Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers are killing and raping civilians in Tigray. Millions are facing starvation while the authorities choke off essential relief supplies. The European Union and the United States called for an end to the atrocities and access for humanitarian agencies. Addis Ababa’s defence is that national sovereignty protects its right to do these things.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced sanctions against Ethiopian officials held responsible for the violence and starvation. Thus far, these are just visa restrictions, alongside a suspension of most development and security assistance. In response, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs put out a statement: “The attempt by the US administration to meddle in its (Ethiopia’s) internal affairs, is not only inappropriate but also completely unacceptable. Ethiopia should not be told how to run and manage its internal affairs.”
Some Africans appear to take at face value this appeal to African solidarity in the face of external diktat. That’s a mistake. Under the banner of national sovereignty, Ethiopia is subverting Africa’s own hard-won norms, principles and institutions. The same argument was trotted out in the 1970s and 1980s when African dictatorships used “sovereignty” as a shield behind which to oppress and exploit their people with impunity. At that time, the Organisation of African Unity stood up for untrammelled sovereign rights. Its reasoning was that the independence of African countries wasn’t secure: Apartheid South Africa, along with outgoing colonial powers and their mercenaries wanted to destabilise and divide African countries. That spelled African silence over Eritrea’s long struggle for independence – an inattention that undermined peace and stability in the region. There was also a growing chorus of dissent criticising the OAU’s whitewashing of military coups, massacres and man-made famines. It was “a trade union of heads of state,” in the words of Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere.
The refugee crisis was the biggest symptom of African governments’ loss of legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens: millions fled their misgoverned countries. Western nations paid the humanitarian aid bills and began to speak about intervening themselves – and actually did so in Somalia in 1992. The turning point came in April 1994. That month saw the accomplishment of the OAU’s historic mission, when Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa following that country’s first ever democratic non-racial elections. It also saw the genocide in Rwanda, perpetrated without anything more than symbolic hand-wringing in Africa and globally. With the liberation of South Africa, the main justification for the deployment of unfettered sovereignty was gone, while Rwanda showed the bankruptcy of that doctrine.
Africans led the way in formulating new principles. The Sudanese scholar and diplomat Francis Deng developed the notion of “sovereignty as responsibility”: a government’s sovereign privileges extend only as far as it exercises its responsibility for the rights and welfare of its citizens. The OAU set up an International Panel of Eminent Personalities to examine the Rwanda crisis, which coined the “principle of non-indifference”: Africans should not stand by while one of their governments commits mass atrocities. In due course, this became enshrined in the Constitutive Act of the African Union, drafted in 2000 and adopted when the African Union formally took over from the OAU at a summit in Durban, South Africa, two years later. Article 4(h) provides for intervention in the case of “grave circumstances”, defined as war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.
These African initiatives were forerunners of the “responsibility to protect”, or R2P, adopted at the United Nations in 2001. Over the years, especially after R2P was invoked by NATO countries for regime change in Libya, many Africans came to see it as imperialism in philanthropic disguise. By contrast, the African doctrine of non-indifference was crafted in the spirit of pan-Africanism. The vision of Kwame Nkrumah, the Pan-Africanist who led Ghana to independence in 1957, was that Africans are a single people whose struggle for freedom is one and the same. Sovereignty resides with the people, and is shared across the continent. African peacemaking practice developed the duty to offer good offices for conflict resolution – along with an obligation of the country in conflict to accept them. African diplomats are proactive in peacemaking. It is now standard for the AU and African regional economic communities to respond to a crisis within days. When civil war broke out in South Sudan in December 2013, the foreign ministers of neighbouring countries flew to Juba within a week to press for a ceasefire. Compare that to the first civil war in Sudan (1955-72) when it took 16 years for an international peace effort and the second civil war (1983-2005) when it took eight years.
These peace efforts don’t always work, but it’s surely better than the alternative of allowing conflicts to rage on and escalate. For example, when a border war broke out between South Sudan and Sudan in April 2012, prompt action by the AU Peace and Security Council set out a road map for resolving the conflict. At that time the UN Security Council was deadlocked on almost every issue, but the US, China and Russia all deferred to the African position and adopted the PSC’s formula, word-for-word, in a Security Council resolution. By comparison, United Nations envoys to Syria and Yemen were frustrated by the absence of a regional mechanism that could have established principles to contain those wars.
Ethiopia’s war in Tigray is a typical civil war: a political dispute that turned violent and became internationalised with Eritrean intervention. The best chance of containing the war was at the beginning before it escalated out of control. African leaders knew this instinctively. Within weeks of the outbreak of fighting in early November, the AU dispatched a team of three former heads of state as special envoys. But Ethiopia did not play by Africa’s rules. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed rebuffed the AU, making sure that the Peace and Security Council – where Ethiopia sits as a member – did not discuss his war. In fact, he insisted it was only a “law enforcement operation”.
Abiy appears to be following the playbook of his coalition partner in the war in Tigray, Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki, that there should be no constraint on power. Afwerki has defied Africa and the world for decades with a dictatorship without constitution or rule of law. And Eritrea is Africa’s largest generator of refugees relative to its size. With the AU impotent, Ethiopia’s crisis has gone to the United Nations. But the three African non-permanent members of the UN Security Council – Kenya, Niger and Tunisia – have not spoken out against the war or atrocities. Even when Ireland raised the situation in Ethiopia under the relatively uncontroversial resolution 2417 on armed conflict and hunger, the African representatives wavered. This opened the door for China and Russia to threaten to veto any resolution.
That’s Abiy’s strategy: his government’s statements about “foreign meddling” and “US imperialism” are aimed at winning over China and Russia. Those countries may step in and support him – but for their own interests, not Africa’s. Abiy has shown no regard for Africa and its wisdom. On the opening day of the AU’s February summit, Abiy published an article entitled Towards a peaceful order in the Horn of Africa. He didn’t once mention the AU or Africa’s norms, principles and institutions for peace. Abiy’s appeal to sovereign impunity is having the exact opposite of its stated goal. Ethiopia faces a catastrophic famine and national crisis – and becoming a cockpit for global rivalries.
Africans should not stand for this. They must stand firm on Africa’s principles: sovereignty entails responsibility, unreserved condemnation of atrocities and starvation crimes, immediate negotiation among the belligerents for a political solution. Or Africa cannot complain if Europeans and Americans take those principles more seriously than they do.