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Peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia: Voices from the Eritrean Diaspora

Peace at last? The developments of July 2018

The resignation of Ethiopian Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn in February 2018 came as a surprise. It was a consequence of failed attempts to curb the ongoing protests in the country as a reaction to a closed political space, growing economic problems and lack of political vision. Still more surprising was the election of 41-year old Dr. Abiy Ahmed, who has a PhD in peace and security studies, as his successor. Prime Minister Abiy is the first person in Ethiopian history hailing from an Oromo Muslim father to become the leader of the country, while he himself is an evangelical Christian. Yet, things got even more surprising when the administration of Prime Minister Abiy began issuing public statements that diverged in both tone and content from the past and also to introduce reforms: repeated apologies for past mistakes of the government were offered , thousands of political prisoners were released, rehabilitated insurgent organisations previously classified as  “terrorist” groups such as Ginbot 7 (G7), the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), were formally invited to reconcile and legally unbanned; access to proscribed websites and the freedom of the print press were restored.[I]

The executive committee of the ruling front in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) issued a statement on the June 5, 2018, which announced the unconditional acceptance of the December 2000 Algiers agreement and decisions of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Border Commission (EEBC), removing the key obstacles to rapprochement with Eritrea since the devastating 1998-2000 border war that killed more than 100,000 people. In December 2000 the Algiers Peace Agreement was signed by Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea’s president since de facto independence in 1991 and late Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi, former brothers in arms in their struggle against the Derg regime. The agreement provided that an independent body, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC), should delineate the border between the countries. However, in the aftermath of the EEBC ruling, the Ethiopian government decided to postpone the demarcation of the border and negotiate the terms of the EEBC decision, a decision that the Eritrean side rejected. President Isaias declined to enter in any form of dialogue, but used the resulting impasse to introduce the “Warsay-Yikealo Development Campaign” in 2002, which turned the 18 month long Eritrean national service into service for life. Eritreans from all walks of life had to undergo military training and to work as conscripts before they started to serve the state, the military or the ruling People’s Front for Democracy of Justice (PFDJ). Observers have viewed the campaign as a tool to militarize society and to run the country like a wartime-economy under the authority of high-ranking generals and PFDJ cadres. The resulting mass exodus of young Eritreans was only felt in Europe when Eritrean refugees arrived in increasing numbers from about 2013 on, although it had started soon after the introduction of the indefinite service.[II]

According to our research findings the Eritrean government has instrumentalised the ‘no war, no peace situation’ to portray the Ethiopian government as an existential threat to Eritrea. Furthermore, the Eritrean government  utilized the impasse and consequent tensions to motivate the Eritrean diaspora to support the government financially through a two percent diaspora tax and other donations to support a “resolute national re-buff”.[III] The regime tolerated the ongoing outflow of the youth despite assertions to the contrary, because the refugees supported their families at home, payed their dues to the government and thus prevented the collapse of the otherwise economically unsustainable system. On the other hand, Ethiopia silently watched the gradual economic decline of the neighbouring country. Accordingly, the situation seemed stable, if unpleasant, and the efforts of the international community to resolve the stand-off were unsuccessful.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s call for peace coupled with the acceptance the EEBC boundary decision came as an unexpected surprise. Without doubt, President Isaias came under pressure to take action, now that his excuse for the internal stalemate was shaken. But the events following  Abiy’s announcement from Ethiopia were beyond anything imaginable: during his speech on Martyr’s Day on 20 June, Isaias announced he would send a delegation to Addis Ababa. Only six days later, the Eritrean delegation comprising foreign minister Osman Saleh and Presidential Adviser Yemane Gebreab were heartily welcomed by the Ethiopian prime minister. During the evening reception, Osman Saleh became so emotionally moved that he talked of Eritreans and Ethiopians as “one people”, which irritated many pro-government Eritreans according to their comments on social media.[IV] On 8 July, PM Abiy received a rapturous welcome in Asmara. President Isaias of Eritrea reciprocated the gesture in his two-day visit to Ethiopia from the 14 to 16 July, 2018, which saw widespread expressions of public support in Ethiopia and amicability between the two leaders .[V] Suddenly, the decade-long enmities seemed to be forgotten: not only had peace been restored, but those who had called each other enemies not long ago suddenly acted as if they had been long-separated brothers who had been happily re-united. All these events were aired live by both Ethiopian TV and EriTV, and the diaspora was certainly taken by surprise given these unexpected developments.[VI]

 

Reactions from the Diaspora: scepticism instead of relief

Neither pro-government nor opposition Eritreans in the diaspora had expected this sudden U-turn. However, government supporters seemed to have no problems to turn swords into ploughshares. To them, the story was sold as a new chapter in history under the theme of “game over” for the TPLF leadership in Ethiopia, as President Isaias had pointed out earlier.[VII] Eritrean pro-government websites in the diaspora such as madote.com and tesfanews.net started to paint a optimistic picture of Eritrea’s future with a focus on economic cooperation and new business opportunities with no discussion on potential reforms of the open-ended national service or the release of  political prisoners. On the contrary, government supporters in a striking parallel with certain pro-Prime Minister Abiy websites and bloggers in Ethiopia were demanding that not only PM Abyi Ahmed, but also President Isaias Afewerki , who was in power when the devastating border war started in 1998 should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.[VIII]

On the other hand, members of the Eritrean opposition and government opponents in general seemed to be taken by surprise and have so far reacted reluctantly or even showed a negative stance regarding the peace agreement between Asmara and Addis Ababa. This is a bit surprising, because  rapprochement between the two countries would render redundant policies in Eritrea such as the national service, the indefinite postponement of national elections and the non-implementation of the constitution. Yet, it seems that opposition figures and government opponents in general do not expect any positive changes from the latest developments. Here are some of their arguments.[IX]

First: The current government in Eritrea as an un-elected government does not have a mandate to make peace. The rapprochement has not involved public consultations or involvement which brings into question the legitimacy of the peace process. Those who are living along the border should be involved, but so far the two leaders have not discussed any details regarding the border demarcation. A related argument questions the viability of the rapprochement as Eritrean opposition groups and civic organizations in the Diaspora did not participate and/or were not consulted about the process.

Second: The present rapprochement may lead to key Eritrean national interests and sovereignty  being affected negatively in the form of agreements regarding Ethiopian utilisation of the Eritrean ports Assab and Massawa and statements speaking of both nations as ‘one people’, which disrespects the the legacy of the martyrs of the independence struggle.

Third: The peace will strengthen the government politically, economically and diplomatically. Eritrea’s international isolation will come to an end and the sanctions will be lifted. Things will not change inside Eritrea through peace and the people will not benefit. Sawa [the infamous military training camp] is still there and will remain.  The current government in Eritrea will profit economically, as has been the case with the Bisha mine; the money is not going to the people.

Fourth: The demarcation of the disputed border also carries with it the risk that open borders  may allow uncontrolled entry of migrants from Ethiopia, while so many Eritreans have left their home country.

Fifth: Some diaspora Eritreans have also argued that a key foundation for the current rapprochement is the short-term political expediency of weakening the common foe of both the Eritrean government and the administration of Prime Minister Abiy of Ethiopia in the form of the TPLF and Tigray regional state. These critics therefore question the viability of the rapprochement without the involvement of local level authorities and communities living along the border.

Another argument comes from a different angle: social workers and others involved in refugee rights advocation in Europe fear that those Eritreans who have been accepted as refugees in recent years might be forcibly repatriated. So far, only some of the Eritrean diaspora activists and opposition groups, who have been struggling for human rights improvements in Eritrea have embraced the peace process and see it as an opportunity to press for reforms.

 

Demarcating the Border is not enough: the need for reforms and justice

Of course, making peace with one’s neighbour does not equal with internal reforms. As human rights activist Selam Kidane rightly posted on Facebook, “I don’t know why a change of a prime minister in Ethiopia equals change in Eritrea”.[X] However, condemning the reconciliation of both governments due to a lack of legitimacy seems a bit short-sighted. The Eritrean opposition in exile has seldom ever questioned the 2000 Algiers Agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, one of whose major architects was the then foreign minister of Eritrea, Haile Woldetensae (Dru’e), a member of the G15 reformers who was imprisoned in 2002 and is believed to have passed away in 2018. According to the agreement, the border was to be demarcated according to the final and binding decision of the EEBC issued in 2002. The only thing that has changed recently is that Ethiopia gave up its reluctance to implement the decision and promised the demarcation of the border. The Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship signed in Asmara on 9 July 2018 simply expresses the will to normalize both country’s relationship by declaring:

  • The state of war has come to an end
  • The two nations will forge close political, economic, social, cultural and security cooperation
  • Trade, economic and diplomatic ties will resume
  • The boundary decision will be implemented
  • Both nations will work on regional peace[XI]

While the declaration contains nothing that sounds unacceptable for a possible future democratically elected Eritrean government, it is imperative that bilateral peace must be accompanied by internal reforms. Now that President Isaias has made peace with his Ethiopian foes and has promised to engage in economic cooperation with the much larger neighbouring country, time has come for overdue changes: first of all, there is no more excuse for the unlimited duration of the national service, and people inside Eritrea will demand an end to the system of forced labour that has been in place since 2002.

However, few people in the diaspora opposition and hardly anybody in the international community have ever thought about how a national service reform might work. In comparison, after the end of the independence struggle in 1991, about 95,000 fighters had to be demobilized; currently, at least 300,000 people are national service recruits. In the 1990s, the ex-fighters received financial compensation, loans and vocational training. At the same time, the economy was cautiously liberalised to create job opportunities in the private sector.[XII] Similarly, after the end of the border war, the World Bank initiated a large demobilisation and reintegration program (DRP) worth $200 million to facilitate the re-integration of about 200,000 soldiers into civilian life.[XIII] This program was cancelled in 2002 when the government decided to introduce the Warsay-Yikealo Development Campaign along with the systematic destruction of the private sector. To reform the state of Eritrea, which is currently operated like a “liberated area” of the struggle, comprehensive economic and political reforms will be necessary, and the government needs to accept foreign aid to shoulder this task. The international community should demand political reforms including the release of all political prisoners, the re-installation of the rule of law and the implementation of the constitution.

When (and if) the border is demarcated on the ground, this may lead to further conflicts because some communities will be torn apart such as the Irob community around Alitena who oppose the prospect of becoming Eritrean, and vice versa the Saho people living around Tsorona who oppose the prospect of becoming Ethiopian. It should be possible to find solutions that reflect the will of the population, for example through local referendums. As it seems now, it will be up to the people inside Eritrea to face the challenges of peace, because the diaspora has provided very few constructive ideas how to handle the future, and the international community has welcomed the end of  hostilities but has not come forward with any suggestions to help Eritrea to demilitarize and to democratize. One of the most important things for a lasting peace will be the initiation of a broad range of political and economic reforms. The countless human rights violations perpetrated in Eritrea during the past 27 years cannot be forgotten as a consequence of the peace deal, and those who are responsible must be held accountable.

 

Nicole Hirt is a Research Fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Institute of African Affairs  (GIGA/IAA) in Hamburg, Germany. She is a political scientist and has been following developments in Eritrea and the Horn of Africa since the 1990s. Her current research foci are transnational governance and diaspora studies. Email: nicole.hirt@giga-hamburg.de

 

Abdulkader Saleh Mohammad is an Associate Research Fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Institute of African Affairs (GIGA Hamburg/IAA). He is a former Professor of Sociology at the Universities of Sebha (Libya), Asmara (Eritrea), and Oslo (Norway) and Senior Advisor at the Law and Policy Institute, Oslo. He published a book about the Identity and National Consciousness of the Saho people in Eritrea. His current research focuses on identity formation in diaspora communities. Email: abdulkader.mohammad@giga-hamburg.de

 

 

[I] Weber, Anette. “Abiy Superstar – Reformer oder Revolutionär: Hoffnung auf Transformation in Äthiopien.‘‘ SWP-Aktuell, no. 32 (2018). /https://www.swp-berlin.org/publikation/abiy-superstar-reformer-oder-revolutionaer/

[II] Hirt, Nicole and Abdulkader Saleh. “Dreams Don’t Come True in Eritrea: Anomie and Family Disintegration due to the Structural Militarization of Society.” Journal of Modern African Studies 51, Issue. 1 (2013). https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-modern-african-studies/article/dreams-dont-come-true-in-eritrea-anomie-and-family-disintegration-due-to-the-structural-militarisation-of-society/F616D9BA419FDF05A72003440605D07B.  ’; Kibreab, Gaim. The Eritrean National Service. Servitude for the Common Good and the Youth Exodus. Boydell and Brewer Press.

[III] Hirt, Nicole. ‘’The Eritrean Diaspora and its impact on stability: Responses to UN sanctions’’  African Affairs 114, Issue 454 ((2015). http://afraf.oxfordjournals.org/content/114/454/115.full.;  Hirt and Mohammad 2018, ‘By Way of Patriotism, Coercion or Instrumentalization: How the Eritrean regime makes use of the diaspora to stabilise its rule’, in: Globalizations, 15, 2, 232-247.

[IV] See for example Buna Bet, 26.06. 2018, Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed Speech in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, online https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDeq5IMX-HE, (accessed 02.08. 2018). President Isaias himself argued during his speech in Hawassa on 15 July 2018, claiming “we are one people; those who say we are two people must learn history”.

[V] The speeches of Abyi Ahmed and Isaias Afewerki in Hawassa, Ethiopia can be watched live at https://www.soderetube.com/2018/07/pm-abiy-ahmed-and-president-isaias-aferwerki-speech-in-hawassa/, (accessed 12 August 2018).

[VI] See also: Adulis.com, 24 July 2018, Khaled Ahmed: “Peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia: how the African Berlin Wall was torn down” [in Arabic], http://www.adoulis.net/entry.php?id=5728, accessed 12 August 2018

[VII] Eritrean Centre for Strategic Studies, “President Afewerki: Weyane have committed four major mistakes. The TPLF has come to the end of the road. The game is over!’’, http://www.ecss-online.com/president-isaias-afwerki-weyane-have-committed-four-major-mistakes-the-tplf-has-come-to-the-end-of-the-road-the-game-is-over/ (accessed 05 August 2018); see also the caricature illustrating the news article by Plaut, Martin, “Ethiopia orders ‘Eritrean opposition parties’ cease anti-Eritrea activities.” tesfanews.net, 2018. https://www.tesfanews.net/ethiopia-order-eritrea-opposition-cease-anti-eritrea-activities/, (accessed 5 August 2018).

[VIII] Kidane, Bereket. ’’Will Isaias of Eritrea and Abiy of Ethiopia share the Nobel Peace Price for 2018?.” Tesfanews.net 2018.https://www.tesfanews.net/saias-eritrea-abiy-ethiopia-share-2018-nobel-peace-prize/(accessed 5 August 2018).

[IX] These arguments are taken from interviews during fieldwork by the authors in Oslo during June and July 2018, the months when the breath-taking developments occurred.

[X]Tweet by Selam Kidane on 27 July,2018. https://twitter.com/search?l=&q=To%20my%20Ethiopian%20friends…

[XI] Shaban, Abdur Rahman Alfa. ‘’ Ethiopia-Eritrea peace deal boost for regional security-AU, EU. ’’ africanews.com, 2018. http://www.africanews.com/2018/07/10/ethiopia-eritrea-peace-deal-boost-for-regional-peace-au-eu//, (accessed 6 August 2018).

[XII] Hirt, Nicole.: ‘‘Eritrea zwischen Krieg und Frieden. Die Entwicklung nach der Unabhängigkeit.‘‘ In Kleines Afrika-Lexikon, edited by Hofmeier, Rolf and Andrea Mehler, 170-174. Munich: Verl C. H. Beck.

[XIII] Eritrea, Demobilization and Reintegration Program (2002 -?), available at http://www.ehrea.org/08i.pdf, (accessed 06 August 2008). Interestingly, the WB has eliminated all public online traces pointing to the program, which had been terminated upon request of the Eritrean government. The only document pointing to the program is from the Catalan development organisation and was archived by an Eritrean human rights organisation, EHREA.

 

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