Eritrea: The Hard Way towards a State By Ali Al Hindi

Eritrea: The Hard Way towards a State

Translated from Arabic by the Center for Arab Progress

The last week of June 2018 marked a major political turning point in the relationship between Ethiopia and its neighbor Eritrea. After a “no war and no peace” situation since the end of a two-year border war that left tens of thousands dead and wounded. The UAE’s intensive efforts have resulted in the beginning of an initial normalization of strained relations for decades. This was proceeded by a surprise visit to the Ethiopian Capital Addis Ababa from both the Eritrean Foreign Minister Othman Saleh and Yemane Gebreab the Eriterean Head of Political Affairs and Presidential advisor. They were welcomed by the new Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed Abey, who opened his term with an unexpected offer to end the conflict between the two countries. The meeting raised hopes of ending one of the longest-running bilateral conflicts in Africa, which left its mark on the situation in the Horn of Africa and opened the door to interventions and settling regional and international accounts. In front of these important developments raises the fundamental question; to what extent the Afwerki regime be trusted in lieu of how he governs his country with an iron fist under the pretext of the danger of Ethiopia.

The Background of the Conflict

In May 1991, the military forces of the Ethiopian Democratic Front for the Liberation of Ethiopia entered Addis Ababa. Consequently, ended the military or dynastic rule in place since 1974, which is the year of the army-led coup against the monarchy.

The irony is that the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (PFLP) forces entered the capital Asmara, awaiting the nascent state after it expelled the Ethiopian army from all Eritrean territory. Consequently, the London negotiations led to the conviction that Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia had become a reality.

Thus, the question of the future of the relationship between the two countries has become a matter between the two parties; the Popular Front for the Liberation of Eritrea and the Liberation Front of Tigray (who are the stronger ruling party in Ethiopia at the time).  It became a matter of a power struggle between two parties and setting who is the strongest party in ruling a coalition of Ethiopia at that time. Their relationship was full of historical strives, contradiction, and misgivings. It became a grounds for a deep rooted struggle that was mostly evident in border dispute.

The conflict between the two countries broke out in 1998 when international and regional mediators intervened. Yet, they came to the conclusion that the causes of the war were not a conflict over the border region of Badme. Instead it was clear that there was substantial historical background that impacted the relationship between revolutionary forces engaged in antagonism against the Emperor Haile Selassie regime (was Ethiopia‘s regent from 1916 to 1930 and emperor from 1930 to 1974) and the Marxist coup Led by Mengistu Meriam (is an Ethiopian President and politician who was the leader of Ethiopia from 1977 to 1991).

The alliance and participation in the coup against the monarchy also resulted in the cancellation of the role of the Eritrean Liberation Front. Further it caused the control of the Tigrayans over Eritrea, and control of Tigray over Ethopia. This resulted in the elimination of the national role of the empire in the administration of the country. That is why the capital Asmara (Eritrea) considered it the reason why Tigray was empowered in the capital of Addis Ababa (Ethiopia). The new elite provided better opportunities to manage Ethiopia’s affairs under the umbrella of the Frontier Project and created a climate of partnership for the Ethiopian peoples. This was done under the ethnic federal system and the right to self-determination of nationalities. However, the handling of the Eritrean file remained rigid and tense. Ethiopia sought to create an influential ally of the Eritreans Tigrayans. The initiative was to return property confiscated from the Eritreans during the recent war crisis, and then to provide study opportunities for the Eritrean children of the University of Addis and other Ethiopian universities. At the same time, the country’s political and social representatives ignored and directed attention to the youth organizations, which are predominantly dominated by the young Tigrinya or pro-Ethiopia. Yet, this policy has increased the fears of the Asmara regime and the travel to Addis Ababa has been charged with arrest and stigmatization. Asmara was following policies that harm the economy and national security of Ethiopia.

After the end of the war in the end of the year 2000, the Eritrean president was becoming isolated internally and externally. Internally it was the year when the Popular Front Party came to an end, which was also later renamed the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. It was gradually replaced by a security and administrative system whose core is the Tigrinya. The President Afwerki used this party as a venue to rule from, which was mostly a group of minister officials, civil servants and security forces. They got rid of any political opponents within the party through death, oppression, and exile. Moreover, took advantage to having power over the security forces which support all his actions.

The situation seemed bleak for the future of Eritrea in light of the absence of the role of the state institutions and the parliament. This was evident after the president incarcerated a number of senior citizens (tribal and national representatives). He incarcerated those who sought to mediate cases of enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention without trial, and confiscation of their property.

Afwerki used the so-called security threat posed by Ethiopia to justify an unrivaled security regime in repression, the confiscation of freedoms, and use of intimidation. Consequently, long-term military service and prolonged detention without trial are common. There are no independent media, universities are closed, and poverty and unemployment are the highest in Africa.

Ethiopia’s Transformations: Are They Forcing Eritrea to Open Up?

The message of détente, launched by Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed Abe, is his country’s readiness to return to the Algiers agreement signed in December 2000. This is to stop hostilities and settle border disputes, which involves withdrawal from the disputed area. The most important question, in the opinion of many observers, is whether Isaias Afwerki is serious about opening up to Addis Ababa. Whether he is serious in closing the page of the ongoing conflict which has always been a reason and a pretext for the continuation of his regime. Moreover, he has been isolated internationally and suppressing terrorism internally for twenty-five years.

In an analysis of the reasons for openness on the Eritrean side, the shift in neighboring Ethiopia stands with the rise of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister and the beginning of ending the Tigray minority’s monopoly on power and wealth in the country. Those who also continuously used the Eritrean threat as a pretext for the continuation of a repressive authoritarian regime. The new government promised a plan to end an era of problems with the region and its neighbors, starting with Eritrea. However, could not promise ending the crisis with Egypt in the context of the dispute over water rights in the Nile and the construction of the Nahdha Dam. This new spirit emanated from Addis Ababa found a clear echo in Asmara, whose veteran dictator could not keep his country isolated from the world. Further could not stop the growing pressure from the increasingly migratory and increasingly organized Eritrean immigrant communities in the West, who campaign against the practices of the inhumane regime. International organizations are no longer able to monitor the situation of the country after being strictly prohibited from working or visiting the country. International companies and banks have been reluctant to open branches in Asmara for years because of the complexities imposed by the government on the activity of foreigners and the tight security grip on citizens. International Report on Eritrea are stalled for more than seven years due to “lack of adequate information”. Optimistic expectations for a rapid shift in the nature of Eritrean governance do not seem realistic.

Therefore, the analysis of this situation tend to be very cautious for the coming period. It seems that the situation of exhaustion, economic devastation and high rates of emigration may push the rest of the reformists surrounding the president to exploit the historical opportunity opened by the Ethiopian transition led by Ahmed Abey. Further it opens up economic solutions of mutual benefit to both countries. Especially in lieu of the Ethiopian need to get access to a nearby port.

On the other hand, another factor that may tempt Afwerki to avoid openness and to continue his authoritarian rule is to return to the opponents of the past who are the deep Ethiopian state. They are gripped by the Tigray nationalist party, which has been removed from power. The new prime minister appeared to dismantle his security system, control power and wealth. The Tigray minority lives in border areas that have been a permanent conflict zone and caused the bloody war with a toll of 70,000 dead. This is the same region as the solution within the framework of the Algiers Agreement.


– There are various factors that contribute the crisis such as the isolation of the elite Tigrinya led by Afwerki power in Eritrea, the marginalization of the rest of the ethnic components, and the exclusion of all movements that participated in the battle of independence, including the cadres of the Popular Front. This existential crisis with no way out but the breaking of the state, tearing apart the Eritrean entity, which threatens the Horn of Africa as a whole. It threatens the security of the Red Sea, which exceeds its regional threat to international security, especially in light of the earthquake in the Arab region and the spread of the wave of cross-border terrorism. External efforts can help first in internal Eritrean reconciliation of leaders and former elites, to give confidence in the transformation.

– The objective interests and the positive and conciliatory language spoken by the Ethiopian prime minister are not enough to talk about a historic solution that has burdened the two countries and the Horn of Africa. The regional and international factors have the potential to help convince Afwerki to transform his country into a normal state and open to the outside world. Here comes the importance of Ethiopian and regional pressure in order to preserve Eritrea as a state for all its citizens, end the monopoly of power and wealth, and restore confidence in the process of rescuing the state project, which is soon to collapse.

It is important to realize that the Arab and Gulf decision maker specifically recognizes that Eritrea and Ethiopia are of strategic importance in the priorities of the Arab national security and the security of the Red Sea countries. Smart investment in the normalization of relations between the two countries with economic projects and expansion of trade exchange is of particular importance and strategy. And the seizure of its wealth and markets, starting from the African continent nearby.

* Expert in the Horn of Africa



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