Extending the olive branch
Ever since Abiy Ahmed (PhD) emerged as the leader of the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), eventually becoming the Prime Minister of Ethiopia a little over two months ago, Ethiopia is witnessing a series of unprecedented events. In this regard, many topics and institutions, which were considered to be untouchable at least in the 27 years of the reign the EPRDF, are now a thing of the past. In this regard, in this action-packed week, the executive committee of the EPRDF has decided to accept the Algiers Agreement without any preconditions. In a statement made on June 5, 2018, the ruling coalition announced its willingness to fully accept the terms of the agreement signed in 2000, which ended the war between the two nations; an announcement that left Ethiopians in utter surprise, writes Neamin Ashenafi.
Recognizing the peace deal was considered to be a huge step forward in bringing about a peaceful conclusion to bloody war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The boundary commission, which was established on the aftermath of the Algiers Agreement, awarded the contested town of Badme to Eritrea, a decision that was not accepted by Ethiopia. Since then, the situation between the two countries was that of a ‘no-war, no-peace’ stalemate.
Seeking to reverse all this, authorities in Addis Ababa have repeatedly called on their counterparts in Asmara to restore peace and fraternity between the two countries.
However, provocation and military retaliation seem to have been the only ways of communication between the two countries. In this regard, the two sides communicated in small-scale skirmishes after the conclusion of the bloody war, and hence the two has experienced such confrontations in 2012, 2015 and 2016. It seems that these actions have replaced the official diplomatic channels and have become the only way of communication between the two governments.
The relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia is arguably the most important and volatile one in East Africa. The fall-out between the former brothers-in-arms initiated a two-year-long border war in 1998, which claimed around 70,000 causalities, cost billions of dollars, and continues to serve as the main source of regional instability in the Horn of Africa.
The fighting was brought to an end with the signing of the Algiers Peace Agreement and establishment of the Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Commission (EEBC) in 2000. However, Ethiopia's denial to implement the rulings of the EEBC prior to negotiations and Eritrea's insistence on an unconditional and immediate demarcation of the border, have locked the two governments in an intractable stalemate.
The deadly boarder war has left a lot of scars on both countries with nearly 70,000 people estimated to have lost their lives during the conflict. After the war ended, EEBC, a body founded by the UN, established that Badme, a disputed territory at the heart of the conflict, belongs to Eritrea. Following the verdict of the Commission, both countries forwarded their requirements in the process of the implementations of the decision. In this regard, the Ethiopian side, although opposed to the decision of the Commission that ruled Badme to be part of Eritrea, made it clear that it will fully accept the decision of the Commission as final and binding in principle while urging for negotiation on how to implement the entire decision and border demarcation.
Following the signing of the Algiers Agreement the Ethiopian government in 2004 proposed the five-point peace proposal that was approved by the House of Peoples Representatives (HPR).
The peace proposal presented by the late PM Meles Zenawi, states that the conflict between the two can be resolved only through negotiations, and that the root causes of the conflict can be resolved through dialogue with the view to normalize relations between the two countries.
Contrary to this approach, such proposals were not welcomed by the Eritrean side; the Eritrean side was more interested in demarcation before any negotiations can begin. This implies that the ‘‘no-peace no-war'' situation is a preferable situation for the Eritrean leadership to remain in power.
Indeed, according to some literatures written on the subject matter, this strategy only benefits the Eritrean regime but seriously hurts the country's middle class, which is left at the mercy of the regime. The protracted conflict with Ethiopia serves as an instrument to externalize the source of regime-led misery and to garner political support. Consequently, it is an important strategy for the regime to compensate for its political losses at the expense of its own citizens.
The border remains closed; disputed areas are operated by thousands of soldiers on each side of the border. Travel and trade has been halted. Neither side has made a serious pledge to restore diplomatic relations, with the two neighbors regularly trading points and accusing the other of supporting domestic opposition elements. In fact, the conflict even spilled into other countries, particularly Somalia, where both Eritrea and Ethiopia were at some point accused of supporting rival armed groups.
Fast forward, the invitation to the Eritrean side by the newly appointed Ethiopian PM on his inaugural speech, last April, brings another hope to the future relation between the two, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) vowed to do all he could to restore peace between the two “brotherly peoples.”
And this time around, his call to the Eritrean side changed to reality and this week the ruling coalition, which is chaired by the PM, revealed its full commitment for the implementation of the Algiers Agreement.
Following the call for peace in his inaugural speech back in April, the Eritrean government rejected the news as a usual mockery. “The ball has stayed for too long in Ethiopia’s court,” Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel said. Ethiopia needs to honor its treaty obligations by withdrawing from the occupied territories – including Badme.”
However, unlike his predecessors, Prime Minister Abiy seems committed to fulfill that pledge. During a recent state visit to Saudi Arabia, Abiy reportedly attempted to contact Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki directly. He apparently enlisted the help of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who according to Abiy, called Asmara but the phone call went unanswered.
Ethiopia now appears ready to go a step further and make a huge concession, extending an olive branch to the Eritrean government, long deemed to be an archrival and an enemy of the country.
“We call on the Eritrean government to take a similar stance and accept our call without preconditions to take part in the initiative that will restore the peace and togetherness of our peoples to what it used to be,” the EPRDF press release said.
Now that Ethiopia has at least verbally agreed to comply with the Algiers treaty obligations, suddenly, the ball is firmly on Eritrea’s side. The reaction on social media was a mix of shock, surprise, elation and utter disbelief.
Moreover, the move by the Ethiopian government, according to Leulseged Girma, a geopolitical analyst, is the result of the recent deep process of change in Ethiopia. “This move has been intended to bring regional cooperation based on mutual benefits by addressing common concerns.”
However, for Leulseged, this measure is a new normal compared to what the newly appointed PM has been doing in neighboring countries. “The prime minister moved a lot in making common trade, investment and security agreements with next door countries except Eritrea. For a government that has resolved to reinvent the wheel of peace, security and prosperity for regional cooperation and development, inviting Eritrea to be part of the regional integration through implementation of the Algiers Agreement without any precondition is the new normal.”
The former top commander of the Ethiopian Air Force, Abebe Teklehaimanot (Maj. Gen.) is shocked and surprised by the decision. “The decision is so shocking since it is coming at a time when the country is enjoying the wind of change. However, this wind of change is seen at a federal level not at regional level. There are a lot of issues that needs to be addressed in Tigray and Amhara regional states. The questions of the youth in Tigray are about democracy, the rule of law, justice and unemployment; therefore, this could be an agenda diversion.”
Mushe Semu, the former president of Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) welcomes the decision but stated that the implementation of the agreement should be seen cautiously. “The two counties were suffering both in economic, social, political and international relations due to the scars of the war; therefore, the stalemate should stop at some point and this is the right time. However, the way we are going to implement the agreement in a way that can safeguard the interests of Ethiopia should be the question” Mushe argued.
For him the issues of implementing the agreement goes beyond the issues of land and other economic benefits attached to restoring peace between the two. “It’s not just about expanding its territory. Engaging in conflict with its neighbor is considered to be one way of sustaining in power, which determines the survival of regime in Asmara. Otherwise the Eritrean people would have parted ways with the regime long ago,” Mushe argued.
Regarding the implication of the decision on the future relations of the two and its impact on the entire region, Abebe argued: “In my view, and given the nature of the Eritrean government and its role as a messenger to Arab countries, I don’t think it will address the issue of peace between the two. Another sixteen years will pass without addressing the basic issues.”
For geopolitical analysts, the decision might have another repercussion on the relationship between Ethiopia and its neighbors who argue that the decision might create feelings of betrayal on the side of Sudan and Djibouti, who stood by Ethiopia in its conflict with Eritrea.
On its part, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in a statement issued on Friday, said that the Algiers Agreement is not just about the issue of border; rather, it is a package and in this regard the TPLF stated that if the Eritrean government accepts the call from Ethiopia the implementation of the Algiers Agreement needs further discussions on how to implement the decision.
However, according to Mushe, the Eritrean government did not accept the decision; this is mainly because if the Eritrean government accepts the decision and is willing to normalize the relationship between the two, it will lose its grip on Eritrea, with the regime is controlling under the guise of unity and nationalism.
Moreover, whether the Eritrean side accepts the call or not, according to political analysts, is a crucial diplomatic victory for Isaias.
Commentators, political analysts and citizens of the country are welcoming the decision but stated that its implementation needs proper negotiation and discussion.