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Eritrea-Ethiopia Peace: Seismic Shifts Throughout a Strategic Zone

Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed sharing a joke with President Isaias Afwerki in Asmara - July 8, 2018

The following commentary is from a CSIS mission to Asmara, Eritrea in late June with more than a dozen interviews with top Eritrean officials and international diplomats.

By Carol Pineau | CSIS

It was an embrace of monumental consequence. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki warmly greeted the new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as he arrived in the Eritrean capital of Asmara. Photos from the historic meeting show the start of a warm friendship between these two major Horn of Africa leaders. A joint statement confirmed that the war so bitterly fought from 1998 to 2000, and the no-peace, no-war situation, plaguing both countries and contributing towards destabilizing the entire Horn of Africa, was finally over.

Suddenly, everything is moot. Sanctions? Obsolete says the UN. Indefinite national service in Eritrea? This is a wartime solution, say numerous Eritrean officials I spoke with. Economic isolation of Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia? Ethiopian Airlines is restoring routes to Eritrea, while Eritrea is giving Ethiopia access to its Red Sea ports. Eritrean migration to Europe? Will people still leave if there is economic opportunity?

The end of the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict is much bigger than the resolution of a disputed border. The impact is sure to reverberate throughout East Africa and beyond. The Greater Horn of Africa has been a region of multiple conflicts, from Somalia to South Sudan, Djibouti, and Sudan. There is a threat of terrorism from al Shabaab in Somalia that spills over into neighboring countries. Hostilities between Eritrea and Ethiopia have greatly contributed towards destabilizing the region, as former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and President Isaias both supported the other’s opposition groups and often took opposite sides on regional issues instead of working together. A new government in Ethiopia has brought sweeping changes. Peace will not be a magic bullet, but it will greatly contribute towards resolving conflicts in the region, as well as across the Red Sea in Yemen. It may also lessen the heavy flow of refugees to Europe that is putting political pressure on governments throughout Europe.

Through three administrations and 20 years, the United States has followed policies that have focused on supporting its relations with Ethiopia. Some experts agree that Eritrea stands out as one of the more stable countries in its neighborhood which is ravaged by conflict, humanitarian challenges, and famine.

An Immense Cost of Lives

The Eritrean-Ethiopian war at its peak was the largest war in the world at the time. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers faced each other from trenches dug all along the border, backed by heavy artillery from massive armaments on both sides. The entire border has been closed since May 1998, creating a vast scar across the Horn of Africa, disrupting trade, separating families, hampering development and relief efforts, cutting off Ethiopia’s access to the sea, and isolating Eritrea from the world.

The Algiers Agreement, signed by both countries in December 2000, declared there would be an Eritrean Ethiopian Boundary Commission (EEBC) that would rule on the border according to the colonial maps. Both parties agreed the decision would be final and binding. The guarantors of the agreement—the UN and African Union—were to enforce implementation without precondition.

The EEBC’s ruling came out in April 2002. Eritrea immediately accepted the agreement. Ethiopia rejected the decision and then agreed “in principle,” but insisted on preconditions before it would withdraw troops from the disputed land.

The agreement called for both parties to permanently terminate hostilities, but Ethiopia has attacked Eritrea numerous times, including an attack on Eritrean military installations in 2012 and an attack on Tserona, the scene of one of the deadliest battles during the war, in June 2016. Under the previous Ethiopian government, the state-owned media regularly called for President Isaias to be overthrown and even for Ethiopia to use military action to oust the regime in Eritrea.

Despite refusal to implement and its continued use of force, Ethiopia has not had any sanctions. As it is the top aid recipient in sub-Saharan Africa, the international community has leverage against Ethiopia, but it has not used it. Meanwhile, Eritrea, which has abided by the Algiers Agreement and agreed to implementation, has had sanctions for the past nine years.

Experts estimate that the war left as many as 100,000 dead and many more injured or displaced, but the cost of lives continues to rise as migration from the region is at record levels.

The Cause of the War

Eritrea and Ethiopia were hardly new to conflict. Eritrea waged a 30-year war of independence from Ethiopia, and rebel forces from both countries fought together to oust the military dictatorship in Ethiopia. After peace in 1991, the two rebel groups became the leaders in their countries and enjoyed close economic and diplomatic ties. That peace lasted seven years.

The more recent war is often blamed on simplistic causes—Eritrea launching its own currency or Ethiopia being landlocked after independence. More recently, the small, border town of Badme is cited as the reason for the war, but Ethiopia’s claims before the international tribunal went far beyond Badme, extending in some places more than 30 miles from a border that had already been established for more than 100 years.

These facile explanations obscure the real cause. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the rebel group that fought with the Eritreans, dominated the former Ethiopian government. The TPLF aspired to create a greater industrialized Tigray, the northernmost region in Ethiopia bordering Eritrea, by taking territory from neighboring regions in both Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The Proxy Player

The Eritrean-Ethiopian war had a third party that’s not in Africa: the international community, most often led by the United States. For decades, the United States used Ethiopia as its proxy in the region. The result is that U.S. interests often leaned toward Ethiopian interests.

The UN placed an arms embargo on Eritrea based on claims of Eritrean support for al Shabaab, a terrorist group operating out of Somalia. The UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea issued four reports confirming no evidence of support by Eritrea to al Shabaab and recommending the sanctions be lifted, yet because of alleged obstruction of the monitoring group the embargo remains in place.

Several diplomatic cables released in 2011 by WikiLeaks show cooperation between the United States and Ethiopia and backroom deals to get sanctions through the UN Security Council. The cables show warm and collaborative relationships, even personal friendships, with Ethiopia’s former Prime Minister Meles and extreme distaste for President Isaias. The leaked cables to and from high-level U.S. diplomats in the region stated the desire to “pin down and punish Eritrea” for continuing to insist on the EEBC’s binding resolution, that the “USG has worked to undercut support for Eritrea,” and aims to “isolate Eritrea and wait for it to implode economically.” It also noted the German government “caving in to…American pressure” in rescinding a credit guarantee commercial loan for Eritrea’s new mining site in Bisha.

Ambassador John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser and former U.S. ambassador to the UN, wrote in his book, Surrender is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations, that Ethiopia was “welching on its deal in flat violation of its commitments,” and questioned the efforts of U.S. officials to overturn the EEBC ruling in favor of Ethiopia. “I was at a loss as to how to explain that to the Security Council, so I didn’t,” he explained.

For the United States, prior to the war President Isaias was considered one of the top African leaders and a vital part of the African Renaissance. Today, the United States derisively refers to Eritrea as the “North Korea of Africa.” Eritrea was one of only two African countries not invited to the U.S.-Africa Summit in 2014.

Despite this history, many Eritrean officials would encourage improved economic partnerships with the United States again, emphasizing that U.S. policy in the region made relations difficult, but that a renewed economic partnership is encouraged.

Why Peace, Why Now?

Despite the tremendous pressure on Eritrea, the end of the war is due more to internal changes within Ethiopia than any actions taken by Eritrea or the international community.

Ethiopia is heralded as one of the great African success stories, but against this backdrop is another story of a troubled country and leadership that favored one ethnicity (Tigrayans) over others. The new prime minister is now trying to unify a country with deep divisions. Former Prime Minister Meles instituted a policy of ethnic federalism that left Ethiopia deeply fractured along sectarian lines. The government has repeatedly called for a state of emergency due to ethnic uprisings, imprisoned tens of thousands of opposition leaders, activists, and journalists, and held questionable elections where despite opposition, the ruling party won all of the seats.

While the impact of the war has been felt far more in Eritrea than in Ethiopia, the same cannot be said for the Tigray region. There has been little appetite for investment due to security issues, no possibility for cross-border trade, and no easy access for shipping exports as the natural port for Tigray is the Eritrean port of Massawa.

Prime Minister Abiy is an Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and came to power after widespread popular uprisings in the Oromo, Amhara, and other regions over the past three years. The TPLF has lost its dominant position in the Ethiopian ruling party and is now trying to consolidate its support in its powerbase of Tigray. The situation is complex. Much of Ethiopia’s military power is currently deployed in Tigray and most of the top military leadership is Tigrayan. With peace, the military could be redeployed throughout the country, and along with the ongoing change in the senior defense officers, this poses a potential weakening of the TPLF’s position.

The prime minister has quickly moved to undo the most divisive elements of the previous government and is already heralded by many as a great leader, but opposition in Ethiopia should not be underestimated. He will need to quickly show a peace dividend. Already, the two sides have announced several major deals, including granting Ethiopia access to Eritrea’s ports and resuming Ethiopian Airways service to the Eritrean capital of Asmara.

As for Eritrea, critics had questioned whether President Isaias, who has been in power since independence in 1991, would want peace since the threat of war has been the justification for many issues, including not holding elections, closing independent media, imprisoning dissidents, and imposing indefinite national service. Eritrea started out after independence with high ideals for democracy and freedom, but the conflict has impacted nearly every aspect of its existence. The constitution, which includes provisions for elections, independent media, freedom of speech, a multiparty system, and universal human rights, was ratified in 1997, but has yet to be fully implemented. As the two leaders rapidly restore peace and normal relations, it is expected that major changes will happen in Eritrea. Recently, the U.S. Department of State, which has been highly critical of the Eritrean government, issued an official statement heralding both leaders for “courageously leading their citizens towards peace, prosperity, and political reform.”

A Strategic Coastline

Eritrea, with its 1000 kilometers of coastline, two ports, and more than 300 islands along the southern end of the Red Sea, has major strategic importance. This is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world, and with global integration and increased trade and investment, the region will continually grow in importance.

With the United States on the sidelines, a number of new international players are now present, including China, Turkey, several Gulf nations, Russia, Egypt, and more. There is also heightened competition for influence in the region due to its strategic importance for trade and security issues.

Eritrea’s ports have become increasingly attractive, particularly as congestion, storage issues, and connecting infrastructure continue to plague Djibouti Port. The United States, France, United Kingdom, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and China all have military bases in Djibouti. Eritrea, under the right circumstances, would be an attractive security alternative to Djibouti. The UAE already uses the Eritrean port of Assab to support operations in the Yemeni conflict.

The U.S. military once had a presence in Eritrea during the Cold War. Despite difficult relations for nearly two decades, Eritrean officials today have said they don’t rule out the possibility that with normalizing relations, the U.S. military could use Eritrean ports or even have a military base.

The old guard from the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations that were involved in the conflict are almost entirely gone, with one notable exception, Ambassador Donald Yamamoto, a career diplomat who served in both Eritrea and Ethiopia and is now leading the U.S. efforts for a new relationship with both parties. In April, he became the first high-level U.S. diplomat in ten years to visit Eritrea. The new team readily sees Eritrea’s strategic importance and is building trust with Eritrea and the region.

Eritrea and Ethiopia have found peace. It is a done deal, and a deal made without any of the international players. These are two dynamic and reform-minded leaders, and one can assume with them showing such warmth, they will work together to solve their issues, and tackle challenges in the Horn of Africa and beyond.

Peace and the Need for a New U.S. Policy

Peace will not only create seismic shifts within Africa, but it must do the same with U.S. policy towards Africa. The United States should:

  • Work with the UN Security Council to immediately lift sanctions on Eritrea.

  • Review its strategy of using Ethiopia as a proxy in the region and work towards a more balanced engagement. Even with new leadership in Ethiopia, there are too many conflicting interests that may compromise vital U.S. interests.

  • Support the new prime minister in Ethiopia to address current challenges, particularly as internal forces that oppose the peace process and internal reforms are significant.

  • Encourage economic development in both countries to help deliver a peace dividend.

  • Above all, recognize that Eritrea has strategic value to the United States and that the old narrative on Eritrea in Washington needs to be reviewed. That narrative is closely aligned with the former government in Ethiopia, which has been strongly discredited. The new government ascribes to a completely different narrative, and the United States must catch up.

Carol Pineau is a senior associate with the Project for Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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