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Ethio-Eritrean Peace: Why Normalization is Farfetched

The people of Ethiopia and Eritrea have been watching the peace process that is expected to end two decades of a ‘frozen war.’ No doubt the attempts made, especially by Prime Minister Abiy (PhD), are unprecedented and courageous. However, there seems to be a huge gap between how Western governments assess the peace process on the one hand, and the expectations of the people of the two countries on the other. While Oslo thinks that enough momentum has been gathered to advance the process to fruition, the people of the two countries are yet to see the currency of this agreement. Of late, the process seems to have run out of steam and, as a result, people on both sides have started to doubt the plausibility of the whole process. They suspect their mutual benefits are being held hostage by politicking. Others wonder what the two leaders had in mind when they subscribed to the agreements; what might have transpired since then that caused the progress to stall; whether or not such matters might be related to the issues that led to the conflict in the first place; or if real peace is even possible given the political environments in the two countries.

At first, the agreement generated unprecedented enthusiasm and raised a very high expectation among the people of the two countries. The signing of the peace agreement in July 2018 was the pinnacle of what seemed to come. The boarders were suddenly opened on at least three fronts, and both Eritreans and Ethiopians jumped into each other's arms without going through boarder control; regular flights and telephone communication resumed, and the exchange of goods was allowed without formal import-export protocols. The stories of families reunited after decades of separation disclosed the deep personal costs of the conflict. It also created some level of sensation on the international political front. The agreement has enabled the two leaders to jointly resolve regional disputes with Djibouti and Somalia which settled some of the regional tensions that have long disrupted relations and international interest in investment and trade. However, it did not take long for people of the two countries and the international community to notice that something was wrong – President Isaias Afewerki ordered the closing of the  boarders and limitation of free movement of people to air transport (though people still unofficially cross through the boarders). Perhaps the most important mystery is why the process remained an affair between the two leaders, lacking transparency and institutional backing.

To global superpowers, peace between the two countries is assessed based on how it translates into Western gains. They hope to end China's dominance in the Ethiopian economy, and if they manage to purchase the corporations up for sale, they need Ethiopia to have a peaceful neighbor. On the other hand, the leaders of the two countries are, at least in theory, supposed to advance the process for the benefits of their people. However, all indicators suggest that they are manipulating the process to advance their own political agendas. Already, President Isaias can count a few successes as a result of the rapprochement. The diffusion of the tension and PM Abiy's support helped Eritrea to break out of its international isolation – a few United Nations sanctions were lifted, and the country now holds a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, a body that frequently criticized Isaias' leadership. It enabled President Isaias to buy a few sets of new military ‘toys.’ After many years, the 2019 Independence Day was celebrated with a show of new military acquisitions. Also, the agreement helped President Isaias to rekindle his ambition of standing tall in the East African political space. Nonetheless, President Isaias has gone back to his old ways, making predictions difficult. Unfortunately, PM Abiy can’t match his counterpart’s success. Apart from romantic discourses concerning the peace process and his Nobel Prize, he does not have much to show the Ethiopian public, especially to the people who suffered most during the time of deadlock.

During the few months when the boarder was opened, the two governments must have seen what might be at stake if the relationships were to be normalized. From the Ethiopian side, one of the negative consequences of the unregulated border crossing was the significant increase in Eritrean refugee claimants. Official figures estimate the current number of Eritrean refugees in Tigray at 175,000, of which 15,000 were added within the three months when the boarders remained open. President Isaias must have discerned matters of great concern to him that led him to unilaterally slam the boarders shut. It is necessary to dig deeper into those matters in order to know if the boarders can, in fact, be reopened while President Isaias is still in power.

It is necessary to look at three key points that may carry the secret to what might happen henceforth. First, we need to demystify the 1998-2000 war. What led to the Ethio-Eritrean war, and how might these matters have changed in the past two decades (if at all)? How likely might they become sticking points in the new process? We know that President Isaias has been describing the boarder issue of Bademe as the triggering point of the conflict, while his homologue the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi refuted this ascription. Now, we are told by President Isaias that Bademe was not the cause after all. Apparently, we do not have any other option than to assume that economic issues and personalities were behind the 1998-2000 war. Even though both sides remained tight-lipped, insiders allege that the rift between the leaders of the two countries started because both countries were using the Birr as a common currency while economic regulations were slowly drifting apart. There were two different exchange rates in Addis and Asmara; Eritrea had already adopted its own import policy which allowed Eritrean businesses to import goods duty-free while their Ethiopian counterparts did not enjoy the same benefits. Eritrea wanted free and unregulated access to the Ethiopian market, despite different tax structures. Other sources of disagreement revolved around Eritrea's plan to introduce a new currency (the Nakfa) without consulting the Ethiopia National Bank; issues of exchange rates between the two currencies; Isaias' desire to export Ethiopian produce under the Eritrean flag (coffee for example); and disagreements on the bureaucratic entanglements of the Eritrean ports. These issues, at least in part, are likely to create tension in the current negotiations. If President Isaias decides to stick to his guns, he will most likely find excuses to delay or even reverse the peace process.

Secondly, it is important to look at who the personalities involved in the negotiation are and how they might affect the peace process. Prime minister Abiy and most of his new cabinet were not in power when the war broke out. This can help the Ethiopian side to approach the rapprochement with a fresh mind and without baggage. In fact, this could have been the reason that encouraged President Isaias to accept the peace deal in the first place. On the Eritrean side, the same leadership that was responsible for the war remain in power. Since the process started more than a year ago, neither President Isaias nor his entourage has shown a shred of remorse for the damage caused during and following the war. I do not expect President Isaias to publicly admit that he is the one who started the war. That would force him to admit to his country that he has been covering it up all along. But he could have framed a decent apology to show his respect to the tens of thousands that died from both sides. Most of all, what does this say about him and his leadership on how they might approach the negotiations? And what is the likelihood of Ethiopia getting a fair deal from this group?

The third issue that needs further analysis concerns the intended and unintended political gains and what the two leaders perceive as potential negative ramifications. How can the relationship between the two countries mature when the political environments seem diametrically opposed? I am not insisting that the two countries should have the same political ideology in order to broker peace. However, if one considers that what happens in one country can destabilize the other's domestic political ambience, the relationship between these countries can't be open and free. Some analysts from the Eritrean diaspora attribute the unilateral decision to close the boarders to perceived threats identified by the Eritrean leadership. Eritrean authorities have historically justified their restrictive security state by citing the conflict with Ethiopia as an excuse to brainwash Eritreans, especially the youth. An open boarder would mean exposing the Eritrean public to the antithesis of old assertions. Besides, the Eritrean leadership can't feel in control if many boarders are open at the same time. They would rather have one entry point – Asmara Airport - which gives them control over travelers and merchandise coming to and from Ethiopia. President Isaias might have been intimidated by what the Eritreans who visited Ethiopia might think about his rule and how it can affect his psychological control over them. Besides, President Isaias still suspects that elements of the Eritrean opposition can sneak into his territory through open borders. Let's face it, President Isaias has managed to make his country an open-air prison and he can't allow anything that might change the status quo.

At the beginning, it was hard to tell what the two leaders had in mind when they decided to join the ‘peace’ bandwagon. The secret to why the fast-paced train slowed down to a disappointing speed, and the reasons for the relationship between the two leaders to grow cold, lies in what the agendas of the two leaders were in the first place. Both leaders might have had a common agenda, but an honest desire to normalize relationships might have not been at the top of their list. This is clear from President Isaias' first speech after accepting PM Abiy's invitation to start the peace process. His famous quote "TPLF's game is over," described his intentions, and by and large, PM Abiy shares the same notion. This has become apparent in the past two years – tensions have been rising between the Federal Government and the TPLF and the PM's party and the TPLF. Tigray already feels that its southern boarders have been sealed by militants, and the PM did not lift a finger to redress the situation. Like his Eritrean counterpart, PM Abiy (PhD) will not be troubled by the slowing of the peace process if delaying it can bring him political reward.

It is now apparent that, despite PM Abiy's attempt to charm President Isaias with many ‘surprises,’ he can not offer President Isaias his cherished gift – handing over ‘his enemy’ - the TPLF. Obviously, the process that started well has been derailed by politicking. Both Ethiopians and Eritreans will have to wait for another miracle before their dreams can be realised. I hope that will be sooner than later.

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. The writer can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by Maereg Tafere