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As fighting spreads and alliances come under strain, neither side expects a diplomatic breakthrough for peace talks
So many regional diplomats and officials have been criticising the African Union for its failure to highlight horrific abuses in the 10-month war between the federal government in Addis Ababa and the Tigray People's Liberation Front that its appointment of a mediator might have been expected to win plaudits.
But the regional reception for their choice of retired general and former President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, has been lukewarm with officials on both sides expressing unhappiness. Neither side has expressed much confidence in Obasanjo's neutrality.
TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda immediately denounced the appointment, saying it would be 'naive to expect this mission to work' because of the AU's inherent bias towards Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (AC Vol 62 No 15, No good options on the table). 'Solving a crisis at the very least requires acknowledging the existence, let alone the magnitude of the problem', he added on Twitter.
Obasanjo's defenders say he fought in his country's own civil war and was part of the government that negotiated a successful peace treaty to help end it. As its high representative for the Horn of Africa, Obasanjo headed the AU's election observer mission to Ethiopia's parliamentary elections in June (AC Vol 62 No 13, War casts shadow over Abiy's election plan).
Certainly, the AU faces mounting pressure to step up efforts to end the conflict and prevent it drawing in more regional forces on either side. The AU will be largely on its own, with the UN system, the United States and the EU preoccupied with the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
The location of the AU's headquarters in Addis Ababa has raised obvious and tricky questions about the organisation's impartiality. Top officials in the AU have been accused by the TPLF and its supporters of being far too close to Abiy. Late last year, the AU Commission Chair, Moussa Faki Mahamat, told a meeting of regional leaders that the federal government's military campaign in Tigray was 'legitimate for all states'.
Nor is the AU's African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), which includes a 15- member Peace and Security Council (PSC), well equipped for a leading role. Countries scramble to stay in it, partly as an insurance policy. Peer solidarity is far commoner than informed criticism of governments.
Between November 2020 and March 2021, the PSC held 19 meetings on other issues, with a proposal tabled by Abiy for an investigation into human rights violations relegated to 'other business' on the agenda.
Two developments might offer a route towards credible negotiations between Addis and Tigray. With about a million people in northern Ethiopia facing famine caused by the conflict, this looming catastrophe might spur more determined international action.
At the same time, the conflict has quickly undone Ethiopia's carefully constructed image as a model for rapid economic development. Growth has stalled and interest rates on its foreign debt are rising. Most worrying for Prime Minister Abiy's government, the dislocation caused by the war is costing tens of thousands of productive jobs.
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