For the Horn of Africa and the wider Red Sea region, 2018 has been a momentous year. In particular the recent rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea opens the possibility of redrawing regional economic and security dynamics which have become entrenched over the last two decades. To understand the broader implications, we need a multi-level analysis, starting with the interests and dynamics of the two governments themselves, then considering regional and global dynamics.
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 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 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 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]
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.
In recent years, human trafficking has dominated European Union (EU) approaches towards the Horn and Northern African region. In the same period the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has rapidly expanded its maritime military and trade presence in the Horn, as have China and other players competing for access. The UAE has played a key role in mediating a peace process between Ethiopia and Eritrea that led to a historic peace agreement signed on 9 July 2018. The peace agreement may lead to new dynamics in Eritrea and in the Horn. The question examined in this article is how the peace agreement affects the realization of the EU’s objective to curb human trafficking in light of the competition between global security networks in the Horn.