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Ethiopia and Eritrea: Brothers at war no more
New internal and external dynamics are shaping the relations between the two countries
By Goitom Gebreluel and Kjetil Tronvoll
Source: Al Jazeera
The relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia is arguably the most important and volatile in East Africa. The fall-out between the former brothers-in-arms initiated a two-year-long border war in 1998, which claimed around 100,000 causalities, cost billions of dollars, and continues to serve as the main source of regional instability in the Horn of Africa.
The fighting was brought to an end with the signing of the Algiers Peace Agreement and establishment of the Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Commission (EEBC) in 2000. However, Ethiopia's refusal to implement the rulings of the EEBC prior to negotiations and Eritrea's insistence on an unconditional and immediate demarcation of the border, have locked the two governments in an intractable stalemate.
Despite the official cessation of hostilities in 2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea continued their war through proxies by supporting various rebel movements throughout the Horn of Africa. In this way, they have been fuelling conflict and instability in each other's countries as well as the wider region.
Thirteen years after the Algiers Peace Agreement, domestic conditions in both states and the regional geopolitical equation have undergone substantial changes.
Ethiopia lost its long-time strongman, Meles Zenawi, in 2012. There are strong indications that Eritrea is also very likely to see the departure of its own leader, President Isaias Afwerki, in the near future. Moreover, Ethiopia has been experiencing robust economic growth and political stability over the last decade, a development that has also coincided with a significant weakening of its regional adversaries.
The political standoff between Ethiopia and Eritrea has very much been tied to the role, interests and historical experiences of particular individuals and circles that hail from one generation - the Marxist-Leninist student movements turned guerrilla fighters in the 1960s and 1970s. With the political and generational changes that are taking place in both countries, a normalisation of relations between these two states might take place in the not so distant future.
A new chapter
In Addis Ababa, the discourse on Eritrea has evolved from initially being considered a significant military threat next door to that of concerns over state collapse, civil war and its security implications.
Ethiopia's ruling EPRDF (Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front) government faced, as recently as 2007, the tactical alliance of Eritrea, Ethiopian armed rebels and factions in Somalia (such as the Islamic Courts Union - ICU). To many observers the security equation seemed at that time to be in favour of this alliance.
In a significant turn of developments, Eritrea underwent a process of rapid economic, political and humanitarian decline - a clear indicator of which is its emergence as one of the top refugee producing countries in the world. In Somalia the ICU has been eliminated, and its successor al-Shabab has also been dealt a blow that it is unlikely to recover from.
Armed Ethiopian insurgent groups, such as the Oromo Liberation Front and Ogaden National Liberation Front, have largely declined, due to, among other things, their inability to remain cohesive. In addition to this, the Ethiopian economy - and consequently its military power - has undergone sustained growth over the last decade.
Asmara's support for Somali-based rebel groups made it an international pariah and target of a regime under UN sanctions. Although Eritrea is not the only actor to engage in such actions (Ethiopia harbours a dozen Eritrean rebel-groups), the consequences have been particularly severe for Eritrea. This is mainly due to its choice of allies in Somalia, which happened to be at loggerheads with much of the regional and international community. President Isaias Afwerki's inability to play the diplomatic game and persuade the international community to support, or at least understand his viewpoint, created conducive conditions for the late PM Zenawi - who succeeded where Afwerki failed.
The main concern for policy-makers in Addis Ababa is no longer Asmara's military capacity, but rather the possibility of Eritrea plunging into chaos. This fear is apparently so daunting to Ethiopia that it may prefer a reformed Eritrean government led by People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), rather than the insecurities of a violent power transition next door.
On two occasions this year the current Ethiopian PM Hailemariam Desalegn has signalled his government's interest in dialogue and his willingness to go to Asmara at anytime for peace talks without any pre-conditions.
The delicate issue of Bademe
At the heart of the stalemate are symbolic politics and domestic constraints on both sides - of which the contested border-town of Bademe is an embodiment.
It is very possible that the EPRDF will hand over the symbolic town of Bademe to Eritrea - which was awarded to the latter by the EEBC - but it can only get away with such a move domestically by selling it as a necessary sacrifice for a comprehensive and durable peace. The fact that the individuals leading the current Ethiopian government did not take part in the decision-making processes of the border war and subsequent peace agreement means that they are less constrained by the commitments of their predecessors.
For President Afwerki, on the other hand, the stakes are much higher. In fact, resolving the stalemate is likely to create more challenges than benefits to his personal power base. The suspension of the parliament and the constitution, the universal and indefinite military conscription policy, and in general the system of one-man rule have all been justified by the need to counter the "Ethiopian threat". A settlement of the border issue would eliminate the rationale for maintaining this system and would undoubtedly lead to new domestic demands for addressing the nation's many political and humanitarian problems.
'Brothers at war'
Sentimental notions of brotherhood, betrayal, and ethnic-stereotypes have shaped the manner in which Ethiopia's EPRDF and Eritrea's PFDJ ruling parties have been relating to each other since the days of the guerrilla struggle.
The cultural and political intimacy and sense of fraternity that developed during their time as rebel movements led both parties to delay institutionalising the relationship between their newly established regimes in 1993 - and thus made possible the border war. These sentimental aspects also played an important role in making the conflict prolonged and eventually intractable.
This sense of "intimacy" has also had some positive implications. One such effect is the preferential treatment given to Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia - who now number around 100,000 people. Eritrean refugees - provided that they satisfy certain criteria - are given residency and work permits and the opportunity to study in Ethiopian universities (as opposed to refugees from other neighbouring countries). Around 1,200 university scholarships have so far been offered to Eritrean refugees.
However, the passing of time has brought with it substantial changes, and the more than a decade-long political and physical barriers led to an increasing cultural disconnectedness even among the people that live along the border. In Addis Ababa and other urban centres, it is even more challenging to arouse interest for Eritrean affairs among the average Ethiopian.
Post-Zenawi and post-Afwerki
A refugee crisis, high-level defections, and a recent mutiny in the army, are some of many indications that Afwerki's regime is facing an existential threat that may lead to its demise in the near future.
Afwerki is now on "survival mode" and may engage in new and desperate gestures to prolong his time in power, such as opening up to the international community for dialogue and humanitarian aid. However, if his past behaviour is anything to go by, such moves are only likely to be tactical survival manoeuvres that will not reverse the current political trajectory.
Ethiopia and Eritrea: Brothers at war no more
New internal and external dynamics are shaping the relations between the two countries
It is now time to think about what the relationship between these two states will look like without the two omnipresent strongmen that have heavily shaped their histories.
In Ethiopia this process of change has already begun, and the time when both countries will be led by a generation without the historical and political baggage inherited from the liberation war, the border war and subsequent peace settlement might not be far ahead in time. Free from these constraints, the post-Afwerki and post-Zenawi Eritrea-Ethiopia relations will most likely, not only be normalised, but also much more institutionalised.
Kjetil Tronvoll is a professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjorknes College, and Senior Partner at the International Law and Policy Institute. He has written Brothers at War: Making Sense of the Ethiopian-Eritrean War and The Lasting Struggle for Freedom in Eritrea: Human Rights and Political Development, 1991-2009.
Goitom Gebreluel is an advisor at the International Law and Policy Institute. He has previously worked for the Norwegian government (Norad) and taught foreign policy studies at Mekelle University, Ethiopia.
The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
“The main question facing us Ethiopians, is where do we go from here? Whenever I am faced with difficult challenges, challenges that could potentially be of existential significance, the first question I ask is what would the average Ethiopian peasant do under such circumstances? I ask this question not for sentimental reasons but because I know of no other Ethiopians who are better masters of the art of overcoming existential challenges. Murderous foreign and local wars have taken place in this country. The peasant bore the brunt of each one of them, but always came out on top. Governments of all colours have come and gone, the hardy old peasant has outlived them all. Horrific famines of biblical proportions have come and gone, the peasant has survived them all. Hence, there is no greater sage to consult on such matters. So once again what would your average Ethiopian peasant do? Having lived with him/her for some 17 years I think I know. The peasant hates injustice like no other abomination. You can therefore bet your life that plan A of the peasant in such circumstances would be to fight the injustice tooth and nail, with no holds barred, with the view to correcting the injustices. But your average peasant would not be the sage of facing existential challenges if he/she only had one plan. Again you can bet your life that there would at least be a plan B just in case the perpetrator of the injustice was able to get away with murder. Plan B would start with strengthening the peasants fortress, his/her homestead, so that it can withstand the possible temper tantrums of the spurned perpetrator of the injustice. Having done that, the peasant would plan to treat his/her tormentor with the disdain and contempt he/she deserves and move on with his/her eternal struggle to keep body and soul together. I believe we can do no less or no better than that. As our brothers the Southern African freedom fighters used to say, in Portuguese, La Lutta Continua! the struggle for a prosperous and democratic Ethiopia must and will go on despite the challenges. We in the EPRDF have faced off many more serious challenges. We must face this one with the same unflinching commitment to principles and justice. We cannot and must not falter in the face of this or other, even more formidable challenges in the future.”
PM Meles Zenawi,…
Yes, this issue between the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea is a very challenging and decisive moment to the future of both. But, Ethiopian govt must not allow the shabian regime to take advantage of our diplomatic gesture.
“The fall-out between the former brothers-in-arms initiated a two-year-long border war in 1998, which claimed around 100,000 causalities, cost billions of dollars, and continues to serve as the main source of regional instability in the Horn of Africa.”
Indeed the one time enemy of Ethiopia, Meles, who was a former brother-in-arm and a foot soldier of Isaias Afewerki. His policies during his entire years as a self appointed prime minister reflective of his background. We are now lift with incompetent prime minister and looting organization like EFFORT with deep rooted hatred towards Ethiopia that must be brought to a swift justice.
WTF are you takling about? The time of the idiotic, so called Marxist Leninist peasant this peasant that shitty propaganda era is dead and burried. You are one dumbfak woyane.. as was your rotting leader Zenawi, the shit head who agreed to abide by the Algiers and then.. saw what a blunder it was to pull out the victorious army before it hit the mark, then calling the UN in. Your Eprdf/Tplf shit will pay for its evil against Ethiopia. Tplf is responsible for a never ending conflict with the province.. and Somalia.. so fak your nonsensical plan A..B.. shit.
Mark my words again… there will never be an eritrean leadership that will seek peace with Ethiopia. No matter what you faks do, nothing will change when it comes to the province you helped secede. Furthermore, all these refugees you allow in to the country will only bite the hand that feeds them.
Again, get out of the 1970’s dickwad.. Marxism/Leninism does not live here in the 21st.
Ethio-Eritrea issue is a little deeper than two individuals falling-out…It is a generational issue that needs generational solution in a sense that it is about people who were once one but psychologically divided since colonial experience by Eritreans. Hence it is unlikely that such kind of problem would have a technical solution such as border demarcation since one side would always want to prove supremacy over the other or refuse to bow to the other..specially Eritrians who forged their identity out of a distorted idea of who they are will always find it difficult to accept the bitter reality that came with “independence"..eritrea is simply too small and inferior to Ethiopia and accepting the reality may be the only saving grace for the increasingly diminishing Eritrean ego.
Here comes Addis weyannes shifta who was once a shabia solder pretending to be an Ethiopia, the question is who are these 100000 shabas ? A future back-stabber waiting to bleed us as their parents did in the past. Do you think Addis your cousin will treat us the same in Asmara?
Woyane will make a deal and give away anything to stay in power.Besides more than half of the current TPLF leaders are of Tigraian origion so I am not surprised if a deal has been struck.
When Kjtil Tronvoll, an intelecual whore who was a supporter of OLF,writes in partnership with one woyane I have no doubt a deal has been made to give away badme-not that I give a hoot,but why now?Kjtil has never been an advocate of free press-nor is he an expert of Ethiopia as he would like us to believe.I was at the seminar he aranged a few monthes ago and was not enlightened by his knowledge of my country.
Ethioman the confused drunkard dergue maggott,…
Take it easy dude, no matter who is in power in that tiny land, Ethiopia is the one calling the shots.
No matter what you think of Shabia they will Never…..Never…..be Ethiopia’s friend. There is something wrong with them. Even if Ethiopia gives them everything they want, mountain of gold they will happily take it and stub us in the back. Mark my word. We can normalize relation and keep them at arms length but one day it sure they will get to us. IT IS LIKE SLEEPING WITH AN ENEMY, A VERY POTENT ONE. People be aware, don’t get fooled again.
Al Jazeera is correct Esaiah Afewerki is, sooner or later, fading away, and what will follow after his departure from his office is tumult and unrest in the economically unprosperous country, Eretria, one of Ethiopia’s neighboring countries. Ethiopia cannot sit back when our Eritrean brothers and sisters go hungry and kill each other because of a leadership vacuum. The Egyptians and the Saudis are waiting for such things to happen in Eritrea, and when it happens, they will try to fill the office of the presidency in Eretria with an Islamist ruler. This in turn will be the worst threat Ethiopia will face for its existence. Before such things materialize, Haile Mariam Desalegn must work hard to bring back Eritrea to her mother, Ethiopia, and treat the Eritreans as our true brothers and sisters. Eritreans should not stay forever the way they are – suffering and starving to death.
Ethiopia never had strong and brilliant leader like Meles . He is loved by most Ethiopians except Amhara elite as they are supporter of the old one ppl,one language system
ኤርትራ = አርትራ
Agazi Bandits more than ever aware of the Issues are running here and there to save their dying evil regime .They beg their Shabi
former bossesto return back Bademe including by furnishing each year for Free Electric Power ,they give Ethiopian Lands to Sudan ,finally even trying to approach opposition groups to avoid from facing the realities .Which certainly be Fatal for them .
Delusional AZ is at it again. What in God’s name are you talking about? Read your comment and see if you can make the head and the tail of it.
You are wasting everybody’s time posting your senseless comment first as if doing so make you feel important and sh$t. You are one expendable cyber cadre who probably read beyond your, intelligence which is at par with 3rd grader, & find yourself in a state of confusion.
Ethioman the confused drunkard dergue and feudal maggott,…
Btw, the above message from PM Meles Zenawi is an inscription of guidance to all Ethiopians, which will live on with his legacy.
Meanwhile, whenever you losers dergue and feudal remnants hear it, it will reminds you of your centuries old failure. You can’t stand that burning sensation which torments you inside out. That’s why you jumped out of your closet with your usual empty bravado, zeraff zeraff, yazugne likekugne!
“Ethiopia and Eritrea: Brothers at war no more”
This is a lie. Ethiopia is not at war with anyone but against poverty, backwardness and environmental degradation. If Eritrea thinks that way, it is her way own matter. 90 million Ethiopians don’t care what that little Eritrea with 4 million sanctioned and herd Eritreans under one terrorist Tigrigna rule.
If Eritrea is at war that has to be the Terrorist Banda Tigrigna sold out tags, not the rest of Eritrea.
Eritrean afars never ever wanted to be part of the Tigrigna Banda illegally created Eritrea working for the agenda the long time Ethiopians enemies that are the Arabs.
The world also know a small and far away country like Norway dirty games for so long to the matters Always looking the separatists in Africa and Asia including Tamil Tigers to wage wars in the name of independent. We know what kind role Norway and also Sweden along side with the English played in the so called Eritrean war of independency that affected the two brother and sister people by the outsiders that have own ideology and agenda including motivated by race.
The name Eritrea which is an Italian word for red sea came in Picture in 1902 after the English gave matsawa to Italy and supported Italy to affect the rest of Bahire Negash (now Eritrea) and the rest of Ethiopia having base in Matsawa. The Adwa and other wars are the result of this poison intentionally Planted by the English; coming between one people have more than 3000 years registered history and the racists are acting as if they do care about Eritreans other than their brothers i.e. Ethiopians.
However, Tigre in Eritrea that is the majority ethnic group and their language is much closer to Amharic, Kunama, Saho that are part of Erob in Ethiopia, Afars that are looking to reunite with the afars in Ethiopia just waiting Issayas(Tigrigna Banda) to die, Liben, Nara and others including Beja and rashida are not to be blamed for what happened to Ethiopia because Eritrea. The responsible are the Tigrigna that are banda.
What people also must know is that there is a big difference between Seraye, Hamasien and akale Guzay even within Tigrigna. .
Be clear, Ethiopia is not at war with anyone let alone Eritrea; a barren and burning hot land totally ruined by a 50 years terrorist long mentally unstable and old Banda Issayas. Little Eritrea has more than 9 Ethnic groups. So, the Tigrigna bandas that are the enemy of Ethiopia don’t represent about what is going on in and about Eritrea.
Ethiopia is happy watching these Banda terrorists situation. 90 million Ethiopians cannot and will not have any war or conflict with a one man show Eritrea where few Banda Tigrigna are taking the nation under their ownership and taking her towards failed state and the end of the Tigrigna era. Be sure, they will come to Ethiopia a country they are responsible what happened to her for so long because of Eritrea.
Let this Norway citizen and the other one talk what they want. We know what kind policy and knowledge Norway had about Eritrea and Ethiopia. This far away cold little region called Norway need to go hell. No one forgets what they did with so called separatists in Ethiopia and elsewhere using the oil money. Sweden is also part of it. That is why those two terrorists and spy Swedish citizens inter to Ethiopia illegally through Kenya in the name of journalists to hide their true color while working for the terrorists and they have been caught and imprisoned in Ethiopia.
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