Ethiopia-Eritrea: the impact of a peace agreement after five decades of conflict

    Cristina Castellana Tenedor

    After being in a situation of no war and no peace for decades, Eritrea and Ethiopia signed the “Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship between Eritrea and Ethiopia” on the 9th of July 2018 in Asmara (Eritrea) and the “Jeddah Peace Agreement” on the 16th of September 2018 in the saudi city of Jeddah, which put an end to the conflict between both countries and could change the situation of the Horn of Africa for the time to come.

    The conflict dates to 1962 when Eritrea was annexed as a province of Ethiopia. In disagreement, Eritreans took up arms in a liberation conflict which lasted nearly 30 years, culminating in 1993 when Eritrea formally seceded from Ethiopia with an independence referendum. The tensions did not fully subside and, in 1998, a war began, both influenced by the conflict between the ruling elites of the Peoples’ Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), and by tensions over the border town of Badme. The war ended in 2000 with the Algiers Peace Agreement and resulted in over a hundred thousand deaths and up to a million of people displaced and exiled. The agreement, however, was not complied with by neither of the parties for the next 16 years, after Ethiopia did not accept that Badme was assigned part of Eritrea.

    For a better understanding of the conflict we can explore the situation of the two main actors. On the one hand, in Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, has been ruling since 1991 with hard and rigid measures, resulting in Eritrea being the only country in Africa where elections are not held. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights, in 2016, accused the Eritrean government of committing crimes against humanity, including rape, imprisonment, extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances since 1991. In addition, the economy has been described as self-reliant and has not grown for the last decades as there has been no investment – the import and export businesses were banned in 2003, restrictions were imposed on the free movement of goods and labour, and Eritreans were not allowed to withdraw more than $300 a month from their savings accounts.

    Furthermore, as a consequence of the measures taken by Eritrea and their supposed support to armed groups in Somalia, the country has suffered from economic sanctions since 2006, and in 2009 the UN imposed a nationwide arms embargo, a travel ban and an asset freeze on certain entities and people. As a result, Eritrea is one of the countries that acounts for the most refugees in Africa today, with approximately 5.000 Eritreans leaving the country every month to avoid, among other things, forced indefinite military conscription.

    On the other hand, the former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn ruled Ethiopia from 2012 and resigned in early 2018 after a succession of social anti-government protests. Ethiopia, being one of the countries with the most important economies in that area, had always benefitted from its geolocation. However, with the independence of Eritrea and the later conflict, Ethiopia found itself landlocked and unable to use the shared infrastructural connections, implying it needed to have access to the port of neighbouring countries – in this case Djibouti, Somalia, and self-declared State Somaliland – to be able to keep on growing economically.

    In addition, Ethiopia built a reputation for itself as an important partner in the “Global War on Terror”, allying with the West and becoming a key recipient of the Counterterrorism Partnership Fund and the Department of State’s East Africa Regional Strategic Initiative, while being one of the main proponents of sanctions against Eritrea for their supposed alliance and support for al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab. Thanks to these measures, Ethiopia was able to keep on developing while Eritrea stagnated as its government decided to divert its human and economic resources to prepare militarily for a potential invasion and war.

    So, what changed?

    In April 2018, Abiy Ahmed Ali became Ethiopia’s new prime minister. He took a new approach towards Ethiopia’s economic and political systems, which some have identified as revolutionary. Some of the measures include opening the economy, reshuffling the cabinet, firing civil servants, freeing political prisoners, ending the state of emergency, lifting the ban on media and engaging in regional diplomacy. In this regard, one of the most important measures is probably the rapprochement with Eritrea which began soon after he was elected, as he stated that he was willing to implement the 2002 Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) ruling established with the end of the 1998-2002 war, which included the city of Badme.

    On Eritrea’s side, the country is interested in improving its relations with Ethiopia because separatism is growing in the shared border with Ethiopia, in the Tigray region. Ethiopia fears separatism among Tigrayans, as they have been marginalised by the weakened Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime, while Eritrea fears attacks by Tigrayans who have settled within its borders. Therefore, both leaders want to discourage secession, and a way to do so is through a mutual alliance and a peace agreement on the shared borders. Furthermore, Isaias realized that the country needs to extricate itself from the international isolation to which it has been submerged, and that the only way to attain that is by coming to terms with the main countries supporting the sanctions, Ethiopia and Somalia.

    What implications does the accord have and for whom?

    In terms of strategy, the Red Sea is a geostrategic point which links the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean through the Suez Canal and the strait of Bab el-Mandeb, so there are several countries interested in the peace accord.

    If we first analyse how the two main actors have benefited from the agreement, we notice that President Isaias Afwerki has gained the support of the international community at the expense of the Eritreans, as he has not changed any of his dictatorial practices and abuses of human rights within the country. Eritrea has now become an ally of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen as it provides bases for both to operate, and it has also befriended the European governments in an attempt to deter the flow of Eritrean refugees to Europe. In addition, having reconciled with the main conflicting states – Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti – implies that the support for the international sanctions has diminished and, as a result, the United Nations Security Council lifted the arms embargo on the 14th November 2018.

    In the case of Ethiopia, regaining access to the port of Eritrea is part of its master plan, as the country is aiming to gain control of the ports in the Horn of Africa, such as the Port Sudan in Sudan, the port of Mombasa in Kenya, and especially the Berbera port in Somaliland, as it is the closest one to Ethiopia and it connects the eastern region of Ethiopia with the capital, Addis Ababa. Economically, the country will regain close access to the sea through the port of Eritrea and reduce its imports and exports costs derived from its high dependency on the port of Djibouti, which handled 90% of its foreign trade. That will offer Ethiopia better access to economic opportunities in Eritrea due to the opening of the borders and the capacity to participate in the open market without having to pay expensive licenses or taxes. This also implies that, while Ethiopia will strongly benefit from the new economic policies, Eritrea will become a lot more dependent on Ethiopian producers and manufacturers.

    Regarding The United States, Washington is also interested in the stability that the peace agreement will bring to Horn of Africa as it is a crucial point for the fight against terrorism, but also because it is an important global trade point for its proximity to the Suez Canal. The US has altered its strategy from the Global War on Terror to strategic competition as its latest National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy pointed out, and has favoured the uplifting of the arms embargo in order to establish good relations with the Horn and be able to compete with the other great global powers, Russia and China, for spheres of influence in Africa.

    Evidence of this is the conflict over the port of Djibouti between the US – who has a naval expedicionary base there (Camp Lemmonier) – and China, and the warning sent by the US Congress that China would threaten US interests in the Red Sea and worldwide with the opening of its first overseas naval base in Djibouti in 2017. China has also financed and constructed a $3.4 billion project which consists of a 750km railway that links Addis Ababa with Djibouti. Consequently, knowing how important the presence of China is in the infrastructure sector of Djibouti, the US has redirected its strategy towards Eritrea. This could lead Eritrea to host a new US military base that provides Washington with full access to its ports. Still, to do so, the US had to first ensure that Eritrea escaped the diplomatic isolation and normalised its relations with Ethiopia.

    In like manner, two other key actors in the peace agreement have been Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have exerted as diplomatic patrons for the peace accord between Eritrea and Ethiopia, while each pursued its own economic and security interests in the Horn. For instance, on the one hand, Saudi Arabia is especially interested in developing strategic options in the Red Sea to cope with a possible Irani blockade of the oil shipment through the Straits of Hormuz to Saudi Arabia’s east. On the other hand, the UAE has seen an opportunity not only to improve its strategy in regards to the conflict in Yemen, but also to increase its military presence in the Assab port in the coast of Eritrea and with the Dubai Ports World project in the Somaliland port of Berbera, opposite of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The interest is also evidenced by the $3 billion which the UAE provided to Ethiopia after its outreach to Eritrea, and the announcement of cross-border projects such as a fuel pipeline connecting Assab with Addis Ababa.

    Finally, it is also important to understand to what extent the peace agreement will impact the civil society as for now, change has not been as significant as could have been expected, especially for the Eritrean population. As mentioned above, Ethiopia has undergone a change which involves democratic reforms with attention to include human rights, but this has not occurred in Eritrea. The accord has proven not to be the definitive solution as it has improved the relations between the two countries, but it hasn’t altered the domestic policies of the Eritrean government. This implies that Eritreans are still forced to carry out the mandatory military service and to work as guards for the official institutions. Subsequently, since the border with Ethiopia has opened and Eritreans can now cross without restrictions, there has been an upsurge in the number of Eritrean refugees which have moved to the neighbour country, some numbers pointing to 500 people daily, and unless the borders are closed again, it is unlikely that the number will decrease in the coming months.

    Concluding remarks

    The above illustrates that each country and its respective leader have pursued their own interests when defending the peace agreement. On the one hand, Ethiopia has been a smart player as its main intention was to reassert its aspiring role as the regional hegemon, and it could have not done so without settling the conflicts with its neighbours in the Horn of Africa and improving its access to the sea.

    On the other hand, Eritrean President Isaias benefits from the treaty because the international sanctions will be lifted while he will not have to loosen the grip on the country and still be able to control the population. Finally, the international community will benefit from a more stable situation in the Horn of Africa and countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, China, the US and several countries within Europe will be able to use that stability to pursue their own strategic agendas. Amidst all this, the citizens of Ethiopia and Eritrea will have to learn to live with the changing circumstances and the possible repercussions the accord will have on them.

    The peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea is yet another evidence that in international politics countries have no permanent friends or enemies, solely permanent interests.

    Editor’s note:

    Soon after this analysis was published, on Thursday 13th of December 2018, National Security Advisor John Bolton presented the White House’s new Africa Strategy. The strategy focuses on three main areas: fighting violent conflict and Islamic terrorism, offering more efficient and effective US aid to “advance peace, stability, independence and prosperity” in the continent, and to increase US trade and commercial ties in Africa. However, as John Bolton himself emphasised, the Trump Administration’s ultimate goal behind this strategy is to counter the rising economic and political influence of China and Russia in the continent. See more here.