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Vol 62 No 3

Published 4th February 2021


All eyes on the African Union summit host

As the UN and the European Union warn about Tigray's crisis, Premier Abiy's government will keep the issue off the summit agenda

This weekend's summit of the African Union, held partly in Addis Ababa and partly online, will struggle to avert its gaze from the multiplying crises around the organisation's host country, Ethiopia. Three of the five big security issues around Ethiopia – the future of the AU peacekeepers in Somalia, the Ethiopia-Sudan border dispute and the Egypt-Ethiopia negotiations over the dam on the Blue Nile – will find their way onto the agenda of the Peace & Security Commission.

The other two – the deepening humanitarian crisis in Tigray and Eritrea's cross-border involvement in that conflict – will be kept firmly off the AU agenda by the Ethiopian government. That will not change the view of many security experts that the Tigray conflict is exacerbating regional tensions.

Ahead of Somalia's indirect presidential elections, Mohamed Abdullah Mohamed 'Farmajo' needs the support of Premier Abiy Ahmed and there have been talks about security arrangements outside the ambit of the AU operation. The details are obscure but there is no doubt that Abiy is the senior partner despite his growing concerns about Al Shabaab insurgents crossing from Somalia into Ethiopia.

Sudanese and Ethiopian troops are massing either side of their common frontier. There is a risk of a miscalculation or worse as both sides try to reach agreement over the disputed territory of Al Fashqa, not least because some of the local political rivalries in both Addis Ababa and Khartoum who hope to benefit from a flare-up.

That border dispute is also complicating the three-sided negotiations – between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan – over the pace of filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. Those talks are back under the aegis of the AU, after the failure of US attempts at mediation last year. We hear that Ramaphosa may continue to manage the talks after his term as chair of the AU Chair ends this weekend.

No one expects more than the most cursory reference to the Tigray conflict which the Ethiopian government insists ended last year. This is in the face of stark reports, from the UN Secretary General António Guterres, the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Children's Fund (UNICEF) of horrendous conditions, lack of food and healthcare for some two million displaced people.

Continuing obstacles laid in the path of relief organisations seeking access to the worst-hit areas in Tigray have prompted a chorus of accusations that officials are trying to starve the region into submission. With the lack of access for independent relief organisations and reports, those claims are likely to grow louder.

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