Former Nigerian president General Olusegun Obasanjo. Photo by Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images

The United Nations recognises mediation as one of the most effective methods of preventing, managing and above all, resolving conflicts.

The UN guidelines underscore that the mediation process has to have integrity if it’s going to succeed.

Key elements include, firstly, cultivating the consent of the parties. Success depends on conflicting parties agreeing to the process.

Another important factor is securing the acceptability of the mediator and the mediating entity. This includes the appointment of an even-handed, high-profile negotiator. The person needs to be impartial – one of the cornerstones of any successful mediation.


If either parties question the partiality of the person, the process is bound to fail. Lakhdar Brahimi, who served as head of UN Department of Peace Operations, once described partiality as one “seven deadly sins” of mediators.

Partiality isn’t just about preferring one side to the other. It can also contribute to a biased definition of the problem and lead to a flawed agenda and structure for the mediation. This is a recipe for its failure.

It’s useful to consider the credibility and acceptability of Africa Union’s newly-announced mediation plan for the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray against these criteria. The conflict in Tigray region is a war waged by the federal government against the regional administration since November 2020. It followed Tigray’s holding of regional elections against the will of the federal government.

In August 2021, the African Union appointed the former Nigerian president General Olusegun Obasanjo as its special envoy to initiate and lead the mediation process. The announcement by the chairperson of the Commission of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat, billed this as part of its

drive to promote peace, security, stability and political dialogue all over the Horn of Africa region.

In my view neither the AU, nor its mediator, are a credible start to a mediation aimed at resolving the crisis in Ethiopia. That is because both the AU and its special envoy are not even-handed and their definition of the problem is flawed.

I believe that it will be up to other states and institutions of the international community – such as the US, European Union, and the UN – to start a credible process.

AU’s relationship with Ethiopia

The AU is not in a position to drive a mediation process because its stance fails to meet the impartiality test. It failed to act as the situation deteriorated in Tigray region. African intellectuals pointed this out in an open letter calling for dialogue to end the conflict.

In addition, the AU has been seen to be tone deaf to events on the ground. At the height of a government-led offensive marked by executions, rape and ethnic cleansing, Moussa Faki congratulated the Ethiopian government for

bold steps to preserve the unity, stability and respect for the constitutional order of the country; which is legitimate for all states.

The AU’s impartiality can be questioned further given its role in the recent elections in Ethiopia. It was one of the few non-Ethiopian institutions to observe the general elections held in June 2021. The election was held at a time when leaders of the key opposition parties were in prison and the country was caught in civil wars in several corners. In many places the ruling party ran without a single competitor.

The conduct of the election was condemned by numerous political parties, including five considered close to the ruling party of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Yet Olusegun Obasanjo, head of the AU observer mission, declared that the election had been held in a credible way.

The AU’s choice of the chief observer as chief mediator raises even more questions about its partiality in mediation process. The problem begins with the willingness of the AU to legitimise the June elections and its choice of the very same individual who championed this decision to be the candidate for mediating the conflict.

This is more than a question of mere partiality. It affirms the legitimacy of a political process brought about by a combination of transactional strategies. It indicates that the mediator will be willing to countenance, such strategies of political management in the future.

But there’s an even greater reason why the AU can’t be seen as playing a credible role in the Ethiopian conflict. The AU has failed to act based on the foundational principles contained in the constituent act of the union. It is never heard of condemning the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the war in Tigray.

The Tigray question

Given events in the Tigray region, the AU should not have embarked on a mediation process without first negotiating a declaration of principles as a prelude to talks for full political settlement. A good example of this approach is the 1996 prelude to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement for Sudan.

It appears from this oversight that the AU wants to accept that Abiy has a “legitimate” government that cannot be subject to ‘unconstitutional’ change – as stipulated in the constitutive act of the AU. Ethiopia can then lay down the terms on which it can talk to “rebels”, on an individual basis.

In addition, a negotiated settlement begins with each accepting the need to talk to the other. It is also essential to agree on transitional arrangements up until a complete political settlement is reached.

But currently the two governments don’t recognise one another.

The Regional National Government of Tigray has demanded that the existing constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia be the principle on which a negotiated settlement is based. For the people and government of Tigray, full accountability and guarantee of non-recurrence of such crimes is an essential agenda item.

A mediation that fails to consider these fundamental issues in defining the nature of the conflict will be a non-starter.

A longer version of this article first appeared as a blog for the World Peace Foundation.