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President Obama: Tear Down the Wall Between Eritrea and Ethiopia

President Barack Obama in Ethiopia, 27 July 2015

By Daniel Ogbaharya

President Obama is in the midst of a historic visit, having travelled to his ancestral homeland, Kenya, where his father hails from, and now Ethiopia — one of Africa’s “lion” economies and an important ally of Washington in the volatile region of the Horn of Africa.

Situated across the busy shipping corridor of the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea where millions of barrels of oil transit everyday, the Horn of Africa is home to a total of 160 million people residing in eight countries – Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, and Uganda. It is also the only area of Africa where the United States maintains a large military base, the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, located in Djibouti.

Obama is expected to hold bilateral talks with the Ethiopian government on many fronts: trade, investment, regional security, aid, and development. He will also meet with the mediators of the on-going civil war in South Sudan. Finally, Obama will address the African Union, which makes him the first US president to do so.

The historic visit to Ethiopia affords Obama a golden opportunity to change the course of history in this geo-strategically vital but also unstable corner of Africa. No other part of Africa has a more dire need for peace and stability than the Horn.

A key source of instability in the region is the almost two-decade cold war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Stuck in a stalemate over a border row, the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia are now effectively pursuing a strategy of mutual destruction.

In an address to parliament on July 8, 2015, Ethiopia’s premier, Halemariam Desalegn, “threatened” to retaliate against Eritrea in response to what he called the latter’s “destabilization” campaign. Although there has not been major war since direct hostilities ended in 2000, both countries have been fighting through their proxies: armed rebel organizations that they host and support against each other. Their proxy war has spilled over to Somalia.

Stability in the Horn of Africa can be greatly enhanced by ending the state of war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Obama can urge Ethiopia, which receives significant military and financial assistance from Washington, to make peace with Eritrea.

By “tearing down the wall” of mutual animosity between Eritrea and Ethiopia – two countries closely tied via a common history, languages, culture, economy and geography – Obama can shape the future of the region that has endured incalculable human suffering as a result of incessant wars, political repression, chronic poverty, climate change, desertification, and HIV/AIDs. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing the region due to few economic opportunities, political persecution, and ecological stress.

A regional peace in the Horn would pave the way to greater cooperation among the countries of the Horn in the areas of poverty eradication, public health, development, and terrorism.

The Road to Regional Peace

The road to greater peace and stability in the Horn goes through Eritrea and Ethiopia, who fought a devastating war over their disputed border between 1998 and 2000 ending in a peace truce in 2002. Yet peace remains elusive mainly because Ethiopia, with the tacit support of the US, has refused to accept in its entirety the international verdict that delimited the disputed 1000 km border between the two countries.

Even though it had initially accepted the ruling, Ethiopia later backpedalled from the ‘final and binding’ verdict, insisting with impunity on changing key aspects of the decision. As a result, 13 years after the internationally assembled and recognized Border Commission finished its work with virtual demarcation of the border, the two arch-rivals remain in a state of cold war with catastrophic economic, political, and social repercussions.

Directly or indirectly, the US bears a responsibility for this regional crisis because it decided to look the other way when Ethiopia reneged on its obligations under the Algiers peace accord to comply with the outcomes of the international tribunal.

What can Obama do to end a deep-rooted and complicated conflict between two African countries? Obviously, Obama does not have a panacea. But he can urge Ethiopia to comply with international law and proceed with demarcating the well-defined border.

This will pave the way for normalization as Eritrea’s only condition for not entering into direct talks with Ethiopia has been the border issue. Rightly, Eritrea insists the border must be demarcated according to the 2002 ruling and Ethiopia should withdraw from sovereign Eritrean territory, a key condition needed for opening the dialogue and normalization process.

If Obama can make peace with Cuba, he certainly can bring peace between his close ally, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. In Ethiopia, Obama has another historic opportunity to solidify his laurels as a Nobel Peace Prize winner by helping end this long-running inter-state dispute in Africa. By doing so, he can impress upon African leaders that it is not taboo to “talk to our enemies” and make peace. What a wonderful legacy that would be for the son of Africa that audaciously ascended to the presidency of the lone superpower!

Daniel Ogbaharya is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Western Illinois University where he teaches among others courses in African politics, development, and environmental studies. He can be reached at
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