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Back to square one between Eritrea and Ethiopia?

Eritrean foreign policy and the repercussions of geopolitical re-alignments in the Horn

The recent rapprochement between Eritrean and Ethiopia has taken many seasoned observers of geopolitical dynamics in the Horn by surprise, not least due to the perceived speed with which it was pushed by new Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed.[i]

Different explanations have been offered for the latter, ranging from threats posed by predominately Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) hardliners within the Ethiopian government, to claims that key foundations for the peace process were already laid by former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, and in addition pushed by Donald Yamamoto, acting head of the US State Department’s Africa bureau, during a rare visit to the region in April 2018.  And while it is undoubtedly true that looked at from the Ethiopian side, changes in its stance towards Eritrea, triggered partly by multiple internal political dynamics within Ethiopia, could be detected as early 2015, the claim that US involvement was vital to the process seems to misunderstand wider geopolitical dynamics in the Horn and beyond.[ii]

I will focus on the Eritrean part of the equation, and make the case that, after its initial silence,[iii] Eritrea’s reaction to and engagement with the process instigated by Dr Abiy Ahmed, can usefully be read as keeping with its foreign policy engagement since independence. Arguably, it in fact follows similar patterns and objectives as those of the once liberation movement turned government, even if such an historical analysis goes beyond what is possible in this article.[iv] This focus on Eritrea as an aspiring assertive foreign policy actor adds a valuable dimension to assessing potential future dynamics.

The foreign policy of Eritrea as an independent state was from the start underpinned by Eritrean identity politics combined with long-term survival strategies in a contested geopolitical environment within the Horn and the wider Red Sea area. It had as its key reference point a narrative of successful military struggle against Ethiopia as the Horn’s hegemonic power, but also victory against the wider geopolitical interests and agendas of both sides in the Cold War. A glorified version of this process became an important part of the foundational myth of Eritrean statehood, with the contours of the country’s map being a vital visual symbol of the prime importance of territory as a component of Eritrean identity. It cemented a belief among the Eritrean leadership in its military capacity to fend off any contestation of Eritrean territory and its boundaries, coupled with an assertive stance on the right to defend its own interests in line with international law and global treaties, regardless of global geopolitical power dynamics.[v] It is in this light that the multiple border wars of various intensity Eritrea was involved in with all its neighbours need to be understood. The belief in Eritrea’s rightful position under international law with regard to the no-peace-no-war stalemate with Ethiopia in turn was behind the Eritrean insistence on Ethiopian troop withdrawals from contested border areas before any peace talks could take place.

So why did Eritrea apparently change its stance, even though neither the latest Ethiopian initiative nor the Joint Declaration on Peace and Friendship signed by both parties offer a more detailed plan for troops withdrawals and future trade agreements than previous offers of engagement from the Ethiopian side?[vi] While Eritrea has often been described as a pariah state, bent on self-reliance coupled with self-imposed isolation and characterised by human rights abuses, such a representation was never the full story. It owed more to skilful Ethiopian diplomacy aimed at isolating Eritrea, and the war on terror that made security concerns the overarching driving force of engagement with the Horn by key actors in the global community. For the latter, Ethiopia was seen as a reliable partner, whereas Eritrea, in simply following the tried and tested foreign policy formula of the Horn-to support the enemy of your enemy- could be accused of abetting Islamist insurgents.[vii]

After Eritrean efforts to prove in particular to the United States that it also was a viable and trustworthy ally in the war against terror had failed, Eritrea turned to different powers in the Middle East to retain significance as an important geopolitical actor. Using its strategic location along the Red Sea, Eritrea accommodated military presence and/or intelligence operations from diverse and competing actors including Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel as a way to meet its economic survival and security needs while retaining the largest possible amount of agency.[viii]

These policies of making the best of its perceived geopolitical importance saw a major shift only from 2015 onwards, following the decision of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to assemble an alliance of Arab states and to go to war against the Ansar Allah movement (more commonly referred to as the Houthi) in Yemen, often regarded as Iranian proxies. While Djibouti seemed the logical hub from where to launch aerial and naval operations in Yemen, a fall out between Djibouti and the UAE in 2015 made this impossible. Eritrea thus stepped into the fray, offering the port of Assab and training grounds for allied Yemeni forces. Port facilities in Assab were in due course expanded by the UAE, a large military base was built, and airport facilities modernised.[ix] But Eritrea now had to take sides, thus when the Saudi-led coalition turned to isolating Qatar as an alleged sponsor of terrorism, Eritrea felt obliged to tow the same line. This in turn had repercussions for Eritrea’s relations with Djibouti, where Qatar had acted as a mediator in the dispute between both countries since 2010 and had peacekeeping troops stationed at the border, an involvement that ceased as a consequence.[x]

For Ethiopia, the intensifying engagement of key Arab powers in the Horn with the UAE as a new driving force, and the close links of the latter with Eritrea, triggered alarm bells. Successive Ethiopian governments have always retained a suspicious attitude towards Arab influence in the Horn, and already at the time of the Eritrean liberation struggle deployed propaganda depicting the Eritrean independence struggle as an Arab  ploy to weaken Ethiopia and secure Arab dominance in the Horn.[xi]  In turn, the UAE and its allies offered reassurances to Ethiopia, not only on the diplomatic front but equally in relation to economic linkages that saw the UAE and aligned Arab states offer an  alternative to Chinese investment in infrastructure and other projects.

This raises the broader question of the long term agenda of the UAE in the Horn and what this may mean for the geopolitical position of Eritrea, beyond the need for a quiet hinterland in relation to the war in Yemen and counteracting the influence of Iran and the Qatar-Turkey axis.[xii] While concrete details are hard to come by, the UAE seems to have played an important behind the scenes role in the rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia and as a visible gesture of its importance conferred the highest civil honour, the ‘Order of Zayed’ on the leaders of both countries at a summit in Abu Dhabi shortly after the joint declaration of peace.[xiii] Announcements since, for example to build a UAE financed oil pipeline linking the Eritrean port of Assab to the Ethiopian capital, point to longer term engagement strategies, not least on the economic front.

In all these manoeuvres, Ethiopia thus far arguably has enforced its position as regional hegemon and managed to avoid taking clear sides in the complex  three-sided dispute in the Middle East pitting the Arab axis led by the UAE and Saudi Arabia on the one hand against the Iranian bloc, and the Qatar and Turkey coalition.[xiv]

A small country like Eritrea, even with an important strategic coastline, has much less room for manoeuvre in this new geopolitical environment, as Eritrea’s quasi enforced change in its relationship with Qatar has shown, and more recently the odd expression of support for Saudi Arabia and condemnation of Canada in an official Eritrean statement in relation to a spat of no direct relevance to Eritrea.[xv] These dynamics, combined with additional shifts in the Horn region involving Eritrea and Sudan as well as Djibouti and Somalia that seemingly  strengthened the Ethiopian orbit of influence,[xvi] are likely to have led to the calculation by the Eritrean side that in order to take advantage of the changing geopolitical environment and not simply become a pawn in the battle ground of Middle Eastern rivalries, a re-alignment with Ethiopia was the best way forward.

Thus, while Eritrea used the opportunity provided by its strategic position in relation to the war in Yemen to put itself on the map again as an important regional actor, it equally seemed to have realized that to be the reliable hinterland for a war occurring next door does not provide the foundations for a more enhanced regional role and peace.

But has the rather vague declaration signed by both recent adversaries the potential to achieve a new area of cooperation between Eritrea and Ethiopia? It is as vague and much less detailed than the Asmara Pact from 1993, that was to settle the multiple issues of partition then but proved to be a mere declaration of intent.[xvii] And in a more general climate of cooperation on the African continent, Eritrea remains one of only three countries who thus far have refused to make any commitments to the African Union’s Continental Free Trade Area that is envisaged to enter into force in January 2019. Lest it be forgotten, even though this was downplayed at the time, one of the dynamics behind the outbreak of the 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrean war were highly divergent approaches towards economic relations on the part of the two states.

Equally, the visual representation of the new peace may act as a cautious reminder of 1991: Then as now, jubilant peoples from both countries were seen dancing in the streets, hugging each other and being simply overjoyed. In parallel, we see the leaders of both countries in big hugs and smiles, going out of their way to praise each other – the main difference being that in the case of Ethiopia, we have a new leader, while the Eritrean president  is the very same person – a fact that in itself may provide a powerful symbol of how little might indeed have changed in the structures underpinning the relationship between both countries. I have argued elsewhere that this time around, in spite of many worrying similarities, the reaction of the majority of ordinary people offers hope that peace is irreversible.[xviii] In addition, the stalemate that lasted for 16 years has become hurtful for both sides, which makes a lasting solution more likely. One should also not forget that in the first few years after Eritrean independence, Eritrea and Ethiopia collaborated in their foreign policy driven by similar aims and objectives in the Horn and beyond, stretching as far as the Congo.[xix] The question that remains is what might happen if geopolitical objectives of both states collide again, and no legal and administrative frameworks are in place to offer mutually beneficial solutions. What may be different in the future might be less hubris from the Eritrean government, as its belief in its capability for military victory against all odds has diminished in the past two decades.

Finally, those who may hope that the recent peace might lead to some form of democratisation within Eritrea might be disappointed. While some small steps have been taken by the Eritrea side in releasing mainly religious prisoners, and national service seems to be scaled back to the envisaged 18 months at least for some, these can only be first steps.[xx] But thus far there is no indication that for example the constitution that was shelved in 1997 might finally be enacted. While the Eritrean government might for now bank on the relief of ordinary people that peace has finally come in order to avoid real concessions, a failure to create more accountable structures of government will not mend the breakdown in the relationship between a high percentage of Eritreans and the country’s leadership. Without such an internal realignment, the high rates of Eritrean out-migration are unlikely to diminish substantially, and the border and its securitisation will remain high on the agenda from the Eritrean side. Thus, we might be back to square one: for sustainable peaceful relationships across the Horn, territorial security and integrity are vital.  But as important is that the people living within a territory regard its borders as a source of identity to celebrate and embrace, not as an obstacle to overcome on the way to a better future.


Tanja Müller is Reader at the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester, UK. She has worked on Eritrea and the Horn of Africa as a journalist and as an academic since the mid1990s. She is the author of The Making of Elite Women: Revolution and Nation Building in Eritrea and of numerous articles on Eritrean political dynamics in leading academic journals. She also comments on current affairs in her blog aspiration & revolution. Tanja can be reached at


[i] Wrong, Michela, ‘’When Peace is a Problem”,, New York Times, June 6, 2018, (accessed 13 August 2018).

[ii] Bruton, Bronwyn, “A Peace Best Delayed”, New York Times, June 22, 2018, (accessed 13 August 2018).

[iii] Africa Confidential, Pushback Peril for Abiy, Vol. 59, Issue 12, June 15, 2018.

[iv] For such a broader discussion see for example Müller, Tanja R. 2006. ‘State Making in the Horn of Africa: notes on Eritrea and prospects for the end of violent conflict in the Horn’, Conflict, Security & Development. Vol. 6, No. 4.

[v] Müller, Tanja R. ‘’Assertive foreign policy in a ‘bad neighbourhood’: Eritrean foreign policy making.”. Presentation at the International Conference on Eritrean Studies – Asmara, Eritrea, 20 July – 22 July, 2016.; Woldemariam, Michael & Alden Young. 2018. ”After the Split: Partition, Successor States, and the Dynamics of War in the Horn of Africa”, Journal of Strategic Studies.41:5 (2018).

[vi] Ministry of Information. Government of Eritrea. Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship between Eritrea and Ethiopia. June 9, 2018,, accessed 15 August 2018.

[vii] Müller, Tanja R. “Singled Out? Eritrea and the Politics of the Horn of Africa.”, World Politics Review,, accessed 14 August 2018.

[viii] Stratfor Worldview. Eritrea: Another Venue for the Iran-Israeli Rivalry. December 11, 2012,, accessed 14 August 2008.

[ix] De Waal, Alex. “Beyond the Red Sea: A new driving force in the politics of the Horn,”, African Arguments. (accessed 14 August 2018).

[x] Middle East Eye. ”Gulf crisis is leading to difficult choices in the Horn of Africa.”,, June 30, 2017 (accessed 14 August 2018).

[xi] Erlich, Haggai.  Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. Islam, Christianity, and Politics Entwined. Boulder, Colo: Lynne Rienner, 2007.

[xii] Styan, David. “The politics of ports in the Horn: War, peace and Red Sea rivalries,”, African Arguments, (accessed 14 August 2018).

[xiii] The National. “Former rivals hail UAE’s role in bringing peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea.”, July24, 2018, (accessed 15 August 2018).

[xiv] Allo, Awol, ‘Ethiopia: Exploiting the Gulf’s scramble for the Horn of Africa’, African Arguments,, (accessed 14 August 2018).

[xv]  Horn Diplomat. ”Eritrea affirmed its unflinching solidarity with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”, August 11, 2018. (accessed 15 August 2018).

[xvi] For a good overview of these dynamics see Woldemariam, Michael. 2018. ”No war, no peace” in a region in flux: crisis, escalation, and possibility in the Eritrea-Ethiopia rivalry.”, Journal of Eastern African Studies 12, No. 3 (2018).

[xvii] Tekle, Amara. 1994. Eritrea and Ethiopia. From conflict to cooperation. Lawrenceville NJ: Red Sea Press, 1994.

[xviii] Müller, Tanja R., ‘Ten days that shock the Horn’,

[xix] For the latter see for example Verhoeven, Harry. 2016. ”The Dream of the Greater Horn: Eritrea’s involvement in the Pan-Africanist project of the 1990s.”, paper presented at the International Conference on Eritrean Studies: The Way Forward, July 20-22, Asmara, Eritrea.

[xx] See africanews. “Eritrea frees 35 people detained on religious grounds”, July 20, 2018, (accessed 17 August 2018); Maasho, Aaron, ‘Eritrean conscripts told unlimited national service will end: sources’, Reuters World News, (accessed 17 August 2018).


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