Gil Messing, Israel’s politician behind the formation of the Kadima Party, first used the phrase “Seeking no war – achieving no peace” to describe the stalemate his country has with the Palestinian Authority (PA). Considering the deadlock for nearly two decades between Ethiopia and Eritrea, following the border conflict in 1998, may well fit this expression.
A regrettable two-year war between them was a cause for the loss of over 100,000 lives on both sides. It had dislocated millions of people, damaged hundreds of millions of dollars worth of infrastructure, and shattered the dreams of many for peace, prosperity and dignity.
Ironically, the dispute over border claims was a mere pretext. Divergent economic and trade policies between those in Asmera and Addis Abeba ought to have triggered the avoidable war. In retrospect though, the historically distorted perception the government in Asmera had towards the rulers in Ethiopia and its ambitions to remain hegemonic in East Africa could be taken as the underlining factors to the precipitation of the war much beyond anything else.
The war ended with Ethiopia being victorious, taking the land it had claims over. Following the deal in Algiers, the panel at the Hague had established an important fact straight; the regime in Eritrea was the aggressor causing what was to follow. Yet, the arbitration panel awarded the town of Badme to Eritrea. A flashpoint of the war where an Eritrean platoon had made an incursion before the start of the conflict, the ruling, final and binding, had brought unbearable defeat to Ethiopia.
Ethiopian authorities were later on blamed for failing to give the arbitration process the attention it had deserved. They might have been caught up by an internal crisis due to the split within the leadership of the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), with each faction vying for dominance over the other.
Surprisingly, the EPRDFites were confident that the areas in the conflict zones would be awarded to Ethiopia. The way the Boundary Commission’s ruling was reported to the Ethiopian public by its officials was a testimony to it. Then Foreign Minister, Seyum Mesfin, had rushed to speak to the media, with a sense of vindication over an ill-informed sense of victory.
There lies the beginning of an unfortunate limbo that has kept both countries in a state of “No war, no peace” over the past 18 years. Ethiopian authorities have apparently continued to abrogate their commitment to the international community by holding onto the town of Badme.
The stalemate remains in place because Eritrea demands the implementation of the decision of the Commission without precondition as it did for Yemen over the Hanish Islands. And Ethiopia cleverly accepted the decision – in principle – but demands discussions over demarcation and relocation of its citizens.
Meles came up with the five-point resolution endorsed by Parliament but effectively put Eritrea on the defensive and in isolation. Little did Issayas Afeworki, president of Eritrea, seem to see that his stubbornness in rejecting an extended hand for dialogue would put his troubled nation as an international pariah.
Ethiopia appears to be following policies of containment and deterrence, which has succeeded for the last 15 years. However, these policies remain unable to change the dynamics between the two nations. As costly as the war was, the endless standoff has been intolerable and detrimental, particularly to the regional states bordering Eritrea and their populations.
The standoff has frozen the trade and economic relations and the movement of citizens along the boundaries of the two countries. It has undermined the intimate relationship between the two culturally and historically bonded peoples. Apparently, the two nations have been playing diplomatic and political manoeuvring where one side tries to damage the other, instead of cooperation.
The deadlock has necessitated both countries to maintain excessive armies at a huge cost. Their scarce resources, which should have been used to overcome enduring poverty in their respective populations, are being wasted on security and military expenditures.
It has also been the norm, for people on both sides of the isle, especially along the borders, to live under a state of constant security alerts and a severe lack of investments in infrastructure and provisions of public goods. People in Afar, Tigray and Amhara (Gondar) regional states have felt the brunt of the impasse, to say the least.
Ethiopian authorities have appealed for too long now that the longevity of the status quo is to their advantage, considering the relative size of population, economy and geography Ethiopia has over Eritrea. If they were to be a good reader of history, they could be right. The policy of containment stood the test of time during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Lately, though, President Issayas has proven to be a master in bidding his time. A new power configuration in the Middle East is helping Eritrea under Issayas to come out from its isolation, and its economy has begun to rebound. The regime in Eritrea is no longer broke and in a state of solitude.
Ethiopian authorities may be well aware that the status quo is not to hold. A review of policy towards Eritrea was one of the four agendas Chairman of the ruling EPRDF, Hailemariam Desalegn, tabled for debate during a recent meeting of the party’s executive committee.
Indeed, Ethiopia has proven not to desire the resumption of war. Tragically, neither has it been able to achieve peace. Its policymakers have demonstrated nothing but their wishes to restore relations between the two countries to gain peace, economic development and bring back the historical ties. Some of them want to go as far as handing over the controversial town of Badme if it helps achieve normalisation. It appears to be the East African version of “land for peace”.
If there are others who believe such a move would be nothing less than political naivety, it is not without reason. Exchanging land with the hope of restoring peace will change little of the fundamentals on the ground, for the causes of the war had little to do with claims over borders.
There is hardly any evidence to show that Issayas and his comrades have had a change of heart to persuade the hawkish elements in Ethiopia’s foreign policy, security and military establishments that peace with their regime is a possibility. It is sad, and no less unfortunate. Neither can they prevent the threat his regime poses to Ethiopia.
The degree of frustration felt by many within and outside of Hailemariam’s administration has led to increased and louder voices for a proactive policy toward regime change. Regime change as a foreign policy tool is as old as the United States’ stunning success in the aftermath of the Second World War and as disastrous as its adventure in Iraq in 2003.
While the United States did change individual leaders and institutional systems in many countries, Tanzania replaced Uganda’s Idi Amin from power in 1979 without changing its systems. It appears that the hawkish voices in Ethiopia advocate for the latter for Ethiopia cannot afford to stay long enough in restructuring Eritrean institutions.
No doubt Ethiopian leaders are confronted with the daunting task of choosing the better of all evils in dealing with a regime that is “an outpost of tyranny”. Ethiopian authorities may still have another option they can use to bend the Eritrean government’s hands and force it to come to the negotiating table. They may consider adopting a foreign policy posturing from a reactive nature to a proactive one.
It is not unusual to reconsider policies in light of changes that have been taking place in the broader region. It should not also be considered a siege mentality to do so. And it would not be that hard for Ethiopia to convince its allies about its interests.
It may be a long and frustrating path, but using Ethiopia’s leverage in regional and continental entities, if not multilateral organisations, to put pressure on Eritrea can be a viable consideration over military engagement.
It can be designed in a smart way where improvements in behaviour can be rewarded while belligerence can be punished through collective actions of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the African Union and the United Nations. Ethiopia has the clout to achieve this foreign policy objective.
A change of orientation in the foreign policy mindset can help a continuation of the no-war-no-peace situation or regime change to work better. Because whether it will contribute to isolating Issayas from his tactical allies or if the regime change is sought as a better option, it can put the involvement of many interests at bay.
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