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Analysis: Eritrea and Ethiopia's long overdue rapprochement

Political rallies of Saturday's scale are rare in Ethiopia, where the ruling EPRDF controls all seats in parliament and opposition parties complain of harassment
Yonas TADESSE (AFP)

The Ethiopian government’s announcement earlier this month, that it would accept a long-shelved peace deal with Eritrea, marks a unique opportunity to thaw relations in one of Africa’s longest lasting conflicts.

Locked in a bitter dispute ever since Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia in 1991, the three decades of war that preceded the armistice left a battle-scarred, militarized border.

Another war almost a decade later ended in an attempt to forge a final peace agreement, but talks stalled when Eritrea was awarded the town of Badme, prompting Ethiopia to accept the terms only ‘in principle.’

The pivotal element in Ethiopia’s sudden change of heart seems to be its new Prime Minister, Abyi Ahmed.

In the 27 years since Ethiopian rebels toppled a Communist dictatorship, Ahmed is the first Prime Minister appointed by the ruling four-party coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), to hail from the Oromo ethnic group.

This represents a significant departure from precedent. The EPRDF has primarily been dominated by ethnic Tigrays and Amharas, northern peoples whose proximity to the Eritrean border has likely led them to adopt a more intractable stance regarding their neighbor.

ZACHARIAS ABUBEKER (AFP)

Ahmed’s Oromo community, almost a third of the country’s population of 100 million, are a historically marginalized group and his ascent to premiership highlights recognition by the EPRDF that a change in leadership was long overdue. As such it is no surprise that Ahmed’s agenda is largely a reformist one.

The 41 year old politician has moved to open up Ethiopia’s state-owned telecom monopoly to private investors, vowing to do the same with the debt-ridden national carrier, Ethiopian Airlines. The new Prime Minister also has winked at the possibility of visa-free entry to all Africans, making access to the continent’s fastest growing economy that much more enticing.

Ahmed is also trying to heal internal Ethiopian wounds. He has released thousands of prisoners incarcerated for political transgressions, while also engaging opposition parties in talks to amend the country’s draconian counter-terrorism law.

So how does Eritrea play into all of this?

By reconciling with Eritrea, Ahmed could leverage his reformist agenda to reinvent the economic balance in the Horn of Africa. Prior to independence, Eritrea’s port of Assab exported two-thirds of Ethiopia’s trade to the world. Today, this niche is largely occupied by Djibouti’s Red Sea port as well as Somaliland’s Berbera port.

Should commerce between Ethiopia and Eritrea be reestablished, it would improve the lives of ordinary people, while also incentivizing further diplomatic cooperation. At a time when East Africa is suffering through a years long drought, this could be a cornerstone in mitigating the impact of ecological degradation.

STRINGER (AFP/File)

‘Stumbling Blocks’

So far Ahmed’s overture to Eritrea has elicited a positive but very measured response.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki acknowledged that recent developments ‘warrant appropriate attention’, adding that he will dispatch a delegation to Addis Ababa to ‘chart out a plan for continuous future action.’ That said, certain realities may pose a problem to Ahmed’s initiative.

Dictatorships by their very nature are brittle, and Afwerki’s is probably no exception. Eritrea’s first and only president likely watched with unease the recent removal of fellow African strongmen like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia.

Both men were feared and synonymous with state power up until their downfall. While these models are not necessarily apt for the Eritrean case, the introduction of new variables could easily rattle a country that, over the years, has won the unflattering moniker of Africa’s North Korea.

Eritrea is notorious for sending perceived agitators, including minors, to forced labor camps. Forced conscription at eighteen often means indefinite service against one’s will. These burdens, combined with 70% of Eritreans living in poverty, have turned the country into a prolific exporter of refugees, hemorrhaging close to 12% of its population.

ZACHARIAS ABUBEKER (AFP)

Against this backdrop, better relations with Ethiopia would bring much needed prosperity. But new economic opportunities could also elicit a desire for political liberalization, pressuring Afwerki to lift emergency laws and implement a proposed constitution languishing since 1997. To this point, the Eritrean dictator is likely to approach reconciliation with Ethiopia as cautiously as possible, gauging what sort of concessions he can gain without loosening his grip on power.

Obstacles to Ahmed’s efforts also exist at home. An apparent grenade attack on a rally held by Ahmed in Addis Ababa last Saturday illustrates the tensions still underpinning relations between the government and certain opposition groups. On the other hand, many Tigray residents of Badme, especially veterans of the conflict with Eritrea, remain strictly opposed to Ahmed’s decision, considering it a betrayal of their sacrifices. Without their compliance, it remains unclear how Ethiopia would successfully cede control of Badme to Asmara.

‘Steps forward’

Some measures should nevertheless be taken to reduce anxiety surrounding the implementation of the peace agreement. As a sign of good faith, the two countries should reduce their respective military presence at the border by a substantial margin. This should be accompanied by new protocols to govern the movement and use of forces so to prevent possible confrontations and potential escalations.

In tandem, a joint-development program can be initiated to boost the border area’s economic capacity. Better economic performance would mollify fears of any future territorial transfers while also establishing constructive links between locals on either sides of the border.

MARCO LONGARI (AFP)

To account for the market disparity between Ethiopian and Eritrean currencies, international economic bodies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) can be involved to implement a compensatory mechanism for easier commerce.

The international community should also consider the prospect of lifting sanctions on Eritrea in order to entice President Afwerki towards more committed cooperation.

Notwithstanding Eritrea’s poor human rights record, there is little evidence to support previous UN resolutions claiming Eritrean support for the Somali jihadist group al-Shabaab.

Alongside these other approaches, removing this strain would represent an important step in cultivating an environment conducive to reconciliation.

Gideon Goren is an associate producer at i24NEWS with a background in geopolitical analysis. He holds a master's degree in Counterterrorism and Security Studies from the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzilya.

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