Why is African Union silent on Ethiopia’s murder spree on unarmed Oromo students while threatening action against Burundi?

AU headquarters in Addis Ababa


By Kassim Adem

African Union has been constantly threatening action against Burundi's Pierre Nkurunziza while turning a blind eye to Ethiopian regime's murderous acts in its headquarters, Addis Ababa, and surroundings.

African Union (AU) which replaced the Organisation of African Union (OAU) is a pan-African organization established to safeguard the interest of its 54 member states and their citizens. The African continent which AU represents is shaped by colonial legacy and protracted conflicts that are ongoing even in today’s so-called post-colonial era. Even though one of the objectives of AU is :

to promote and protect human and peoples' rights in accordance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and other relevant human rights instruments.

It is commonplace in African conflicts to see gross violations of the human rights of Africans in these conflicts.

Two such human rights violations involving government violence against civilians are taking place in Burundi and Ethiopia as we speak. However, the response of the AU to these two political upheavals was surprisingly very different. In fact, there has not been an official response on one of the conflicts (Ethiopia) while the AU has been issuing press release after another regarding the stalemate in Burundi.

The divergent approaches followed by AU in the two countries is surprising because the two countries as well as the conflicts have huge similarities:

In both countries unarmed civilians are being killed by government forces, although in the case of Burundi there are reports that some of the clashes are between government loyalists and former military staff who defected to the opposition.

In both countries, civilians are staging peaceful demonstrations against government decisions: in the case of Burundi people are protesting against re-election of president Pierre Nkurunziza, while in Ethiopia ethnic Oromo students are against government plans to incorporate parts of Oromia region into the capital city, Addis Ababa.

Human rights organisations reported civilian deaths caused by government police brutality in both countries: in Burundi, the number of reported deaths reached 87 in December, while according to Human Rights Watch as of 18 December, Ethiopian police and soldiers executed “at least 75 civilians”. Although most of the killed in Burundi are understood to be adults, many of the victims in Ethiopia are young people from intermediate and high schools in Oromia.

Although not directly relevant to the issue at hand, both Burundi and Ethiopia are believed to have similar strategic importance to AU in the fight against “terrorism in Africa”, as both countries are contributing African army deployed in Somalia.

Given all these similarities in the two countries, the nature of the conflict and the level of casualties, one would expect at least similar responses by the AU towards the conflicts.

But there are further arguments supporting AU involvement in the Ethiopian conflict. First of all, as the saying goes, charity begins at home! Addis Ababa which lies at the heart of the Ethiopian conflict is the official seat of the AU. The AU should be concerned not only for the organisation’s image but also for its legitimacy. If it cannot intervene in or influence the Ethiopian government’s actions that undermine the sprit and objectives of the AU, then it will be a joke to expect AU to interfere distant conflicts. Secondly, while every lost life in African conflicts should be a concern for the AU, this concern should be even stronger when unarmed civilians protesting peacefully are executed by the military in Ethiopia, while some of the casualties in Burundi is between armed groups supporting different political alliances.

Considering possible consequences of both conflicts, if un-intervened, Ethiopia should be given more weight than Burundi. For the entire continent and the whole world, instability in Ethiopia is more dangerous than instability in Burundi given the possible ethnic clashes that can occur in Ethiopia (there are more than 80 ethnic groups, most of whom are hostile to each other, thanks to government leadership based on divide-and-rule principle), the economic consequences (Ethiopian economy is more than 18 times bigger than that of Burundi), and populations that could be affected (Ethiopian population is almost 10 times that of Burundi).

Despite all these weights that should be given to the Oromo-Ethiopian conflict, there has so far been not a single word on it by the African Union. This is very disappointing given the level of government violence and unarmed civilian casualties, and despite calls by international human rights organisations such as the Human Rights Watch that called for independent investigations by the AU:

The Ethiopian government should support prompt, independent investigations into the events in Oromia region, including by UN and African Union (AU) human rights experts on freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.

Even one of Ethiopian government’s western closest allies, the United States, has via its State Department issued official statement on the on-going conflict in Oromia.

But, instead of taking a leadership role by addressing the Oromo-Ethiopia conflict, the Algerian born Ambassador Smail Chergui, the African Union’s Commissioner for Peace and Security Council, continues to threaten action against president Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi if he does not accept 5000 strong African Peace-keeping Mission to be deployed in Burundi while remaining silent on Ethiopian government’s crackdown and execution of unarmed students and other ceivilians. The justification, in the Ambassadors speech is to avoid “genocide”. The question is why not do the same in Ethiopia? Some may say AU is respecting the sovereignty of Ethiopia, but then why intervene in Burundi?

Some analysts explain these double standards by the AU by pointing on Ethiopian government who abuse their position as host country to the AU. Although the AU should in principle be outside the sphere of any single country, including Ethiopia, the government is accused to bribe the AU officials indirectly by giving them huge “gifts” that are tantamount to bribes, while at the same time putting other tactics towards those who cannot easily be bribed.

It remains unknown whether the AU’s Peace and Security Council received bribes from the Ethiopian government; but it is clear that they have failed their duty to intervene in the Oromo-Ethiopia conflict.
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