Why Peace for Eritrea-Ethiopia is Critical

By Zeinab Mohammed Salih

A high-level Eritrean delegation arrived in Ethiopia this week for talks to normalize relations between the two countries for the first time since a border war broke out in 1998.

“We have tried war and found it useless,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said as he welcomed the Eritrean delegation led by Foreign Minister Osman Saleh, according to a report from The Associated Press. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez welcomed what he said are positive steps taken by the two countries to end what is called Africa’s longest war.

Analysts say the talks are an important step to find hope for greater stability for Eritrea, Ethiopia and other countries in the Horn of Africa, a region torn by internal dissent and terrorist violence. They also say the talks offer reason for optimism for all of Africa.

“This is a strong message by the new and young prime minister in Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, to the people in the continent, that a new generation of leaders is coming to change the continent and they are doing … important things for their people,” says Luka Kuol, a professor for security studies at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

Normalizing peace between the two countries has regional and international significance. Located in the strategic Horn, Eritrea is involved with the civil war in Yemen and faces international sanctions for allegedly providing shelter to terrorists. Here is a closer look at Eritrea.

Where Is Eritrea?

The tiny country in East Africa is bordered by Sudan to the west and north, Ethiopia to the south and Djibouti to the southeast. Its eastern coastline faces the Red Sea.

How Old Is Eritrea?

Eritrea is home to the birthplace of some of humanity’s oldest civilizations. Independent Eritrea is 25 years old. Italy held Eritrea beginning in the late 19th century and until 1942, when it then fell under British administrative control for 10 years. In 1952, the United Nations established Eritrea as an autonomous region within Ethiopia. A decade later, Ethiopia annexed Eritrea as a full province, setting off 30 years of violent fighting over Eritrean independence. In 1991, Eritrean rebels defeated Ethiopian forces, and in 1993 Eritreans voted for independence.

Who Are the Eritreans?

Today it is a multiethnic and multilingual country with nine recognized ethnic groups and no single official language. More than 60 percent of Eritreans are Christian and roughly a third are Muslim, according to the Pew Research Center.

The nation’s population is about 5 million, of which about 3 percent has reportedly fled in recent years. Eritrean refugees form the third-largest group entering Europe, after Syrians and Afghans, according to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. The country’s indefinite national service, a form of conscription, is cited as a major reason why Eritreans flee their country.

What Is Life Like in Eritrea?

Eritrea is one of the most secretive places on Earth, frequently compared to North Korea. Access for international journalists is highly restricted and the government has banned private media. The country’s political and economic life is controlled by a single political party that has ruled during independence.

Eritrea has become a gold producer, with mining expected to become an important source of revenue and growth. However, erratic rainfall, recurring drought and a labor force tied up in national service continue to restrict the country’s economic development. At the same time, the country is successfully providing accessible, quality health care for its people, according to the U.N.

Western governments and rights groups have cited the government’s human rights record as among the worst in the world. In recent years Eritreans have increasingly been victims to trafficking and held hostage in the Sinai Desert, where they are victims of organ harvesting, rape, extortion and torture, according to Human Rights Watch.

What Is the Source of Conflict Between Eritrea and Ethiopia?

In 1998, fighting erupted between Eritrea and Ethiopia over border disputes, violence that would eventually claim more than 80,000 lives. Two years later, a peace deal was struck and U.N. peacekeeping troops were deployed to enforce a buffer zone along the border. A tense standoff has existed since, with both countries continually deploying troops at the border.

Why Is the World Involved in Eritrea and the Horn of Africa?

In 2009, the U.N. imposed an arms embargo on Eritrea, accusing the government of providing weapons and financial support for al Qaeda and the allied al-Shabab extremist group in Somalia. Eritrea has denied any wrongdoing.

The U.N. renewed two U.N. Security Council resolutions in late 2017 that extend the arms embargo and restrict travel on some individuals and freezes their assets. In 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump increased U.S. military operations against al-Shabab, part of a greater American military involvement across the Horn of Africa.

Why Are Eritrea and Ethiopia Talking About Peace?

In short, political strife and violence in Ethiopia, as well as the struggling economies in both countries, have pushed leaders to discuss peace, analysts say. Zelalem Kibret, a former political prisoner in Ethiopia and today a visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center, says he didn’t anticipate the initiative for peace talks. But changes in Ethiopia’s government, including the appointment of Abiy Ahmed in April as prime minister, has led to the dialogue with Eritrea, he says.

Ahmed, 42, was appointed after former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned following months of demonstrations last year by Ahmed’s Oromo people, the single largest ethnic group both in Ethiopia and across the Horn of Africa. The Oromos, who have staged protests since 2014, say the government is marginalizing and persecuting them, and the 2017 protests claimed more than 100 lives.

Kuol, the professor, says the appointment of Ahmed is an important message that young leaders can create change for more transparent governments. By contrast, Rwandan President Paul Kagame changed the constitution last year to allow himself to be re-elected for another five years.

Normalizing relations will provide economic benefits to both countries, says Kuol, a former minister in Sudan and South Sudan. Peace could allow Ethiopia, the most populous landlocked nation in the world, access to Eritrea’s Red Sea ports.

Adds Harvard’s Kibret: “Whatever the motives behind the talks, this is good for the people who are living on the border areas, and it will deter the further proxy forces within Ethiopia and Eritrea – especially the rebel groups in both parties.”

Zeinab Mohammed Salih is a Daniel Pearl Fellow with the Alfred Friendly Press Partners fellowship program.
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