The African Union envoy for the Horn of Africa warned Monday that the window of opportunity is closing for a political resolution of the crisis in northern Ethiopia, as the country tips further toward all-out conflict.
"The time is now for collective actions in finding lasting solution to avoid further escalation of the situation, which may have direct effect on the strategic Horn of Africa region as a whole," said former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is the AU's special representative for the Horn of Africa.
Briefing the U.N. Security Council from Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, where he arrived Thursday, Obasanjo said he has met separately with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and leaders of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), as well as some allied groups, in order to de-escalate tensions and seek the start of talks.
"All the leaders here in Addis Ababa and in the north agree individually that the differences between them are political and require political solutions through dialogue," he said. "This, therefore, constitutes a window of opportunity that we can collectively tap into to assist the people of Ethiopia to find a lasting solution to the ongoing crisis."
Obasanjo said he will visit the northern regions of Amhara and Afar on Tuesday, where the TPLF has expanded fighting, displacing thousands of people.
Fighting has escalated in the lead-up last week to the one-year anniversary of the start of the conflict.
Tigrayan forces said earlier this week they were advancing on Addis Ababa and that it could fall within months or even weeks.
The Ethiopian government declared a six-month state of emergency Tuesday and called on residents to defend their neighborhoods if rebels arrived in the capital.
Jaal Marroo, commander of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an ally of the TPLF, told Agence France-Presse that the OLA posed "no threat" to ordinary civilians but that Abiy and his ruling Prosperity Party have to be "completely removed and cleared" for reconciliation to begin.
"We will make Ethiopia – not just Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa – a peaceful, very stable place to live in. I am very confident there is not going to be conflict after Abiy Ahmed's regime," he said.
Ethiopia's U.N. ambassador blamed some countries and Western media for encouraging the TPLF.
"It is emboldened to a level that it threatens to unseat a popularly elected federal government and destabilize a nation of 112 million people," Ambassador Taye Atske-Selassie said of the rebels. "We again reiterate our plea for the support of this group that have been providing it with communications equipment, satellite information, weapons and even fighters to desist from this."
Civil war concerns growing
The United Nation's political chief warned that the conflict has "reached disastrous proportions" and if not immediately halted could see Africa's second-most-populous country engulfed in all-out civil war.
"What is certain is that the risk of Ethiopia descending into widening civil war is only too real," Rosemary DiCarlo told the Security Council. "That would bring about a humanitarian catastrophe and consume the future of such an important country."
DiCarlo said the fighting already threatens regional stability in the Horn of Africa.
"The political repercussions of intensifying violence in the wider region would be immense, compounding the many crises besetting the Horn of Africa," she added.
"The longer this conflict goes on, the harder the road to peace becomes and the more people will die," U.S. envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield said. "And as you heard from High Representative Obasanjo, the window of opportunity is limited, and time is running out. I urge all parties — all parties — in the strongest possible terms to back away from the brink and lead their people toward peace."
She added that accusations that the United States is biased toward one side are false.
"Let me be crystal clear: We condemn violence on all sides. We condemn any and all human rights violations and abuses committed by all sides."
Alice Wairimu Nderitu, U.N. special adviser on the prevention of genocide, expressed concern in a statement Monday at the increase of ethnically and religiously motivated hate speech, ethnic profiling and incitement to violence.
"These all constitute risk factors for atrocity crimes," she warned.
In addition to Obasanjo, U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths wrapped up a four-day visit to Ethiopia on Monday.
During his mission, he traveled to Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, where the government maintains a de facto blockade on the delivery of humanitarian assistance. The U.N. said no aid has gotten in since October 18, and more than 5 million people are in dire need.
Griffiths also met with Abiy on Friday and with other senior federal government officials.
U.S. Horn of Africa envoy Jeffrey Feltman has also been in the region since Thursday. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Feltman is currently in Addis Ababa.