Ethiopia: Faith Mustn't Be Lost With Eritrea, Even With Current Regime in Tow

Eritrean refugees protesting in Ethiopia.

Last week, an international delegation led by Kairat Umarov, chair of the Somalia & Eritrea Sanctions Committee, visited officials at the Foreign Ministry to discuss one of the Horn of Africa's most complex political dilemmas. Umarov had previously paid similar visits to Djibouti and Kenya, consulting their governments on a midterm update on the economic sanctions placed on Somalia and Eritrea. The chair had also gone to Mogadishu for a discussion, but its requests to visit Asmera, the capital of Eritrea, had been rejected.

It was not to be the first. It is such resistance by President Isaias Afwerki's government that adds to the perception that Eritrea is unwilling to engage with the international community and improve relations with its neighbours.

Ethiopia's official position, as Hirut Zemene, state minister for Foreign Affairs, presented it was not a surprise. There have not been any improvements from the side of Eritrea's government to merit relaxing sanctions. Thus, the chances that arms embargoes, travel bans on leaders, and freezes of officials' assets will be lifted any time soon are bleak.

It is unfortunate for the time is for Ethiopia's government to find alternate foreign policy approaches when it comes to Eritrea and that is all around it. For over 15 years, the policy has been to economically isolate Eritrea for such a long time that the regime would either collapse or come to the negotiating table with a weak hand.

But the wait has been too long. Though it has been hard on Eritrea, Isaias' government has been able to subsist, and recently, even thrive. If there is any mastery of politics on the side of Isaias, it is his ability of bidding time to frustrate his foes.

Political repression and economic failures, justified by isolation from the international community, have lent themselves to Eritreans being the second most significant migrant groups heading to Europe (after Syria) and have an exceptionally low annual gross domestic product (GDP) that stood at 3.86 billion dollars in 2014. That was the latest data available in a country where official statistics is a rarity.

As politics takes different shapes between the countries in the Middle East though, Eritrea is coming out of its isolation. No doubt this will be detrimental to Ethiopia's current policy towards Eritrea - Asmera will get brazen all the while believing it was no thanks to Addis Abeba.

The Horn of Africa will benefit more in peace and regional economic integration, had any resurgence of Eritrea was accompanied - better yet, propped up - by trade and investment with its neighbours. As the world was able to witness with North Korea, while strict sanctions can push a country to become a pariah by feeding on a bloated sense of nationalism, positive gestures can present the impetus to work together.

The Ethio-Eritrean stalemate has a great deal of baggage that has resulted in the current "no peace, no war" state. This is despite the fruits that can be reaped from better political and economic ties.

Indeed, Eritrea has not made it easy. Three premiers of Ethiopia have reiterated their support for a dialogue to usher a normalisation of relations. The response from Asmera has been as recurrent as it has been unconvincing when digested from the perspective of similar border conflicts around the world.

For any talks to begin, Ethiopia has to respect its international obligations first, Yemane Gebremeskel, Eritrea's minister of Information, said a couple of weeks ago to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's (PhD) reaffirmation of his predecessors' positions on how to move forward with Eritrea. The minister was referring to the case of Badme.

Ever since the independence of Eritrea in 1993, how the two countries should resolve their divorce has been of concern. This tension would hit a new low when Isaias' government sought it best to move a military force into a territory peacefully held by Ethiopia, Badme. What was at first a border skirmish escalated into a full-scale war that, by the time it came to an end with Ethiopia's victory in 2000, tens of thousands of civilians and non-civilians had lost their lives on both sides. It should be most regrettable.

Eritrea would agree to turn the territorial disagreements over to an independent body with the United Nation to make a "final and binding" ruling. In what was known as the Algiers Agreement, an international tribunal was established whose judges awarded territories to either side, while the flashpoint of the war, Badme, was deemed part of Eritrea. Ethiopia, whose troops still occupy the town, did accept the ruling, in principle - despite popular perception - but said there should be preconditions before the handoff.

Ethiopia understandably wants to discuss demarcations along the border and the relocation of the little over 1,500 residents of the town - according to a 2005 Central Statistics Agency (CSA) - that the Algiers Agreements does not address. Eritrea to this day insists on implementation of the ruling before any discussions can be held.

The stalemate between the two countries has been seen to have reduced to the disagreement on Badme. It remains a classic case of two bald men fighting over a comb. The small town has no militarily strategic value, mineral riches, does not give access to the Red Sea and the relocation of the few people residing there could be done to little economic pain on the part of Ethiopia.

But for these bald men, the proverbial comb has never been the primary concern, despite such rhetoric from officials, especially on the Eritrean side. The comb was always a pretext for the underlining issue of politics.

Ethiopia's government, as time goes by, is referring less and less to the issue of Badme. On decisions such as resisting the relaxation of sanctions after Eritrea was accused of aiding an extremist group in Somalia and refusing to remove forces from a disputed border with Djibouti in 2009, officials' justification has evolved. They cite Eritrea's support for militant groups here and the undisclosed fate of Djiboutian combatants captured by Eritrea.

Ethiopia's government has been too comfortable on the state of the stalemate with Eritrea. It is seen as a lockdown far more hurtful to the government there than the one here. But this has also contributed to the worsening of a troubled region and one of the key issues why much needed economic integration has been far-off.

Ethiopia has the political clout in the region to push for improvements of economic and trade relations between the countries in the greater Horn of Africa, and Eritrea, in particular. It has its GDP almost 20 times larger than a state that was once its part.

While the outcome of this relationship rests mostly on the shoulders of Isaias' government, Ethiopia must not remain too stubborn to be imaginative in foreign policymaking. It should not lose hope about normalisation even while the current regime exists. Ethiopia's government must be able to push for a resumption of economic interdependence between the countries. This can start by showing a gesture of goodwill in supporting the relaxation of the United States-led imposition of economic sanctions on Eritrea.

While conflicts between neighbouring countries are nothing new - most famously in Europe - the best antidotes have been encouraging economic relations.

The standoff between Ethiopia and Eritrea is not the only one caused by claims on a shared border. In fact, there are no less than 102 border disputes between countries across the world that includes the US, Japan, Russia, UK, Canada, China, Europe, India and Pakistan. In the majority of these cases, the disputes over borders have not deterred them from having trade and investment relations.

After all, the disputed territories between Ethiopia and Eritrea represents only 15pc of the entire border.

Why can there not be normalisation taking place on the remaining part of the borders where there are no disputes, such as the eastern side of the Bada-Assab area?

This is a policy that has the best chance of warding off a negative rivalry between nations. The loss of market ties and vested interests of sectors in each other's economy can serve as potent deterrents. Think of how unlikely it is for Ethiopia's relations with Djibouti to deteriorate, given the former's need for a port and the latter's want for export of basic goods.

Rewinding of relations would require of Ethiopia to do a great deal of the heavy lifting, with perhaps no good faith from the side of Eritrea. But as economic development takes hold, and citizens enjoy better living standards, Eritrea's government will think twice about being just as hot-headed as it has proven itself in the past.

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