The Dividends of Peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea

True peace is not just the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.

U.S. civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King

 

By the Strathink Editorial Team

The recent gestures by Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki to resolve the impasse between the two countries following the end of the 1998-2000 border war are an encouraging development in the fractious politics of the Horn of Africa. For almost two decades, Ethiopia and Eritrea have co-existed in a “no war, no peace” standoff with periodic skirmishes at the border and a battery of verbal hostility.

No one can dispute the potentially large dividends of peace for both Ethiopians and Eritreans. Peaceful relations between the two countries present limitless opportunities for bilateral trade. Cooperation between Ethiopia and Eritrea in sectors such as energy, infrastructure and even tourism could significantly strengthen their economies.

Peace between the two countries will have a tremendous impact on regional security. The “no peace, no war” stalemate has resulted in proxy wars between the countries throughout the region. By eliminating the tension, neither country will be compelled to host organized groups bent on violence to de-stabilize their respective countries.

And it makes sense. The people of these two countries share a treasure of commonalities, including history, language, culture and even families. The tragedy of the border war split apart a social fabric that superseded national boundaries and bound the people together in an

However, as in any conflict resolution equation, there are a number of variables that require consideration. First and foremost are the people living in the disputed territories. Abdul Mohammed has written a thoughtful article published in Addis Fortune that raises important questions about moving forward in resolving the conflict.

The first is the issue of demarcation. Ethiopia has always insisted, and is backed by international law and precedent, that the border be demarcated on the ground to correct anomalies in delimitation by satellite imagery. No one will dispute that a line going through a person’s house or through a cemetery or across a river makes much sense.

Second, borders are not just lines on a map but reflect the identity of the people living on these borders. For example, the Afar on both sides of the border, while welcoming the opening between Ethiopia and Eritrea, are demanding to be represented at the table. The same is true for the Irob people. Border demarcation could mean that Irob communities find will be living in separate countries, regardless of family and cultural ties.

There are also issues of compensation spelled out in the Algiers Agreement. The Claims Commission found Eritrea to be the aggressor and awarded Ethiopia a compensation package. Will President Isayas accept that part of the Algiers Agreement and accept blame for starting the war?

And what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of Eritreans who crossed the border and found shelter in Ethiopia?

While Western countries are closing their borders, detaining refugees seeking asylum and even, in the case of the United States, separating the children of people seeking asylum from their parents, Ethiopia, according to the recent UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants in New York, was named one of the most progressive countries in pledging that they would do more to enhance the local integration of refugees.

Ethiopia has pledged to grant work permits, promising that 30% of the jobs in new industrial parks will be reserved for refugees. Refugees will be able to access education and obtain land for agriculture. Those who have lived in Ethiopia for 20 years or more will be allowed citizenship. They will also be able to obtain civil documentation, such as certificates for births, deaths and marriages. After twenty years, refugees will be able to claim citizenship.

For the almost one million refugees from South Sudan, Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia, Ethiopia offers hope to people deprived of the everyday necessities of a normal life—to live in a community, have adequate shelter, be employed, educate your children and even enjoy citizenship.

Eritreans have fled their country across the border into Ethiopia each month at an average rate of a staggering 5,000 people. The reasons are manifold but a powerful motivation is to avoid Eritrea’s indefinite national service. The United Nations calls Eritrea’s national service “a crime against humanity” According to Human Rights Watch:

Abuse in national service is rampant and is the principal reason why thousands flee the country annually. Service lasts over a decade although the proclamation establishing national service limits conscription to 18 months. A UN Commission of Inquiry in 2016 characterized the system as “enslavement.”

Conscripts are subjected to 72-hour workweeks, severe arbitrary punishment, rape by commanders if female, and grossly inadequate food rations. Pay increased after 2014, but deductions for food limited the increase, and net pay remained inadequate to support a family. [1]

So the question is, would Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia be told to return home to suffer the consequences of a draconian national service?

With peace with Ethiopia, would President Isayas loosen the hold on his people and begin to open up the country to establishing democratic institutions? He has said on many occasions that, “If anyone thinks there will be democracy or a multiparty system in this country…then that person can think of such things in another world.

What is obvious to everyone, although it is impolitic to speak about this given the slight movement forward in the two decades impasse, is that President Isayas uses the “no war, no peace” relationship to legitimize the nation’s political paralysis in achieving any kind of democratic transition. Elections? No way, says the President, because we are at war with Ethiopia. Constitution? The President suspended adoption a long time ago because of Ethiopia. Indefinite national service? Of course, says the President, we must be ready when Ethiopia attacks.

Eritrea somehow has survived the political paralysis but with a heavy cost. The economy has stagnated since independence with only a recent injection of dynamism from the mining sector and the proliferation of support from Middle Eastern countries looking at the Horn of Africa with predatory eyes. According to the World Bank, despite a better outlook for the economy, Eritrea remains one of the least developed countries. With 65% of the population in rural areas and 80% depending on subsistence agriculture, the majority of people are living in poverty. Domestic food production is estimated to meet only 60-70% of the population’s needs. Health indicators have significantly improved following independence, but poverty takes a toll on rural peoples’ health despite the advancements. [2]

The state oppression blanketing the country suffocates the Eritrean people in a stultifying cycle of human rights abuses. Labeled “the North Korea of Africa,” President Isayas runs a one-man show with a tight circle of sycophants who oversee a national security apparatus that requires unquestionable allegiance to the regime.

With the prospect of peace with Ethiopia, will President Isayas loosen his grip on the country and allow progress towards democratization and a freer society? With the prospect of peace, will President Isayas be a better neighbor in the region, ending the de-stabilizing role he has consistently played with virtuously all of the neighboring countries?

There is no question that peace will bear enormous dividends to Ethiopia, Eritrea and the surrounding countries of the Horn of Africa. However, there are a number of serious issues that must be worked out so that there are no losers in this process.

[1] See https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/eritrea

[2] http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/eritrea/overview

2 Responses to “The Dividends of Peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea”

  1. wedinakfa says:

    Losers can say and waffle thats all they can or muddy the water, TPLF is dead next to meles!! period.

  2. wedinakfa says:

    Ginbot 7 is irrelevant? aye strategic thinking of how to eat Quenty?
    what next from Strategic Thinking wow thinkers of TRAGEDY, I say!!!!

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