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The Recent Ethiopia-Eritrea Diplomatic Thaw: challenges and prospects

Context

After twenty years of flagrant animosity, replete with intense militarization of the common boundary, acute propaganda campaign and determination to destabilise one another, Ethiopia and Eritrea decided to reverse course and give peace a chance.  The drive to normalize relations unfolded in an unprecedented manner following the decision by the executive council of the ruling coalition in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), to unconditionally accept the Algiers Agreement of 2000 and the ruling of the Boundary Commission in 2002. A series of high-level state visits together with the signing of the Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship further augmented the initiative for peace.

 

[I] If the 1998-2000 war took everyone unawares, the way the stalemate ended recently came as a huge surprise to all. Political transformations being implemented in Ethiopia remain the driving force behind this new dynamic that ushered a new chapter in the relationship between the two countries, with potential ripple effects in the sub-region and beyond.

If anything, the recent thaw has shattered the justifications appended to the stand-off between the two countries with its enormous human and material costs and effectively put the sub-region on perpetual stalemate. The ease and speed with which the rapprochement was executed contradicts the integrity of past actions; so do the emotional outburst and the associated human tragedy on full display afterwards testify to the futileness of the conflict and the stalemate that followed it.

By the same token, the underlying issues and drivers that led to the conflict and contributed to its intractability should not be underestimated; the actual intent behind the recent thaw remains questionable; and its implications for regional peace and cooperation are open for speculation. Akin to the historical precedents guiding Ethiopia-Eritrea relationship, emotions continue to dictate proceedings, often generating unsolicited and uncensored outcomes. Euphoria and unbridled optimism aside, the whole affair requires serious scrutiny, if the objective is to not squander this historic opportunity. Otherwise, the process risks the high probability of further complicating matters not only for the two countries, but also for the peace and security architecture of the whole region. Given the correlated intricacies, subtleties and manoeuvrings guiding local politics, regional interactions and global alignments, the stakes have never been higher.

There is no questioning the need and urgency for peaceful resolution of the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Maintaining the status quo-ante whereby Eritrea was kept isolated through a series of sanctions regime has long lost all its justifications; and the fast-changing geo-political realities of the region necessitated reconsideration of the policy framework, particularly on the part of Ethiopia. The current rapprochement is occurring against a backdrop of flux at the national, regional and global levels.

Fast changing geo-political realignments have driven states of the sub-region farther apart. Somalia, South Sudan and Eritrea are officially labeled failed states; Sudan is facing political uncertainty; Djibouti is increasingly becoming a franchise open to the highest bidder; and Ethiopia is trying to regain its footing after years of political turmoil. The ongoing Gulf crisis and the war in Yemen have also affected the Horn through intensifying the competition between the Gulf states for allies in the Horn states. The irreconcilable interests represented by the Saudi-United Arab Emirates (UAE) coalition and the Qatar-Turkey bloc are already on a collision course in Somalia, Sudan and Eritrea; and Ethiopia’s alleged neutrality and principled diplomacy in relation to the Gulf crisis has been gravely tested.[II]

It is within this complex reality that the recent Ethiopia-Eritrea rapprochement has unfolded. In a region where the conflict-cooperation matrix waxes and wanes rapidly, any bilateral peace effort potentially alters the nature of interactions among states. The Horn is renowned for these complexities, and peace dividends more than often have proven illusory. How the entire situation will ultimately unfolds and with what results, of course, remains to be seen.

Striking parallels

Understanding the underlying dynamics in the Ethiopia-Eritrea relationship requires an objective sequencing of what has transpired in the past two and half decades. Foremost in the priority of considerations is the fact that the overall framework of relations has remained an affair of those at the helm of power. A range of factors, some traceable to pre-1991 times and others driven by fast changing geo-strategic realities, often determine the nature of interaction between the two countries. The post-1991 reality exemplifies the specificity that transcends the conventional norms-references dictating inter-state relations.

For all purposes and intent, the July 1993 Agreement of Friendship and Cooperation, with the adjacent deal establishing a Joint High Ministerial Commission in Sept. 1993, reflected the unprincipled, uncensored and whim-driven interactions between Ethiopia and Eritrea.[III] The haste with which the Ethiopian Parliament endorsed the deal without due scrutiny of what it actually entails for the country; blatant concessions on economic, monetary and financial, trade and commerce, and immigration sectors accorded to Eritrea; the blind faith with which the whole affair was approached and handled; and Ethiopia’s unilateral request to the UN and OAU demanding speedy recognition for the statehood of Eritrea reflected the lack of institutional checks and balances and accountability on the part of the then Ethiopian government in handling bilateral relations with Eritrea. Cooperation on macro-economic issues, proposals for complete integration, avoidance of tax-barriers, and forging common policies on regional matters were openly on the table. Though, it soon dawned on the Ethiopian members of the Joint Commission that the devil was in the detail, and their country was suffering the consequences.[IV] Inadvertently, the two parties set the ground work for the inevitable conflict that only combusted into an open and costly war five years later. And it took them an additional two decades to realize the futility of their estrangement.

Of course, the post-1991 accord also set in motion positive processes primarily in the areas of regional peace and cooperation. The reorientation of the global order and the coming to the fore of like-minded leaders in the sub-region contributed to the process. In this regard, the Ethiopia-Eritrea combined diplomatic efforts facilitated the cooperation and integration agenda and contributed to the revitalization of the Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development (IGADD) to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in 1996 and the relatively successful peace efforts in Somalia and the Sudan. But even this was short-lived, for soon after the fateful war of 1998-2000 states in the region opted for their separate ways.[V]

In a striking parallel, the current rapprochement process is also dominated by a public discourse in Ethiopia that emphasizes certain tropes relying on appeals to emotion, rhetorical reference to cultural and historic ties, and narratives of common destiny.  As was the case in July 1993, lack of transparency clouds the recent agreement.[VI] It is also increasingly clear that despite the formal normalization of relations (characterized by the exchange of diplomatic missions, air transport and telephone connectivity), the details guiding their future interactions have yet to be sorted out. Apart from that, however, the whole affair gives the impression that Eritrea is on the driver’s seat of the whole process, reaping the utmost and giving little in return.[VII] Euphoria and past mistakes aside, the two countries, particularly Ethiopia, cannot afford to repeat the same mistakes, and as a result further complicate the already fragile situation in the region.

Challenges and prospects

Peace always is a plus in every circumstance. But it begs the questions, peace at what cost and whose peace is this going to be? The initiative for peace occurred at a time when great political transformations are taking place in Ethiopia. Rapprochement with Eritrea tramples upon one of the major hurdles in the comprehensive political settlement being envisaged in the country. Eritrea’s intentions for peace equally remain questionable in this regard for it could be argued that it has a stake in the ongoing domestic instability in Ethiopia. Whatsoever the justification, if the ongoing peace process in any way clashes with the political changes in Ethiopia, the costs can be profound. Ethiopia needs to first put its house in order and approach any peace effort with unison of mind and collective vision, first for the sake of the nation and then the sub-region, strictly in that order![VIII]

In a similar vein, such a grand peace initiative requires parallel political transformations in Eritrea and the sub-region. Eritrea is bound to reap the utmost from the peace process in the short run – through the lifting of the stifling sanctions and by regaining its status among the community of world states. More significantly, though, the government in Asmara will amplify this as a corroboration of its claims- that its perseverance has paid off and Eritrea is redeemed as a nation. The potential fallout for the incumbent administration in the medium and long range, however, risks the very sustainability of the rapprochement. Either Eritrea has to introduce radical transformations in all sectors of the governance and human rights index or somehow protract the implementation of the peace deal with Ethiopia.[IX]

The regional implications of the Ethiopia-Eritrea diplomatic thaw also deserve serious consideration. Already sensibilities have been poked in Djibouti, Sudan and Egypt. One has simply to factor in the Djibouti-Eritrea boundary conflict, the case of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, ongoing border tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan, to mention only few flash points with regional implications. Immediately after the deal, indicative of the fluidity of the situation, Djibouti expressed concerns and Sudan and Egypt agreed to enhance joint cooperation and build strategic relations.[X] Putting the record straight with Eritrea should not be accomplished at the expense of estranging others who possess an equal or greater stake in expanding economic and political ties with Ethiopia. As a regional power-house, Ethiopia should approach all its dealings strategically and in a comprehensive manner. In addition, the apparent high-hand the Saudis and Emiratis’ are securing in the sub-region clashes Turkish and Qatari interests, who have parallel ambitions and stakes.

There is no doubt that Ethiopia deserves the bulk of the credit for initiating the accord with Eritrea. But there is a danger that the process may be hijacked by other actors harbouring latent and complex geo-strategic intentions. How Ethiopia in particular balances these asymmetric interests and ensures its overall national interests will remain a challenge.[XI] More significantly, a shortcoming on the part of Ethiopia was the failure to package the peace effort as an IGAD-led initiative, with the participation of the African Union (AU). Such an approach could have potentially addressed individual misgivings and concerns states of the sub-region might have with the process, and ensured the resilience of the entire initiative. The tendency to disregard the high probability of parallel initiatives in direct contradiction to the current Ethiopia-Eritrea accord, with even the possibility of the latter switching sides, will be tantamount to ignoring the lessons of history and realpolitik.

The Ethiopia-Eritrea rapprochement has every possibility to succeed if it is carefully handled and all angles are properly covered. Foremost on the agenda should be the imperative to anchor the whole exercise on principles guiding inter-state relations whereby mutual benefits as well as regional peace and security are guaranteed. Effective demilitarization of the common boundary, withdrawal of military personnel and equipment, demarcation of the border, agreement on port utilization, immigration, dual citizenship, residence permit, consular affairs, currency, taxation (direct, excise and transit taxes), debt payment, money transfer, and nature and level of investment by respective citizens in the other, are just a few of the issues among the long list of urgent priorities, which remain unresolved.

There has to be real acumen, particularly on the part of Ethiopia, to envision all factors, with the foresight to secure the country’s overall interests in the long-run. How the current rapprochement augments or endangers the political, strategic and economic realities in the region should also be carefully assessed. Estranging others in the region for the sake of ‘peace’ with Eritrea carries with it immense economic and political costs to Ethiopia. In a similar vein, for the regional integration agenda to prosper, the peace process needs to be accommodative of all stakeholders. It remains incumbent on Ethiopia to remain worthy of its hard-won status of a regional power house, to remain vigilant of untoward consequences and to think strategically. As the maxim goes, opportunities favour those who utilize them wisely.

 

Dr. Belete Belachew Yihun researches on Ethiopia’s foreign policy and international relations dealings, with special focus on the Horn of Africa and the adjacent region. So far he has authored two books and published several articles in international journals. He can be reached at beletebelachewm@gmail.com.

 

 

[I] The five pillars deal signed in Asmara on 9 July 2018 stipulates a) State of war that existed between the two countries has come to an end. A new era of peace & friendship has been ushered; b) Both countries will work to promote close cooperation in political, economic, social, cultural and security areas; c) Transport, trade and telecommunication ties will be resumed; diplomatic toes & activities renewed; d) Border decision will be implemented; e) Both countries will work together to guarantee regional peace, development and cooperation.

[II] Meester, Jos  et al, “Riyal Politik: The political economy of Gulf investments in the Horn of Africa,” CRU Report, Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael”, April 2018

[III] Agreement of Friendship and Cooperation between the Transitional Government of Ethiopia and the Government of the State of Eritrea, Addis Ababa, 30 July 1993; Agreement between the Government of the State of Eritrea and the Transitional Government of Ethiopia on the Establishment of the Joint High Ministerial Commission, Asmara, 23 Sept. 1993. Private Collection

[IV] Difficulties started to manifest as early as January 1995, well before the Joint High Ministerial Commission held its second session. Then afterwards relations progressively spiraled downhill till the outbreak of the War in May 1998. And nowhere in the tension/discussions had the border issue featured.

[V] IGAD’s serious institutional and structural shortcoming manifest in the absence of any provision in its mandate to handle inter-state conflicts. There is no single precedent in this regard, and member-states simply opt for the easy way out leaving the regional body fragile and exposed to all the elements.

[VI] Obviously, prior consultations among concerned institutions in Ethiopia and a principled approach to the rapprochement process was lacking in the events leading to the July 2018 deal. All is left to good-will of the leadership of both countries. As was the case in 1993, picking the pieces is yet again left to the joint ministerial commission to be reconstituted soon afterwards. Ethiopia’s impromptu request to the UN on lifting the sanctions imposed on Eritrea simply completes the circle.

[VII] Eritrea managed to insert a specific clause attesting to the implementation of the border agreement in the five pillars agreement of July 2018, while leaving the rest of the deal general and non-committal. Likewise, all the explanations on the tenets and intent of the rapprochement come from the side of Ethiopia, with little official corroboration from the other party. The calibre of Eritrean statesmen, in stark contrast to their Ethiopian counterparts, leaves one wondering about the fairness of the playing field.

[VIII] De Waal, Alex. “The Future of Ethiopia: Developmental State or Political Marketplace?” Occasional Paper in World Peace Foundation, 20 August 2018. Lefort, Rene. “Pacified politics or risk of disintegration? A race against time in Ethiopia.” 21 August 2018, https://www.opendemocracy.net/…/pacified-politics-or-risk-d…

[IX] Plaut, Martin. “Eritrea and Ethiopia have made peace. How it happened and what next.” The Conversation, July 10, 2018:  https://theconversation.com; Zere, Abraham T. “Isaias out of character: Why Eritreans are getting nervous.” in Africa Arguments, July 18, 2018:  http://africanarguments.org

[X] Lilley, Kelsey. “Why Djibouti Is the Loser of the Horn of Africa’s New Peace.” Atlantic Council, July 12, 2018; The Indian Ocean Newsletter: “Creeping paranoia in Djiboutian diplomatic circles,” Issue 1478 dated 19/07/2018. Also see the joint press statement of Presidents Omar al-Bashir and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of July 19, 2018, http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article65894.

[XI] Allo, Awol. “Ethiopia: Exploiting the Gulf’s scramble for the Horn of Africa.” African Arguments, August 13th, 2018: http://africanarguments.org/2018/08/13/ethiopia-exploiting-gulf-scramble-horn-africa/.

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