12 September 2018

East Africa: The Ethio-Eritrea Rapprochement - a Model for Regional Reconciliation?

Photo: Minister of Information Eritrea
Ethiopia’s PM Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki at an official dinner in Asmara.
opinion

A historic paradigm shift is underway in the Horn of Africa following the recent rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea that ended one of the long-standing conflicts in Africa.

Few months back, nobody could even remotely have anticipated that the two countries would end their hostility and normalize relations with unprecedented speed of progress. Yesterday's reopening of Bure and Zalambesa border crossings during the Ethiopian New Year was yet another latest dramatic development which brought an extraordinary jubilation for the people of the two countries.

In the last twenty years, the international community has attempted to use most of the conventional conflict management and resolution techniques to address the Ethio-Eritrean conflict. Nevertheless, none succeeded to bring tangible progress including efforts made through the UN and AU good offices', mediation efforts by friendly nations, deployment of peacekeeping mission, arbitration decision and or even application of coercive measures such as arms embargo. It is thus no wonder why many applauded the gains while others also commended that the way the dispute was resolved could be replicated as a model to other conflict situations in Africa and beyond. Yet, there is no clarity as to how lessons could be drawn from this Ethio-Eritrea conflict resolution experience and whether this is in fact sui generis and difficult to be confident about its applicability elsewhere.

Although deeper study is required to fully unlock how such a breakthrough is occurring, one fact that is evident is the rapprochement took place following Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's bold reconciliation call to the Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. Since taking office in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy has consistently conveyed the message of reconciliation including forgiveness, togetherness, love and tolerance in most of his encounters with the Ethiopian public and during his visits abroad. The political reforms the Prime Minister undertook through such approaches domestically have indeed laid down solid foundation for national consensus, which is unprecedented in the modern history of the country. There is no doubt this same approach has been at work in the foreign policy calculation of Prime Minister Abiy, which is also responsible for this paradigm change in relation between Ethiopia and Eritrea and the Horn of Africa at large.

Could reconciliation be elevated beyond national boundary?

Certainly, reconciliation is central to building the common vision of society, as is clearly stated in the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly twin resolutions on peacebuilding and sustaining peace (A/RES/70/262 and S/RES/ 2282). It is also one of the well-known instruments for resolving conflicts at local or national levels. Yet, its application beyond national boundaries, including in addressing inter-state conflicts, has remained largely unaddressed. The UN's definition of 'Sustaining Peace' also limits the scope of reconciliation only to national level. One could thus inquire whether or not attempting to elevate the reconciliation beyond the national domain could be an exercise worth exploring. Some scholars such as Tim Murithi attempted to expand the scope of reconciliation from national to a regional level arguing that it would significantly address conflicts that have regional dimensions.

According to him, regional reconciliation requires three important pillars to be functional: leader to leader dialogue; government to government joint policy development and implementation; and people to people relations. No doubt that the three-pillar regional reconciliation framework is an out of the box conflict resolution approach. Applying such innovative reconciliation method in the Horn of Africa context is not necessary easy either. Yet, one can see its relevance when putting in perspective the strategic and geo-political importance of the Ethio-Eritrea rapprochement to the region and beyond. Obviously, the model couldn't be the only prescription to fixing all conflicts. Its contribution in complementing conventional conflict resolution methods or serving as an alternative option cannot however be underestimated; all the more so at time when today's conflicts are showing a growing trend in regionalization and internalization.

Could the three-pillar regional reconciliation framework be applied to the Horn of Africa context?

What has been achieved in the Horn of Africa following the Ethio-Eritrea reconciliations renders the framework a particular relevance. In spite of economic, security and cultural interdependence among countries of the Horn of Africa, there rarely existed an effective regional strategy that could have averted many of the decades long conflicts witnessed in the sub-region. Obviously, the application of the framework in the Horn of Africa requires forging the necessary synergy between the role of leadership, institutions and people-centered approach across all members of the region. With respect to how much the approach utilized by Ethiopia and Eritrea to embark on normalization of relations would be applicable to the Horn and other situations, perhaps the following issues might be raised.

The first is related to the role of leaders. But there is a caveat here with respect to the need for leaders to have credibility which allows them to be followed when they take initiatives. No doubt that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed deserves due credit for taking bold reconciliatory initiative with Eritrea. Nevertheless, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango to reach mutual understanding. Many of the breakthroughs including signing of the joint declaration, reopening of embassies, exchange of direct visits, face to face dialogues and reopening of their border crossings would not have taken place if there were no commitments on the part of the leadership in Asmara. Beyond the two countries, a high level engagement witnessed between the leaders of Eritrea, Somalia, South Sudan and lately Djibouti are indeed crucial foundations for creating trust and confidence necessary for promoting genuine dialogue and pacific settlement of disputes in the Horn of Africa.

Secondly, leadership is very fundamental in the reconciliation process but implementation could only be realized sustainably through effective institutionalization. Following the agreements reached by the two leaders, Ethiopia and Eritrea have established a Joint Commission that is led by their respective Foreign Ministers. They structured the Joint Commission with different sub-committees which are delegated to oversee the implementation of the five points agreed in the Joint Declaration. The joint Ethiopia-Eritrea-Somalia high level tripartite committee that recently helped mend the Djibouti-Eritrea ties was also an extension of similar structure that aims to foster regional stability and development. However, it is essential that these various joint committees are institutionalized in an integrated, holistic and comprehensive manner within the framework of sub-regional organizations such as IGAD. Of course, the credibility, relevance and effectiveness of IGAD should further boost with Eritrea's eventual but inevitable readmission, which is expected to be announced at the 33rd summit of IGAD heads of states and government taking place in Addis Abeba.

Third, and the most crucial dimension of the rapprochement relates to the emphasis put on strengthening people to people relations. Obviously, one cannot ensure lasting peace and attain effective reconciliation without pursuing a people centered conflict resolution approach. The people of Ethiopia and Eritrea have historically been very close, having been parts of the same country. Yet, they have suffered the most as a result of the war. Thus, there was readiness on the part of both peoples to restore their closeness, the absence of which has been painfully felt in both countries. That explains why there was jubilation in both countries following the resumption of commercial flight and the restoration of telecommunication lines that allowed reunion of families who were separated for more than 20 years.

Of course, there are a host of issues relating to the nuts and bolts with respect to the implementation of what Ethiopia and Eritrea have achieved but this for now is not the focus of this article. Nonetheless, there are important lessons that could be drawn from the Ethiopia and Eritrea rapprochement. The reconciliation call that was initiated by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed a few months ago is transforming the entire Horn of Africa region for good. The breakthrough is also happening at time when the African Union is putting all its efforts to silencing the Guns by 2020 and implement major continental flagship projects in view of meeting Agenda 2063.

Could it be time that some of the world's oldest and ongoing conflicts in the Korean Peninsula, Great Lakes, Cyprus, Balkan, Sahel, South Sudan, among others, attempt out of the box and innovative conflict resolution mechanisms? Could there be any lesson to draw from Ethio-Eritrea conflict resolution experience in the Horn of Africa? Time will tell. AS

Editor's Note: Semungus H. Gebrehiwot is Minister Counselor, Permanent Mission of Ethiopia to the United Nations, New York.

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