Ethiopia-Eritrea: What comes after the reconciliation?

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Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias Afewerki at an official dinner in Asmara
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Last July, the Horn of Africa experienced a major event: Ethiopia and Eritrea reconciled and put into effect a peace deal. This reconciliation between the two ‘enemy brothers’, after two decades of no diplomatic relations, occurred only a few months after Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s youngest prime minister, came to power. However, while this reconciliation is promising it represents a real challenge for several actors, most notably, the Eritrean President Issayas Afwerki – a liberation fighter turned ruthless dictator. Hamza El Guili considers what comes after reconciliation, and what recent events mean for the future of human rights and governance in Eritrea.

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Eritrea attained independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990s. However, the ambiguity and contested nature of the borders between the two neighbors led to a war of trenches between 1998 and 2000 that left more than 80,000 dead. This conflict was often triggered by clashes along the border. 

But a conflict that looked set to run and run has now been brought to an end. The reason is significant domestic changes in Ethiopia. Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister because his predecessor was unable to resolve the internal and external challenges facing Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). At just 42 years of age and hailing from the Oromo region – and not the Tigray region which has typically dominated Ethiopian politics – his reform agenda has been welcomed with great enthusiasm. Coming from one of the ethnic groups that has felt most aggrieved, and has participated in numerous anti-government protests against its perceived economic and political marginalization in the past three years, Ahmed’s rise to prominence was also welcomed because it promises to bring to an end a series of clashes between members of the Oromo community and the security forces that have resulted in numerous deaths.

Since coming to power, Ahmed has loosened state control of the economy, welcomed foreign investment in public companies, and instituted a wide range of political reforms. In addition, he has promised more open multiparty elections – a significant pledge given that the parliament, has been dominated by the EPRDF for decades. More importantly, the Prime Minister lifted the state of emergency and ordered the release of several leaders of the opposition and journalists detained for organizing anti-governmental demonstrations in 2017. 

As part of this broader reform agenda, Ahmed has set about rebuilding relations with Eritrea. But to interpret this move as reflecting primarily political considerations would be a mistake. Instead, it is underpinned by economic calculus. Ethiopia’s export-oriented economy needs access to the sea and ports, especially those that it lost after Eritrea seceded. In fact, Ethiopia has a strategic interest in the Eritrean port of Assab, known to be a gateway for international trade via the Red Sea. Currently, Ethiopia conducts 90% of its external trade via Djibouti. With growing regional tensions between Djibouti, Somalia and Eritrea – all of which are of geo-strategic importance for Ahmed’s government – the Ethiopian Prime Minister has intensified efforts to foster peace in order to safeguard his own country’s economic interests.. 

But as Ahmed seeks to balance regional and domestic interests, two major challenge lie beyond his control. First, vested interests within the EPRDF are reluctant to follow through with his liberalization efforts because they do not wish to relinquish economic and political control, and it remains unclear whether Ahmed will be able to carry these factions with him when it comes to translating his promises into actions. 

Second, Eritrea’s internal political configuration remains a barrier to healthier relations between the two countries. Since 1993, Issayas Afwerki, the Eritrean President, has used Ethiopia’s hostility to Eritrea as a pretext to repress the civil and political rights of Eritreans. Over this period, he has imposed media censorship, banned independent media and imposed indefinite compulsory military service, which some media reports suggest will last no more than 18 months. A report published by Amnesty International in 2013, suggested that there are at least 10 000 political prisoners in Eritrea. The result has been mass exodus of young Eritreans seeking political asylum abroad. In the first six months of this year, 2,200 young Eritreans landed in Italy through the Mediterranean Sea, including 60 of them who were on board of the Aquarius. 

The authoritarian nature of the Afwerki regime – which has not yet undergone a process of internal reform – raises a number of serious questions for the process reconciliation. Will Eritrea be willing to follow Ethiopia’s example and engage in a period of political liberalization? If so, will Afwerki survive politically? If not, can his government afford to sustain peace with Ethiopia if doing so will take away one of his main strategies that he has used to sustain his rule? 

Behind the reassuring speeches announced by the two men, it is important to recognize that the Eritrean government remains highly repressive and abusive. There are a number of factors that explain this. First, Eritrea’s alliances with powers across the Red Sea (Saudi Arabia & UAE and recently Ethiopia) may have changed its foreign policy, but they have also reinforced the Eritrean president’s position domestically, by giving him a new lifeline. Second, years of clamping down on opposition groups and civil society means that little opposition to the government exists. Third, there is a risk that the reconciliation with Ethiopia will also be manipulated by Afwerki to generate international legitimacy and support his campaign to secure the lifting of United Nations sanctions. Already, Ethiopia and Somalia have called for precisely this – the United Nations Security Council will vote on whether to remove some of the sanction on November 14.

Despite promising recent developments, the road ahead for Eritrea and Ethiopia is still long. Further disputes may erupt with little notice, as they have in the past, and if Ethiopia becomes increasingly liberal Afwerki may come to resent the pressure that this will place on him to also make concessions on his side of the border.

Hamza El Guili is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Abdelmalek Essaadi of Tangier in Morocco. 

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