A firebrand evangelical preacher declared the glory of God and the Holy Book to an ecstatic crowd. That would have been an ordinary scene in many parts of the world. But on a busy street in Asmera, the capital of Eritrea, last week’s episode where a pastor from a persecuted religious minority dared to gather such a crowd was very unusual.
Eritrea’s President Issayas Afeworqi returned from a historic visit to Ethiopia, the first in 22 years, and released many of the followers of Protestant Christians who have been jailed for many years simply because they worship the way they chose.
The incident was one of many developments in the fast-moving thaw between Ethiopia and Eritrea. In a period of barely two months, telephone lines between the two countries opened, commercial flights to Asmera resumed, their respective embassies were reopened in both capitals, and roads are under maintenance to resume ground transportion.
Deeper economic ties between the two nations are also underway. The Government Communication Affairs Office announced that Ethiopian Airlines will buy a 20pc stake in Eritrea’s flag carrier. There was a statement from the Foreign Ministry that preparations for the use of the Port of Assab are underway. The United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates played key roles in persuading the leaders of both countries to tone down tension and begin dialogues.
The sharp turnaround in relationships have inspired jubilation among the citizens of both countries that share strong historical, social and cultural backgrounds. But the geopolitical and economic obstacles of the pre-war years that the leaders of the two countries have to wade through remain unaddressed. So are the outstanding issues of the Algiers Accords and the ruling by the International Boundary Commission, which have yet to be implemented.
The current rapprochement has circumvented the major impediment to normalisation by reducing the entire equation to a change of guard in the leadership of the EPRDF; the announcement by EPRDF to return Badme without any preconditions; and Issayas’s seeming subscription to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) motto of positive-sum, Medemer.
Given the lack of political goodwill between the leaders of the two nations that lasted two decades, the state of affairs between Ethiopia and Eritrea existed until just over a month ago as the status quo. It thus cannot be avoided that there will be new losers and winners when political and socio-economic rearrangements take place. If national and geopolitical interests are not carefully delineated and harmonised, and deals are not carefully negotiated and properly implemented, good faith alone cannot sustain positive-sum.
A deepening of relations between the two neighbours will pay economic dividends, especially on the Eritrean side. Both will be able to channel military expenditure – on surveillance along the border and human resources – to more productive investments. And a more fluid movement of goods and people across the borders will create market opportunities, more so for Eritrean investors than Ethiopian ones. Very soon, Eritrea will enjoy the lifting of sanctions, where Ethiopia has been instrumental in its imposition.
It will no doubt bring along complications. Eritrea’s warmer relationship with Ethiopia is bound to open the former nation – dubbed at times the “North Korea of Africa” – to the global world. Cross-border commerce and communications will create interdependence between the states and will lead to harmonisation of socio-cultural values.
Although Ethiopia is an infant democracy, it has a youthful population that is calling for democratic reforms, close relationships with multilateral institutions that advocate a level political playing field and relatively easy access to social networking.
Eritrea remains profoundly autocratic. A nation where general elections have never been conducted under a single legal party and military conscription is enforced will find it hard to govern a population that is better exposed to the global world order.
As access to Ethiopia’s economy is opened, Eritrea’s government might also find itself facing a thriving private sector with expanded economic powers. This demands more transparency, better regulations and competent bureaucracy that cannot be censored or silenced without drawing attention from the international community.
There are challenges that lie ahead for Ethiopia as well. By the sheer virtue of its size, the Ethiopian economy has more to lose in a scenario where trade is merely free and not fair.
The geopolitical factors the neighbours’ rapprochement will create cannot be underestimated either. The tense relations Eritrea has with Djibouti remains unaddressed. Eritrea’s close relationship with Egypt and the consequential strain with Sudan continues to create political unease in the Horn of Africa.
The Ethio-Eritrean thaw has been interpreted as a significant step towards a more stable Horn but how this disrupts the status quo cannot be overlooked either. Both Djibouti and Sudan will need reassurances that their interests in the region will be recognised by Ethiopia as domestic sentiment here warms up to Eritrea.
Prime Minister Abiy deserves recognition for taking the bold overture than that of his predecessors, although there is hardly any change of policy from the five-point peace proposal the late Meles Zenawi tabled to parliament in 2003. The decision by the Executive Committee of the EPRDF to unconditionally implement the ruling by the UN-led Boundary Commission to hand off Badme could have been a political suicide with a negligible upshot. But it proved most effective in bringing Eritrea to the table.
Nonetheless, given the years that passed with no diplomatic relations, regional geopolitics, the political and economic situation as well as the domestic audiences of both nations, sustaining the thaw will be a difficult undertaking.
The governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea practice varying degrees of authoritarianism and autocracy. The road to reform is a slippery slope to any authoritarian rule once the journey begins. There can be no tinkering, but a sweeping result of changes of regimes. It will have to be seen how much the leaders in both countries are ready to accept such outcomes.
The governments of each country have to be able to make sure that regulatory and institutional capacities to independently ascertain that they are playing by the rules are in place. This will require the economic and political regimes of both countries to be transparent, especially on the Eritrean side, one of the few remaining closed regimes in the world.
Eritrea does not publish its fiscal budgets; neither are the financial oversights of state enterprises adequate. International financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have themselves complained that they could not undertake assessments on Eritrea’s economic performance given the lack of data of any kind.
Transparency, at least to the level that Ethiopia’s economy has reached, will have political implications that can cause Eritrea’s regime to unravel. But Abiy’s administration should be informed that the tough decisions have to be taken sooner than later, which was not the case with pre-war Ethio-Eritrea relations.
Marriage between the two neighbours will only be propitious if either side is well aware of the relationship they are getting into. This requires observance of agreements and an adequate level of transparency for trust to take root. There is hardly anything better for both countries than seeing the consolidation of democracy, institutionalization of the rule of law and the establishment of peace and prosperity.
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