It has been 16 years since Ethiopia and Eritrea started to live in what could be described as an impasse – a “no war, no peace” situation, in diplomatic parlance. Ever since the rather destructive war between the countries, which, according to New World Encyclopedia, took the lives of over 120,000 people, the state of affairs has been marked by mutual confusion and suspicion with occasional skirmishes. Last week, for instance, saw militants from Eritrea kidnapping over 80 Ethiopians involved in traditional gold mining on the Ethiopian side of the border.
Stark contrasts are to be found on both sides of the aisle. On the one side, there is a nation of close to six million people, with half its population earning less than a dollar a day. Lacking a government with a democratic mandate, Eritrea’s ruling party, People’s Front for Democracy & Justice (PFDJ), is machinery effectively manoeuvred by the unelected yet life-time President, Isaias Afeworki. The economy of the nation, which, according to CIA Factbook, grew by 0.2pc in 2015, is largely controlled by the ruling party and its security-military flagella. In the nation with an undiversified economy, burdened with a total debt stock of 122.6pc of GDP, no aspect of individual life is conducted without the will of the ruling elite; that is the President.
Eritrea remains the major source nation for migrants to Europe, according to a recent report by the Inter-government Agency for Development (IGAD), a regional bloc. Fleeing their nation affected by persistent drought and the absence of the rule of law, over 3,000 migrants arrive in Ethiopia every month. The total number for 2015 amounted to almost 35,000. Furthering the suffering of the Eritrean people is a cruel obligatory national service system, which has caused the departure of over 400,000 people in the past five years. Eritrea, in short, is in the throes of dictatorship, with a population that is captive.
It is sad to see Eritrea’s ruling elite remaining unwilling to open the political space for competition, institute the rule of law, give the people of the country the right to elect their leadership and exercise freedom, in its holistic definition. This, in the face of a world that is increasingly democratising and accepting the rule of law as the only guiding rule. Denying his long overdue promise of drafting a constitution, President Isaias recently declared that there would only be a “book of governance”. This makes Eritrea the only country in Africa without an effective legal inscription of social contract.
The other side of the aisle sees a nation of over 90 million people, practicing constitutional democracy, albeit with serious imperfections, commanding an economy of 57 billion dollars. Governed by a hegemonic ruling party, elected for a fifth time, the nation is peeling the skins of volatility with which it has been long associated. Yet, huge unemployment (17.5pc, according to CIA Factbook), a large population of poor people (26 million), and a recurrent drought, with the latest endangering over 10 million people, continue to challenge the nation.
Close to two decades of standoff between these two nations on the Horn of Africa robs them both of huge opportunities coming from globalization and shifting regional dynamics. It has also deprived them of the possibility to work towards mutual prosperity.
This is a region in a continent determined to realise regional integration in the context of the changing power balance between the global West and East and shifts in alliance in the Middle East. The growing importance of Africa in the global political process and increasing focus on businesses (and investors) in Africa all mean that this region can become a frontier of growth, in its own right. Sadly, though, the Horn remains a hotbed of uncertainty, due partly to the stalemate between Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is as if the nations prefer to take comfort in the sleepy status quo, while the warming winds of globalization, constituting ample opportunities for development, blow over them.
Much lies in the decision of the Boundary Commission, a body established to delimit the borders of the two nations in April, 2002, after the deadly conflict. Whereas Eritrea demands implementation of the decision of the Commission without precondition, Ethiopia accepts the decision, in principle, but demands discussions prior to going forward with its implementation. Ethiopia’s position comes with a presumption that the regime in Eritrea is inherently hostile, belligerent and is working to destabilize its progress. And there is evidence of this. Eritrea’s involvement in Somalia, its hostility towards Djibouti and its support for militant Ethiopian opposition groups have proved Ethiopia right.
In a way, Ethiopia’s policy of containing and isolating Eritrea has been effective for over 15 years now. Complemented with a recent policy addition, proportional response, it has effectively neutralized Eritrea’s hostility towards Ethiopia and its interests, directly or by proxy. But it remains unable to change the dynamics between the two nations. Certainly, peace between the two countries would have huge positive externalities. But it cannot be achieved under the existing policies. The situation demands a change in approach. Understandably, the quest for peace has been frustrated by Isaias, a mastermind of regional chaos from Darfur to Yemen.
Nonetheless, it should be clear to Eritrea and its totalitarian ruling elite that a political-economy that relegates citizens as servants of the state is not sustainable. No country could claim to engage in sustainable development without citizens exercising their inalienable rights to the fullest. The mass exodus of the Eritrean youth is a showcase to this.
Neither will a siege mentality help to bring peace. If there is anything to be gained from such a mentality into which the ruling elite drove the nation, it is painful isolation. Hence, it needs to do serious soul-searching and come to terms with the reality. Looking rationally into the sensitivities of Eritrea, not to mention the shifts in the region, the changed reality calls for adopting the rule of law and democracy.
It would not be surprising if Ethiopian policymakers see this as impossible. Understandably, in Isaias, they see no partner for peace as he is unpredictable, unstable and untrustworthy. He represents a person determined to see an Ethiopia weak, divided and disintegrated.Their loss of hope on the Eritrean regime is what makes them leave the issue to the security apparatus. But what they seem to forget is that their decision sidelined the political process, an instrument that could have found the middle ground for peace and dialogue.
After all, Eritrea is hot potato for Ethiopian policymakers. Damned if they hold it; and damned if they do not. Much as they would hold discussions with the increasingly egotistical regime in Asmara, the alternative is equally risky. Their measured efforts at helping the Eritrean opposition have not been effective, partly because of their lack of determination. Their containment, isolation and proportional response policies did not bring change to the nexus. They seem inclined to wait for a natural cycle of decomposition of the Eritrean regime. However, this would put the job of state building (which has proved tough even for the well-resourced United States, in Afghanistan and Iraq), in their hands, for there are no institutional bases in Eritrea that could absorb a break out. And if Ethiopia wants to break it there in Eritrea, it will no doubt own it.
In light of the alternative, then, the most probable option for both is to give peace a chance, even when it means dealing with a rogue nation. Recent experiences of the US in engaging with Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Cuba could serve as an example. The US defied long overdue presumptions and gave peace a chance, albeit with caution. The result has been a landslide shift in the attitude of the ruling elites in the two nations that have historically been run a systematizing of the siege mentality.
In light of the unpleasant alternative with which Ethiopian policymakers can be faced if Eritrea were to blow up, the risk of engaging with the government in Asmara without presumption looks relatively less risky. This may mean negotiating with an unelected despotic elite, but it provides the opportunity and leverage to push for a change in policy and approach. This alternative is better than owning the problem of a broken neighbour without effective systems of governance.
What it takes for the Ethiopian government, then, is to defy its own presumptions and leverage every window to engage the Eritrean regime. And this involves utilizing windows in regional bodies, such as IGAD and the African Union, international platforms, such as the United Nations, and third party mediation. Of course, untapped windows of direct diplomacy should also be insistently tried.
Facilitating engagement and exchanges between formal and informal community structures could also help. The role academic and research institutions, think-tanks, religious institutions and other CSOs could play in this should not be discounted. If such an approach is conceived by the regime in Eritrea as defeat, then, let it be. No political currency is more valuable than peace.
As Albert Einstein would say, “the significant problems of our time cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” This cannot be truer in any case than the state of affairs between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
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