Eritrea: Now the Onus Is On Eritrea to Reform

Ethiopia’s PM Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki at an official dinner in Asmara (file photo)
27 November 2018
guest column

This month's United Nations Security Council decision to lift sanctions on Eritrea is the clearest signal yet of the international community's confidence in regional peacemaking efforts in the conflict-prone Horn of Africa.

For two decades Eritrea has been best known for its obstinate self-isolation and its repeated attempts to destabilize its neighbors. But recent Ethiopian-led overtures offer a path for Eritrea to emerge from this dark era to contribute to regional security and development. Now it is up to Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki to show the statesmanship to seize this opportunity.

For the United States, a more stable Horn is important not only in the fight against international terrorism, but also for the region's proximity to sea lanes vital to the 10 percent of global trade that transits the Suez Canal.

UN sanctions dated from Eritrea's aid to Somali terrorist groups in the 2000s and then its military incursion into Djibouti in 2008. With the end to sanctions, President Isaias can no longer claim that external threats or pressure warrant the closed political and economic system over which he has presided, or the hostile relations with his neighbors that have been his trademark.

The breakthrough rapprochement between Addis and Asmara in the past six months was fundamentally the work of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Braving the ire of hawks in his own national security establishment, Abiy finally agreed to implement the 2002 Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) ruling mandated in the Algiers Agreement which formally ended the 1998-2000 Eritrea-Ethiopia war.

Implementation of the EEBC decision had been a longstanding demand of Isaias, and requires border adjustments including the return to Eritrea of the town of Badme, which was a flashpoint in the conflict that cost an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 Eritrean and Ethiopian lives.

By accepting EEBC implementation, Abiy took the risky first step to rebuild ties with Eritrea after nearly two decades of a tense peace and intermittent proxy war. He went beyond a purely bilateral approach and also enlisted other Horn neighbors that had been antagonized by Eritrea.

Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo joined Abiy for meetings with Isaias and quickly backed renewed ties with Asmara. Djibouti - still outraged that Eritrea refused to account for Djiboutian soldiers missing since the 2008 border war - was initially more reluctant, but with regional encouragement later agreed to join the approach.

The broader international context has also been conducive to peacemaking in the Horn.

Throughout the spring, the United States worked quietly behind the scenes to bring Eritrean and Ethiopian officials together to discuss options for reconciliation. It was also helpful that most Horn of Africa leaders had sided with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their dispute with Qatar, reducing the risk that divisions within the Gulf would become proxy fights in the Horn. Only Somalia has sought to preserve a more balanced position in the Gulf dispute, reflecting the Farmajo Administration's cordial relations with UAE and close ties to Qatar.

The Saudis and Emiratis scored a diplomatic coup as patrons of the Eritrea-Ethiopia peace accord signed in September in Jeddah. Both hope also to see their security and economic interests benefit from reduced tensions in the Horn. For example, UAE has both a military presence and/or Dubai Ports World projects in place or planned for the Somali regions of Puntland and Somaliland, and the Eritrean port of Assab. UAE provided $3 billion to Ethiopia after its outreach to Eritrea and has announced plans for cross-border economic projects such as a fuel pipeline.

The ball is now in Isaias's court to respond to the positive Ethiopian overtures, which have been strongly supported by the region, key Gulf States, and now the Security Council.

For nearly two decades Isaias has used Ethiopia's refusal to implement the EEBC decision to justify Asmara's domestic political restrictions and autarchic economic policies. Isaias pointed to the UN sanctions - instigated in his view by hostile governments in Somalia and Djibouti along with their Western backers - as further excuses to block any political or economic opening.

With these pretexts now removed, Isaias has an opportunity - indeed, a duty - to capitalize on regional and international goodwill by embracing reforms to Eritrea's political and economic system and rebuilding frayed relations with neighbors.

To reciprocate the overtures by other Horn leaders and consolidate the momentum for peace, Isaias should move quickly to institute democratic reforms; end indefinite conscription of youth in favor of education and job-creation programs; adopt economic policies to stimulate regional trade and attract investment; resume relations with the donor community; work with Ethiopia to implement the peace accords, including border arrangements; and cooperate with Djibouti to reach a permanent resolution of the disputed border area, which overlooks the strategic Bab el Mandeb straits.

Such measures would begin to shape a positive legacy for President Isaias - a man once hailed as an example of incorruptible, self-reliant African leadership, but whose people and reputation have suffered greatly over the past two decades.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy, other regional leaders, influential Gulf States and the UN Security Council have done their part to promote and sustain this peace initiative over the past six months. Now all eyes are on Isaias to see if he will seize this hopeful opportunity in the Horn of Africa.

Ambassador James C. Swan is a long-serving American diplomat who has previously served as U.S. Special Representative for Somalia, U.S. ambassador to Djibouti, ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in Washington, DC. He is now senior adviser in the Africa practice of the Washington-based Albright Stonebridge Group.

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