12 January 2019

Ethiopia: Ethio-Eritrea Rapprochement's Sketchy Beginnings, Commendable Outcomes

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If some people came to us with something ambitious we feel is next to impossible to achieve, we do not encourage them but nudge them to wake up from their daydreaming.

The same can be said for the response from pundits, politicians and officials before the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea warmed up. Considered arch enemies for almost two decades, it was thought a daydream when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at his inauguration announced plans to seek a peace deal with Eritrea last year.

There was great scepticism that anything of that sort can happen, and in such a short time, between the two countries. But it happened, and we are lucky to be a part of this era.

The speed of the rapprochement has left some uncomfortable though, not without reason given the informality of the relationship currently, which it should be said the government promises to address.

There is as well the less than enthusiastic response to the close relationship between Prime Minister Abiy and Eritrean President Issayas Afeworki, the latter of which is considered to have a partial inclination toward some of the incumbents within the government. The relationship between the two is also a reminder of the relationship that existed between the incumbent parties of Ethiopia and Eritrea until the devastating war of the 1990s.

Indeed, many have pointed out that Eritrea's reason for supporting the normalisation of relations between the countries has little to do with Ethiopia's unconditional acceptance of a UN border commission's ruling for Badme.

This is a view supported by Tekeda Alemu, former state minister of Foreign Affairs and permanent representative of Ethiopia to the United Nations, until recently.

"What Eritrea was waiting for was a change of leadership in Ethiopia before it accepted any peace proposal," he wrote for a publication of the Centre for Dialogue, Research & Cooperation (CDRC), an Ethiopian based policy institute. "Asmera had no confidence in the previous leadership of the EPRDF, which essentially meant the TPLF," when former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn had publicly announced he was willing to go to Eritrea's capital for a peace agreement.

In both the words of top Eritrean officials and Ethiopian pundits, there is a good case to be made for the assertion that Issayas prefers the new leadership in Ethiopia. It is understandable how this might not sit well with parts of the public or some of the leadership in government.

Issues over sovereignty and the singular reason for normalisation is leaving too little room for how to formalise the relationship between the two countries. These are issues that need to be addressed, but the strategic move by the Eritrean government has been taken note of.

"The Eritrean-Ethiopian war of 1998-2000 was in effect a conflict between the EPLF and TPLF over ideology and hegemony," explained Kjetil Tronvoll of Bjorknes University College in the Economist. "As Mr Abiy sidelined the TPLF, so grew the chance of peace with" Issayas Afeworki.

Tronvoll makes a very good point. There is a case to be made for Eritrea's rather calculating approach to the peace proposal by Prime Minister Abiy, which was why President Issayas was measured in his first formal response.

"We will send a delegation to Addis Abeba to gauge current developments directly and in depth as well as to chart out a plan for continuous future action," he had said.

This diplomatic and political language was pointed to understand the position of the new Prime Minster; to make sure that the new command at Arat Kilo has the political muster to pull out of a move that would surely see resistance from parts of the public and members of the EPRDF.

The consequence, whatever the reasons behind it, was a peace agreement between the two countries, the opening of trade routes, families getting to see each other and a better chance for peace in the Horn of Africa.

Arguments for the early formalisation of the relations between the two countries are warranted, and that is the best means of addressing the worries about the involvement of a foreign power in Ethiopia's politics.

It is crucial that the nation's leaders are on the same page over foreign policy with Eritrea. We cannot go back to the status quo, which has been devastating socially and politically for the region, but we can take lessons from the past and work to create a more stable future.

Ethiopia

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