Normalizing Ethiopian–Eritrean Relations: Motivations, Challenges and Potential Scenarios

 

Ethiopian–Eritrean relations have improved significantly in recent months, culminating in the signing of the Asmara Declaration in July 2018, which committed both parties to end their two-decade-long border dispute. This paves the way for a new stage of cooperation between the two countries and provides promising opportunities for increased security and development in the Horn of Africa. However, both states must confront a number of challenges for this reconciliation to bear fruit.

 

Motivations for ending conflict and normalizing relations

 

When Ethiopia’s new 41-year-old Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, took office in April 2018, he began implementing immediate policy changes. These included the means to contain internal and external problems in order to restore stability to Ethiopia after decades of internal tension and external conflict that have led to instability and insecurity, undermining development.

 

One major incentive to end the conflict is its sheer longevity – which has caused vast physical and human loss but has yet to result in a decisive military victory – and the negotiating table now provides the best means for a settlement that avoids further mutual attrition. The conflict has dragged for two decades, left more than 80,000 dead, displaced hundreds of thousands and caused huge financial loss.

 

Ethiopia has come to the realization that the losses caused by continued conflict far outweigh the potential gains of a continuation of hostilities. The country is effectively landlocked, having been denied access to Eritrean ports such as Asab and Musawa. Ethiopia’s war with Eritrea has prompted Western nations to turn to Kenya in their attempts to influence the situation in the Horn of Africa. Once in office, Abiy Ahmed agreed to implement the Algiers Agreement of 2000 to settle conflict between the two countries, including their withdrawal from the disputed “Badme triangle” in accordance with the decision of the Boundary Commission to demarcate the border.

 

The war effort has depleted Eritrea’s resources, depriving it of much-needed income from cross-border trade and tariffs on Ethiopian trade through its ports, causing a recession and undermining the country’s regional role.

 

Both nations share a mutual desire to prevent further losses and pursue the benefits of normalized relations. This would provide Ethiopia with access to the Red Sea after years of dependence on the port of Djibouti and position it as a leading player in the Horn of Africa in terms of fighting terrorism and settling regional conflicts. It would also provide Eritrea with a chance to reintegrate into the regional and international environments, backed by a commitment by Ethiopia to support Eritrea’s demands for the lifting of the sanctions imposed on the country.

 

Attempts at mediation

 

The speed at which a potential settlement to the Ethiopian–Eritrean conflict has been reached may be attributed to the broad international and regional support provided to the process by parties including the UN, the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). For example, Donald Yamamoto, then Acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, visited both countries in April 2018 in an attempt to bridge the gap in their points of view.

 

The role of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in supporting Eritrean–Ethiopian reconciliation is also worth mentioning. An Emirati aircraft carried Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed to Addis Ababa on June 26, 2018; meetings were held in Abu Dhabi, Addis Ababa and Asmara between Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan – Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of UAE Armed Forces – and the leaders of the two countries to resolve their differences; and a summit in Abu Dhabi brought together all three leaders in Abu Dhabi on July 24, 2018.

 

As part of its efforts to support a normalization of Ethiopian–Eritrean relations, the UAE has committed to increasing the volume of trade with both countries and to provide both investment and development assistance. To this end, the UAE and Ethiopian governments signed a memorandum of understanding on June 17, 2018 under which the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development allocated $3 billion in development aid to Ethiopia, as well as investments and financial support for the state’s treasury.

 

Consequences of conflict resolution

 

The settlement of the Ethiopian–Eritrean conflict will surely lead to a more stable political–security environment in the Horn of Africa. This may occur as soon as each country ends their support for opposition elements in the opposing country, and more focus is placed on national development projects and internal political reforms. This would also help to defuse other regional conflicts, specifically in South Sudan where Ethiopia has been deeply involved in peace efforts since 2013. Moreover, the promise of a permanent settlement comes as Somalia is trying to recover from the effects of civil war, and in the wake of the Djiboutian–Eritrean border conflict.

 

Stability in the Horn of Africa will boost trade and investment opportunities in the region. GCC countries – particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE – will probably benefit most from this development, given both countries’ substantial investments and strong trade presence in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Indeed, these two GCC nations are currently seeking to diversify their national incomes in preparation for a post-oil era, partly by targeting investments in agriculture and port management overseas. Therefore, it is likely that the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea will bring these two countries closer to the Saudi–UAE axis. 

 

Challenges to conflict resolution

 

While the normalization of relations between the two countries is ongoing, challenges remain that may derail the process. Internal opposition elements in Ethiopia have reservations about a normalization of relations, as they view Asmara as the main threat to Ethiopian national interests. Moreover, the Tigrayan Front – the most powerful player in the ruling coalition – has opposed President Abiy Ahmed’s policies, having sensed the risks they pose to its political and material interests, particularly following senior leadership changes in the intelligence services and armed forces.

 

In Eretria, it is expected that popular pressure will build on President Isaias Afwerki to improve human rights, implement economic and political reforms, and end national conscription; discussion of these issues has been suspended during the conflict with Ethiopia.

 

As for the external challenges to conflict resolution, there are concerns that some countries may seek to spoil reconciliation efforts for fear of losing their influence in the Horn of Africa. To advance their agendas, these countries may seek either to support the Eritrean opposition or fund terrorist groups in the region.

 

The future of Eritrean–Ethiopian relations

 

In light of the aforementioned challenges, two potential scenarios exist for the development of Ethiopian–Eritrean relations:

 

  1. The normalization of relations proceeds. This will depend largely on popular and political support for reconciliation in both countries. This scenario will allow both countries to play a more effective regional role in the future and focus more on internal issues including development and political reform. This will also facilitate the return of refugees, reuniting families separated as a result of the border dispute between the two countries. Should this process continue, cross-border trade would flourish.
  2. Reconciliation efforts are suspended. This scenario is likely if opposition grows significantly to President Abiy’s policies, particularly from the Tigrayan Front, which may seek to align itself with other opposition groups to oust the new president. Should this happen, a cycle of conflict may develop at the expense of improving relations with Eretria that may overshadow foreign policy issues in general.

 

The first scenario remains more likely, as global and regional actors are fully aware that the end of the conflict is in everybody’s interest. They cannot afford to risk renewed turmoil in Ethiopia, allow conflict to undermine regional stability, or to jeopardize Addis Ababa’s potential to act as a pillar of stability in the Horn of Africa. Moreover, most of President Abiy’s opponents are preoccupied with internal issues – particularly power sharing inside the ruling coalition. Therefore, the country is unlikely to retreat from its policy of pursuing improved relations with Eretria.                                         

 
 

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