The agreement of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea on 9 July 2018, ended a 20-year stalemate between the two nations.i The long overdue reconciliation has ushered in optimism and hope of swift reform in Eritrea. Eritreans all over the world are celebrating with tears of joy as relatives are reunited and there is a chance for a political opening for the first time in twenty-five years.ii The widespread jubilation reveals the deep popular longings for peace and the hidden sufferings of the Eritrean people. During the honeymoon period of the rapprochement, it’s important to recognise the opportunities for domestic change within Eritrea and the potential spoilers. This article will first explain how the no-peace-no-war status quo was the foundation of national politics, and then discuss the consequences of the detente for the regime and the society.
The Border as the Means to the Centralization of Power
The border war from 1998-2000 and the resulting standoff has defined Eritrean politics and the everyday lives of Eritreans since independence. Occurring only five years after the 30-year war of Eritrean Independence,iii the two-year land dispute was a symbolic battle for regional dominance. It was also a loose end that should have been addressed in 1993 when the referendum granting Eritrea sovereignty passed.iv The matter of the borderline, in many ways, was a technicality that escalated into a violent conflict, lasting decades without resolution. While the emergent no-war no-peace had an immeasurably high economic and human cost for the Eritrean people, the regime has used the perpetual threat of war to its advantage. The guerrilla leader-cum president, Isaias, instrumentalised the military stalemate with Ethiopia to consolidate power and eliminate all potential competitors and contenders for power.
Eritrea’s frozen bilateral relations with its largest neighbour Ethiopia, compounded by UN sanctionsv and almost non-existent diplomatic relations with most Western countries, rendered it a global pariah. The regime further sealed off the nation by expelling all foreign aid agencies in the mid-2000s.vi The extreme isolation of the country fostered the perfect conditions for totalitarianism. It allowed President Isaias, the only head of state since Eritrea’s independence, to bring the whole population under his iron-rule with impunity. A closed border with Ethiopia on one side and the Red Sea on the other, physically boxed Eritreans in. The citizenry was only able to leave at the great risk of being shot by their own government, kidnapped, or taken advantage of by smugglers.vii In the walled-off nation, there was little foreign influence in domestic politics; limited imports or exports, little access to media outside of the state-produced sources, nearly non-existent internet connection for the average Eritrean, and no international pressure for elections.
In most countries, the border represents a barely-governed periphery and a political outskirt at the edge of the state’s centre of authority. In Eritrea, however, the physical delimitations of the nation and the border as a conceptual marker were the most salient features of national politics from independence until today. The rapprochement of Eritrea and Ethiopia will therefore compel the state to fundamentally reconfigure its apparatus of control. Instead of rigid and heavy-handed repression, President Isaias may adopt more institutionalised techniques of dominance that rely on the constitution and the law in order to maintain the current authoritarian system.
Eritrea as An Island, No Longer
In the age of globalisation, the Eritrean people had been on an island. Yet, the society’s utter sequestration flouted regional history. Eritrea’s multi-ethnic population and position on the Red Sea makes it a natural point of commerce, cultural exchange, and transit.viii With ties restored with Ethiopia and the UN sanctions likely to be lifted,ix Eritreans will once again enter into the global economy and media-spheres. The new flights connecting Eritrea’s capital Asmara through Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, to the African continent and the world, will bring a new opening to the society.
Prior to the July 2018 peace summit, the Eritrean regime had been highly successful in maintaining ideological isolation. Hardly anyone was allowed in and no forums for political discussion were permitted. The flights from neighbouring Eastern African countries with large Eritrean diasporas were prohibitively expensive and visas were nearly impossible to procure. The highly active political discussion on the internet on sites like Dehai,x Awate,xi Assenna,xii and Asmarinoxiii (among others), were nearly inaccessible to Eritreans in Eritrea. Now as Eritrea is connected to the vast network of Ethiopian airlines, the nearby and far-flung diaspora can and will return. With them, they’ll expose Eritreans to the world outside of Eritrea. As a coastal nation, relatively inexpensive and high-speed connection to the fibre optic cables under the sea will suddenly be possible allowing Eritrea’s citizens to participate in the ongoing political dialogue beyond the regime’s purview.xiv Trade will flow through Eritrea’s underutilised and highly strategic ports of Massawa and Assab,xv bringing with it economic growth and regional integration. The combined forces of foreign influences, newly accessible media, and economic opening will loosen the control of the Eritrean government, sowing the seeds for political change.
Ethnonationalism: An Emerging Threat to the Eritrean Nation
The strategic and physical importance of the Eritrean border for nation-building cannot be underestimated. The closed border between Eritrea and Ethiopia was the locus of national identity—on one side were Eritreans and on the other, were Ethiopians. In the context of an ongoing conflict, Eritrean leadership forged a militarised and highly nationalist identity. The most well-known example of this is the mandatory “national service” program in which all young Eritreans attended military training and were conscripted for years of labour.xvi The practice was a thinly-veiled tactic to maintain a standing army of citizen-soldiers. It was not only the youth, but the whole nation that was kept in a state of constant vigilance, watchful and worried about security and survival. This martial national identity is a form of patriotism born from the shared traumas and human sacrifice of the 30-year war with Ethiopia and fuelled by the looming threat of renewed conflict.
The other source of Eritrean national identity comes from the geographic divide drawn by the Italian colonists and the experience of Eritreans under colonialism. The shared histories, religion, languages, and heritages of the politically and culturally dominant ethnic group in Eritrea and of the two dominant ethnic groups in Ethiopia, however, cut across the border. A new solidarity among these three groups—the Tigrinya in Eritrea and the Tigray and Amhara in Ethiopia—could be the basis for a strong ethnonationalism that erodes the current Eritrean identity rooted in military-conflict and colonially geography. The alignment of these politically powerful groups could encourage other, disfranchised groups to seek religious, ethnic, and other shared cross-border cultural identities. Closer ties to Ethiopia carries with it a heightened risk of ethnic conflict that would tear the fabric of the contemporary Eritrean national identity and throw both countries back into turmoil and civil strife. For the two nations to remain at peace, the Eritrean leadership and people will have to reconsider what it means to be Eritrean beyond being anti-Ethiopia.
Conclusion: The Potentials for Change
President Isaias’ move to open ties with Ethiopia diverges from his previous policies, which has caused Eritreans to speculate about his sudden change of character.xvii However, these recent developments might be better understood in light of both internal and external pressures for change. Incentives and closed-door negotiations certainly were offered to his regime from the Gulf states,xviii and perhaps, the powerful European countries that are increasingly tiring of receiving Eritrean refugees.xix Domestically, Isaias’ repressive regime was becomingly unsustainable. Even well-to-do Eritreans face daily electricity outages, often lack access to running water, and have low wages and limited choice of goods. Eritrea had reached a breaking point with its dire economic deprivation and staggeringly high youth exit estimated as up to 5,000 fleeing per month.xx
The recent accomplishments—restoration of telecommunications, flights, and promises of cooperation—between Eritrea and Ethiopia have been called the “low-hanging fruit” in the sphere of diplomacy.xxi In a similar manner, President Isaias will most likely introduce politically expedient reforms domestically with limited give in the areas of political and religious freedoms. Following the detente, there are already rumours that the national service will be reduced from its current indefinite terms to the mandated two years of service.xxii This may prompt Ethiopia to close refugee camps housing ordinary citizens, in addition to political dissidents who worry about their future safety.xxiii
To revive the economically depressed country, President Isaias would be wise to allow privatization of the economy and greater foreign investment. Eritrean citizens will then finally have an opportunity to pursue careers outside of national service and the state-controlled economy, and to raise their standards of living. Whether these changes will be enough to placate the population for the time being or push them to demand that political reform accompany economic development will only be revealed in time. The moment facing the Eritrean regime and populace is uncertain, but pregnant with possibilities for both the regime and the Eritrean people.
Olivia Asmara Woldemikael is currently pursuing a PhD in Political Science at Harvard University. Her research areas of interest include International Development and African Politics. She can be reached at email@example.com and on twitter at @owoldemik.
i Ministry of Information, Government of Eritrea, Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship between Eritrea and Ethiopia, http://www.shabait.com/news/local-news/26639-joint-declaration-of-peace-and-friendship-between-eritrea-and-ethiopia.
iiMaasho, Aaron. ””Heartfelt joy’ as first Ethiopia-Eritrea flight in 20 years seals peace deal.” Reuters, July 18, 2018. https://af.reuters.com/article/topNews/idAFKBN1K80ZH-OZATP.
iii The Associated Press, “Eritrea Marks Independence After Years Under Ethiopia,” 1993, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/1993/05/25/world/eritrea-marks-independence-after-years-under-ethiopia.html.
iv Amahazion, Fikrejesus, “A Look Back On Eritrea’s Historic 1993 Referendum,” http://www.shabait.com/categoryblog/26173-a-look-back-on-eritreas-historic-1993-referendum-
vi Dantó, Ezili. “U.S. NGOS Kicked Out of Eritrea: Foreign Aid is Meant to Cripple People.” Madote, 2015. http://www.madote.com/2015/04/us-ngos-kicked-out-of-eritrea-foreign.html.
vii Debesai, Temesghen. “Eritrean radio host helps fleeing compatriots at risk of kidnap, drowning.” Reuters, November 30, 2016. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-women-conference-eritrea/eritrean-radio-host-helps-fleeing-compatriots-at-risk-of-kidnap-drowning-idUSKBN13P237.
viii Miran, Jonathan, Red Sea Citizens: Cosmopolitan Society and Cultural Change in Massawa, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.
ix Reuters. “U.N. chief says sanction on Eritrea likely to become obsolete,” July 9, 2018. .https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ethiopia-eritrea-un-sanctions/u-n-chief-says-sanctions-on-eritrea-likely-to-become-obsolete-idUSKBN1JZ1UG.
xiv Dahir, Abdi Latif. “If you want affordable internet in Africa, move to a country on the coast,” Quartz, January 13, 2017. https://qz.com/africa/884072/if-you-want-affordable-internet-in-africa-move-to-a-country-on-the-coast/.
xv The Ethiopian Herald, “Groundwork to use Eritrea’s Port of Assab well under way,” July 19, 2018, http://www.ethpress.gov.et/herald/index.php/news/national-news/item/12389-groundwork-to-use-eritrea-s-port-of-assab-well-underway.
xvi The Economist, ” Miserable and useless,” March 10, 2014, https://www.economist.com/baobab/2014/03/10/miserable-and-useless.
xviiZere, Abraham T. “Isais out of character” Why Eritreans are getting nervous.” African Arguments, July 18, 2018,. http://africanarguments.org/2018/07/18/why-eritrea-nervous-isaias-abiy-ethiopia/.
xviii The Economist, “How Ethiopia and Eritrea made peace,” July 17, 2018, , https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2018/07/17/how-ethiopia-and-eritrea-made-peace.
xix Campbell, John R. “Fleeing for freedom, Eritrean refugees are being abandoned by Europe.” The Conversation, March 14, 2017. https://theconversation.com/fleeing-for-freedom-eritrean-refugees-are-being-abandoned-by-europe-73712.
xx UN OHCHR. “Report of the detailed findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea.” June 5, 2015, Human Rights Council/29th Session, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/CoIEritrea/A_HRC_29_CRP-1.pdf.
xxii Maasho, Aaron. “Eritrean conscripts told unlimited national service will end: sources.”Reuters July 23, 2018, Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-eritrea-military/eritrean-conscripts-told-unlimited-national-service-will-end-sources-idUSKBN1KD1ZD.
xxiii Riggan, Jennifer and Poole, Amanda. ”We can’t go home’: What does peace mean for Eritrea’s refugees?.” African Arguments, August 1, 2018. http://africanarguments.org/2018/08/01/cant-go-home-peace-eritrea-refugees/.