9 September 2018

East Africa: Through Regional Diplomacy, Eritrea Normalizes Ties with Djibouti

Photo: Salem Solomon/VOA
The Horn of Africa.

The Horn of Africa continued to resolve diplomatic impasses with the announcement Friday that Eritrea and Djibouti will normalize relations.

Leaders in the region, and beyond, are celebrating the development, which promises to end a decadelong dispute and follows renewed diplomatic ties between Eritrea and both Ethiopia and Somalia in July.

The Eritrea-Djibouti dispute stemmed from a 2008 border skirmish that left several dead and resulted in prisoners of war on both sides. Relations remained frozen for years after previous attempts at mediation failed.

Mohamed Siad Doualeh, Djibouti's ambassador to the United Nations, said the time is right for the nations of the Horn of Africa to support one another.

"I think we all have a patriotic duty in the Horn never to engage in fratricidal struggles provoked by efforts to challenge brothers, and build an economic future for our people," Doualeh told VOA. "This is a patriotic duty. We owe it to our people in the Horn."

Regional accomplishment

Ahmed Isse Awad, Somalia's foreign minister, told VOA's Somali service that both Ethiopia and Somalia played prominent roles in Eritrea's reconciliation with Djibouti.

"Our president, along with the prime minister of Ethiopia, has played an important role in working toward a region that is united, that's peaceful, that's cooperating on political, economic and security fronts, and silencing the gun, as the goal of the A.U. (the African Union) is, and bringing these two brotherly countries of Djibouti and Eritrea together to resolve their feuds and conflicts," Awad said.

Ethiopia's foreign minister, Workneh Gebeyehu, told VOA's Amharic service that peace between Eritrea and Djibouti benefits the entire region.

"Ethiopia can only find peace if the region is peaceful. If neighbors are closer, Ethiopia greatly benefits. Trade, investment and tourism will pour into this region, and Ethiopia would benefit," Workneh said. "When there is peace in the region, Ethiopia benefits more than anyone, and that is what we are working toward."

Sanctions and port access

Both nations have much to gain from rapprochement.

For Eritrea, the conflict with Djibouti was the last major hurdle before the possibility of seeing United Nations sanctions lifted. Those sanctions were imposed in 2009 by the U.N. Security Council for Eritrea's alleged support of al-Shabab in Somalia and its border conflict with Djibouti.

Somalia announced in July that it supported lifting the sanctions following its own rapprochement with Eritrea.

For Djibouti, peace with Eritrea diminishes the risk of isolation.

Djibouti once offered Ethiopia, a landlocked nation of 100 million people, its only access to the sea, and it has invested heavily in a railway project designed to connect Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to its port.

But Ethiopia's peace with Eritrea created the possibility of additional port access, putting Djibouti's role into question. Peace across the region, however, should lead to overall tighter integration.

"I think the future is bright for all of us, you know," Doualeh said. "As far as Djibouti is concerned, we've been building and investing in world-class port facilities that are designed not just for the region but also the COMESA countries (a trade agreement between 19 African members). And we would really like to see those facilities serving the purpose of supporting the economic development of the region, the Horn," he added.

'What's happening is momentous'

The U.S. has cheered the thawing of tensions in the region.

"We commend the mutual efforts of Djibouti and Eritrea to restore good relations. Upon request, we stand ready to support next steps toward the resolution of outstanding issues," Tibor Nagy, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, said on Twitter.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres joined a chorus of international support praising the end of the impasse as well.

This is "another important step in the rapprochement among the countries in the Horn of Africa region," Guterres said Saturday.

Countries in the region believe recent strides toward peace will lead to transformative changes to the Horn's economy, stability and security.

"We are hopeful that this is signaling a radical change in ways of doing things in the Horn. We should just welcome that and not doubt or cast suspicion on the developments," Doualeh said. "What's happening is momentous."

VOA Somali Service reporter Sahra Abdi Ahmed and VOA Horn of Africa Afaan Oromo Service reporter Sora Halake contributed to this story.

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