Breaking the deadlock: Ethio-Eritrea relations
Leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea have never come face to face since the bloody border war of 1998-2000 that claimed the lives of more than 70, 000 people. Abiy Ahmed (PhD), a soldier who has fought in the Ethio-Eritrean war, is now at the helm of the government of Ethiopia, calling for peace and negotiations with the nation he fought against. However, the response from the Eritrean side does not appear to be favorable, showing little interest for peace talks. The stringent position held by politicians on other side of the border is certainly not making things easier. On the flip side, inspired by the political developments in the Korean Peninsula, young Ethiopians on social media are expressing their wish to see reconciliation happening between the leaders of the two nations. As for Isaias Afeworki, President of Eritrea, change of guard in Arat Kilo does not seem to be enough to restart negotiation with Ethiopia and eventually normalize relation between the two fraternal countries. Isaias, who has seen three leaders ascending the ladder of power in Ethiopia, is adamant about the full return of Badme, a flashpoint in the Ethio-Eritrea War, before considering any sort of negotiations with Ethiopia. Nevertheless, recent developments with top US diplomat seen shuttling between Asmara and Addis Ababa hope are reviving for talks between the two nations; and perhaps with strong mediating role of partners like the US.
The relation between the two Horn of Africa countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea, has been in a state of 'no war no peace' situation for almost two decades, now. Though the response from the Eritrean government was not favorable, its Ethiopian counterpart has repeated called for normalizing relations and reigniting negotiations. And now, the newly appointed Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) looks determined to take another swing at normalizing relations. This was largely accentuated by his inaugural speech where has also extended his cordial invitation to hold talks. In the meantime, recent, shuttle-diplomacy like visit by US official between the two nations got pundits asking if there is hope yet for the relation of the two nations, writes Neamin Ashenafi.
Cut from the same cloth as they say, the two Koreas: the North and the South have been at loggerheads for the past 65 years. Dividing the Korean Peninsula in to two at the imaginary line named the 38 Parallel, the two Koreas started drift apart after the end of Korean War in 1953. Today, the people of the two nations, although they share the same language, culture and ancestry, they could be more different. As the ones north of the Parallel grow more detached and isolated from the rest of the world, their brothers to the South have become one of the jewels of economic prosperity and modernization in Asia.
Here is the kicker. The only difference between the two Koreas has always been political ideology; something that was imported to their shores by the two superpowers of the day: the US and the Soviet Union. In an unprecedented turn of events, last Friday saw the beginning of the tearing down of the massive between the two Koreas. Yes, for first time, two sitting leaders representing the people of Korea, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In, met and shook hands and spent hours grinding their issues.
While at that also posing for some historic pictures; picture so touching that Ethiopian social media patron has to take to the platform discussing another decade-long animosity between similarly brotherly people who have drifted apart in the past twenty years. However, more than the discussions, the pictures of the two Korean leaders with photoshopped heads of Ethiopian new PM Abiy Ahmed (PhD) and Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki summed up the hopes and aspirations of the youth quite nicely.
Though it is still controversial and at the center of political discourses in Ethiopia, Eritrea declared its formal independence from Ethiopia following the majority of its populations voting in favor of separation in the 1993’s referendum. After the separation, governments of the two countries forged friendly relations and symbolizing their cooperation they concluded different agreements to regulate their bilateral relations. However, all the alliances formed during the armed struggle days and agreements sealed after the separation were far from being sustainable and hence were short lived.
The cultural and political intimacy and the sense of fraternity that is said to have developed between the two ruling parties during their time as rebel movements, is argued in part to be the reason for their reluctance to institutionalize the relationship between their newly established countries in 1993 –and thus made possible the border war. These sentimental aspects of Ethio-Eritrea politics also played an important role in prolonging the conflict and eventually the intractability of the two sides. Emerging differences in socioeconomic and political life of the two nations in the immediate aftermath of the separation is said to have compounded the trouble in the relationship of the two nations, which later led to a full-fledged war lasting from 1998-2000.
Indeed, the passing of time has brought substantial changes, and the political and physical barriers in the past two decades have led to an increasing cultural disconnectedness even among the people that live along the borders of the two nations. Although the war ended with signing of the Algiers Agreement in 2000, the relationship between the two countries does not seem to have recovered since then. For the last almost two decades, the dynamic between these Eastern African nations has remained hostile; and at the core of this hostility is the border issue.
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, the Eritrea–Ethiopia Boundary Commission (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, it also 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.
Nevertheless, for Yacob Haile-Mariam, a prominent lawyer who served in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the Algiers Agreement and the UN Border Commission are exactly the kind of mediations which has exacerbated the drift between the two fraternal countries. “The present dangerous stalemate existing now is the consequence of involving foreigners in the mediation and settlement of the conflict following 1998-2000 war,” Yacob told The Reporter in an email interview.
According to him, the Agreement and the decision of the Border Commission never addressed vital issues such as giving Eritreans access to the vast Ethiopian market and, investing in Ethiopia if they wished. While on the other hand, the greatest lacuna was shutting off Ethiopia from access to the Sea through its own port of Assab, he argues.
“While Ethiopia pays two billion dollars a year for port services to Djibouti and whose security is always under threat any agreement for durable peace is indeed a pipe dream, because no country willingly subjects itself to be asphyxiated within a walking distance to the sea,” he says.
In fact, Yacob holds a rather stronger view towards the Algiers Agreement and in that he blames the broker of the peace process, President of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who in an alleged persistent vegetative state, and whom Yacob refers to as “a long-time enemy of Ethiopia” and “someone who worked all his life to dismantle the country”. It is his strongly held belief that Bouteflika widened the chasm instead of bringing the two nations closer.
The position of the Ethiopian government which was echoed at the time was premised on the fact that implementation of the decision would see some territories going to Eritrea and some going to Ethiopia while in the process disrupting people’s lives who have settled in these disputed border areas; so government demanding negotiation to come up with some sort of give and take so that decision would not end up cutting off small neighborhoods and households.
However, it was and still is the positons of the Eritrean government that there is no need for negotiation but only the implementation of the decision by the commission. This has been the single most point which has defined the stalemate between the two nations.
Despite the rejection of repetitive calls for talks from the Ethiopian government, the relations between the two sides is best described as ‘no war no peace’. Through time, the Ethiopian side has showed some initiative to restart the negotiation process with aim of addressing this long-lasting squabble. In fact, the former Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn once said that he is even willing to go to even Asmara for talks. However, the response from the Eritrean government has always been similar “that any negotiation and talk is possible if the Ethiopian government withdraws its troops from the controversial tiny border town of Badme”.
In fact, according to Yacob, the assignment of Badme to Eritrea is not a done deal yet; not even by the reckoning of the Border Commission. He is basing his argument on The Algiers accord and on the stipulation that the Border Commission is required to demarcate the border on the ground which it did not do.
“Since the UN Peacekeeping Force which was supposed to oversee the work of the Commission was kicked out by Isaias before the latter finished demarcating the border,” Yacob argues.
Meanwhile, apart from government to government talks, there have been quite few individual level initiatives to restart talks between the two sides. In this regard, there are still some groups (including public figures and scholars) working on some plans to bring together the peoples of the two countries, to try a new bottom up approach to the deal with the issue.
Meanwhile, also in unprecedented move, the newly appointed Prime Minister of Ethiopia, in his inaugural speech a month ago, took a bold step to call up on his counterpart in Eritrea to discuss over the border issue and find a lasting solution to the problem. “We are fully committed to reconcile with our Eritrean brothers and sisters,” Abiy said urging the Eritrean government to do its part by starting a dialogue that would help to re-establish peaceful relationship.
However responding to a call from the Ethiopian side, Eritrean Information Minister, Yemane Gebremeskel said that relations can be mended but it is largely dependent on Ethiopia. The government of Eritrea reportedly said “its relation with neighboring Ethiopia could be amended if and only if Ethiopia respects international obligations by withdrawing from occupied territories.”
“The ball has stayed for too long in Ethiopia’s court. There is no dispute as the litigation process ended 16 years ago. Ethiopia needs to honor its treaty obligations and respect Eritrea’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by withdrawing from occupied territories – including Badme,” read the statement.
A diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), who spoke to The Reporter on the condition of anonymity, observes that there is a new momentum building to break the deadlock of two decades. “It reminds me of a similar situation when Hailemariam first came to power. He talked about his readiness to make peace between the two countries on Aljazeera. And many considered this as a new opportunity to end the ‘no war no peace’ situation.”
“In fact, Hailemariam himself had mentioned during the same interview that over 50 attempts had been made to talk to Isaias and his government but all failed. Therefore, the rhetoric by the new PM should not be seen as something new, it has been there since time of Meles Zenawi and Hailemariam. The problem has always been Isaias's intransigence and I don't think that would change just because we have a new PM in Addis,” the diplomat argues.
The diplomat believes that the only way this stalemate would be address is after the removal of Isaias from power, “I don't think peace will come so long as Isaias is in power; even if we are ready to surrender Badme,” he says.
The Eritrean government has rejected any request for talks and negotiation with the Ethiopian government. In the meantime, it has become increasingly isolated from the international community following sanctions by the UN Security Council and the US, which was imposed following an alleged support it has provided to the terrorist groups in Somalia; and of course, an allegation the regime in Asmara denounces vehemently. As it faces mounted pressures from the international community, Isaias’s regime has not shown any sign of slowing down or complying with the international norms and standards.
Though this is the reality on the ground, after at least a decade of isolation from the international community, last week, Donald Yamamoto (Amb.), the US Acting Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, has made his first trip to Eritrea in years. Many observers welcome the visit as a way to change the belligerent nature of the regime. Leulseged Girma, a geopolitical analyst, also believes that the visit may aim at engaging the Eritrean government than the existing isolationist approach.
Though the ambassador did not reveal the details of the content of the discussion with the Eritrean officials, he has confirmed that one of the issues that he discussed in Asmara was about Ethiopia and Eritrea relation. He said, “Those are the discussions points I would like to talk about with PM Abiy first, but when I get back to Washington I will have more comment on the matter,” he said while arriving in Addis, last week.
“When a nation is isolated from the international community it will became more aggressive; we can understand this from Eritrea and North Korea, and hence the recent visit by Yamammot to the Eritrea might be an approach to engage the Eritrean regime diplomatically than further isolating it from the global community,” Leulseged stated.
Apart from Ethiopia’s repeated efforts to talk with the Eritrean government, the precondition that the Eritrean government has imposed for further discussions should be lifted, Leulseged argues, adding that “since the decision by the commission is not a point of discontent, the Eritrean government should prepare itself for discussion on how to implement the decisions by the commission so as to bring peace between the two.”
The recent visit by the senior official from the US brings hopes to ignite another round of negotiation between the two sides, scholars argue. This hope is mainly a result of the fact that since Ethiopia is an ally of the US in its war on terror and Eritrea is under sanction from the US and the UN Security Council, the latter might be willing to negotiate in order to return to the world of diplomacy, they observe. Furthermore, they anticipate that the US might devise a new approach to get the two sides talking by leveraging its relationship with both of them.
As far as Yacob is concerned, both countries should reject both the Algiers and Commission’s decisions and start over if they are to find a lasting peace. He advocates the rejection of the Commission’s decisions for “the reason that it is based on illegal colonial treaties which were abrogated by the UN in 1947 and by Italy and Ethiopia in 1952”.
In support of this idea, Terence Lyons, in his article entitle “Ethiopia-Eritrea Conflict Fueling Somalia Crisis” stated that the United States regards Ethiopia as a strategic partner, particularly in relation to the so-called global war on terrorism, and that it is not hard to understand why.
“If you look at the region, the United States has tremendous problems with Sudan, and it has relations with Eritrea that are about as bad as they can be. Obviously, the United States can’t have a strategic partner with a government in Somalia while Somalia struggles to organize itself. Djibouti, with which the United States has good relations and has built military facilities in, is tiny and is never going to be the pillar around which the United States builds a regional strategy,” he explains.
He added, “Rhetoric coming out of Asmara and the statements coming from the U.S. State Department are similarly very, very tough. Eritrea’s public statements indicate they hold the United States responsible for Ethiopia not implementing the peace agreement that would award Eritrea the symbolically important town of Badme to its side of the border.”
And hence, “Eritrea thinks the United States, which was a guarantor of this agreement, should compel Ethiopia to adhere to it. It’s difficult to compel Ethiopia for starters and, second of all, the United States has multiple interests with the Ethiopians and is reluctant to do so,” Lyons argued.
In fact, Yacob is an ardent supporter of an endogenous solution to the problem between Ethiopia and Eritrea. “Ethiopia and Eritrea should in fact not look for external help for settling their conflict. This is a quarrel within a family and as such should be settled by the elders and intellectuals of the two countries who traditionally are adept in settling conflicts,”
At end of the day, the recent visit by Yamamoto might narrow such differences and bring another alternative for the negotiation between the two nations and diffuse the stalemate. However, what the future entails to the two countries seems hinged on the willingness of the Eritrean government to talk with its counterpart in Ethiopian.
“While I have full confidence in our new Prime Minister I hope Isaias realizes this is a new day in Ethiopia where the interest of the country is supreme as opposed to parochial ethnic interest which was leading our country into a dark alley,” he concludes.