Ethio-Eritrean rapprochement: is it stalling?
Among the major decisions taken by the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) in the past one year following the political development and the change in leadership of the ruling front of the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was the cessation of hostilities and rear rapprochement with Eritrea. And hence, the two countries, through their respective leaders, have agreed to end the no-war-no-peace situation that had existed since the 1998-2000 border conflict and restore diplomatic ties since last July.
A number of other measures followed this normalization process: the reestablishment of telephone connectivity, resuming of regular flights between Addis Ababa and Asmara; and of course, the opening up of the Ethio-Eritrean border. Although it was closed from the Eritrean side few months after its opening, reportedly due to high refugee influx, the border opening was a highly significant measure that symbolized the end of decades-old hostilities between the two neighboring nations. This gesture was sealed by the noticeably warm relation and friendliness between the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.
On one hand, following Abiy's initial proposals, the two sides embarked on a rapid mending of ties that caught even close observers by surprise: re-opening embassies, resuming flights and taking meetings across the region. While on the other hand, the lack of communication from both governments regarding the details of this newly emerging partnership makes it difficult to fully grasp scope of their negotiation and analyze the next step in this relationship.
At the height of this newly found friendship, when PM Abiy arrived in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, people were seen lined up on the streets and applauding him for making it happen. Eritrea’s President Isaias was seen laughing and joking with him; even the Eritrean television showed PM Abiy meeting Isaias’s family and playing with his grandchildren.
Less than a week later, the Eritrean leader was in Addis Ababa, where the welcoming ceremony was just as warm. “This is a historic day for all of us,” President Isaias declared at a luncheon hosted by PM Abiy at the National Palace. “Anyone who thinks the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia can be separated anymore is really naïve.”
In September, the relationship was then cemented by the formal signing of a peace deal in Saudi Arabia, witnessed by the Saudi King and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and AU Chairperson Musa Faki Mahma. It was, in fact, this accord that led to the opening up of the Ethio-Eritrean borders, and resulted in the normalization of relations; in effect, the two countries took an important step to put their animosities behind them.
For a while, all was dandy. Ethiopians flew into Eritrea for joyous and tearful reunions with their families. Traders crossed the border to sell their goods in Eritrean towns. Businesses on both sides of the border boomed.
As the two countries are deepening relations, the Eritrean public and cultural diplomacy team arrived in Addis Ababa, in mid-February; the team which is composed of 55 Eritreans from different cultural, professional and other backgrounds was aimed at strengthening historical as well as people-to-people relations between the two countries.
In its stay in Ethiopia, the team took part in a range of events and concerts in different parts of Ethiopia. Addis Ababa, Hawassa and Bahir Dar are among cities where the public diplomacy team was attending events and musical concerts.
Slowing down of the pace?
Exactly one year after the rapprochement, PM Abiy paid a two-day visit to Asmara last week and pledged to "further enhance" the peace process; and yet again, no detail was offered regarding the discussions the two leaders have in Asmara.
However, the facts on the ground suggest that the earlier enthusiasm and urgency to normalize the relations might have been running out of steam. Today, the borders are officially closed. No explanation has been given for this decision, but some sources also claim that Eritrean authorities might have been motivated by the potentials of the members of the opposition to cross over from Ethiopia where they had been stationed for many years. What remain of the hype, in the earlier periods, is the daily Ethiopian Airlines flights to Asmara.
After one since the rapprochement, many are forwarding different comments regarding the evolution of the relations between the two sides; irrespective of their background, what these commentators share is that the honeymoon period has ended and recommends that the agreement made between the two leaders should be institutionalized and made clear to the public.
Leulseged Girma a geopolitical analyst, who writes continuously over the subject matter, is among the professionals that argue, the relation between the two should be institutionalized. According to Leulseged, regarding the implementation of the rapprochement, there appears to be absence of equal preparation from both sides; “Even though it sounds like the need for peace is necessary for both countries and the wider region, there was no any roadmap on how to enhance and strength the rapprochement. From my vantage point, I don’t think the Eritrean side is as determined and committed as its Ethiopian counterpart; and what we have witnessed was the commitment of Ethiopia, so far,” he argues.
However, a senior political and military commentator, who requested anonymity, argues that the issue of Eritrea has always been used to create diversion from local political challenges by authorities in Ethiopian. I am convinced that such developments are never institutionalized since Eritrea is a card often drawn when there is a need to divert attention away from local problems.
Leulseged criticizes the absolute lack of legal and institutional framework with regard to the Ethio-Eritrean rapprochement, despite the euphoria and elation accompanying the renewal of relations between the two nations. This, in my opinion, is the main reason behind the difficulty to keep the pace of the Ethio-Eritrean normalization process.
The need for the institutionalization of the relation forwarded by many scholars and political commentators is mainly associated with the fate of the Algiers agreement that was signed by the two sides in 2000, marking the end of the two-year bloody border war. In this regard, the political and military analyst argues: “The Algiers agreement is basically the abandonment of the national interests of Ethiopia; therefore, there has to a clear explanation from the both sides regarding the fate of this accord. This very important because it is the key to address issues and questions related to access to port, the fate of the border towns, exchange of captives and so on”.
However, this senior political and military analyst says that it is disconcerting to learn that there is no clarity and transparency from both sides regarding the content of the new agreement that they signed in the capital of Riyadh. This agreement intern will affect the subsequent relations of the two countries because according to him: “The agreement is hanging at the leadership level. It is not really clear for those who follow the issue very closely, let alone the random citizens of the two countries.”
Subsequently, he questioned if the new rapprochement as well guarantees the national interest of Ethiopia. According to him, the national interests of Ethiopia include issues such as long lasting peace, access to port, border demarcation and economic relation. “In this regard, the Ethiopian government should identify these national interest areas as pillars of any agreement with its Eritrean counterpart; if that is not the case, the situation might not change significantly for many years to come,” he cautions.
At length, he recommends more emphasis to be given to the people to people aspect of the relation than the elite level relation between the leadership. “It is always important when leaders of the countries took an initiative for peace and dialogue, and in this regard, the initiative taken by both PM Abiy and President Isaias is respectable. However, it simply dangling at the leadership level but now it needs to trickle down and benefit the people to people ties”.
Reconciling the economic and political policies of the two countries is also important to make the relation sustainable; and hence the two sides should work on their common agendas and further strengthen their dialogue and negotiation to mitigate on issues of division.
Finally, the Ethiopian government with the support of professionals should explore Ethiopia’s right to have access to port, according to the norms of the international law, he states. This will make the relation become more institutionalized within the framework of a win-win situation, he concludes.
For Leulseged, in order for the rapprochement to evolve, the Ethiopian government, apart from making the agreement more institutionalized, it should wait till the same commitment and determination is reflected from the Eritrean side. “This is because what we have understood from the rapprochement process is the commitment of the Ethiopian government. Due to different political reasons the Eritrean government does not appear to be fully committed for the implementation of the rapprochement,” he argues.
Leulseged, conclude that “the rapprochement would be successful when the two sides prepare a roadmap that will navigate the entire relation and the agreement signed in Riyadh; and the same reform should also takes place in Eritrea, if not, statuesque will continue as we are witnessing today”.
With all the excitement and joy slowly dissipating, the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea at least at the beginning looks to be stagnant. And the recent article by Selam Kidane and Martin Plaut entitled Eritrea and Ethiopia: A year of peace, a year of dashed hopes stated that describing the situation eloquently “a year on, the euphoria of the Eritrea-Ethiopia peace deal has evaporated.”