Senior Research Fellow, Horn of Africa and Southern Africa, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study
Martin Plaut is affiliated with the Commonwealth Institute of the University of London, the Royal African Society and Chatham House.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (left) and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki re-opening the Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa.EPA-EFE/StringerIt’s just five months since Abiy Ahmed took overas Ethiopian Prime Minister yet the pace of change in the Horn of Africa has been simply staggering. Insuperable obstacles have been swept away. So many hurdles have been vaulted that it’s difficult to keep track.
The armed confrontations between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and between Eritrea and Djibouti, have now vanished in a puff of smoke. Or so it would appear.
It would be a mistake to ridicule what has been achieved. Eritrea seems to have genuinely dropped its hostility towards its southern and its eastern neighbour. But it’s also prudent to note the obstacles that remain.
Abiy is aware that a lot still needs to be done. As he put it recently:
When the time came both peoples Eritrea and Ethiopia woke up from their sleep and said enough is enough and brought back their peace. The next question will be not about who contributed how much to the peace deal, it should be on how to keep and sustain the peace, because the peace needs to be maintained. So, all people have to work together to sustain it.
In addition, for the peace efforts to stick both Ethiopia and Eritrea must complete internal reforms. Abiy has pushed Ethiopia much further down the road of reform while Eritrea still has a long way to go. Consolidating democracy and internal peace building will be needed if the dramatic pace of change is to hold in the region.
What still needs to be done
As Abiy rightly says, a great deal still needs to be done to sustain the peace. People and villages all along the Ethiopian border need to be assigned to their respective countries, as the new border comes into force. Tens of thousands of troops will have to be withdrawn from the trenches they have inhabited since the end of the border war of 1998–2000. A host of customs arrangements and immigration issues must be resolved. This is the hard graft that needs to follow the handshakes and smiles of the leaders.
Then there are internal reforms in both Ethiopia and Eritrea that have to be addressed if peace and security are to be consolidated.
Ethiopia has made considerable progress on this front. Journalists have been freed from jail, the internet restrictions lifted and media regulations relaxed. Political prisoners have been released and opposition leaders have come home.
In Eritrea there have only been the most feeble of moves towards reform. Bloomberg reported that the government is “definitely studying”the possibility of demobilisation of its vast army of national service conscripts. In an interview the Minister for Labour and Human Welfare Luul Gebreab said:
Definitely a small army will remain, and the others will concentrate on the developmental work as planned.
When this might take place is not clear.
On other reforms, including the implementation of the country’s constitution, the freeing of political prisoners and the lifting of the ban on independent media and all opposition political parties, there is a stony silence from the Eritrean government.
Herman Cohen, the former US Secretary of State for African Affairs who brokered an end to the Eritrean-Ethiopian War in 1991 has offered encouragement. He has has argued that President Isaias “should not fear a more open Eritrea system. Now would be a good time to start the process.”
There are no signs of this taking place and as a result no drop in the number of Eritreans fleeing to neighbouring Ethiopia. The UN Refugee agency registered 1,738 in July this year – very much on trend with previous years.
The developments between states in the Horn of Africa are clearly very welcome. The question now is whether they can be translated into reality on the ground, and whether the international developments will be reflected in internal reforms.
Once both of these steps have been taken it would be possible to conclude that the region has truly been transformed.