Developments Towards Peace on the Horn of Africa
September 19, 2018 | There has been a rapid, yet quiet push towards normalized relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea that has been taking place. After over ten years of war that killed an estimated 80,000 people, followed by an ongoing cold war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, both countries have made significant steps towards peaceful relations with each other. This push has developed in the span of a few weeks, a remarkable development for two countries whose protracted dispute has long been considered a conflict without end in sight. Given this historical development, I felt it prudent to provide some commentary on how the conflict started, what has happened in recent weeks, and most importantly why has it happened and what we can expect to see going forward.
Reasons Behind the Conflict
A common reason given for the cause of the Eritrean-Ethiopian war is that it started over a small border town called Badme that poses little economic or strategic value. This narrative has become so promogulated that the war has been dubbed “Two bald men fighting over a comb,” in reference to the effort made by both countries to control an area of such little value. While I agree that the territorial dispute played a significant role in the war, in my opinion, it was more of a focal point for underlying reasons. These underlying causes were divergent ideologies, economic tensions, and power balance shifts.
Interestingly, during the war for Eritrean independence from Ethiopia, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) worked closely with the Tigrinya People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to overthrow the Ethiopian dictatorship of the time and gain independence for Eritrea. However, following the success of the two groups, differences in their agendas led to a widening gap between the one-time allies. This gap, coupled with the release of Eritrea’s own currency, the Nafka, and Ethiopia's introduction of tariffs on Eritrean goods, increased tensions to an all-time high. These tensions meant that the ongoing border dispute—which both countries viewed as a symbol of national identity—was the spark that caused the war to begin. The war formally started in 1998 and continued until the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities was signed in June of 2000.
Following the signing of the cessation of hostilities, the Algiers Peace Agreement was signed in December of 2000. The agreement stipulated that an Eritrean-Ethiopian Boundary Commission (EEBC) would rule on the border delineation between both countries, and that the decision would be final. As is often the case in international law, a solution was reached that one state objected to, in this case Ethiopia, and therefore the decision to implement the EEBC was rejected. Ever since, both sides have been involved in ongoing hostilities, including the occasional outbreak of violence.
In recent weeks there has been a flurry of activity due to newcomer Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s declaration that he was ready to accept the EEBC decision and work towards peace. This was followed, remarkably, by Prime Minister Ahmed visiting Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. After holding talks, both signed a five-point agreement. In essence, the agreement outlines the commitment of both countries to resolve the dispute through peaceful means; normalize relations; engage in economic, social, cultural, and security cooperation; to resume trade and economic and diplomatic ties; to implement the boundary decision by the EEBC; and to work towards regional peace. Since the signing of this agreement, action has already begun. Commercial flights between both countries have resumed for the first time in 20 years, both countries’ embassies have been reopened, and phonelines are being restored.
So Why Now?
While all of these developments are a step in the right direction, any longtime observer of international affairs would tell you that it is prudent to maintain a certain level of skepticism, or in some cases cynicism, when talking about such rapid developments towards peace. Luckily, the reasons for these changes in relations seem to suggest that they will be lasting.
For Eritrea, the main reason for wanting better relations with Ethiopia seems to be economic. It is likely that the county hopes that an improvement in their international standing will lead to the rescinding of sanctions placed against them. The sanctions imposed by the UNSC were put in place for two reasons.
The first is that Eritrea used the conflict with Ethiopia as a pretense for remaining a one-party police state, being characterized as a country ruled through fear with arbitrary arrests, disappearances, extrajudicial executions, torture, and restrictions on freedom of movement and speech by the UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry.
The second is because Eritrea was accused of supporting an Islamist militia in Somalia, al-Shabab. Although UN monitors found that Eritrea no longer supported al-Shabab in 2012, the United States resisted the removal of sanctions at the request of Ethiopia, which plays an integral role in the presence of US security forces and the overall stability in the region. The Eritrean government hopes that normalizing relations with Ethiopia will lead to the U.S. allowing the UNSC sanctions to be lifted which would improve the country’s economic prospects. Therefore, by normalizing relations with Ethiopia, the Eritrean government hopes the U.S. will decide to allow the UNSC sanctions to be lifted, significantly improving the country’s economic prospects.
Additionally, Eritrea hopes to develop deeper ties with Ethiopia. As the second most populous country in Africa, Ethiopia has been rapidly emerging as a regional manufacturing hub—achieving double-digit economic growth in 2017—and could help Eritrea in bolstering its development and economic growth. Finally, by normalizing relations with Ethiopia, Eritrea also hopes to increase its Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), which has been stifled due to the international image of the country.
Like Eritrea, Ethiopia’s reasons for wanting to improve relations are primarily economic. While Ethiopia has achieved a substantial amount of growth recently, as a landlocked country they depend on access to ports in other countries. Prime Minister Ahmed seems to have recognized that this problem will most assuredly hamper the growth he would like to achieve. To solve the problem, Ahmed has already made port development deals with Kenya, Sudan, and Somalia in addition to relying heavily on Djibouti's port for continued access to overseas shipping. However, none of these initiatives provide perfect solutions. The Kenya port development is a long way from completion and would not be as efficient as using Eritrea’s ports, due to proximity. Due to the ongoing tensions between Somalia and Somaliland, Ahmed has had to step back from his country’s operations in the area. Additionally, Djibouti is already overflowing with other trading and military partners. Therefore, the ideal ports for Ethiopia to use would be those already existing in Eritrea. In order to access them, relations needed to be normalized.
Finally, Prime Minister Ahmed is the first leader of Ethiopia to come from the majority ethnic group the Oromo. Since the revolutionary war for Eritrean independence and the overthrow of the authoritarian regime in Ethiopia, the TPLF has ruled the country. Though the TPLF was pushed out of power by public protests, it is still deeply entrenched in the country’s political and military apparatus. While the Tigrinya are a small minority in the country, the TPLF could use their connections and patronage networks to commit acts ofviolence in hope of triggering ethnic conflict. The assassination attempt on Ahmed on June 26, 2018 seems to have been an example of such an incident. By creating ties with Eritrean President Isaias, Ahmed is tactically ensuring he has support against hardliner TPLF members who also pose a threat to Eritrea.
Hope for the Future
Relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea are still a long way from where they were following the end of the war for independence, but the steps taken so far are a hopeful sign. Both states have strong incentives to ensure that the signed deal is followed and that both countries develop closer ties, which will lead to many mutual benefits. Not only can improved relations help both countries achieve their economic and political goals, but it can also help families and individuals from each country and provide greater stability to the region. The war between Ethiopia and Eritrea and the subsequent cold war caused the separation of thousands of families and communities. By working towards peace and open borders, both Ethiopia and Eritrea can begin to bring together families that have been kept apart for the past 20 years. This is a benefit that should not be overlooked or undersold.
Benjamin Beecroft is a graduate and former research assistant of Lewis & Clark College's international affairs program.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.
Photo by A.Davey with a CC BY 2.0 license for Flickr.