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In-depth: Between Amity and Enmity: Teetering Ethio-Eritrea relations mount tension in the Horn

Although the 2018 peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea introduced a new era of peace, there appears to be a brewing potential for renewed confrontations between the two nations (Photo: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)

By Abdi Biyenssa @ABiyenssa

Addis Abeba – Tensions rise in the Horn of Africa as signs of a looming conflict emerge, unsettling the region just a year after the devastating Ethiopian civil war that claimed the lives of countless individuals.

Troubling reports of increased troop movements and aircraft activity near the borders of Ethiopia and Eritrea have started to circulate, raising concerns over a potential resurgence of hostilities in the area.

Apart from mere rumors and educated speculations, there are concrete indications that President Isaias Afwerki and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed are gradually growing apart. These developments have sparked anxieties among regional players, foreign diplomats, and analysts, who are warning that both countries seem to be gearing up for a possible conflict.

The relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia has experienced a significant transformation over the eventful years from 2018 to 2023. What began with animosity has gradually evolved into a cooperative dynamic. Unfortunately, the current situation has taken a troubling turn, with both nations teetering dangerously close to the brink of war.

Negera Gudeta, a researcher in peace and conflict and a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Peace and Security at Addis Ababa University, stated that Ethiopia and Eritrea share a complex and ever-changing relationship. Over time, they have experienced a fluctuation between enmity and amity. “The nature of the Addis-Asmara relationship is influenced by several factors, including historical, geopolitical, and economic aspects.”

The Horn of Africa region is caught in a web of regional security issues where the insecurities of one country spread rapidly to neighboring countries, leading to long-lasting conflicts in the region.”

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Negera Gudeta, a researcher in peace and conflict

Negera further explained that the relationship between the two countries is also influenced by external factors like geopolitical dynamics in the Horn of Africa region. He emphasizes that these external influences have had a profound impact on their interstate relations and have been instrumental in shaping the creation, dissolution, and reconstruction of their relationship.

According to the researcher, the Horn of Africa region is caught in a web of regional security issues where the insecurities of one country spread rapidly to neighboring countries, leading to long-lasting conflicts in the region.

“This applies to the strained relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea as well.”

Healing old wounds

The signing of the Declaration of Peace and Friendship Agreement in July 2018 marked a significant milestone in the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea, as it put an end to their long-standing hostilities and ushered in a new era of peace. One of the key components that facilitated this agreement is Ethiopia’s acceptance of the decision made by the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission.

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Established in 2002, the commission determined the exact location of the border and concluded that the town of Badme falls within Eritrean territory. Despite initially committing to comply with the terms of the Algiers Agreement, Ethiopia had previously rejected the commission’s ruling and refused to withdraw its forces to the designated border.

This rejection persisted until Prime Minister Abiy assumed power in 2018. During a visit to Asmara, he signed the Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship Agreement on 09 July, 2018. The global recognition of this reconciliation came with the signing of the Jeddah Peace Agreement on 16 September, 2018, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which further solidified the agreement. Esteemed dignitaries, among them UN Chief Antonio Guterres, were witnesses to this historic event.

During the Signing of Jeddah Peace Agreement, 2018 (Photo: Ethiopia Embassy UK)

Following the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, diplomatic relations were restored, and borders were reopened. Telephone connections were reinstated, embassies were reopened, and air flights between the two countries resumed. The peace deal not only revived people-to-people relations but also facilitated cross-border trade.

After one year, Ethiopia made efforts to solidify the friendship agreement by drafting three bilateral agreements with Eritrea. These agreements aimed to govern the usage of Eritrean ports, bilateral trade, and cross-border movement, including petty trade. However, Eritrea did not take action to follow up on or ratify these agreements, according Kjetil Tronvoll, Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies with a specialization in Eritrea and Ethiopia at Oslo New University College.

Concerns were also raised regarding the peace process’s neglect of the involvement of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the exclusion of the voices of borderland communities.

Negera recalls the lack of enthusiasm and cooperation from the TPLF in implementing the peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea. “The then Tigray regional government backed by the TPLF has been resistant to demilitarization of the Ethiopian-Eritrean border, claiming a threat from Eritrea.”

Negera adds that the TPLF backed regional government has also been skeptical about the reconciliation efforts, viewing it as a military pact that aims to besiege and annihilate the Tigray people.

Tensions escalated further due to the postponement of the general election in response to COVID-19, while the Tigray regional government proceeded with regional council elections in September 2020, leading the federal government to deem it invalid. Both sides have engaged in inflammatory rhetoric, exacerbating the situation until the turning point came on 03 November, 2020, when the TPLF launched an attack on the Ethiopian defense forces stationed in Tigray.

Negera highlights that the breakout of this war transformed the peace agreements signed in 2018 between Ethiopia and Eritrea into a military alliance since Eritrea swiftly joined the conflict, justifying its involvement as self-defense.

Eyasu Hailemichael, a researcher on the Horn of Africa and an expert in international affairs, offers a distinct viewpoint on the matter, highlighting how the conflict between the TPLF and the federal government led to Eritrea taking advantage of the situation and interfering in Ethiopia’s internal affairs.

Regardless of the differing intentions attributed to Eritrea, it has undeniably played a significant role in the Tigray war from the very beginning. The strained relationship between Eritrea and the TPLF can be traced back to the border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which began in May 1998.

Reliving the old days of animosity

The peaceful relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which lasted for four years, appear to have come to an end following the signing of the Pretoria Peace Agreement in November 2022, which marked the conclusion of the Tigray war.

Despite their alliance in combating the TPLF, the signing of the peace deal has stirred up long-standing animosities and sparked new disagreements, which now pose a renewed risk of conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The Pretoria Peace Agreement, signed in November 2022 to put an end to the Tigray war, has subsequently ignited fresh tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea (Photo: AU)

Eyasu highlighted that the peace deal was initially seen as a positive step towards peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea. However, doubts and uncertainties have emerged regarding the effectiveness of this agreement as it has faced criticism for its imperfections, particularly the exclusion of important parties involved in the conflict, such as the Amhara and Eritrean forces.

“This omission has caused dissatisfaction and disillusionment among Eritreans, further straining the already delicate relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea,” said Eyasu.

Tronvoll argues the Pretoria agreement was considered highly provocative by Eritrea. He highlighted that President Isaias has always perceived a stable Ethiopia as a threat to his own power base, and his deep-rooted hostility toward the multinational federal system has led him to pursue destabilization policies towards Ethiopia for the past three decades.

Rashid Abdi, a geopolitical analyst and expert on the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, explains that Eritrea would have preferred a complete surrender of the TPLF or the removal of its leadership.

“This is the reason why Eritrea has refused to withdraw its troops from certain parts of Tigray, as they fear that the TPLF may regroup, reorganize, and launch a future war against Eritrea,” argues Rashid.

Despite the Pretoria Peace Agreement’s requirement for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Tigray, Eritrean troops continue to occupy the region. Initially, the Eritrean government assured the international community that their presence in Tigray would be temporary. However, their forces have yet to leave.

The impact of the peace deal on Ethiopia and Eritrea’s bilateral relations remains uncertain. However, experts emphasize that the success of the agreement depends heavily on Eritrea’s involvement. They argue that Eritrea’s substantial presence within Ethiopia needs to be addressed adequately to avoid exacerbating the already fragile situation.

Negera highlights the significant consequences of the Pretoria peace agreement, including the normalization of relations between Ethiopia and the Western world, particularly the United States and the European Union, which had been strained due to the Tigray war.

Negera believes that Eritrea feels betrayed by Ethiopia for violating a previous peace agreement, which has strained relations between Ethiopia and the Western world and prompted the reconfiguration of alliances in the region.

The other consequences of the peace deal, according to Negera, are the reshaping of alliances in the region, with Eritrea feeling betrayed by Ethiopia for violating a previous peace agreement. “This pushed Asmara to form an alliance with the non-state militia Fano to counterbalance the new Addis-Mekelle alliance,” he said. “This has strained relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea.”

Ethiopia’s Red Sea access claim exacerbating tension

International affairs experts like Eyasu stress that the statement made by Prime Minister Abiy, expressing the desire for direct access to the Red Sea, has further deteriorated the already strained relationship between the two countries.

On 13 October, 2023, the Ethiopian state media aired a pre-recorded speech delivered by Prime Minister Abiy to the members of parliament. In his address, he emphasized the utmost importance of the Red Sea for Ethiopia’s future, suggesting that it could either lead the nation to great success or push it into oblivion. He also revealed Ethiopia’s aspiration to establish a naval base.

A few days after the broadcast, Ethiopia demonstrated its military prowess by hosting a grand military parade in the capital city of Addis Abeba. During this event, the army proudly showcased their newly acquired arsenal.

The statement made by Prime Minister Abiy, expressing the desire for direct access to the Red Sea, has further deteriorated the already strained relationship between the two countries.”

Eyasu Hailemichael, an expert in international affairs

Rashid highlights Eritrea’s heightened anxiety regarding Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s remarks, perceiving them as a ploy by Ethiopia to take possession of the Assab and Messewa ports.

Eritrea has provided a perplexing response to the speech, releasing an enigmatic statement: “There has been an overwhelming abundance of discussions, both concrete and assumed, about water, sea access, and similar subjects in recent times.

Eritrean diplomat Estifanos Afeworki, who serves as the ambassador to Japan, offered more precise remarks, asserting his country’s unwavering commitment to protecting its territory. In a message posted on X in October 2023, he stated that “no volume of unjustifiable provocation, misleading information, secret plots, or character assassination can alter this undeniable reality.”

The disclosure made by Prime Minister Abiy has not only unsettled Eritrea but also had a profound impact on neighboring countries such as Djibouti and Somalia.

“Our two countries have always maintained strong, friendly relations,” Alexis Mohamed, a senior adviser to Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh, told Bloomberg. “But you should also know that Djibouti is a sovereign country, and therefore, our territorial integrity is not questionable, neither today nor tomorrow.”

Somalia also rejected an appeal from Ethiopia to enter into negotiations with Ethiopia over the issue of access to a Red Sea port. “A fight over ports would further destabilize a region already in turmoil,” an adviser to Somalia’s president told The Economist.

Situated to the west of Ethiopia, Sudan is currently embroiled in what the United Nations describes as “one of the most dire humanitarian crises in recent history.” The enduring conflict between two warlords has led to the displacement of about seven million individuals from their residences. Ethiopia is also dealing with ongoing conflicts in its densely inhabited and largest regions, namely Oromia and Amhara.

While addressing members of parliament last week, Prime Minister Abiy emphasized that Ethiopia’s desire for a sea outlet and the establishment of its own port is not a new objective, nor is it intended to endanger the independence of neighboring nations in the Horn of Africa.

However, Negera underscores that Ethiopia and Eritrea have a history of engaging in proxy warfare in the region to destabilize each other. “They have been supporting and hosting dissidents who aim to overthrow the respective regimes in Addis Abeba and Asmara.”

Eyasu commented that if war were to erupt in the region, it could attract external actors with their own national interests, further destabilizing an already volatile region. He argues that the rivalries between Middle Eastern countries and advanced nations that have a significant presence in the Horn of Africa region could challenge the growing geo-economics of the Red Sea.

Tronvoll highlighted the implications of the strained relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea. He argues that historical conflicts, proxy involvement in regional conflicts, refugee crises, and conflicting regional alliances all have the potential to destabilize the Horn of Africa.

“It is crucial for both countries and regional actors to prioritize peaceful means of resolving their differences in order to ensure stability and development in the region,” stressed Tronvoll. AS

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