What Tigray Portends: The Future of Peace and Security in Africa
Two years ago, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stood on the stage in Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. Now, he oversees a brutal civil war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Abiy recently called the conflict a case where “the weed is being removed from our country.” This genocidal language follows a ten-month campaign characterized by acts of ethnic cleansing, sexual violence, and man-made famine. Thus far, the conflict has killed an estimated 50,000 civilians and displaced approximately 2 million people, while at least 350,000 face famine conditions.
This is a domestic Ethiopian crisis first and foremost. The war began in November 2020 when forces from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked an Ethiopian military base in the region following a longstanding dispute over the distribution of power and the nature of ethnic federalism in the country.
While the internal political and ethnic drivers of the conflict remain paramount, the duration of the conflict cannot be fully understood without also analyzing underexamined structural factors in the international system itself. Tigray illustrates two emerging systemic trends: the failure of the African Union to manage problems emanating from Africa’s largest states and the rise of Chinese interests on the continent, which renders collective action at the United Nations impossible.
Neither the African Union (the headquarters of which sit in Ethiopia’s capital) nor leading international powers at the United Nations prevented Ethiopia’s tragic descent into civil war and the war crimes that followed. This collapse of collective action portends a dismal future trajectory for peace and security on the continent. While Abiy’s Ethiopia was once elevated as a symbol of Africa’s hopeful future, it is now an ominous prophet of a bleak decade to come.
The deadly convergence of these two systematic trends — the ineptitude of the African Union and the increasing centrality of Chinese power — points towards a dangerous new era on the continent. While the post-1989 period witnessed a significant decline in the volume, duration, and intensity of African civil wars — due to both the successes of regional and international organizations and the end of the global Cold War — the new international environment threatens to reverse this trend. In this new system, Africa’s most powerful authoritarian governments will likely find themselves unconstrained by the African Union and empowered by Beijing’s emphasis on unlimited “sovereignty.” Escaping from this grim future will require African leaders to stand up to the abuses of the continent’s largest states, and create the kinds of institutions and arrangements that can perpetuate peace and stability or — at the very least — minimize the human suffering caused by war.
Background on a Brutal War
Abiy began large-scale military operations in Tigray in November 2020 in response to an attack by TPLF forces on an Ethiopian military headquarters in Mekelle, the region’s capital. This offensive followed a series of disputes between Abiy’s ruling coalition and the TPLF, a group that dominated Ethiopian politics for over 27 years prior to Abiy’s ascent to power in 2018. These disagreements, which hold deep historical roots and touch fundamental issues about the nature of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia, exploded in the fall of 2020 when Tigray held regional elections in defiance of a federal postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite Ethiopian state efforts to conduct a media blackout and bar humanitarian aid organizations from the region, reports quickly emerged of widespread ethnically targeted killings and sexual violence. Eritrean troops who crossed into Tigray proved especially rapacious. Eritrea directly fought the TPLF-led Ethiopian state in a border war from 1998 to 2000, a conflict that fueled a lasting animosity between Eritrea and the TPLF. (Eritrea maintained a tense stand-off with Ethiopia for the next 18 years until the 2018 peace settlement that earned Abiy the Nobel Prize). Amhara and Afar militias from neighboring regions in Ethiopia itself also joined the fray to advance their ethnic irredentist goals. In addition, both Ethiopian National Defense Forces and TPLF guerillas face credible allegations of war crimes.
While Abiy’s coalition of Ethiopian National Defense Forces regulars, Eritrean forces, and regional militias successfully secured the region’s major cities within the first two months of the campaign, their brutality pushed the region’s civilians into the ranks of the Tigrayan forces. This re-energized TPLF shocked the world in a series of rapid offensives in late June 2021 that both re-captured Mekelle and pushed out Abiy’s remaining forces from the area. The full scope of the Ethiopian state’s defeat became apparent when the TPLF paraded over 6,000 captured soldiers through Mekelle. The TPLF soon expanded their offensive into neighboring regions, while Abiy urged all eligible civilians to “show their patriotism” and join an expanded war effort. Despite a temporary “ceasefire” that ostensibly began in late June, most observers see no end to the fighting.
The Death of “African Solutions to African Problems”?
The African Union represents the natural arbiter of this conflict. African statesmen and international actors alike look to the organization to develop and execute “African solutions to African problems.” However, the African Union has proven feckless in stopping the war to date. Cowed by Ethiopian power (Ethiopia is Sub-Saharan Africa’s second most populous country and is among its four largest economies) and corroded by Chinese money (which funded the construction of its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital), the African Union has yet to either launch a meaningful investigation into war crimes, ensure humanitarian access to the region, or levy consequences against Abiy or his wartime partner, Eritrea’s wily dictator Isaias Afwerki.
The African Union has failed to live up to the principles outlined in the organization’s foundational document, the “Constitutive Act.” While the document affirms the principles of “non-interference,” it also explicitly lays out in Article 4(h) the union’s “right to intervene in a Member State, pursuant to a decision of the assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.” This is commonly referred to as the African Union’s “duty of non-indifference.” While a genocide determination itself is notoriously difficult to assess, the atrocities, war crimes, and acts of ethnic cleansing committed in Tigray clearly meet the intent of this founding principle.
The African Union’s two operational elements designed for such scenarios, which come under the organization’s Peace and Security Council, also fell short of their intent on Tigray. The first, the Continental Early Warning System, which became operational in 2010, serves to detect and verify information around human security. The warning system also includes conflict management and resolution capabilities. By most reports, including the African Union’s own self-assessment, the Continental Early Warning System failed around Tigray. The never operationally deployed but often-discussed African Standby Force represents the second element. The African Union designed this regionally aligned military capability to “enable Africans to respond swiftly to a crisis unhampered by any heavy political and instrumental burdens.” However, due to political deadlock, the standby force remained unused in the Tigray crisis.
That is not to suggest that the African Union has remained totally silent on this issue. Under the chairmanship of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the organization undertook a serious peace effort in November 2020, which Abiy subsequently rebuffed. It also appointed a “Commission of Inquiry” to investigate alleged war crimes in Tigray. This move sparked outrage from the Ethiopian government, which refused to allow the commission the access required to perform its charter. Since its founding in May, the commission has labored from its headquarters in the Gambia, nearly 5,000 miles from the warzone, unable to investigate the numerous credible allegations of ethnic cleansing, rape, and war crimes. In late August 2021, the African Union appointed former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo as a special envoy to the region. However, given the recentness of Obasanjo’s appointment, the results of this new initiative remain unclear at the time of publication.
On the whole, however, the African Union has proven hesitant to challenge the disastrous war in the very country that hosts its headquarters. While the African Union also proved deferential to the authoritarianism of the TPLF-dominated government in Addis Ababa during its long rule, this outsized influence has reached new heights over the last 10 months of war. Statements from leading African Union officials on the war range from the tone deaf to the incredulous. For example, on July 22, well after credible evidence emerged from multiple independent sources about massacres and acts of ethnic cleansing, African Union chairperson and Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi bizarrely blamed the United States for not sharing information on the conflict. “If we actually have proof that human rights are being violated,” he noted, “then we can show pan-African solidarity.” Given that U.S. Special Envoy to the Region Jeffrey Feltman had personally met with Tshisekedi twice over the previous six months, to say nothing of the public reporting by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others, this assertion does not bear scrutiny. Tshisekedi’s dismissive claim that “we just don’t have enough information” is characteristic of the African Union’s “see no evil” approach.
The African Union’s toothlessness on Tigray mirrors the organization’s recent struggle to manage other tough security and democracy issues throughout the continent. While sub-regional groupings and organizations have achieved meaningful results, such as the Economic Community of West African States’ rapid response to the Mali coup in 2020 and the ongoing African Union Mission to Somalia, these triumphs of collective action occurred in the context of problems emerging from smaller states. The disintegration of Africa’s largest states, however, poses a more difficult problem. Africa’s largest countries — from Nigeria to Ethiopia — now struggle to control their vast, multi-ethnic landscapes. How African organizations address this unique challenge will define the shape of continental peace and security efforts in the decade to come.
China, the United Nations, and Tigray
Rising Chinese influence and interests on the continent represent the second structural factor responsible for the failure of peace efforts in Ethiopia. In this new continental order, China may protect and sponsor African states on the international stage even when their actions include ethnic cleansing and deliberate starvation of civilian populations. These systematic factors — which both overlap with and reinforce the African Union’s paralysis — bode poorly for the future of peace and security on the continent.
Blaming the United Nations itself is convenient in this case, but observers should remember the warning of the late Richard Holbrooke, who once quipped that “blaming the United Nations when things go wrong is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the Knicks play badly.” Instead of “blaming a building,” interested parties should point their gaze toward the member states — namely China — that continue to block meaningful international responses to the crisis.
Beijing’s diplomatic maneuvers in Turtle Bay reflect the expanded scope of the Sino-Ethiopian relationship. China represents Ethiopia’s largest trade partner and investor — greatly increasing Ethiopia’s resiliency to pressure from the United States and its allies. According to the China-Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins, China holds over half of Ethiopia’s external debt and has lent over $13.7 billion dollars to Ethiopia since the year 2000. This relationship has endured despite changes to Ethiopia’s ruling coalition. China’s relationship with Ethiopia blossomed under the TPLF-dominated government of Melas Zenawi and continue today under Abiy’s leadership. Meanwhile, Ethiopian trade with China now stands at twice the volume of its exchanges with the United States.
Throughout the conflict, Chinese diplomats emphasized their unquestioned support for Ethiopia’s “sovereignty.” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs press statements repeatedly pronounced how “Ethiopia, like China, firmly opposes Western interference in other countries internal affairs under the excuse of human rights.” At the U.N. Security Council in March 2021, Chinese diplomats put this rhetoric into action and blocked a blandly worded resolution that called for the end to the violence (Russia and India joined China in opposition to the resolution).
Moreover, the Chinese delegation also successfully prevented any discussion of the Ethiopia crisis in open, scheduled settings until Aug. 26 — a full nine months into the conflict. While senior U.N. officials accurately warned in February 2021 that “the risk of atrocity crimes in Ethiopia remains high and likely to get worse,” meaningful action from the United Nations on Ethiopia remained impossible due to Chinese obstinacy. The Security Council released its first and only press statement six months into the crisis in April of 2021. However, this release failed to include either language calling for the removal of Eritrean troops or for the cessation of hostilities.
U.N. support for a peace process would not likely have stopped the conflict altogether, given the depth of the political disagreement between the TPLF and Abiy’s coalition. However, it might have created space and support for more assertive actions by the African Union and other regional actors. The deadlock at the United Nations both encourages and exacerbates hesitation to act within the African Union. Moreover, broad global pressure could have stemmed the most destructive internationalized aspects of the conflict, such as the participation of Eritrean forces. Finally, such a unified international front, in conjunction with the African Union, might have facilitated both meaningful humanitarian access to Tigray and thorough investigations into the war crimes, sexual violence, and acts of ethnic violence endemic to the conflict.
But what about the American response to the crisis? The lame-duck administration of President Donald Trump took a “wait and see” approach to the war that proved deferential to the Ethiopian federal government. In contrast, the Biden administration quickly condemned the reported atrocities in Tigray. At the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield pushed for discussions of the crisis in open settings of the Security Council. The Biden team also dispatched close Biden ally Sen. Chris Coons and Special Envoy Feltman to the region to press for humanitarian access and a withdrawal of Eritrean troops and ethnic-Amhara militia from Tigray. This diplomatic surge appeared to bear fruit when Abiy acknowledged Eritrean involvement and promised their rapid withdrawal. However, when Eritrean forces remained in Tigray, it quickly became apparent that Abiy either had lied or held no control over Eritrea’s rapacious battalions. More recently, Abiy rebuffed U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power during her visit to the region to push for additional humanitarian access in Tigray — a snub symbolic of America’s declining influence and power to shape events.
The Eroding Pathways to Peace
What does the international failure to stop the atrocities in Tigray tell us about Africa’s future trajectory? With the African Union failing its self-proclaimed duty of non-indifference and the United Nations deadlocked, the structural pathways that helped to generate peaceful conclusions to African civil wars over the previous 30 years are eroding.
In a continental order characterized by a weak African Union, rising Chinese influence, and declining American power, African leaders will find ample opportunities to seek to pursue military solutions to sensitive political or ethnic disputes. As the mechanisms and norms for peaceful conflict resolution erode, the region will likely face further instances of democratic backsliding. A recent spate of coups in West Africa — from Mali to Chad to Guinea — illustrates the importance of collective action to confront this trend.
For some African states, Chinese economic, military, and diplomatic support in the name of state sovereignty (a standard applied selectively, and some would say hypocritically, by Beijing) will likely provide the means with which to weather any condemnations or sanctions from the West. International organization like the United Nations, meanwhile, will likely return to Cold War-style paralysis.
This is not to suggest that the structure of the international system bears responsibility for the outcome of every civil war and ethnic conflict on the African continent. After all, the United States failed to stop a genocide in Rwanda at the height of the unipolar moment. However, considered from a macro perspective, the post-1989 era witnessed a significant decline in the volume, duration, and intensity of warfare and atrocities on the continent.
Thanks to African regional and continental organizations, as well as the end of conflicts fueled by the dynamics of the global Cold War, battle deaths in Sub-Saharan African civil wars fell from a peak of over 20,000 deaths per year in 1984 to consistent totals of under 10,000 deaths per year after 1989 and under 2,000 per year after 1996. While every genocide and mass killing (defined as an event with over 10,000 civilians intentionally killed) is a tragedy, the frequency of such events on the continent similarly peaked in the 1980s. The contemporary weakness of African organizations like the African Union, a dynamic reinforced by the return of international geopolitical competition to the continent, bodes poorly for the future trajectory of these grim statistics.
Peaceful solutions to the Tigray war need to come from Africans themselves, although trite calls for “African solutions to African problems” obscure the deleterious role of international actors such as China in Ethiopia’s present tragedy. Nevertheless, the time for pan-African solidarity over the war is now. It is not too late for the African Union to leverage its powerful voice to support peace initiatives, investigate war crimes, and push for humanitarian access. Recent statements from the African Union’s Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace, and Security that called for the Ethiopian government to do more to prevent starvation in Tigray represent a step in the right direction, but more leadership from the organization is urgently needed.
Amid the African Union’s inability to date to restrain Ethiopia — its host country — ad hoc initiatives such as Sudan’s recent efforts or sub-regional pushes for a peace process may prove more successful. Proposals from the “A3 + 1” group (Kenya, Niger, Tunisia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) at the United Nations also represent a positive development. The group’s framework calls for the removal of Eritrean forces from Ethiopia, the withdrawal of TPLF forces from neighboring regions, and a lifting of terrorist designations on the TPLF by the Ethiopian government as the first steps toward a negotiated Ethiopian solution around the sensitive political questions at the root of the conflict. Such a patchwork of proposals might appear ungainly, but amid a decaying continental security architecture, it might be the region’s best chance at peace.
The United States still bears an important role in this process, even if its power to influence events on the ground remains a shadow of its former self. American leaders should continue to speak out categorically for humanitarian access to the region in order to address the famine conditions caused by the war. America can also serve as a catalyst for ad hoc regional peacemaking efforts and as the leader of a unified G7. Finally, American diplomats should remain open to consultation with their Chinese counterparts on this issue, given Beijing’s central role in the region. After all, it took direct U.S.-Soviet diplomatic negotiations to resolve Africa’s toughest conflicts during the twilight of the Cold War.
Ethiopia’s slide into civil war represents the humanitarian and geopolitical crisis that will define the broad contours of Africa’s next decade. Will African organizations like the African Union create a pathway to end the violence? Based upon the previous ten months, the answer is, sadly, “no.” Given China’s close relationship with Addis Ababa and its emphasis on self-interested definitions of sovereignty and non-interference, meaningful action from the U.N. Security Council remains equally unlikely.
While observers should be hopeful for a hasty conclusion to the conflict, the trendlines on the ground remain concerning. If the situation continues to degrade into full-fledged civil war, the consequences for the region and the continent will prove tragic. Regional and international cooperation amid these anarchic conditions remains possible, but the pathways to end conflicts such as the Tigray war face stronger headwinds.
Sam Wilkins is an active-duty U.S. Army Special Forces officer with deployments to Somalia, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. Sam holds an M.A. in International Affairs from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is a Shawn Brimley Next Generation Security Fellow with the Center for a New American Security. These views are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Abiy Ahmed gave his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Stockholm. That was incorrect. Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, and literature are awarded in Stockholm, Sweden. The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo.
Image: Xinhua (Photo by Wang Ping)