Semere T. Habtemariam
At the end of April 2018, Donald Yamamoto visited Eritrea, Djibouti and Ethiopia.He is the highest-ranking US diplomat to visit Eritrea in over a decade. Many things have changed in the region, but the one thing that had stayed the same is: the no-war-no-peace stalemate between Eritrea and Ethiopia. With the visible military presence of China in the region, the US finds the normalization of relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia important enough to embark on a new initiative. Yamamoto’s mission was to convey to both governments this new shift in US policy. Reliable sources have confirmed that he had succeeded in obtaining initial support to his initiative. Both governments have agreed in principle while reaffirming their 16-year old positions: demarcate first and then dialogue vs. dialogue first and then demarcate.
Although Yamamoto’s visit to the region was scheduled before the election of the new Prime Minister in Ethiopia, the mere coincidence has given the impression that the change in Ethiopia is beyond a change of personality, but a shift in policy. In his inaugural speech, Prime Minister Abiye Ahmed has said, “we want from the bottom of our hearts that the disagreement that has reigned for years to come to an end,” and urged, “the Eritrean government to take the same stand.”
Actions speak louder than words and the Ethiopian government, under the late Meles Zenawi and former Prime Minister Desalegn Haile Mariam have done nothing to resolve the impasse they’ve unliterary imposed on both countries. They did talk the talk, although, at times with open and veiled threats, inconsistency and equivocation. It should not be forgotten that in April 2003, Meles Zenawi had threatened to reject the ruling if adjustments were not made. On April 13, 2002, the Information Ministry of Ethiopia accused the Eritrean Ethiopian Boundary Commission (EEBC) of misinterpreting the December 2000 Algiers Agreement and the court’s ruling of April 13, 2002.
It is the hope of many that the new Prime Minister will take a new and refreshing initiative aiming at peace and the end of the no-peace-no-war stalemate. It shouldn’t be business as usual.Ethiopia has been playing the same song for the last 15 years but repeating the idea of dialogue often enough doesn’t make it a solution. There is no doubt that Eritrea will enter into a dialogue as soon as the previously agreed decisions are upheld by Ethiopia. Logic dictates so, and so does the EEBC verdict. It is true that Eritrea has also not changed its position since 2003 when the EEBC gave its “final and binding” verdict, but, it cannot be emphasized enough that Eritrea is on the right side of the law; and hence it cannot be held directly responsible for the impasse.
The Eritrean government’s mediocre response to Ethiopia’s diplomacy should not be confused with wrong-doing. Based on the Commission’s interpretation, Eritrea’s position is right; and Ethiopia’s position is wrong. Eritrea has fully complied with the EEBC’s ruling and Ethiopia has not. These are the facts.
The question is: Can Ethiopia and Eritrea dialogue while demarcating and demarcate while dialoguing? In a culture where intransigence is often confused with steadfastness, how does Yamamoto proceed?
Background To The Algiers Agreement:
In 1991, two allied organizations, the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), came to power in Eritrea and Ethiopia respectively. They had fought together to defeat the Mengistu regime;and this strategic military alliance became the basis of their bilateral relations between 1991 and 1998.The two leaders, Isaias Afeworki of Eritrea and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, were the embodiment of this unprecedented comity. They travelled together on Meles’ plane; vacationed together in the Red Sea; and Meles had a vacation house in Asmera that is still known as “inda Meles” to this day. However, there was something unsettling about their friendship; it was characterized by mistrust and rivalry. And on May 6, 1998, the two leaders shocked the world when they risked everything and entered into Africa’s biggest and deadliest war.
It was a war of choice, and not necessity (1998-2000), that claimed over 70 thousands lives, millions of internally displaced people, the destruction of property worth in the billions, the deportation of 98 thousands Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin, and the confiscation of their properties and businesses estimated in hundreds of millions of dollars. All these took place in just two years.
The world might not have understood the reasons that led to its sudden eruption, but it knew its cataclysmic effect. The US committed some of its top diplomats such as Susan Rice, Anthony Lake and the late Richard Holbrooke in mediating between the parties. President Clinton was personally responsible for brokering the air moratorium that helped avert the destruction of non-military, economic and development infrastructures.
On December 12, 2000, all became quieton the Zalembessa-Badme-Burie fronts when Eritrea and Ethiopia signed the Peace Agreement in Algiers, Algeria. This gave hope to a brighter future of cooperation and a possible restoration of a once promising cooperation between the two countries. This optimism was further reinforced when both countries accepted the Border Commission’s delimitation ruling in April 2002 and expressed their commitment to cooperate accordingly.
Peoples’ optimism, however, was short-lived when Ethiopia started to equivocate—proving that optimism and good will were predicated on the “in good faith” implementation of the Algiers Agreement.
Although Eritrea’s and Ethiopia’s stated policies (demarcate first and then dialogue vs. dialogue first and then demarcate) are not mutually exclusive, it cannot be emphasized enough that any peaceful resolutions of conflicts will be predicated on in-good-faith compliance to treaties, agreements, rulings, and international law by all member states.
When asked by Mo Ibrahim, in a conference held in Kigali, about the possibility of a new agreement between the warring parties in South Sudan, the former Prime Minister Haile Mariam rightfully responded, “Agreements are signed but never implemented. I don’t see that further (or) more agreements can be signed, but I don’t think it will be implemented as the history shows.”
Inadvertently, Haile Mariam has become the best advocate for Eritrea’s position.
The Algiers Agreement
The Algiers Agreement was the reaffirmation of the Organization of African Unity’s (OAU) Framework Agreement and the Modalities for its Implementation (July 1999) and the Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities (June 2000). Towards this end, the Agreement established two neutral independent commissions:the Eritrean-Ethiopian Boundary Commission (EEBC) and the Eritrean-Ethiopian Claims Commission.
The EEBC was an independent impartial body appointed by the Secretary General of the OAU in consultation with his counterpart at the UN. It was mandated “to delimit and demarcate the colonial treaty border based on pertinent colonial treaties (1900, 1902 and 1908) and applicable international law” (Article 4:2).Although Article 38(2) of the Statue of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) allows the court to rule on the basis of “equitable criteria,” both countries failed to authorize the Commission to “have the power to make decisions ex aequo et bono (according to what is equitable and good).”
Both Eritrea and Ethiopia agreed on the decision to be “final and binding.”
The UN Cartographic Unit would provide technical expertise, serve as the EEBC’s Secretary and perform functions necessary for the Commission. The two countries agreed “to cooperate with the Commission, its experts and other staff in all respects during the process of delimitation and demarcation, including the facilitation of access to territory they control” (Article 4:14).
Eritrea and Ethiopia provided their claims and evidence to the Secretary. The Secretary, in turn, provided his findings to the EEBC by identifying those sections of the border that were not in dispute and when disagreements arose, the parties were allowed to submit additional evidence.
In 2003, the EEBC gave its final ruling on delimiting the border. It transmitted its ruling to both parties, the OAU and the UN, and was ready to demarcate. Ethiopia accepted the ruling “in principle” but refused to allow the EEBC to demarcate.
16 years later, no progress has been made.
The See-saw game:
The regimes in Eritrea and Ethiopia were/are mirror-image of each other. They’ve been through thick and thin together and share a lot in common. But beneath this veneer of commonalities lies a dangerous pathology that is making any attempt of reconciliation impossible. The author believes it is this “personalization” of the conflict that former Prime Minister Haile Mariam was complaining about in his talk with Mo Ibrahim. The TPLF thinks that the border conflict is a Tigrayan and Eritrean issue. Former Prime Minister Haile Mariam has reportedly said that the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict is “yetigre guday ne; it is a Tigre affair.” Tigre is the name the Amhara use to refer to Eritreans and Tigrayans together.
Without delving into the etiology of the Eritrean-Ethiopian border war, it suffices to mention that Eritrea was responsible for the escalation of an otherwise small skirmish into a full-scale war. The Hague ruling has also shown that Ethiopia’s occupation of Badme, the flash-point of the war, is what led Eritrea to take action.
Soon after the war broke out, Eritrea came up with a peace proposal to resolve the conflict. Ethiopia saw Eritrea’s quick move as a confirmation of a dangerous pattern in Eritrea’s behavior of “shoot first and then talk.” As charcoal is to embers and as wood is to fire, so is a quarrelsome Eritrea for kindling strife. (Pr. 26:21)
According to Ethiopia, Eritrea was guilty of Jedwood justice where the alleged criminal is hung first and then tried afterwards. This is why Ethiopia, during the war, insisted on “negotiating while fighting and fighting while negotiating.”
Both Eritrea and Ethiopia have accepted and rejected the so many peace proposals, not on principle but on how well they thought they were doing militarily. They played see-saw with the lives of their own people.
Can Ethiopia now dialogue while demarcating and demarcate while dialoguing?
Eritrea Cannot Suppress its Pessimistic History with the World:
In less than 70 years, Eritrea has been twice short-changed by the UN, US and the international community. Many Eritreans are not fully convinced that the world will do the right thing if it means getting tough on Ethiopia.
The US’s past, one-dimensional obsession with fighting communism has been replaced by the new fight against the war on terror in the HOA. Ethiopia has taken advantage of this war by forging an alliance of convenience.
The Eritrean leaders and diplomats were caught napping; they could not rise up to the Ethiopian challenge. Ethiopia’s diplomatic savviness has totally eclipsed Eritrea’s diplomatic maneuvering. Ethiopia played a major role in the passage of the US-sponsored UN arms sanction against Eritrea for its alleged involvement in Somalia, but a UN panel of experts later found out no evidence to support the continuance of Eritrea’s alleged support.
Yamamoto could initiate lifting the sanctions on Eritrea; it would earn him credibility and good will from Eritrea and Eritreans.
The image of Eritrea that has emerged in the world is that of a hermetic nation that is hostile to outside influences. But Eritreans by geography, history, upbringing, and self-interest can’t be isolationists. Rightly or wrongly, they feel under siege by a world that has failed them multiple times. The Eritrean regime understands this mindset and exploits it to prolong its hold on power.
Eritreans have not been able to suppress this pessimistic history of negligence at the hands of world powers. Thousands of Eritreans died in the liberation war (1961-1991) due to the shortsightedness of US and UN policy makers, who in the late 1940s and early 1950s conspired against the will of the majority of Eritreans. When a decade later in 1962 the federation, that was imposed on Eritrea, was unilaterally abrogated by Ethiopia neither the UN nor the US raised eyebrows.
When Eritreans rose in arms and waged what has been named Africa’s longest war, none of the afore-mentioned powers showed any moral responsibility in resolving the conflict. It is only after Eritrea achieved its imminent and de facto independence—through military victory—these powers paid attention, and it is mostly to avert a power vacuum in Ethiopia. Eritrea, in itself, has never been important to the US and the world, although it should have been. Eritrea was home to US military base, Kagnew Station, for over three decades (1943-1977).
The strategically-located, free, democratic, and sovereign Eritrea will be a great and natural ally to the US and the freedom-loving world.
What goes for Ethiopia goes for the Horn of Africa (HOA):
Ethiopia is the regional giant; what it does has serious ramifications. A good Ethiopia is good for the HOA; it has to be assertive and strong, and yet friendly and peaceful. Ethiopia’s importance is even more evident in the case of Eritrea. Eritrea cannot afford to have a bad Ethiopia or Sudan—its two giants neighbors—and this reality should be the basis of its regional policy. What made the 1998-2000 war more tragic was that it belied this very basic truth.
It is in the best interest of the HOA countries to embark on a democratization project. Ethiopia and Djibouti with all their deficiencies have already taken the democratization baby-steps and the Somali region known as Somaliland is relatively on the consolidation phase and one could only hope this would have a spill-over effect on the rest of the Somali regions and Eritrea.
The voluntary resignation of former Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Desalegn Haile Mariam, and the peaceful transfer of power to the new prime minister, Abiye Ahmed, has heralded a new era of optimism.
Eritrea is far behind on the democratization project. All the strides that were made by the Transitional Government of Eritrea prior to the border war have been completely stricken out as the ruling party PFDJ has become increasingly oppressive. The siege mentality coupled with Ethiopia’s intransigence to comply with The Hague ruling has created a fertile ground for tyranny in Eritrea. Ethiopia’s preoccupation with security in Eritrea and Somalia is not helping because it limits its due influence and potential as a leading moral, democratic and economic force. Ethiopia has ignored the biblical precept that “By justice a king gives a country stability.” (Pr. 29:4)
An Ethiopia that is guided by a long-term vision of democracy, prosperity and regional cooperation is good for the HOA. Ethiopia must show the wisdom and courage to make short-term political sacrifices for long-term good gains. This is the stuff of greatness and an Ethiopia that lives up to this potential is what the HOA needs.
Nonetheless, it is not a bad thing that the regime, despite the objection of some Ethiopian naysayers, has declared its acceptance of The Hague ruling while insisting on resolving all pending issues prior to the full implementation of the agreement.This caveat, however, seems to be devised for domestic political consumption rather than for peace and justice. Many Ethiopians during the war rallied behind their flag with the tacit understanding that they would bring Eritrea, if not all of it, at least the port of Asseb back to Ethiopia.
Eritrea has suspected all along that Ethiopia is trying to achieve in a dialogue what it has not been able to win in war and arbitration. It has accused Ethiopia of disguising itself in her lips, but in her heart, it harbors deceit. (Pr. 26:24)
Ethiopia, however, can’t afford to be perceived as threat to its neighbors. The colossus of the HOA must learn how to strike the right balance between might and right. The boogeyman south-of-the-border is how the regime in Eritrea perpetuates an environment of fear and mistrust among its populace; it has enlisted its service effectively. Nobody questions how thin is the Ethiopian thread by which the sword of Damocles is suspended but most people believe it is there. It is how things are defended and rationalized in Eritrea and as long as it exists any efforts to democratize Eritrea will be easily thwarted.
One of the challenges of the Eritrean democratic forces is figuring out how they can convince the Ethiopian government to have this ground cut under PFDJ’s feet.If there is any short-cut on the road to regime change and democracy in Eritrea where the Eritreans are in charge, then, this is it.
Regime Change is the Prerogative of the Eritrean People
For many Eritreans, the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict is the mother-of-all-conflicts which has taken the whole country hostage and put the democratization project on hold; for many others it’s Isaias’s tyranny that is responsible for Eritrea’s current predicament. The two are not mutually exclusive; they tend to feed on each other in an uncanny way. Solving the border will certainly create new challenges but also opportunities. In the case of Eritrea, reintegrating a heavily militarized society will prove to be a Herculean task which will most likely lead to mass uprisings or military coups.
Most members of the Eritrean opposition find themselves in an unenviable position. They operate from the land of the enemy without refuting the presence of the boogeyman. Whether reality or perception, this is part of the Eritrean public mindset that needs to be reckoned with.
One of the main reasons the Eritrean opposition has failed to make any progress in removing the regime is because the Eritreans that matter the most—those inside the country—are not convinced that the divided Ethiopia-based opposition have Eritrea’s best interest at heart. Some in the opposition are perceived by many as puppets of the TPLF.
To make matters worse, some groups within the Eritrean opposition have become disciples of Ethnic Federalism, and for an overwhelming majority of Eritreans this is anathema to everything they hold dear and good. The Eritrean opposition is perceived to be an accomplice to Ethiopia’s antagonistic policy towards Eritrea, and consequently it suffers from any real and perceived threats Ethiopia poses to Eritrea.
Eritrea—with its fiercely independent past, a culture of patriotic sacrifices and its recent experience with an autocratic system—is destined to marshal its resources and aspirations to realize a democratic Athens in Africa. The ideals of liberty, peace and democracy have never preoccupied the minds of Eritreans as they do today. The rude awakenings of the various recent tragedies have induced an intense interest on Eritreans to wrestle with these perennial political issues.
The fight for democracy stands a better chance today than ever before. Eritreans have an indefatigable esprit de corps and they will, once again, rise up to the occasion. What the HOA needs is democracy; more and not less of it. A Tigrinya proverb says that the source of prosperity is not the willowing floor but the floors of Ecclesia—peoples’ assembly.
The democratic transformation of Eritrea is in the best interest of the whole region. Good neighborliness and regional cooperation is only possible with an Eritrea that is free and democratic.
Why Dialogue Now?
Ethiopia has “accepted” the decision “in principle” but is calling for a “dialogue” to sort out the “anomalies and impracticabilities.” This is absurd because Ethiopia had its day in court and had willingly agreed to the arbitration terms when it was decisively enjoying the military upper-hand. In any war, the victor usually dictates the outcome of any armistice, and Ethiopia was not under any duress to accept the Algiers Agreement.
Ethiopia’s failure to honor its obligation is counter-productive to peace and stability. For a decade, the world in general, and Eritreans in particular have let the grass grow under their feet hoping for Ethiopia to comply. The UN, AU, EU, and the US have not done enough to shoulder their responsibility as guarantors and witnesses of the Algiers agreement.
Eritrea should not enter into a dialogue with Ethiopia out of fear, but it should not fear to enter into a dialogue. There were about 13 face-to-face border related meetings between 1993 and 1997, the last six of them were held in 1997. These meetings took place when the relationship between the two countries was warm and cordial.
How can a call fordialogue be taken seriously in an environment rife with hostility, mistrust and suspicion?
It is a valid question and one that needs to be addressed. By insisting on having a dialogue prior to demarcation, Ethiopia is making the perfect the enemy of the good. Most reasonable people would agree that the demarcation is not the-be-all-and-end-all solution, but it is a great start that would inevitably lead to the normalization of relations. Demarcation is just the edge of the wedge; and Ethiopia must make virtue of necessity.
It is not that the call for dialogue is patently wrong, but the context in which Ethiopia is invoking it.
Eritrea must clearly and unequivocally show its readiness and willingness to enter into a dialogue as soon as the border demarcation commences and work on resolving all pending issues which will gradually lead towards achieving what Ethiopia has called a “comprehensive peace.” This is a process which will inherently take a long time and most likely outlive the current generation of leaders. The goal of the current leaders should be to lay the ground work so future leaders can build on it. Focus should be on managing what is unavoidable and avoiding what is unmanageable.
There is some merit to the “anomalies and impracticabilities” concern that Ethiopia has raised, but it is a bit too late and a bit too small. In the grand scheme of things, it is not that important to de facto nullify and void The Hague ruling and the Algiers Agreement. Perhaps it should have been part of the original agreement, or the court should have been given the power to make decisions ex aequo et bono (according to what is equitable and good), but it should not be used retroactively derail a process where life and death hinges on it.
The Ethiopians should find solace in history that the predecessors of the same villages and people they are concerned about have managed to move on with their lives when colonial powers divided them over a century ago. Family and silken ties are not severed easily and when they are temporarily suspended, they have a way of coming back. Besides, the affected village communities could invoke the right of self-determination on which side of the border they want to be.
The United Nations is also entrusted “to facilitate resolution of problems which may arise due to the transfer of territorial control, including the consequences for individuals residing in previously disputed territory” (Article 5:16). This stipulation is only applicable post the demarcation phase.
There is a reason why the US, EU, AU, UN, and most countries have called on Ethiopia to comply with the verdict. Granted their calls have a glaring lack of moral outrage and indignation, and this has casted, in the eyes of many Eritreans, a cloud of doubt on their sincerity and commitment to the agreement they had helped broker. They AU and UN have failed their obligations, but nevertheless recognize this is the only way to the normalization of relations between the two countries.
EEBC Has All it Needs to Do its Job
The EEBC has all it needs to start demarcation and get the job done. The agreement does not mandate her to facilitate or require a dialogue between the two parties. A dialogue, if agreed upon by the two parties, might help, but it is not essential or necessary for the commission to do its mandated work. All the EEBC needs from both countries is to be left alone to do its work.
Ethiopia has to honor its legal obligation and let the EEBC start demarcating the border.
Hanish Should Serve as a Precedent
Conflicts don’t prescribe war; how they are managed makes all the difference. The 1998-2000 war will go in history as a classic example of mismanagement and failure of leadership on both sides.
The reason the Eritrean-Yemeni Hanish Islands conflict came to a quick end, within 3 days (December 15-17, 1995), was because President Salah of Yemen had the courage to refuse to tango with Isaias Afwerki when a majority of his parliament were calling on him “to teach Eritrea a lesson.” The restraint of Salah had helped both countries avert unnecessary bloodshed, but also enabled Yemen to win most of the territories in dispute.
In October 1998, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that the main islands making the Hanish archipelago belong to Yemen. Eritrea accepted the decision and withdrew its forces immediately.
In legal terms, Yemen won; and Eritrea lost, but in terms of peace, both won.
When conflicts arise, law, agreements and treaties should carry the day. This is the stuff peace is made of. A mechanism of conflict resolution is the best down payment Eritrea and Yemen could have made in their peace and security. The legal and peaceful resolution of the Hanish conflict has set a good precedent.
Demarcation is a major step towards regional peace and democracy in the HOA:
The only rationale Eritrea and Ethiopia are on the opposite sides on the Somali conflict is because Eritrea sees the conflict as an extension of its war with Ethiopia—its proxy war. It defies any other logic why Eritrea, in the early days of the Somali conflict, would support an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group in Somalia if it was not for the notion that an enemy of my enemy is my friend.It is not the incremental “tightening” of UN sanctions that would give Eritrea the disincentives from playing a “spoiler’s” role in the HOA, but justice.The world’s inaction is seen by many Eritreans as tantamount to condoning Ethiopia’s intransigence and violation.
Solving the Eritrean-Ethiopian border conflict is, therefore, solving half of the HOA’s conflicts. If the international community can get Eritrea and Ethiopia to cooperate, pull together, or, at least, not work against each-other, then the possibility of a regional peace and democracy is within reach.
Peace can’t be so near and yet so far in the Horn of Africa.
Ethiopia and Eritrea hold the key; and a compromise can be struck between their respective positions. Both have accepted The Hague ruling and the sanctity of this decision is the launching pad of a way out.
Eritrea wants demarcation to precede normalization. Ethiopia wants to enter into a dialogue on all “pending issues” before letting the demarcation take place. Both positions can be reconciled if The Hague ruling is not part of the dialogue and it is implemented in the manner the EEBC sees fit. Dialogue on all other pending issues can be simultaneously conducted. In this win-win situation, The Hague ruling will not be undermined when Ethiopia allows the demarcation to take place “as it is” and Eritrea enters into a dialogue to resolve all “pending issues” leading to “comprehensive peace”.
Both countries can demarcate while dialoguing and dialogue while demarcating.
The US, UN, AU, EU, and the rest of the international community must lead this effort and facilitate the process. There is today less acrimony and bellicosity between the two governments and there is a widespread fighting-fatigue among the people particularly Eritreans. Many Ethiopians also recognize the importance of Eritrean ports to their economic development and regret the missed opportunities for cooperation between the two sisterly countries. According to a high ranking Ethiopian official Ethiopia’s expenditure in port fees has risen by more than 1400% since it went to war with Eritrea in 1998. Eritrea with its vacant ports has lost most of its revenue from port fees.
The situation is ripe, and the time is right for a shuttle diplomacy between Asmera and Addis Ababa.
The large Eritrean and Ethiopian Diaspora and its civil society organizations can play an important role in bridging differences and laying the ground work for regional collaboration. States should not be the only actors and more ways must be pursued where various people and organizations can play a constructive role in the HOA.
One way to make dialogue an attractive alternative is to let many and diverse civil society organizations as well as political parties to be part of the process.
Yamamoto could successfully finish what Susan Rice, Richard Holbrooke and Anthony Lake had started.
Semere T. Habtemariam:
is the Chief Executive Officer of the Forum for National Dialogue. He is one of the founders and pioneers of the civil society organizations that sprouted in the aftermath of the arrest of the group known as G-15 and the journalists of the free press. He is the author of two books, “Reflections on the History of the Tewahdo Church,” and “Hearts Like Birds.” He has a master’s degree in public Affairs and a Bachelor’s in Government and Politics from the University of Texas at Dallas. He lives with his wife and four children in Carrollton, Texas.
The author of this article is the Chief Executive Office and member of the Board of Directors of the Forum for National Dialogue, but the views and opinions expressed in this article are his only and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Forum for National Dialogue. FND does not espouse any official policy or position on any issues. Members of the Board are free to express any opinion they hold.