The absence of clarity on the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from northern Ethiopia is sending confusing signals locally and among foreign powers. It is undermining Ethiopia's efforts to regain the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) and secure finance for the reconstruction war-ravaged regions.
The Ethiopian government, which has been denying the role of Eritrean forces in the two-year war with the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), recognized the issue during the latest agreement signed between the two.
The declaration of senior commanders on the modalities for the implementation of the agreement for lasting peace and a permanent cessation of hostilities was signed by Birhanu Jula (Field Marshal) and Tadesse Worede (Gen.) on November 12, 2022, in Nairobi, Kenya.
"Disarmament of heavy weapons will be done concurrently with the withdrawal of foreign and non-ENDF forces from the region," the declaration reads.
Though the agreement did not name Eritrea, it addressed the issue of foreign power and their involvement in the war. The Nairobi agreement linked the disarmament of Tigrayans forces with the withdrawal of external forces from the region.
The Nairobi agreement recognizes only the ENDF as a single force to protect Tigray's border with Eritrea and requires other forces to disarm within 14 days after the signing of the deal.
There was also no clear indication of when and whether Eritrean forces would withdraw to their pre-2020 border line or try to enclave Badme, the controversial border village that might revive the Algiers Agreement controversy, according to observers.
"This [the agreement] is significant because it was the first acknowledgement in essence that there are Eritrean forces operating inside of Ethiopia, and there is now a clear understanding that they are to withdraw," stated a senior US State Department official during a teleconference on November 15, 2022.
However, on November 16, 2022, Molly Phee, assistant secretary, said that the US is committed to impose additional sanctions on Eritrea if Eritrean leaders fail to withdraw their troops from Ethiopia.
Phee was responding to questions raised during the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on "Assessing the Biden Administration's US Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa."
Responding to Congressman Brad Sherman's questions, Phee stated, "I concur with your assessment of the negative role of Eritrea in Ethiopia; I think it is a positive development that the issue of foreign forces is part of the agreement and the withdrawal of foreign forces."
For a lasting peace in Ethiopia, Eritrea's troops must permanently withdraw, according to Sherman.
"I urged additional measures if Eritrea fails to withdraw, including sanctioning President Afeworki, introducing UN Security Council resolutions condemning Eritrea, investigating Eritrean 'diaspora tax' collection in the US, and if necessary, a 'counter shipping campaign' on luxury goods," stated Sherman.
The congressman urged the Biden Administration to continue to suspend AGOA and oppose international lending institution loans to Ethiopia until commitments are kept to allow unrestricted humanitarian supply, a full and lasting end to fighting, the internet is restored, and international human rights monitors and journalists are allowed into Tigray.
Phee confirmed that the US and Ethiopia cannot restore the partnerships that the two countries used to enjoy previously unless the Pretoria and Nairobi agreements are fully implemented.
Ethiopian officials have been trying to restore the AGOA privilege for the last year. Joe Biden, President of the United States, is expected to announce the final decision by early 2023.