Chatham House, the London–based research institution, last week released a briefing by the head of its Africa Program, Jason Mosley. Entitled “Eritrea and Ethiopia: Beyond the Impasse,” it calls for a new perspective on the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia and suggests providing the impetus for a new kind of engagement to bring about normalization of relations between the two countries. Chatham House’s effort, which involved the Institute in discussions with Ethiopian and Eritrean missions in London, deserves appreciation for bringing the issue back to the table for discussion. However, the briefing concentrates so hard on the issue of ways to improve relations that it ignores a significant number of important facts about the behavior of the Eritrean government, the causes of the conflict and the factors which have caused the subsequent stalemate.
The report quite rightly makes the point that any discussions should avoid a “narrow focus on the specifics of the border conflict”, but it also stresses the conflict in 1998-2000 broke out over a controversy of the administration of Badme town. This appears to deliberately omit the fact that the war started because of unprovoked aggression of the Eritrean government, as was specifically pointed out subsequently by the Eritrean-Ethiopian Claims Commission. This is important as it ignores the fact that Eritrea’s foreign policy both before and after the 1998-2000 war appears to have been based on aggression and destabilization. It has largely been based on militaristic behavior which assumes the only way to resolve problems is through war and conflict. This, it has to be said, has been characteristic of Eritrea’s foreign policy since 1993 and it is far from clear that there has been any change in attitude.
Secondly, the Chatham House report accuses Ethiopia of continuing to fail to comply with the EEBC’s border ruling. It largely ignores any reference to Ethiopia’s acceptance of the border ruling (in November 2004, not 2006) in the five-point peace plan. This was far more than a mere passing rhetorical commitment to implement the decisions. It was a list of specific points to implement the border ruling and the EEBC accepted it as such. Ethiopia’s position regarding the EEBC’s [ruling], as it has repeatedly stated, is clear and consistent. It has publicly and repeatedly stated that it has accepted the decision, despite having serious doubts about some aspects of it, and has called on the other party to hold dialogue on the details of demarcation as is a normal requirement in such cases, e.g. the case with the Bakasi border demarcation between Cameroon and Nigeria. It is customary practice that demarcation of borders demands the two parties to open a dialogue before the position of boundary pillars involving people living along the borders are finalized. Ethiopia accepted the ruling in full compliance with the Algiers Agreement. Eritrea refused to accept the call for dialogue and took a stance which later led to the dissolution of the EEBC. Similarly, it was Eritrea which was responsible for forcing out the UN Mission to Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2008 (UNMEE) and 9 so effectively nullifying the Algiers Agreements. UNMEE was, of course, a central element in the demarcation, being responsible for security during the process. Blame over the implementation of the EEBC ruling cannot be laid at Ethiopia’s door alone; and the report misrepresents Ethiopia’s position, largely repeating the views of Eritrea.
The report suggests that certain inducements should be made to bring about a functional relationship between the two countries, starting with the lifting of UN-imposed sanctions on Eritrea as a token of “good will”. In the first place this ignores why sanctions were imposed. They followed the provision of proof that Eritrea supported organizations affiliated to terrorist and extremist organizations in Somalia and was working to destabilize the region more generally than just Ethiopia, though this remains a major target of its activity. Similarly, sanctions were the result of Eritrea’s own deliberate attack on Djibouti in 2008 (for the second time) and its continual refusal to admit either its aggression or that there was a problem, or to respond to efforts to mediate. The report makes no mention of Qatar’s efforts in this direction, or of Eritrea’s negative response to this. Lifting sanctions without any change of behavior by Eritrea defeats the very purpose of their imposition, and would certainly be seen by Eritrea as an endorsement of the regime’s behavior.
The report suggests that Ethiopia believes Eritrea’s isolation is in its interest. This is hardly accurate. Eritrea’s continuous refusal to participate in normal diplomatic activity in the region may have a negative effect on the operations of the regional body, IGAD as Ethiopia is fully aware. It also inhibits the regional infrastructure development agenda to which Ethiopia has been committed for a number of years. Contrary to the claims of the report, Ethiopia is actively engaged in promoting regional integration, peace and stability. This arises from its development policies which the Government believes cannot be achieved in isolation and without the development of the region. It should be clear that Ethiopia has no interest in the isolation of Eritrea, as long as it stops being a negative force for the region’s peace and stability and brings an end to its sponsoring of anti-Ethiopian terrorist organizations, and despite the assertions of the report these do still continue. Ethiopia has made it clear repeatedly that it is prepared to talk about any and all aspects of normalization of relations with Eritrea, anywhere, any time. Ethiopia firmly believes that regional peace is a prerequisite to sustainable development of the sub-region – the olive branch has been repeatedly extended.
The Chatham House report focuses on suggestions for economic incentives to improve relations: making suggestions about possible port and hydro-power interdependency, regional integration, reopening of the border and improving cross-border relations among the people of the two countries. This ignores the point that one reason for Eritrean aggression in 1998 was concern over the economic imbalance which Eritrea saw as growing in Ethiopia’s favor. Today the economic situation of Eritrea is very much worse than before; and that of Ethiopia greatly improved. The disparity is now massive. The attempt to find new perspectives seems to have pushed the writer to gloss over the reality on the ground in Eritrea and the behavior of the regime. This implies a scenario in which the cart is being placed before the horse. The report, in fact, overlooks the fact that the economic incentives cannot really bring about any change while there is no fundamental change in the workings of the regime.
There has never been a shortage of mediation efforts to resolve the dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea. All of them have failed. The reason has been the categorical refusal of the Government of Eritrea to hold a dialogue with Ethiopia over the border issue and ways to normalize relations. If, as the report, claims, Eritrea remains nervous about Ethiopia’s policies towards it and the “threat” posed by its larger neighbors, then it would seem to be axiomatic that it should be prepared to open discussions about its concerns. It is Eritrea that has consistently refused to do so. The fundamental point is that any change in the relationship can only come from genuine acceptance on the side of Eritrea to abide by accepted norms of international relations and open talks. Ethiopia has made it clear it would welcome this.
This is not the place to discuss the report’s analysis that “the vision of the political and military elite around [President] Isaias in Eritrea is of a unifying national identity that supersedes ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity, thereby diminishing any tensions related to these identities.” It is, however, very difficult to agree with any such comment which ignores so much of the current reality on the ground, including the flow of refugees across the border at an estimated 4,000 people a month, mostly disenchanted youngsters. The report also ignores the specific and central role in policy played by President Isaias himself and the importance of his own certainties. There is no indication of any change in either. 10
It is worth reminding the author of the report that sympathy for Eritrea, and it is hard not to be sympathetic towards it today, should not [extend to] distorting or omitting relevant facts about its government or policies. It is worth remembering that advocacy for a “soft approach” towards Eritrea ignores the interests of the suffering peoples of Eritrea. This effort to give a face lift to Eritrea by ignoring fundamental facts and reasons behind its relationship with Ethiopia remains flawed.