Breaking the Ethiopia-Eritrea Impasse




The ‘No war-No peace’ situation between Ethiopia and Eritrea – pursued as the most preferred survival option by the regime in Asmara – is not tenable anymore. While Ethiopia has all along been consistent in its principled approach towards resolving outstanding issues with Eritrea, the latter’s continued rejection of dialogue, as well as its misguided policy of destabilisation over the last 17 years, have meant no positive progress has been possible.

Eritrea has made it its vocation to train, arm and finance subversive elements and terrorist outfits throughout the region. The regime has underwritten numerous plots against Ethiopia, including on soft targets over the years. Resources that should and could have been spent on socially and economically rewarding projects are being shifted away to undertake destructive campaigns.

Eritrea’s youth are frittering their time away in indefinite military service that many duly compare with slave labour while many more are leaving the country in their tens of thousands, often risking their lives at every step of the way. It is only a matter of time before the demographic pressure that migration has wrought on the tiny nation becomes an existential crisis.

The sizable revenue that accrues to the government from the few mining operations in the country has done little or nothing to help address the severe economic challenges the people of Eritrea continue to face. In fact, whatever revenue the regime collects is being wasted away in the campaign of destabilisation throughout the region.

To make matters worse, the regime is in hysteria about the lending of its ports to support, as it were, the ill-fated war in Yemen notwithstanding, the ports of Eritrea have for close to two decades now been lying idle at best and being laid to disrepair at worst. It is not entirely clear if they are serving even as watering holes for camels, as it were. In the diplomatic front, Eritrea is not only under UN sanctions for over 10 years now but is increasingly isolated both in the region and beyond. Eritrea today is facing a host of political, social, economic as well as diplomatic challenges of its own making.

Ethiopia on its part has expressed its readiness to resolve differences with Eritrea through dialogue and mutually beneficial arrangements. It has long accepted the outcomes of the Algiers Agreement and has made a five-point proposal for peace and normalisation of relations between the two countries.

As the only country against whose interest Eritrea has been diligently working, Ethiopia has also been pursuing a policy of containment to counteract the various threats from Eritrea, mainly through taking proportional measures against Asmara’s repeated plots to wreak havoc in Ethiopia. While this approach has largely worked, it has also been a source of frustration, with many citizens especially in the border areas bearing most of the brunt of Eritrea’s policy of destabilisation.

Ethiopia’s economy has been growing impressively although it has long stopped the use of Eritrea’s ports, which in many ways are the most natural outlets especially for the northern parts of Ethiopia. With the demand for more cargo coming into and leaving Ethiopia growing by leaps and bounds, it remains to be seen if the economic rationale for maintaining the status quo will continue to hold. There are indeed indications that our economy would stand to benefit if Ethiopia used Eritrean ports through an internationally guaranteed arrangement.

The lack of viable arrangements for cross-border trade between neighbouring communities also continues to take its toll. While not necessarily a significant problem in the short term, the fact that the status quo demands the deployment of tens of thousands of armed personnel poised to open fire on a hair-trigger alert will ultimately prove both economic as well as logistical challenges.

Politically, the Eritrea problem continues to pose major challenges for the EPRDF. Whether it is dealing with public unrest in parts of the country, the almost visceral, knee-jerk reaction of many in the Ethiopia opposition to seek safe havens in Eritrea or the resulting tension within members of the ruling party leadership, the issue of Eritrea has been one of the few constants that has for quite a long time kept the country unnecessarily busy.

In a way, the Eritrea question has had more than its fair share of impact – negative – on the country’s efforts to deepen democracy and broaden its political space by luring opposition forces who could have thought twice about violence into a marriage of convenience with the regime in Asmara.

Ethiopia’s government has received the migration of Eritrea’s youth as an example of its principled position on friendly and brotherly relations between the two peoples. While this has largely been the case until now, it is a matter of time before it becomes a source of contention in the light of the feverish campaign to create more jobs to meet the burgeoning demands of Ethiopia’s youth.

But more importantly, the continued pursuit of the status quo is likely to lead to a demographic imbalance within Eritrea that could, in turn, result in an implosion of the regime from within. Even one failed state – in fact, two – in the region is one too many. In the case of Eritrea, implosion is likely to have even more ominous outcomes, with one of the most militarised and socially and religiously polarised population spelling a potential catastrophe to the entire region.

All this points to the need for revisiting Ethiopia’s current policy.

The choices could not be starker. It can choose to use force to break the impasse. This choice could take one of three ways. First, Ethiopia can and should continue to take proportional measures of the sort it has so far been taking and wait and see if the cumulative effect of these measures will result in the fall of the regime or its acceptance of dialogue as a way out of the current impasse.

There is little in past experience to justify any hope that such would be the outcome. Conversely, this could also have unintended negative consequences for Ethiopia by feeding the resentment of its people and loss of confidence in capacity to meet the Eritrean challenges.

Secondly, it’s leaders could also decide to take a much stronger yet limited military offensive that would deal a significant blow to the regime’s capability to destabilise or to terrorise its people. This approach would have at least three outcomes.

For one thing, this could force Eritrea to sue for peace or to settle for a face-saving formula of sorts. This may seem unlikely in the light of President Isaias Afeworki’s’ enormous capacity for miscalculation. But his appetite for survival at-any-cost could not be discounted. Equally possible is the fact that regime loyalists, especially in the army top brass and the national security apparatus, would choose to protect themselves through a back-channel deal with Ethiopia, which will require the rather unlikely decision to sacrifice the President, if not in the interest of their people at least in their own.

This is not an entirely implausible scenario, however. Another likely outcome in the event of such a limited yet biting offensive is that people inside Eritrea will see the Emperor’s nakedness and muster the courage to take matters into their own hands.

While problematic in its own right, a popular movement ending the regime opens more opportunities for a democratic future of Eritrea. Obviously, this needs to be carefully managed. One thing is clear, though. Despite the oft-repeated mantra of Isaias’ loyalists to go back to Sahel to wage a resistance, there is simply no saving grace left for the regime even to entertain this ridiculous idea.

Finally, Ethiopia can choose to launch an all-out offensive to remove the regime. But this will require it to take care of a few details. First, there needs to be a watertight reason why it should go the whole nine yards – casus belli in the international legal parlance. However, this could pose serious difficulty in international diplomatic circles, including within the AU.

Assuming that the regime’s penchant for miscalculations luckily offers one good excuse, Ethiopia’s leaders have to make sure that they have the overall preparation and meticulous planning to ensure that swift and unequivocal victory is certain. Equally important, they need to work hard on securing support not only from the international community but also, more importantly, from Eritreans both at home and in the Diaspora.

This will also necessitate some horse-trading between and among Eritrea’s political movements. The most problematic aspect of such a move, however, is that Ethiopia could very well end up creating more of a mess than it cares to take the risk to clean up.

As they say, “you break it, you own it.”

All of these choices are all problematic to one degree or another. The most ideal – albeit decidedly difficult, if not impossible – approach is a peaceful resolution of the dispute. In this case, the starting point should be the five-point peace plan tabled by Ethiopia in 2004.

This is the very plan that has been roundly rejected by Eritrea, and there is virtually no indication that the Eritrean leader will have a change of heart this time around. Complicating matters also is the fact that the five-point peace plan has little in the way of detail particularly as regards the content of any potential dialogue.

While normalisation of relations is something sane people on both sides of the border can fully subscribe to, the regime in Asmara appears as though it were stuck in a groove, incessantly demanding Ethiopia’s unconditional departure from Badme.

The first order of business should, therefore, be a clear position on Ethiopia’s part to express its unwavering commitment to handing over any territory, including Badme, if that is what will ultimately settle the problem. To that end, it should be able to do a detailed cadastral map of territories that the Boundary Commission has awarded to each side and make a case for a territorial swap.

This part of the equation has hardly been emphasised as virtually all discussion focuses exclusively on the flashpoint town of Badme. Highlighting the extent of territory awarded to Ethiopia is very critical.

Equally important, Ethiopian authorities should emphasise that the Algiers Agreement cannot be selectively implemented around the convenience of one party. It should be stressed that Ethiopia has always honoured its end of the agreement while Eritrea flouted international law by rendering the temporary security zone obsolete.

It is worth reiterating that the smooth operation of the temporary security zone was a sine qua non for the full implementation of the Agreement in its entirety. Ethiopia should show the other side that there is a gaping hole in their claim about the Agreement, hence the need for dialogue to work out a way out of the impasse. This should not, however, be meant as a ploy to avoid at all costs the possible handover of Badme to Eritrea.

The issue of normalisation should be further unbundled, and the need to streamline mutual economic, political as well as social interests must be emphasised. In this regard, the first order of business is for the two sides to unequivocally renounce any resort to violence including through proxies, thereby laying the foundation for further confidence-building measures. The return of Eritrea deportees should also be part of the package although this has been quietly happening for quite some time now. In essence, such a move can only have a public relations advantage for Ethiopia.

In economic terms, normalisation of relations should highlight the benefits to the Eritrean side. The use of ports should be part of the deal and have to be stressed the need for an internationally guaranteed solemn agreement. Cross-border trade arrangement should also be part of the package.

Ethiopia should also commit to extending its infrastructural developments into Eritrea’s parts as a gesture of goodwill. Another component should involve the development and exploitation of communal resources such as potash deposits in Dallol and other adjacent territories. A joint project to develop common resources other than mining should also be part of the package.

In terms of social interaction between peoples, both sides should commit themselves to facilitating, gradually, the free movement of people in general and family members and relatives in particular.

In political terms, both sides should commit to strengthening dialogue between each others’ opposition elements that will be ready to renounce violence. In this regard, the possibility of stemming the tide of migration from Eritrea will go a long way in reversing Eritrea’s current hurtling descent into all-out crisis.

In the diplomatic front, both sides should commit to making a case for ending Eritrea’s isolation and reinstatement of its membership into IGAD. It should be stressed that Eritrea has longstanding differences with Djibouti and Somalia and to a certain extent with Sudan.

It is, therefore, incumbent upon Ethiopia’s government to work closely and compare notes with its regional partners to dispel any suspicion that Ethiopia is double-crossing its longtime allies in the pursuit of its narrow national agenda. Equally important, the Eritrean side should bite the bullet and commit to at least acknowledging that it does have to rethink its approach to international relations.

All this presupposes readiness on the part of Asmara to give diplomacy a chance. However, there is no apparent change of heart on Eritrea’s part thus far.

If Ethiopian authorities have to work closely with Ethiopia’s partners, there are at least three areas they have to capitalise on to bring Eritrea onboard.

First, the political, social and economic challenges Eritrea is facing has reached a tipping point so much so, given some face-saving formula, the regime can be relatively easily persuaded to sue for peace. Migration is not the only source of  Eritrea’s headache. The flurry of efforts by Europeans at their wit’s end to stem the tide of migration shows how serious the problem has become. The regime can only hope for a lifeline of sorts.

Second, Eritrea’s source of financial support is all but dried up. The mining companies are continuously plagued by complaints and constrained by the sanctions. The Diaspora tax has long been dwindling with more and more Eritreans falling out with the regime. What little the regime is getting from its services to the Gulf countries is nothing to write home about.

Virtually every Gulf country working with Isaias realises that he is unreliable and are more than glad to pressure him to accept a deal with Ethiopia. The UAE, for example, realises its potential lease of ports cannot achieve anything unless Ethiopia is willing to hire their services.

Finally, despite its frantic efforts to maintain its shopping spree for arms, the regime realises that there is nothing it can do militarily to impose its will on Djibouti, much less on Ethiopia. It will also be worthwhile for Ethiopia to emphasise its credible threat of use of force against Eritrea if peaceful avenues are closed. The regime must be told that it cannot continue to call Ethiopia’s bluff and that the military option is always there and real.

A peaceful resolution of the dispute, though difficult, is the best alternative under most circumstances. That Ethiopia is once again revitalising the 2004 peace plan should convince doubters in Asmara that it is sincere about peace. Ethiopia should also make it clear to all and sundry that it is ready to use the good offices of its traditional and nontraditional partners for peace. Its diplomatic efforts should be redoubled to underscore that Ethiopia means business.

Even so, it is virtually impossible to imagine what the response would be from the other side. At least, Ethiopia will prevail diplomatically in the event of Isaias’s miscalculation – a possibility that can never be ruled out. But more importantly, if despite its best efforts to avoid war things finally come to that, it can accomplish any mission with the certainty that the international community at least appreciates where Ethiopia is coming from.

Fortunehas withheld the identity of the author upon request.



Published on Jun 16,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 946]


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