Kenya-Eritrea: Inviting Isaias in from the cold

By The Africa Report

Posted on Thursday, 9 February 2023 13:49
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki arrives for a joint news conference with his Kenyan counterpart William Ruto during his visit in State House Nairobi, Kenya, February 9, 2023. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

Relations between Kenya and Eritrea continue to thaw as Ruto meets Isaias Afwerki in Kenya where they are discussing several trade issues, with some closed-door negotiations on the issue of Tigray.

The meeting is poised to push the tense peace in Ethiopia to hold—while calling on Isaias to completely withdraw from Ethiopia, according to Patrick Mutahi, Research Fellow at the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies in Nairobi.

This comes as the UN, US, and others have pointed out that Eritrean troops are lingering on the border of the two countries. At a press conference on Thursday in Nairobi, Isaias dodged questions on the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from the country.

“Do not take Eritrea as a pretext to the problems in Ethiopia,” he says.

The Kenya trip to Eritrea was the first serious diplomatic move, says Mutahi.

“Ruto went to Asmara in December, and very few presidents get to Eritrea,” says Mutahi. His visit led to gradual Eritrean pullback from Tigray, and he is trying to keep the momentum.

Diplomatic opening

Ruto named former president Uhuru Kenyatta as peace envoy to Ethiopia, a move that has positioned Kenya as a closer partner with the diplomatically isolated Isaias. Kenyatta while in office also maintained dialogue with Eritrea, but Ruto is more actively push for its inclusion, he says.

Officially, the bilateral talks are tackling a raft of trade topics, from agriculture to air transport, and energy, as well as education and tourism, but part of Ruto’s move is to solidify regional ties, says Mutahi.

“Eritrea returning to IGAD would bring it back into the diplomatic fold,” says Mutahi, referring to the regional body Inter Governmental Authority on Development.

Isaias said on Thursday Eritrea would be rejoining IGAD. “No question about it.”

Eritrea’s stormy diplomatic ties to IGAD over the past 15 years has added to its regional isolation. It suspended itself from IGAD in 2007, after Ethiopia’s military intervention in Somalia. UN Security Council sanctions followed its attack on Djibouti, also an IGAD member state.

Nairobi accused Asmara in 2011 of supplying weapons to Somali rebel group Al-Shabaab, resulting in UN Security Council sanctions. They were dropped in 2019.

Ruto’s ambitions regarding the eight-member regional body include taking the helm as a way to promote regional frameworks.

“When Ruto met Isaias in Asmara in December, he suggested that IGAD have a rotational presidency like the UN Security Council, a move that could bring Eritrea back in a positive light if it becomes a member in good standing,” he says.

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