It has been almost a decade since the Ethio-Eritrea war has ended, but there is still no peace in sight. Seemingly a border dispute, lack of negotiations have soured the relationship, which, given political commitment, can be salvaged, writes Marew Abebe (email@example.com), lecturer at Oda Bultum University and guest at University of Gottingen in Germany.
The Executive Committee of Ethiopia’s ruling party last week endorsed the Algiers Agreement, signed between the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia, that has since become infamous for awarding Badme, the flashpoint of the 1998-2000 war and a source of dispute between the two countries. Although not a markedly different step for Ethiopia, as the government has never refused to accept the rulings of the agreement, it is an action that could see the town being passed to our northern neighbour.
Under the Algiers Agreement, the two parties established the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (Commission), to delimit and demarcate the border. Two years after the start of the war the ruling awarded territories to both sides with Badme going to Eritrea.
The ruling of the Commission was accepted by the Ethiopian government, but preconditions were put forward before the handoff of the territories. The frontiers remained undemarcated, and the fate of thousands of the residents of the town remained unclear, issues which the Algiers Agreement failed to address.
Eritrea claimed, as its land has been legally declared occupied, that the only binding solution is Ethiopia’s withdrawal from its territories without preconditions. Eritrea subsequently blamed international communities, including the United Nations (UN), for not enforcing the decisions of the Commission that was established under the agreement.
The UN’s failure to enforce the Commission’s ruling has created a diplomatic vacuum: the international body had all but abandoned its mediation efforts to implement the agreement on the highly contentious issue of the precise demarcations along the shared border.
Thus, tensions between the two countries have remained high. The temporary security zone – established as a buffer zone to separate the two warring armies – has collapsed and Ethiopia and Eritrea are still facing each other at the border.
Eighteen years after the accord was signed, 15pc of the entire border area is still not demarcated. This border dispute is further worsened by Eritrea’s isolation from the rest of the Western world and even from its neighbours in the Horn of Africa.
Following this period of conflicts, divergent interests and hostilities Ethiopia has now gained a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed (PhD), who has shown a willingness to settle the long-drawn-out dispute, unlike his predecessors.
Last week, the ruling EPRDF’s Executive Committee reaffirmed its decision to accept the Algiers Agreement. It could be a significant step towards resolving one of Africa’s bloodiest and protracted conflicts.
All that remains is whether Ethiopia will cease to attach preconditions to handing-off the town of Badme to Eritrea and whether there is the political commitment by the two nations, particularly Eritrea.
Eritrea was historically a part of Ethiopia until its colonisation by Italy following the partition of Africa in the late 19th century. Eritrea, made up of diverse religious and ethnic groups, remained a colony for about six decades. Following the defeat of Italy during World War II in 1945, Eritrea had become a British protectorate and then a federation of Ethiopia with some level of autonomy. After an armed struggle was waged for independence, Emperor Haile Selassie annexed the territory in 1962, giving rise to an independent struggle that lasted over three decades. The former Ethiopian province finally seceded under the leadership of the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF), followed by a United Nations’ led referendum for independence in April 1993.
The relationship between Ethiopia and independent Eritrea has been rocky from the beginning, but it did not occur to analysts that it would devolve to a conflict that takes the lives of tens of thousands of individuals.
Unsurprisingly, the increasing number of armed conflicts and political tensions between the two countries evolved into proxy wars. Meanwhile, the military situation along the Ethiopian-Eritrean border had led to continuous rounds of devastating hostilities and remains a tense and potentially volatile area.
Eritrea’s isolation from the world has further worsened the relationship between the two nations. This has been as a result of regional disputes pertaining to Eritrea’s support for armed Ethiopian opposition political groups, and also its alleged financing of extremists in Somalia. The latter has led to severe economic sanctions against Eritrea that have undermined its economy.
The economic and political interests that pushed the two countries into a devastating war are still intact. The hostility has climaxed in the form of indirect provocations through opposition forces, involvements in proxy wars, forming opposing diplomatic groupings and ganging up against each to put one side into isolation.
International observers and local pundits have at times treated the conflict with a reductionist approach. They have suggested that merely handing over Badme, without preconditions attached, would bring the Eritrean government to the negotiating table. They have failed to consider the political interests that have dominated this argument, such as hegemony of regional politics.
The Eritrean regime uses the pretext of the conflict to compel the youth into compulsory military services and deprives its citizens of political rights and general elections. The economy continues to be a war economy serving only the regime, its affiliates and the wider network of the country’s beneficiaries. The rest of the Eritrean people have fallen prey to the regime’s political recklessness and military adventures.
The current stalemate between Eritrea and Ethiopia has made the region more volatile. As the situation appears to deteriorate between the two countries, a binding common border demarcation will have to take place with the full mutual consent of the parties.
There has been little external engagement between the two countries over the unresolved boarder issues since the collapse of the 2007 talks aimed at moving the process forward, and the subsequent withdrawal of UN monitoring forces from the border area in 2008.
Yet, there is hope that years of stalemate can come to an end, especially considering that border disputes alone have not kept other countries from engaging in political, economic and social relations. One can take the case of the Kuril Islands dispute between Japan and the Russian Republic as a model.
Negotiations between the government of Ethiopia and Eritrea are important and necessary first steps towards ending the border conflict. This requires Ethiopia to seek multiple paths to peace that involves the international community, including the UN and the African Union, both of which have warm relations with the nation.
A durable peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea requires sustained dialogue, mediation and peace efforts at the international level. A political peace settlement along the border also has a positive impact on peace and stability in Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as the wider Horn of African region.
Following Ethiopia’s political developments has become a roller-coaster affair for Eritreans. As much as they are impressed by the developments, they are worried about what happens next. Ethiopia’s politics influences Eritrean and the entire region.
The recent election of Abiy was well received by all governments across the Horn of Africa. His inauguration speech assured the world that his priorities are advancing the causes of peace in the region.
He also pledged to resolve the lingering dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea and called for an end to the “years of misunderstandings” between the two nations, expressing his wish that “the Eritrean government takes the same stand.”
Unfortunately, the Eritrean government did not respond in kind. Yemane Gebremeskel, Eritrea’s Information minister, announced that the ball is in Ethiopia’s court. There is indeed a need to exhaust all options as there is some room left for manoeuvres, and this does not only entail handing over Badme.
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