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    CommentaryEthio-Eritrean courtship: new wine and old wineskin?

    Ethio-Eritrean courtship: new wine and old wineskin?

    Date:

    If peace is to last and be mutually beneficial for both Ethiopia and Eritrea, first of all, President Isaias should admit his past mistakes and show an unwavering determination to make reparation. Prime Minister Abiy, on the other hand, does not have the old baggage President Isaias carries. Consequently, the pace at which Prime Minister Abiy wants matters to progress is most likely to be dragged on by developments on the other side, writes Maereg Tafere.

    It is public knowledge that Ethiopia and Eritrea remained sworn enemies until recently. An unnecessary and bloody war cost both countries dearly, and both nations lost opportunities for further economic growth. However, in the last two months, political developments have shown a dramatic turnaround. The tension has eased, songs of peace and cooperation echoed on both sides, and strategic agreements between the two nations were signed within a month’s time. The world watched with awe and appreciation. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) said, “The bold and historic step taken by the leaders of the two neighbouring countries to end the conflict and open new horizons for cooperation and joint coordination is a model that can be followed in resolving conflicts around the world.” While the pace was somewhat unexpected, the public reaction was not surprising. The people and politicians on both sides are fatigued by the deadlock and have learned enough to subdue their stubbornness. Hence, public reaction has been largely one of hope and optimism. However, concerns are also being aired from both sides of the border, and for legitimate reasons.

    The majority of Eritrean opposition is overseas because of the political environment in Eritrea. President Isaias Afewerki’s proven character and the history of his government has forced citizens to wonder whether or not this peace deal is going to ensure the peoples’ interests. Not that the people of these war-torn countries want the enmity to continue, but the rushed nature of the process led them to wonder if the motives are right and the processes well-scrutinized and able to stand the test of time. While almost everyone accepts the need for the secession of the hostility between Eritrea and Ethiopia, concerned citizens and Eritrean politicians in exile seem to worry about the agreements, for several reasons.

    Firstly, although Eritreans do not know whether or not Ethiopia’s government has been preparing for times such as these and, if so, whether or not they already have a roadmap, they accuse President Isaias of embracing uncharted territory just to get at his “former enemies” – namely the senior leadership of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), whom he accuses for humiliating him over the past decade and a half. They accuse president Isaias of staging Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) reception, and even call the agreements as “agreements between Isaias and Ethiopia,” implying a lack of consultation and involvement by the Eritrean public. Yes, Isaias took some time before responding to Abiy’s call for peace. But, the speed at which subsequent events unraveled caught everyone by surprise. The system in Eritrea does not allow for popular debate. However, in a country where president Isaias is the law, the policy, legislation and strategic plan, agreements can be reached if president Isaias wills it.

    Secondly, Eritreans believe that the country’s ills are all due to President Isaias’ dictatorial rule (a prominent Eritrean politician puts the role of external factors at merely 20 percent). He has refused to introduce constitutional rule, eliminated those who had different opinions, forced the people into a system of modern slavery, dragged the country into conflict with its neighbors, which created hopelessness among the youth that forced them to migrate in masses. His opponents allege that the changes in Ethiopia can only serve to allow Isaias to redeem himself, externalize past wrongdoings and continue his dictatorial rule. Signs of this are evident even from his latest speeches. Eritreans, therefore, worry that current developments can only serve to prolong Isaias’ rule and domination. According to some opposition groups, internal changes should have preceded the agreements with Ethiopia.

    Thirdly, Eritreans have been haunted by the belief that Ethiopians are not concerned about the well-being of the Eritrean people, seeking only to secure access to the sea. This has its roots in the decades-old war and continued discourse of Ethiopian politicians. Some may wonder how this can be a concern. Eritreans want the relationship between the two countries to be built on mutual benefits, and not one that serves Ethiopia’s ambitions. They know that Eritrea’s ports can only be used by Ethiopia and through such a rushed agreement if Ethiopia is granted free access, Eritreans will not be able to benefit as much.

    Fourthly, Eritrea does not have the economic muscle to compete with Ethiopian investors. Over the past several decades, Eritreans have lost their investment capacity – thus, if the economic environment is opened up to Ethiopians, it will be like handing over Eritrea’s economy to Ethiopia. This worries skeptics due to the possibility that economic dependence may force Eritrea to lose its sovereignty in the long-run. On the flip side, Ethiopians may also wonder if Eritrea has anything to offer apart from port services. With a majority of Eritrean youth living overseas, capable leaders in exile, and Eritrea’s purchasing power weakened, what can Ethiopian investors stand to gain by investing in Eritrea?

    Whether or not these and other concerns are true is anybody’s guess. Nonetheless, it is natural for people to doubt, and even be skeptical given the circumstances. On the other hand, it is also human nature to hope for the better. In this regard, there are those who hope that President Isaias can indeed hop on the bandwagon of change alongside Ethiopia. He can start a process of peace building with other neighboring countries, initiate a process for constitutional rule, and institute a multi-party system. There are those who even think that he can shake up the political system by allowing the opposition to return home. That would have been an ideal scenario for Ethiopia.

    Ethiopians also have their own concerns. The first concern is about legitimacy. The agreement is dependent on President Isaias’ goodwill as the country is not ruled by constitution and rule of law. Will the agreements be honored by future leaders? On the Ethiopian side, the agreements can be scrutinized by citizens and political opponents. Commensurate processes are unthinkable on the other side of the fence.

    The second concern is regarding the fact that President Isaias, though he might have felt that fortune has brought unthinkable opportunities, almost from nowhere, seems to have boarded the new bus half-heartedly. For example, as a man who dragged the two countries into war by ordering his troops to cross the Ethiopian border, he should have shown some level of remorse – perhaps even enough to prompt him to apologize to the Ethiopian people during his speech in Addis Ababa. It is to be recalled that, Prime Minister Abiy started his speech in Asmara by saying “I apologize for what happened in the past twenty years.” During the Ethio-Eritrean war, Abiy was just a soldier who did not have the power to wage war or stop it. On the contrary, Isaias had every possibility at his disposal, including not only to have not started the war in the first place, but to have later succumbed to international pressure and resumed peaceful negotiations. The fact that he was not willing to apologize like his counterpart may be a sign that he cannot be trusted.

    Third, there are those who argue that Ethiopia has a moral obligation not to hinder a political transition in Eritrea. The peace agreement has given President Isaias legitimacy like no other, while nothing has changed within Eritrea. He continues to pose as a larger-than-life figure by saying that he was right all along. One of the agreements that he signed obligates the two countries to stop supporting each other’s oppositions. As a result, Eritrean opposition parties based in Ethiopia will be forced to close up shop, thereby making it difficult for Eritreans to air alternative opinions. For peace to come to fruition and the agreements to last, Eritrea should be represented by a government that Eritreans believe represents their national interest.

    People are asking legitimate questions and these concerns are grounded in reality. If peace is to last and be mutually beneficial for both countries, first of all, President Isaias should admit his past mistakes and show an unwavering determination to make reparation. Prime Minister Abiy, on the other hand, does not have the old baggage President Isaias carries. Consequently, the pace at which Prime Minister Abiy wants matters to progress is most likely to be dragged on by developments on the other side. Premier Abiy might have been able to charm his counterpart thus far, but, new wine can be contained in an old wineskin only for a while.  The concerns and fears of the people are valid, and need to be given due attention. Both countries have a lot to learn from history.

    Peace is a very expensive commodity. Promoting and realizing it takes wisdom, and farsightedness. We admire Prime Minister Abiy for taking the initiative and hope that his desires won’t be hindered. But, Ethiopians also expect more from their new prime minister – first of all, they expect him to apply the same courage and determination he demonstrated by reconciling with President Isaias, to fix the cracks in his own party.

    Ed.’s Note: Maereg Tafere (PhD) is based in Toronto, Canada. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

    Contributed by Maereg Tafere

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