Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed is expected to meet the envoys – but may not allow them to meet his opponents.
Three special peace envoys appointed by African Union chairperson Cyril Ramaphosa are expected to meet Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa this week to discuss how to end the country’s three-week old civil war. But there are fears that Abiy – who has insisted that foreigners should not meddle in Ethiopian internal affairs – will not allow them to meet his Tigrayan enemies in the conflict.
South Africa has helped to suspend action by the UN Security Council on the conflict, to give Ramaphosa’s emissaries a chance to find “an African solution to an African problem,” as a South African diplomat put it.
But Pretoria is concerned that the three former African presidents – South Africa’s Kgalema Motlanthe, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano – may get “the Mnangagwa treatment” from Abiy.
This refers to Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s meeting another three envoys sent by Ramaphosa to Harare in August and refusing to allow them to meet the Zimbabwean opposition to address the growing crisis in that country.
That refusal seems to have effectively terminated South Africa’s efforts to arrest Zimbabwe’s downward spiral.
Will the same happen in Addis Ababa? Official sources said that Ramaphosa’s special envoys would travel to Ethiopia on Thursday or Friday this week where they would meet Abiy – and would then go on to meet the leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) whose forces have been fighting the Ethiopian military since November 4.
Senior South African officials are adamant that even if Abiy tries to stop the envoys meeting his Tigrayan foes, Motlanthe, Johnson Sirleaf and Chissano would insist.
“They are, after all, former heads of state. They are not pushovers,” one official said.
But it will take considerable heft to persuade Abiy to allow them to meet the TPLF. When Ramaphosa announced the appointment of the special envoys, he said their mission was to help “mediate between the parties to [the] conflict… to engage all sides to the conflict with a view to ending hostilities”.
The Ethiopian government responded by agreeing to meet the envoys but dismissed any suggestion that they would be mediating between the Ethiopian combatants as “fake news.”
Abiy evidently sees the meeting with the envoys merely as an opportunity to explain to them why it is necessary to defeat his TPLF enemies in battle.
A Pretoria official said that if the peace mission of the three envoys failed, then South Africa would ask the UN Security Council to take up the issue. South Africa – which is serving its last few weeks as a member of the UN Security Council – had originally proposed that the council address the war.
“But then President Ramaphosa appointed the three special envoys and it was felt that it would be more appropriate that an African solution should be found for an African problem,” the official said.
As a result, a special meeting of the Security Council which had been scheduled for Tuesday this week was cancelled at the last moment. The AFP news agency reported from New York that South Africa, Niger, Tunisia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines had withdrawn their request for the behind-closed-doors discussion because Ramaphosa’s special envoys had not yet travelled to Ethiopia.
“It is necessary to allow more time for the regional efforts that are being undertaken in this regard,” an African diplomat told AFP.
Meanwhile, a group of Tigrayan expatriates in South Africa marched on the headquarters of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) in Pretoria on Wednesday to present a petition to the South African government.
A Dirco official said the Tigrayans had welcomed Ramaphosa’s appointment of the special envoys, had called for the UN Security Council to become involved and had demanded that Abiy should be indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide.
Abiy launched the military campaign against the TPLF on November 4, accusing it of attacking federal military forces stationed in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost federal state.
Hundreds of people are reported to have been killed, many of them civilians, and thousands have fled Tigray into neighbouring Sudan. But a communications blackout has made it hard to establish exactly what is happening on the ground. Daily Marverick