Eritrea – Ethiopia: A string of near chances to fully normalise relations

By Samuel Getachew
Posted on Thursday, 3 June 2021 17:51

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, second left, and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, center, hold hands as they wave at the crowds in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Sunday July 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

Ethiopia and Eritrea's tumultuous relationship has a string of missed opportunities to fully normalise relations, since the time of Italy's colonisation.

Born in Ethiopia to an Eritrean father and Ethiopian mother, Filmon Haftay met his family in Asmara almost three years ago.

This came about after the stalemate between Ethiopia and Eritrea came to a sudden end, ending a bloody conflict between the two countries and culminating in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. Haftay, and thousands of others, finally reunited with their loved ones.

“That was one of the best days of my life. I re-connected with many of my family members, many of the young ones I did not know and for the first time and I have since kept in touch with many of them”, the 41-year old father of three tells The Africa Report.

With the tense relationship between the federal government of Ethiopia and Tigray’s regional government turning into a full-scale war (involving Eritrean troops on the side of the Ethiopian National Defense Force), the conflict has left thousands dead and countless Ethiopians are either internally displaced in their own country or destitute refugees in Sudan.

Three years ago, there was talk of normalisation of the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea, for borders to remain open and enabling citizens of the two countries to travel freely but this did not materialise.

“I grew up in [the] midst of conflicts, between Ethiopia and Eritrea and now with the current conflict, [I did not think that] my own children and their generation would be experiencing the same now,” Haftey says as he reflects on the conflict that has seen the United States propose sanctions against both countries.

How the Ethio-Eritrea war began

There is a similarity between the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict and the Korean one in terms of ancestral roots, languages, culture, and religion. Ethiopia and Eritrea severed ties after Italy colonised the latter for almost four decades, which was later followed by the invasion of Britain for almost 15 years.

Though there was an attempt by Ethiopia’s imperial regime at the time, to federate Eritrea after the latter expelled Italians from its territory, this did not happen. In fact, the decision of the then Emperor of Ethiopia, Haileselassie I, to invade Eritrea after abolishing the federation, led to the birth of a guerrilla movement.

If the TDF will gain the upper hand in the fight, it may lead to the withering of Eritrean-Ethiopian relations, as it will be a blame game on who perpetrated the atrocities to avoid personal accountability and international sanctions.

Three decades later, led by President Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea declared its independence from Ethiopia, which was under the rule of Meles Zenawi, ex-leader of the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF)-dominated coalition party.

The close relationship between the two leaders and the strategic agreement between the Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF) – that was rebranded to the People Front for Democracy & Justice – and TPLF smoothened the independence process; though it has also created a problem, which is still haunting the two neighbouring countries.

Blindfolded by mutual interest, the two leaders still failed to institutionalise their relationship, demarcate borders and formalise their diplomatic relations, leading to a war that claimed thousands of lives.

The conflict persisted for almost two decades until Abiy initiated a surprise engagement with Ethiopia’s one-time arch enemy.

The conflict as a wedge issue

“Since the restoration of peaceful relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018, there are many signs of its dividends. For example, Eritrea has been playing a positive role to solve the outstanding issues on the usage of the Nile water resources and cooperation between both offers many positive possibilities like using the ports in Eritrea to diversify access to the Red Sea,” Simo-Pekka Parviainen, an expert on Ethiopian political issues and a former Finish diplomat, tells The Africa Report.

“The operations to restore law and order in Ethiopia’s Tigray region enjoy strong support among Ethiopians at home and abroad,” he says.

Kjetil Tronvoll, a peace and conflict studies professor based in Oslo’s Bjorknes University sees it differently.

“The development of Eritrean-Ethiopian relations will likely fluctuate in the near future, reflecting the progress or setbacks in the war in Tigray. If the Eritrean and federal forces are successful in the war campaign, it is likely that the Eritrean-Ethiopian relations will be strengthened, possibly even establishing some type of confederate mode,” he says.

That is only if the current conflict meets its objective and does not bring back the strong-hold, TPLF, which once dominated Ethiopian politics for almost three decades.

“If the TDF [Tigray Defence Force] will gain the upper hand in the fight, it may lead to the withering of Eritrean-Ethiopian relations, as it will be a blame game on who perpetrated the atrocities to avoid personal accountability and international sanctions. Eritrean forces may also pull-back to northern Tigray if their losses are too high, in order to safeguard the border,” Tronvoll adds.

TPLF as a common enemy

Prime Minister Abiy brought an end to the deadlock within months after he came to power, visiting Asmara in person.

Isaias blames the TPLF for the economic sanction against Eritrea while Abiy passes the buck for much of the conflicts in many parts of Ethiopia and his waning support within the Tigray region.

In the current conflict, with much of the area out of reach, troops allied to Ethiopia, Eritrea and the TPLF all stand accused of rape, killings and the destruction of infrastructure. There are, according to the United Nations, more than five million people in need of immediate humanitarian assistance.

Worse still, Ethiopia is said to be on the verge of a widespread famine, mirroring the 1984 crisis that was termed as one of the worst humanitarian events of the 20th century after countless citizens starved to death, eliciting worldwide pity.

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