Ethiopia Credit: GIN photo

Fighting between the Ethiopian army and forces of the Tigray region has reached Mekelle, near the region’s biggest city, home to half a million residents. Addis Ababa should pause hostilities, all sides should minimize harm to civilians and the AU should step up efforts to avert further bloodshed.

That was the advice of the International Crisis Group––heard but not taken––as Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that Tigray’s regional capital had fallen to the army after an assault that he authorized.

But without a journalist, a member of the African Union or another impartial group, social media or the internet, no one could confirm Ahmed’s claim of victory.

Each government regards the other as illegal after Abiy sidelined the once-dominant Tigray People’s Liberation Front after taking office in early 2018.

The fight is about self-determination of the region of around 6 million people, Debretsion Gebremichael, the Tigray leader said and it “will continue until the invaders are out.” His forces still have several missiles and “we can use them whenever we want.”

With the two sides showing no movement toward de-escalation, a meeting was held between former Presidents Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, Joachim Chissano of Mozambique, Kgalema Motlanthe of South Africa and Prime Minister Abiy, but the Ethiopian leader refused to budge, remaining firm that the Ethiopian government would continue its military operations.

Further, Abiy  refused to grant permission for them to meet any members of the group Ethiopia is fighting in Tigray, which the prime minister has dismissed as a “criminal clique.”

But in rebuffing the African mediators, Abiy is not just turning down a peace initiative. He is challenging the foundational principles of the African Union itself, writes Alex de Waal, head of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Global Affairs at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

While the AU’s Constitutive Act does specify “non-interference by any member state in the internal affairs of another,” it also gives the AU the right “to intervene in a member state … in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.”

A senior AU diplomat remarked: “Abiy thinks that the AU is for others, not for Ethiopia.”

“Mr. Abiy’s rejection of mediation harkens back to an earlier era in which African civil wars were ended by force of arms, not peace agreements––leaving grievances to fester,” wrote de Waal. “It threatens to make a mockery of the African Union’s hard-won norms and principles of peacemaking.”