Ethiopia and Eritrea will soon unveil a roadmap to address past disputes and try and lay strong foundations for cooperation. What key issues does it need to confront to tackle the root causes of the conflict?
Early last month, Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki opened the Humera-Oumhajer border. It was more progress that builds on the end of a long standoff between the two nations.The new crossing should allow movement of people as part of the normalization. Unfortunately, and in keeping with the turbulent history of Ethio-Eritrean relations, this positive event was tainted by news of more protests in border areas. Additionally, the border posts on the Zalambessa route that opened in September were closed to Ethiopians in December. Indicative of deep-seated mistrust, such setbacks show the fragility of the rapprochement. Moreover, it is symptomatic of the fact that the Ethiopia-Eritrea problem is by no means yet comprehensively solved. The long-standing effect of the Eritrean issue on Ethiopian politics has been evident during these peace efforts, as it has been before. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front opposed the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front Executive Committee’s decision to implement the 2002 peace agreement. In Tigray, which borders Eritrea and is governed by the TPLF, the arch foe of President Isaias Afewerki, there is suspicion. Officials, activists, and border communities suspect rapprochement is a ploy to undermine TPLF. And worse, aspects of the rapprochement are perceived as encirclement of Tigray, as Abiy and Isaias line up with Amhara leaders who have ramped-up claims on territory that is part of Tigray. Concerned about the possibility of ending up in Eritrea, protests have occurred in the disputed areas controlled by Ethiopia, particularly Badme and Irob. And despite international praise for the rapprochement, the root causes of the protests are yet to be addressed. Until such mistrust and the concerns of the border population are resolved, the peace process will be incomplete and fragile.
The Eritrea card
The Eritrea conflict has historically been used as a tool in internal power struggles in Ethiopia. The 1952 federation with Eritrea created a serious political challenge to the imperial government and divided the Ethiopian elite. Political forces in Addis Ababa and Asmara supported either a federation or union. The struggle ended with the victory of the unionists in 1962, but that led to the commencement of the secessionist movement. The varied groups that supported the 1974 revolution also disagreed on the Eritrea question. After the 1974 Revolution, particularly in the early years of the Derg, forces vying for power instrumentalized the Eritrean question. The strength of opposition to the Eritrean struggle for secession was a measurement of patriotism. The internal struggle within Derg through to 1978 led to the killings of Chairman General Aman Amdom, who was accused by Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam of siding with Eritrean rebels. Ethiopian armed groups likewise clashed ferociously. In Tigray, TPLF and EPRP had significant difference on Eritrea, which led, among other differences, to the removal of EPRP from Tigray.
EPRDF faces another internal crisis
A vicious cycle of violence led to Eritrean independence in 1993, which further split Ethiopians. During the 1991-94 transitional period, a key reason for the EPRDF’s conflict with many Ethiopian political forces, which led ongoing delegitimization of the regime, focused on the alleged mishandling of the Eritrean referendum and Ethiopia’s longstanding quest for access to the sea. In 1998, the Eritrea issue was employed as a stick for internal power squabbles within TPLF/EPRDF, and the war cleaved the EPRDF in two. The 2000 Algiers Agreement was signed when the TPLF and then the EPRDF was in an internal crisis. Similarly, the current rapprochement is occurring when the country is in a transition, the EPRDF faces another internal crisis, and is unable to offer unified leadership. Furthermore, arguably it is being used as a political weapon to target the TPLF. Therefore, what is taking place now appears to be just another phase in a long and painful cycle. Until Ethiopian forces stop making use of Eritrea for internal political purposes, genuine peace will remain elusive.
Battle of Algiers
Eritrea’s independence and Ethiopia’s loss of access to the sea was expected to deliver two separate states at peace within and with each other. But that hopeful new beginning in 1991 turned into a full-scale, conventional war in 1998, ostensibly due to a border dispute. Ethiopians fought to defend Ethiopian sovereignty symbolized by the town of Badme. Eritreans, on the other hand, considered Ethiopia an invader. The war took around 70,000 lives, displaced millions and caused damage that to this day remains unaddressed. The war was sold to the public and the international community as a border dispute. However, the real triggers and accelerators were Ethiopian concerns over a military buildup and perceived imminent incursions by Eritrea. There was also tension over Ethiopian access to the sea and unfair terms of trade relating to the new Eritrean currency, the Nafka. The Algiers Agreement was expected to end hostilities and resolve the border dispute. The Ethiopian-Eritrean Boundary Commission (EEBC) and a Claim Commission were formed. Applicable international law was construed by EEBC to mean colonial treaties, maps, exercise of sovereign authority, and diplomatic and other exchanges and records. A critical missing legal consideration was the rights of the border populations, on which sustainable peace heavily depended. Due to the internal power struggle within the EPRDF that begun before the war, mainly within TPLF, Ethiopia was poorly represented in the Algiers Agreement negotiations and during the submission of evidence in support of its administrative control of Badme and other areas. The Claims Commission found Eritrea had been the aggressor by invading Badme, which was under Ethiopian administrative control, but the Boundary Commission awarded Badme to Eritrea. The decisions of the two commissions therefore contradicted each other. Additionally, the Algiers Agreement failed to tackle some of the root causes of the war related to port access and economic ties. Eritrean nation-building constructed around a distortive anti-Ethiopia narrative was also not addressed.
Badme has become a symbol of sovereignty
More critically, if the EEBC decision had been implemented immediately, tens of villages and thousands of families would have been divided without their consent. Instead of putting the concerns of the local people first, the agreement put the two governments and demarcation at its center. If two governments agree on delimitation, but without the full consent of border populations, demarcation becomes difficult. Even at the zenith of EPRDF power, the attempt by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to impose the EEBC decision was met with stiff resistance from Tigray Regional State Council. Gauging the popular opposition in Tigray of ceding Badme, or any other disputed areas, and unable to satisfy both the international community and his base in Tigray at the same time, Meles came up with a five-point peace proposal. Though comprehensive, Eritrea considered the proposal as a precondition to deflect from immediate implementation of the EEBC ruling. Indeed, Eritrea opposed it, and the proposal ended up delaying rather than solving the problem. After that failure, Ethiopia adopted a strategy that proved effective in ensuring the diplomatic isolation, economic degeneration and military containment of Eritrea. As a consequence, Eritrea was reduced to a weak pariah. To make matters worse, since the war, Badme has become a central symbol of sovereignty and has expanded in terms of population and infrastructure. In the early 2000s, whichever side lost Badme, could end up losing power. Now, with new realities in Ethiopia, TPLF does not enjoy the power to impose, or even propose, unpopular decisions such as handing over Badme. Any handover without the consent of the population will face stiff resistance, and possibly even the loss of TPLF power in Tigray.
While internal politics have been at play, so have wider trends. Ethiopia’s diplomatic containment of Eritrea required the support of regional and global allies. But developments in the Middle East and Yemen, the EU migration crisis, the region, and a new U.S. Africa policy—primarily a shift of priority from the War on Terror to containment of China and Russia—have brought new alignments that disadvantage TPLF and open new window for the Eritrean government. Consequently, in April 2018, the EPRDF Executive Committee reached out to Asmara, and got a positive response. After bilateral meetings, on July 9 a joint declaration of peace and friendship was signed between the two countries in Asmara, and also in Jeddah in September. In Ethiopia, there was massive public support, but also concerns regarding areas such as Badme and Zalambessa. Though not public, the two countries have entered into multiple substantive agreements aimed at normalization of relations and cooperation. For Eritrea, the change led to the end of UN sanctions and diplomatic isolation, and therefore a possibility of boost to its ailing economy. For normalization to sustain, there is a need for deliberations on Eritrea’s demand for unconditional demarcation, particularly in Badme; and on Ethiopian concerns, including border communities.
Badme handover was a precondition
Speaking at a 2013 African Union Summit, the Eritrean representative Ambassador Girma Asmerom, said “I have been instructed by your brother, President Isaias Afwerki to assure you that if Ethiopia withdraws its army from occupied sovereign Eritrean territory including the town of Badme in the morning, dialogue between the two countries will start in the afternoon.” While this statement indicated Eritrea’s willingness to enter into talks with Ethiopia, the handover of Badme was a fixed precondition. It therefore came as surprise when Eritrea normalized its relations with Ethiopia without the persistent precondition of handing Badme back to Eritrea. This shift could be partly due to the trust Eritrea has in the new Ethiopian leadership, and its pledge to hand over Badme. But adding to the suspicion of a ploy, it seems to primarily be the result of external pressure. The independence of Eritrea, the decision to federate in 1952, and the establishment of Eritrea as a colony, were all midwifed to some degree by external actors including the U.S., UN, and Italy. The Algiers Agreement and EEBC were also externally imposed. Recently, UAE, Saudi Arabia and the US have played a critical role in the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea. For example, writer Fatemeh Salehi suggests that the Gulf crisis and China’s growing ties with Djibouti led the U.S. to re-engage with Eritrea. But peace will not come from the interests of the Gulf or the great powers. The involvement of external actors complicates the problem, especially when it is by those who may use the region for proxy competition.
Keeping the peace
As in the past, Ethiopia and its leadership are divided and distracted by other priorities, instabilities, and political squabbles. Many forces in both nations have become prisoners of their own partisan struggles, preventing strategic deliberation on bilateral relations. To best represent Ethiopia, the leaders must consult, institutionalize the negotiations, and be transparent. An arrangement should not be reached based on the goodwill of the two leaders alone. Implementation related to resolution of border disputes will be local, thus the involvement of local authorities in all agreements on border issues is vital for long-term stability. There are remarkable stories of people-to-people ties from border areas who helped each other during the darkest days, and these cordial relations can serve as a bedrock for sustainable peace. To achieve sustainable peace, there is need to build effective border governance with the active participation of local authorities and communities; just as the participation of communities must be central in cross-border dialogue and security governance. A primacy focus should be livelihood development, but this requires a paradigm shift from a securitized hard border to soft borders of free movement of people, goods, services and capital. To address the concerns regarding territorial integrity, the two countries need to negotiate a long-term ‘Sustainable Peace and Mutual Development Treaty’ that addresses all outstanding issues. Such an accord needs to be anchored on the African Union’s core principles of peaceful settlement of border disputes, and the respect for territorial integrity. Transparency is also a must. Within EPRDF, the Eritrean file has always been handled under a cloak of absolute secrecy. This old habit has escaped reform so far, and such secrecy during internal struggles inevitably invites suspicion and speculation. And this is what is occurring in Tigray with regard to the recent rapprochement between Addis Ababa and Asmara, without the participation of Mekelle and Semera, and with the involvement of Bahir Dar. The roadmap process must be relatively open and inclusive.
The Ethiopia-Eritrea border has its peculiarities emanating from its history. It has also many similarities with other African border disputes, as documented by the African Union in its draft Border Governance Strategy: The “colonial legacy left, in many cases, imprecisions and gaps in archives of treaties and maps, inaccuracies in certain legal instruments, and inconsistencies in, or simply a sheer lack of, clear physical border demarcation on the ground”. Africa has 109 international boundaries whose total length is approximately 45,000 kilometers, but of these boundaries, less than a quarter of them are demarcated. Arbitrarily drawn, these colonial borders have divided many communities. Rather than mere frontiers representing sovereignty, borders are increasingly being seen as multipliers of integrative opportunity, according to the AU. The Ethiopia-Eritrea border war claimed lives, hampered social and economic development, obstructed trade, and prevented peace and security in the region. To avoid a repeat of history of conflict, and to transform border areas to integrative bridges, Ethiopia and Eritrea need to adopt a roadmap that identifies all issues and the principles.
The recent rapprochement, despite its critical shortcomings, could put countries of the Horn of Africa at peace within themselves and with their neighbors. The peace effort must be sustainable and comprehensive. The Ethiopian and Eritrean people deserve nothing less.