The relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea is similar to the relationship between the North and South Korea. Two nations with very similar cultural identities stretching back thousands of years but torn apart by one of the many wars in the 20th century. Although the Eritrean-Ethiopian War in 1998 ravaged both of the impoverished nations, the peace treaty signed two years later did not improve much.
The Ethiopian government has continued to take a hardline against Eritrea by stationing its military on parts of the border that are considered to be Eritrean. Meanwhile, the leader of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, continues to use Ethiopia’s antagonism to solidify his despotic power. A key feature of his rule is an enforced, indefinite conscription which allows him to control a very large army against both internal and external threats. The UN and its peacekeeping force tried to assist in easing tensions by guarding the volatile border for a time shortly after the war, but this mission was formally abandoned in 2008.
Finally, other countries and extremist groups in North and East Africa have been affecting or affected by, this conflict. Egypt has become more supportive of Eritrea, likely due to Egypt’s condemnation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. This monumental project is set to cost almost $6.5 billion and would, according to Egypt, heavily threaten its share of the Nile river water.
Then there is Somalia: a country heavily affected by this cold war conflict. During the stateless period that began in 1991, warlords arose whenever the threat of a Somalian central governance was brought up because no single clan could be sure of its power in the greater franchise. Since then the warlords have mutated into political tools for conflicts taking place beyond Somalia’s borders. Ethiopia would go on to support the government militarily and diplomatically, while Eritrea would arm and train the warlords. The resulting conflict has been devastating on Somalia’s development potential and is still crippling the country to this day.
Solutions in response to the war included the Algiers Agreement and a buildup of military force on both sides. The Algiers Agreement, signed in 2000, was a peace treaty that ended the conflict between the two countries’ militaries and formed a boundary commission. In the end, the Algiers Agreement did stop the violence which caused around 100,000 deaths for both sides combined, but Ethiopia chose to reject the decision made by the boundary commission meaning it still maintains a military presence in areas that are considered Eritrean.
The constant military buildup by both sides, which has been going on since the beginning of the war, resulted in a stalemate. In fact, Meles Zenawi, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia for most of the conflict (1995-2012), stated succinctly in a 2009 interview with Voice of America that “we will never, ever go to war with Eritrea unless there is a full-scale invasion…Not any old provocation. Full-scale invasion.” He also believed that Eritrea would never attack Ethiopia directly because “they know it is going to be suicide.”
The view from Eritrea is similar, with one very important idiosyncrasy. The Eritrean military that is used to deter an Ethiopian invasion is also used to essentially imprison its own population within its borders. For all the human rights abuses that the Ethiopian government is accused of, many Eritreans see it as a welcomed relief from oppression in their home state. A big part of this oppression stems from the military. Not only is it required for every citizen under the age of fifty to join indefinitely, but also the conditions of the service are poor whether you measure income, freedom, or productivity.
This has resulted in thousands of people illegally leaving Eritrea each month to avoid conscription and very low morale amongst those in the military. The culmination of all this is the idea the President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea feels the need to prolong this policy of military conscription to stay in power. Whether it is internal or external foes, he wants to have his military ready to fight them. Dismantling this notion will be key to peace and prosperity in Eritrea.
The reasons for conflict seem endless both in scope and number, but thankfully there are reasons to rejoice for this special region of East Africa. Ethiopia’s authoritarian ruling coalition has just installed Abiy Ahmed Ali as prime minister, whose outlook on this conflict is more peace-oriented. One reason why he may be able to achieve peace where others have failed can be explained by his ethnic origins. The prime minister who ruled Ethiopia during the war and in its aftermath, Meles Zenawi, was of the Tigrayan ethnicity.
This community is most prevalent in the region directly bordering Eritrea and was most heavily affected by the war. On the other hand, Abiy is from the Oromo ethnicity. This ethnic group was not only less affected by the fighting on the border, but also one that has felt politically disenfranchised since the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I in the early 20th century. He also has a precedent for resolving disputes between two notoriously opposed groups; Christians and Muslims. This gives him the ability to depart from the hardline measures of his predecessors.
So with a new Ethiopian prime minister and peace now on the table, it would be helpful to identify steps towards that goal. Due to the illiberal democracy practiced by both countries, it will all come down to ensuring the political elites of both countries are satisfied with the outcome. Since the peaceful intentions of one of the two leaders are all but confirmed, the problem rests with convincing Isaias Afwerki of the benefits of cooperation. He is afraid that shrinking his military power by scrapping the draft will cause him to be, at best, removed from power and, at worst, thrown into a criminally inhumane imprisonment akin to what he would do to his enemies.
In order to quell these fears, he would need to accomplish a set of reforms that would offset his need for oppressive control. The good news is that there is precedence for this. As was the case with China, the population generally forgoes complaining about its governments decades of human rights abuses so long as they make more money tomorrow than they made today. The pieces are in place to give this future to Eritrea right now. Ethiopia is shopping around for partners to port its container ships, among other economic improvements, and Eritrea has ports in one of the worlds most travelled waterways. The benefits of partnering up for development would certainly put the leader who orchestrated such growth in high regard.
Another opportunity to promote cooperation and peace between the two is related to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project. There have been allegations that Egypt is supporting Eritrean backed dissidents within Ethiopia to sabotage the dam. If instead, Ethiopia chose to make a deal providing low-cost subsidized energy to Eritrea once the dam was finished, it would then be in Eritrea’s best interest for the dam to be completed properly. The resulting power could jump-start Eritrea’s stagnating economy.
To top it all off, Ethiopia has to play the card they have been holding for two decades. The longer they hold on to Badme, a border town with minimal significance outside of this conflict, the more symbolic it will be when they return it. There is an opportunity for Isaias Afwerki to come out of this looking like the hero who returned Eritrea’s rightful claim, jump-started the economy and took the first step towards peace in the Horn of Africa.