December 20, 2018 (Ezega.com) – The month of July will be significant in the history of the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia and Eritrea reconciled, signifying an end to decades of no diplomatic relations. This happened shortly after Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power.
Whereas this reconciliation was welcomed by the global community, it offers a real challenge for different actors; notably Eritrea’s president Isaias Afwerki, a former liberation fighter turned dictator, and Abiy Ahmed, the young prime minister of Ethiopia.
Behind the scenes, religious groups, the African Union and the United Nations had been pushing the two countries to resolve their differences. This drive culminated in the UN’s Secretary General, Antonio Guterres visit to Addis Ababa, where he held a meeting with Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afewerki, hours before the truce was declared.
Eritrea, which was under the control of Ethiopia for many decades, attained independence in 1991. Nonetheless, the ambiguous and contested borderline between the two countries led to a war between 1998 and 2000, leading to the death of more than 80,000 people.
The conflict, which was a threat to regional integration is now history. The significant domestic changes brought by Ethiopia’s prime minister has helped to calm the situation with Eritrea. At just 42 years, Abiy Ahmed who hails from Oromo region, which has been the center of anti-governmental protests and against presupposed political and economic marginalization, came up with a reform agenda that has been received well so far.
Since ascending to power, Abiy has released political prisoners, allowed political exiles to return home, instituted varied political reforms, promised to lessen the influence of the state on the economy, and welcomed foreign investments. He has promised free and fair elections, which is crucial since the parliament has been 100% controlled by the EPRDF for years.
But these moves shouldn’t be interpreted wrongly, because they are anchored in the economic wellbeing of the two countries, and also on what they mean to the leaders of both countries.
• Ethiopia’s economy depends on import-export and it needs access to the international waterways which is in Eritrea. Ethiopia has a vested interest in Eritrea’s port of Assab, in particular, which is its closest route to international markets. At the moment, 90% of Ethiopia’s import-export business depends on Djibouti, a country that has been struggling to keep up with Ethiopia’s huge and growing needs. But, since Ethiopia and Eritrea are now officially at peace, Ethiopia will begin using Eritrea’s port. This means, Ethiopia will get multiple channels for its import-export business, reduced transit time, and potentially much lower port tariffs due to competition.
• Eritrea stands to benefit not only from the revenues generated when Ethiopia uses its ports to trade, but also the cross-border trade and developments coming from its much bigger and more populous neighbor. It will also benefit from access to the huge Ethiopian market to revitalize its economy badly hurt by years of isolation and international sanctions.
• For Ethiopia, and for the Horn of Africa region as a whole, the new-found friendship between the two countries means an end to Eritrean subversion. The rebel groups that used Eritrea as their base to plan and execute attacks on Ethiopia and neighboring countries will no longer operate.
• Eritrea will have a chance to be a normal regional and diplomatic player again, rather than an outcast in the region and the world over, a status that Ethiopia helped and worked hard to solidify. With the new-found peace between the two countries, the small Eritrea can use the standing of it much bigger neighbor to get a foot in world affairs, especially in Africa.
• For both Ethiopia and Eritrea, the border will likely be demarcated, and the decision of the boundary commission implemented, bringing stability for years to come.
However, as Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afewerki seek to balance their domestic and regional interests, there are significant hurdles that may be beyond their control:
First, tensions remain with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that has dominated Ethiopia’s political space for years and was sidelined when the deal between the two countries was signed. Eritrean authorities rejoiced in the fact the TPLF was sidelined and in one occasion, they declared them dead. This was premature and short-sighted if, indeed, Eritrea wants to solve the issues plaguing the two countries. We should remember that it was their quarrel with Eritrea that resulted in the 1988-2000 border war. Being a frontline state bordering Eritrea, and having a common language with Eritrea, a lot will depend on relations with Tigray, which will not go away any time soon.
Secondly, there is currently a growing discord within the EPRDF and tensions developing between different ethnicities and regions in Ethiopia. Abiy Ahmed drove much of the rapprochement by executive orders of sorts. Although the overall trend with reconciliation is expected to remain, it will be seen how the current course proceeds with the changing political landscape inside Ethiopia.
Even more unknown is Eritrea’s internal politics. Since ascending to power, Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki has used Ethiopia’s enmity as an excuse to stifle the political and civil rights of Eritreans. His government has curtailed media freedom, imposed compulsory military service, and all-but banned independent media. Furthermore, Eritrea is believed to have more than 10,000 political prisoners. As a result, Eritrea has witnessed a mass exodus of its young generation seeking asylum in Europe and elsewhere. Now that peace has finally come, will he release political detainees? And although Eritrea’s constitution was ratified, it is yet to be fully implemented, and elections are yet to be held, despite the 2002 election law that was enacted. Will President Isaias hang to his usual rule and still have open borders and normalized trade and relations with Ethiopia? Many people believe Abiy’s peace initiative threw a badly-needed lifeline to Eritrean President’s crumbling state of affairs. Will President Isaias use this opportunity to craft a wise path forward or fall into a new set of unforeseen problems?
Finally, there is the issue of foreign powers using Eritrea as base for their operations. Eritrea has close ties with Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. The presence of some these forces may turn out to be not in the best interests of Ethiopia. Will Eritrea reassess its policy to better realign with the interests of its neighbor?
Too soon to tell:
Despite the steps taken by the two countries to re-establish the close ties they once enjoyed, the roadmap to full reconciliation is not yet clear. Despite the assurances by the two men, there is no guarantee that the association won’t flop. There are many concerns that must be resolved before relations between the two nations can return to normal. But, with commitment and goodwill, Ethiopia and Eritrea may usher in a new era that can be beneficial to both countries and the entire region.
By Solomon O. for Ezega News