The long overdue rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia is an encouraging development in the relationship between the two countries. Undoubtedly, its ramifications will extend throughout the region.
The reconciliation between the two countries, met with euphoria by their respective peoples, caught almost all experts and analysts unawares.1 Experts and close observers of the region have sought explanations for the unprecedented turn of events which unfolded without the involvement of the usual international diplomatic players. The diplomatic thaw also provoked debates on relevant issues pertinent to its ramifications. Keeping in mind the previous breakdown in bilateral relations between the two countries, remarks advising caution are understandable.
Recently, several outlets, including African Arguments and the Horn of Africa Bulletin, among others, published articles examining the events unfolding in the Horn of Africa. African Arguments, featuring a series of articles under the theme “The Thin Red Line,” sought to examine the fast-changing dynamics spanning the Horn of Africa and Red Sea regions. Meanwhile, the Horn of Africa Bulletin followed with a collection of articles exploring possible challenges and implications of the recent peace agreements. Those articles, written by scholars, researchers, and journalists reputed to be experts on the region, raise several issues which merit addressing. This article does not intend to address those issues. Rather, it presents a nuanced perspective of the recent developments toward peace in the Horn.
Whether the peace deal was a long time in the making or a series of quickly unfolding events, this article holds that local dynamics were the main driving force behind the recent developments. Notwithstanding the relevance of multi-level analysis in capturing the essence of the dramatic changes, the first level of analysis should be focused on the internal dynamics of the two countries, especially Ethiopia, as it is the one that has undergone significant recent shifts.
The history of Ethiopia under the TPLF-led EPRDF government is a story of the increasingly growing sense of the peoples’ disenchantment with their government. Reflecting on the 2000 and subsequent three sham elections – and the clear manipulation of their results – one is reminded of how the government failed to retain legitimacy among the people. Ignoring the grievances of the people, the government drove the Ethiopian people to turn to mass protests and popular uprisings, which lasted for three years. This unprecedented wave of mass discontent and protest ushered in a long overdue political transformation, bringing with it an EPRDF government espousing reform.
Ethiopia’s political transformations and steps toward reform naturally led to a paradigm shift in the country’s policy towards Eritrea. This new approach was based on two key elements – peace with unequivocal commitment to comply with the rulings of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) and establishing economic mutual interdependence underpinned by the complementarities of the economies of both countries.
It must be noted that the implementation of the EEBC ruling was stalled not solely because the previous TPLF-led EPRDF government lacked political will, but also because international observers and guarantors of the Algiers Agreement failed to pressure Ethiopia to comply with the ruling. Despite its flagrant violation of international law, the TPLF-led EPRDF regime avoided genuine condemnation or censure, and was instead showered with billions in aid and assistance. It is reasonable to wonder why or how the international community’s close ties or foreign assistance streams could not be leveraged to encourage Ethiopia’s compliance with international law.
Even in the rare cases that the international community raised any comment about the EEBC, statements often failed to appropriately or adequately condemn Ethiopia’s violations, instead untenably apportioning equal blame to the victim and the aggressor. Additionally, bestowing the previous government with the role of regional power had the negative effect of emboldening it to defy a binding ruling handed down by the highest international body.
One also cannot overlook how the previous Ethiopian regime, as a fundamental pillar of its policy, pursued bilateral relationships in the region with the ultimate aim of harming Eritrea. Under the previous EPRDF system, the mainstay of Addis Ababa’s diplomacy was to develop exclusive bilateral relationships seeking to isolate Eritrea. Fuelling mistrust among the Horn of Africa countries, this policy approach only served to contribute to rivalry, instability, and hamper efforts toward regional integration.
To its credit, Eritrea’s position on the resolution of the dispute with Ethiopia was consistent and unwavering. It demanded the upholding of and compliance with the EEBC ruling, as well as the demarcation of the boundary between the two countries. However, it was only met with a considerable lack of commitment on the part of IGAD and the international community, especially the African Union and the United Nations.
At long last, however, with irreversible political transformation sweeping forth in Ethiopia, and the genuine hopes it brought for lasting peace between the two countries and the broader region, Eritrea opted not to squander the opportunity and sensibly chose to support Ethiopia in giving peace a chance. After closely scrutinizing the signals coming out of Ethiopia, largely in order to establish their genuineness and credibility, Eritrea wholly welcomed the change of heart from its neighbor and began to move the reconciliation process forward.
The local dynamics created a conducive environment and the building of trust, thus making traditional diplomatic interventions and mediations redundant. The achievement can be commended for illustrating that African solutions for African problems can work and be effective. Despite the misguided characterization of the reconciliation as a transient Pax Arabica, based on Gulf money used to meet urgent cash requirements2 of the two countries, this breakthrough is one largely made in Africa. As yet, there is no clear evidence to suggest prior Gulf financing for the peace deal.
At the same time, of course, Gulf- Horn ties are not recent developments. Cultural, religious, trade, and linguistic ties are an indelible part of the history of the countries on both sides of the Red Sea. Undeniably, Gulf countries have recently been increasingly active within the Horn of Africa. Moreover, with the increasing intertwining dynamics of the evolving security complex of the Horn and Gulf regions, one cannot reasonably expect the Gulf dynamics to pass without leaving imprints on the Horn (or vice-versa).
This interdependence, however, cannot be taken to mean that each and every development in one region will overwhelmingly impact or dictate the developments in the other. Notwithstanding the fact that they have upset the power balance and relationships between the Federal Government of Somalia and its regional governments3, the seemingly irreconcilable interests of the Saudi- United Arab Emirates (UAE) coalition and the Qatar-Turkey bloc, for instance, have not given rise to similar irreconcilable differences among the Horn countries. It is worth noting that this is so despite the fact that countries of the Horn markedly differ in terms of their individual relationships with the various countries of the different blocs.
The fact that the rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia has generated great possibilities and opportunities – with Saudi Arabia and the UAE moving fast to reap gains as first movers – is a noteworthy development. It ought to be recalled also that Africa, and the Horn in particular, have been attracting considerable foreign interests for some time now due to their geostrategic and economic significance.
While the peace developments have largely been met with great optimism, there have also been concerns raised in some quarters questioning the intent behind the recent thaw and its implications for regional peace and cooperation. Some, drawing parallels between the current reconciliation and the bilateral relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia prior to 1998, even suggest that the reconciliation is doomed to fail.4 The previous experience between the two countries, however, differs in many ways from the one currently being cemented. The former was an experience of executing a separation and involved many instances of infringement of sovereignty, to say the least. The current process is based on fundamental respect for each other’s sovereignty and a firm commitment to mutual interdependence. As suggested by the methodical work being conducted to detail the guidelines and terms of reference for further interactions, care has been taken to learn from past mistakes.
Also, this time around, a combination of important factors – the great desire of the people of the two countries for peace, civil society activities and involvement, and presence of astute, bold leaderships – is helping to consolidate the peace. Possibly most importantly, the new Ethiopian leadership has wisely read the evolving regional geopolitical realities and understood the need for fundamental policy reconfiguration.
Reconciliation between Eritrea and Ethiopia has ushered in a regional peace process. Peace between the two countries has paved the way for regional cooperation in security and development. Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia have signed a tripartite peace and friendship agreement while Eritrea and Djibouti have also agreed to normalize relations and work cooperatively. Sudan has also shown keen interest in these regional developments. Moreover, with Eritrea now working in close cooperation with both Ethiopia and Egypt, there is no reason that a mutually beneficial settlement to the long running Nile dispute cannot be arranged in the near future.
The Horn of Africa’s long-standing pattern of exclusive bilateral ties, mistrust, and mutual destabilization is now giving way to cooperative efforts to establish a peaceful and safe neighborhood. This is the new normal in the region.
1 Muller, Tanja. Back to Square One Between Eritrea and Ethiopia. October 3, 2018.
2 De Waal, Alex. Beyond the Red Sea: A New Driving Force in the Politics of the Horn. July 11, 2018.
4 Balcha,Yihun Belete. The Recent Ethiopia-Eritrea Diplomatic Thaw: Challenges and Prospects. October 3. 2018.