Ethiopia’s Tigray Crisis and Kenya’s Mediation role

A humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Ethiopia. The proportion of the civilian population disposed to famine-like conditions continues to expand, with thousands reported dead and hundreds of thousands facing displacement due to the ongoing hostilities created by the Tigray war. The conclusion of the 2021 controversial elections in which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won with a sweeping majority has been the latest spin for violent escalation. The world now watches on as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) threatens to match to Addis Ababa, even as Prime Minister Abiy asks the citizens to join armed forces to defend themselves.

It is in the midst of this crisis that Kenya emerges as a key actor. On Sunday, November 14, 2021, President Uhuru Kenyatta visited and held talks with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Sahle-Work Zewde. According to reports, President Uhuru encouraged the Ethiopian leadership to engage in talks to end the hostilities and resolve the crisis peacefully. Earlier on, President Uhuru had sent a passionate appeal to the government and people of Ethiopia to stop the war and seek a peaceful end to the crisis. This, coupled with the visit by US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has placed Kenya on the world stage. Blinken’s agenda included; peacekeeping efforts in the region, COVID-19 recovery, invigorating trade and investment, and climate change. The position of the US government has been apparent thus far that they are willing to exercise their economic power and apply restrictive measures on Ethiopia to ensure peace.

Kenya is strategically placed in ensuring that the interests of the region and the broader world are protected. As a non-permanent member of the UNSC,   a key ally of the United States, and the region’s anchor state, Nairobi is well placed to provide a neutral platform for negotiation and foster the restoration of peace and stability in Ethiopia and inspire improved relations between Ethiopia and the West that has suffered as a result of this conflict.  Kenya also represents the interests of the African Union (AU). It currently serves as member of the AU Peace and Security Council. The AU has expressed concern over implementing coercive action to catalyse peace in Ethiopia, as its views the situation as complex and delicate. AU’s official stand is that discourse is political; thus, a political response would thus be most appropriate to address the crisis.

The African Union and the USA

The conflict in Ethiopia has attracted the attention of the international community and elicited varied responses. The peace and stability of Ethiopia are of great interest to many, given Ethiopia’s geographical significance in the Horn of Africa, its huge population of over 110 million people, and its economic potential. A civil war, thus, portends not only vast implications for regional peace and stability but also presents serious challenges for external partners in their foreign policy projection and influence in the region. In particular, the potential disintegration of the Ethiopian state would provide room for increased terrorist activities by the Islamic State and al Shabab militants.

The African Union (AU) has made its position clear, encouraging talks between the TPLF and the Ethiopian government. The AU High Representative and Nigeria’s former president Olusegun Obasanjo spearheaded the talk for the Horn of Africa Region. The outcome of these efforts will undoubtedly affect the legacy of the AU. Unlike its predecessor, the Organization of African Union (OAU), the AU is hallmarked by its revolutionary charter article 4(h), allowing the organization to intervene in conflicts involving member states. So far, AU’s approach in implementing the African Peace and Security Architecture (mechanism for promoting peace, security, and stability in Africa) has achieved mixed results.

The west, on the other hand, especially the US, has focused on coercive measures to mitigate the situation in Ethiopia, following a special envoy to the Horn that failed to facilitate dialogue. The American government has placed restrictions, and threatens to expand these restrictions on the country if the Ethiopian government shows a lack of interest in peaceful negotiations with TPLF. While some international actors view this as a positive action, and it is commendable that the US stance against condemning acts of violence against civilians has not waivered, the question is whether this is a practical course of action.

A level of influence is required to ensure that both TPLF and the Ethiopian government are open to arriving at peaceful conflict resolution. Kenya can realize this influence through the use of smart power. This is a combination of soft and hard power. While soft power is expressed through national strategies, hard power is exercised through coercive measures (military action and sanctions). Smart power is highly effective; it employs both the pressure and persuasion that hard and soft power presents, respectively.

Kenya as a Key Actor

Kenya is suitably placed to exercise influence in this situation for several reasons. First, Kenya is the only country in the region with a track record of fostering regional peace and stability. As a current member of the UNSC and the AU-PSC, Kenya has good diplomatic leverage to intervene in peace in Ethiopia. Moreover, war and instability in Ethiopia will directly impact Kenya’s national security as more refugees and asylum seekers cross the border into Kenya.

Kenya’s membership in the UNSC and in the AU-PSC means that the state can approach the situation as both a member of the Eastern African Community (EAC), IGAD, and one that has the backing of the continental body. This level of influence makes the state’s actions legitimate, and as a neutral actor, there is less room for suspicion from the affected parties in the conflict. The relationship between the USA and Kenya is also crucial. To avoid a backlash among Ethiopians, the US choosing to engage Ethiopia’s government through Kenya further establishes the country’s influence in the situation. Kenya can leverage this to bring both the TPLF and the Ethiopian government to the negotiation table.

Raudhat is a Research Assistant at the HORN Institute

Photo: President Uhuru Kenyatta holding private talks with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Sahle-Work Zewde on November 14, 2021 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Photo Credit: State House, Kenya)

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