It is no longer plausible to argue that the Horn of Africa is being ignored by the West. While it received little attention from President Trump, this is no longer the case.
President Biden sent one of his closest allies, Senator Chris Coons to Addis Ababa. As the Christian Science Monitor noted: “His assignment in Ethiopia: to convey the administration’s deepening concerns about what it describes as ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the Horn of Africa country’s Tigray region.”
Senator Coons called on Prime Minister Abiy to give ground on two issues: the removal of Eritrean forces and Amhara milita from the Tigray war, and for an immediate ceasefire. On the ceasefire, the Senator got nowhere.
As Reuters reported: “Coons said he pressed Abiy during both days of their meetings on March 20 and 21 to declare a ceasefire but Abiy declined, arguing that the fighting had largely stopped and the situation by then amounted to “a law enforcement action where they are pursuing a few TPLF senior leaders. So his response was that a ceasefire is not necessary,” Coons said, describing it as “a persistent point of disagreement” between them.
Senator Coons also pressed for the withdrawal of Eritrean forces and Amhara militia. After denying for months that the Eritreans were fighting in Tigray, Prime Minister Abiy announced that they would leave.
On the face of it this was a victory for the Americans.
On 4 April it was announced by the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry that the Eritreans were withdrawing. “The Eritrean troops who had crossed the border when provoked by the TPLF have now started to evacuate and the Ethiopian National Defense Force has taken over guarding the national border,” the Ethiopian foreign ministry said in a statement, referring to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Ethiopia’s main foes in the conflict.
But many in the region wonder whether it will happen, or whether the Eritrean forces will simply be ‘re-badged’ and integrated into the Ethiopian military. There has been no independent verification of the Eritrean withdrawal.
Enter Pekka Haavisto
Then came the news that the European Union was sending its own envoy to the region.
“Finnish foreign minister and EU special envoy Pekka Haavisto has embarked on a second trip to Addis Ababa to appeal for humanitarian access to Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region and to urge that “Eritrean forces shall withdraw from Tigray”. He will also visit Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, amid concern on regional instability.”
Before he was despatched, Joseph Borrell, the Vice President of the EU, laid out his mission.
“I have asked my colleague Pekka Haavisto, Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs, to go back to the region this weekend as my representative. He will travel to Ethiopia, visit Tigray and report to the Foreign Affairs Council on 19 April where, together with the 27 Ministers from the European Union, we will discuss the steps forward.
Minister Haavisto is tasked to repeat our requests and assess the progress made so far on various fronts.
Firstly, hostilities must cease. As long as they continue, humanitarian aid cannot be delivered as it should and the insecurity that prevails in many parts could jeopardize in the whole country the elections foreseen for 5 June…
Secondly, humanitarian access must be granted to all people in need in all areas. Despite improved access, the needs remain enormous and largely unaddressed and the situation is worsening….
Thirdly, investigations on International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and human rights abuses must be organized. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) have agreed to conduct a joint investigation into violations and abuses committed by all parties. Discussions on the exact modalities have started and should be accelerated so that investigations may start quickly. This is part of the much-needed accountability process for the victims.
Fourthly, and particularly important, Eritrean troops must withdraw. There have been recent announcements on that front, however, we do not have confirmation at this stage that this withdrawal is happening on the ground. Here again we need to see this materialize quickly.”
To Addis via Arab capitals
To follow how this mission unfolded one has to follow the Tweets that Pekka Haavisto published.
He told the interviewer: “‘International cooperation in this issue is very important,’ he said, citing the risks of another conflict in a region where disputes are already rife, including the Sudan-Ethiopia tensions and disagreements among Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.”
Haavisto naturally spoke flatteringly about the potential role Saudi Arabia might have on all these issues.
“Haavisto sees plenty of possibilities for the Kingdom and the EU to work together. ‘We have of course been praising the important role of Saudi Arabia earlier on in the peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia and also Saudi Arabia’s constant support to Sudan during its transition process. Saudi Arabia is a country that has good relations with all parties in the whole of Africa, so it’s important that the EU works with Saudi Arabia.'”
The visit to Saudi Arabia was followed by a trip to the UAE on 5th April and then an unannounced stop-over in Cairo on 6th April. The only public meeting was with the Secretary General of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
Finally, on the 7th April, Haavisto arrived in Addis Ababa, for talks with President Sahle-Work Zewde.
The information released after their meeting was very limited. “The Special Envoy stated that he has come to Ethiopia to hold discussions with various government officials on the status of the humanitarian relief and rebuilding efforts in Tigray as well as the GERD and to visit the region.”
What can we conclude?
We will probably only get a clear indication of what the EU mission has achieved once it is over and Pekka Haavisto has had a chance to brief the EU Foreign Affairs Council on 19 April. But these are some thoughts.
- It is likely that the EU is working closely with the Biden administration. If the EU and US are to make progress on the issue, given that Russia and China block any active measures in the UN Security Council, then Brussels and Washington must coordinate their approach.
- The Tigray war and the Nile dam issue appear to be linked. Given that talks in Kinshasa between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia failed to make progress, it is possible that a package of measures might be designed that try to satisfy both questions.
- It is worth noting that Asmara has not (as far as we know) been on the Haavisto agenda. Can the Tigray war really be ended without involving President Isaias?
- If the EU and US initiatives are unable to end the Tigray war and halt the Nile crisis over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam then the outlook is gloomy indeed. Prime Minister Abiy has admitted that his forces are fighting on eight fronts in Tigray. His forces are bogged down in a guerrilla war that is now entering its sixth month, with no sign of an outcome. At the same time Egypt’s President al-Sisi has warned that the Nile issue could result in “inconceivable instability” in the region.
It is difficult to predict how these interwoven problems will be resolved. But if this opportunity is missed, the Biden administration’s attention may move on to other global crises. The whole of the Horn of Africa could suffer if these attempts to resolve these complex questions fail.