characterized the US move to hit those responsible for inflaming the conflict with sanctions as an unwelcome interference in Ethiopian internal affairs.
President Cyril Ramaphosa is said to be backing proposals to send another AU team to try to find a peaceful solution. We doubt it would convince Abiy to seriously talk to the TPLF, which he considers a terrorist organization.
The unfolding humanitarian disaster in Tigray demands that the AU make good on its pledge to “silence the guns.”
Failure to act against the conflict in a country that is home to the institution’s headquarters is an embarrassing show of a missing African leadership.
“It is one thing not to act, it is another to be indifferent when the world tries to help,” renowned British-Nigerian academic ‘Funmi Olonisakin said in an address at the annual Thabo Mbeki Africa Day Lecture last week.
The least the AU could do is to link up with the US in trying to find a peaceful solution.