I have a book on my shelf entitled: “Eritrea and Ethiopia: from conflict to co-operation”. In it is a chapter by Andreas Eshete, who wrote: “Poised at the present favourable position – as free and equals [sic.] – what political ties should Ethiopia and Eritrea try to forge? I believe we should seek a form of political affiliation – say, a confederation or commonwealth – that would bind together Ethiopia and Eritrea while preserving the freedom and equality of the two communities. A common political life would steadfastly safeguard the abiding interests of Ethiopia and Eritrea is available.”i
The book, edited by Amare Tekle, was published by the prolific Red Sea Press in 1994. Dr Tekle was not just a scholar: he was the Commissioner who oversaw the Eritrean referendum that led to the country’s independence in 1993. Not everyone would have agreed with Andreas Eshete’s position, but it was not a particularly contentious argument at the time. The past two decades have been so disfigured by conflict and animosity that it is easy to forget that between 1991 (when Asmara and Addis fell to Eritrean and mainly Tigrayan rebels respectively) and 1998 relations between the two countries were really good. For example, how many remember that the security of Meles Zenawi was guaranteed by Eritrean troops during the first years of his rule?ii
Are we about to return to a similarly positive and collaborative relationship between the two countries? The answer is: possibly. The Eritrean government’s semi-official website, Tesfanews, published a poorly judged article crowing over the humiliation that has been inflicted on their former allies in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).iii Tesfanews declared that the: “TPLF as a political entity is dead. Its soul has been bound in hell, but for a little while, its skeleton will be walking like a zombie to create chaos and harm innocent civilians to disrupt the ongoing transition in Ethiopia and terrorize its people… The devil and its surrogate, the TPLF junta has been cornered and thrown into the bottomless pit.”iv This is not the language that good neighbours use about each other. The TPLF may have lost power since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in Ethiopia on 2 April 2018, but it is still an influential force just across the border. How do such sentiments add to reconciliation?
Having said this, there is no doubt that there are other signs that point in the opposite direction. There have been, of course, the visit by Prime Minister Abiy to Eritrea and the return trip by President Isaias to the Ethiopian capital. The receptions they received can only be described as ecstatic. Thousands turned out to greet them. The first flight from Addis to Asmara has been successfully completed.
So what are the issues ahead that need to be confronted?
Firstly, the border itself needs to be fully and officially demarcated. This should be undertaken carefully and will probably require the assistance of United Nations cartographers. Fortunately, the UN has already pledged any support that is required.v As António Guterres, the UN secretary general said: “The UN is ready to do whatever the two parties ask us to do…The UN will be entirely at their disposal to do whatever is necessary to facilitate the success of what needs to be done.” The border is over 1,000 kilometres in length and cuts through rugged terrain, villages and farms: this will not be an easy task.
Secondly, it is vital that the border is designated with a measure of humanity. The Algiers Agreement ending the 1998 – 2000 war did not allow for this: both countries demanded a strictly legalistic approach to the issue.vi The subsequent ruling left many communities along the border facing transfer to the other country, or being deprived of access to fields, churches or traditional trading routes. The issues have been described by Jean-Louis Péninou.vii It is really important that both countries show a measure of flexibility and do not demand their rights. As Portia argued in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, justice must be tempered with mercy.viii “Though justice be thy plea, consider this: That in the course of justice none of us should see salvation.” Peace and reconciliation will require a sympathetic interpretation of the rules.
Thirdly, let neither nation make the mistake of the past of relying on personal ties to administer complex international relations. Prior to the 1998 war when difficulties arose between Ethiopia and Eritrea they were often resolved by President Isaias picking up the phone to Prime Minister Meles, or vice versa. Useful as these interventions may have been, they were no substitute for the arduous, detailed work of civil servants, who are required to cement lasting ties. If reconciliation is to be permanent, let the bureaucrats play their proper role.
Fourthly, it is unlikely that peace will be permanent if there is a continuing exodus of refugees from either country. This implies that development needs to be encouraged and human rights observed. Ethiopia has already made impressive strides on both fronts. Its growth is among the fastest in Africa, rebel movements have been unbanned, political prisoners freed, the media is less restricted. Eritrea has only begun to go down this road. Growth has been poor to negligible, finances are maintained abroad and no official budget is published. On the human rights front even less progress has been made. Some religious prisoners are reported to have been freed (a most welcome development) but political and other prisoners continue to languish in jail. The constitution has not been enforced, there has been no announcement of free and fair elections and no independent media of any kind is allowed to operate. Although there are reports that the Eritrean military are beginning to move away from the border, there has as yet been little indication that National Service (or conscription) will be reduced to eighteen months.ix Unless these issues are tackled the flight to Ethiopia, Sudan and beyond is likely to continue.
Finally, it is important that both countries encourage peace in the region, so that there is less incentive for outside powers to stir up trouble in the Horn. For Ethiopia this means settling its long-standing row with Egypt over the Great Renaissance Dam. Unless this is filled slowly it will deprive Cairo of so much water it is hard to see how the Egyptians will survive. This issue – which also involves Sudan – appears to be on the agenda, which is encouraging.x For Eritrea this means resolving its border dispute with Djibouti, which has festered for far too many years. Djibouti has already appealed to the UN: Eritrea needs to respond positively and imaginatively.xi Eritrea also needs to extricate itself from involvement in the Yemeni war. This has dragged powers from afar a field as Turkey and Iran into the region. Eritrean involvement needs to be ended, even if this threatens lucrative ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Clearly, then, there is much for both sides to tackle. None of these problems are insuperable. They require foresight, good judgement – and above all – goodwill. So far only the latter has been much in evidence. Both the president and the prime minister need to build on the enthusiasm of their peoples for peace to cement reconciliation in place. Then, who knows? Perhaps even Andreas Eshete’s dream of a confederation or commonwealth between these old adversaries might be realised.
Martin Plaut was educated at the Universities of Cape Town, the Witwatersrand and Warwick before taking up the post of Africa and Middle East Secretary with the British Labour Party. He subsequently worked for the BBC for nearly three decades, retiring four years ago as Africa Editor, BBC World Service News. He has written widely on Africa, concentrating on the Horn and Southern Africa. His publications include “Understanding Eritrea” published by Hurst in 2017
i Eshete, Andreas. ‘’Why Ethio-Eritrean Relations Matter: A Plea for Future Political Affiliation.’’ In Eritrea and Ethiopia: From Conflict To Cooperation, edited by Amare Tekle, 21-40. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press Inc., 1994.
ii Off the record interviews with former EPLF commanders
iii Asmelash, Orion. ‘’Eritrea Successfully Ends Operation Fenkil 2.0.’’ Tesfanews, https://www.tesfanews.net/eritrea-ends-second-operation-fenkil/.
v United Nations. Secretary-General’s press encounter with African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat [with Q&A]. https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/press-encounter/2018-07-09/secretary-general%E2%80%99s-press-encounter-african-union-commission-0.
vi United States Institute of Peace, Agreement Between the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia And the Government of the State of Eritrea. https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/file/resources/collections/peace_agreements/eritrea_ethiopia_12122000.pdf.
vii Péninou, Jean-Louis. ‘’The Ethiopian-Eritrean Border Conflict’’ IBRU Boundary and Security Bulletin, Summer 1998. https://eritreahub.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Jean-Louis-P%C3%A9ninou-EE-Border.pdf.
ix Reuters, ‘’Eritrean troops withdraw from Ethiopia border-Eritrean Press,’’ July 19, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/ethiopia-eritrea-military/eritrean-troops-withdraw-from-ethiopia-border-eritrean-press-idUSL8N1UF2UR.
x Egypttoday.com, ‘’Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan agree on establishing tripartite developmental projects,’’ July 5, 2018, https://www.egypttoday.com/Article/1/53394/Egypt-Ethiopia-Sudan-agree-on-establishing-tripartite-developmental-projects.
xi Shaban, Abdur Rahman Alfa. ‘’Djibouti seeks UN to help resolve border dispute with Eritrea.’’ http://www.africanews.com/2018/07/20/djibouti-seeks-un-to-help-resolve-border-dispute-with-eritrea/.