A New Era for the Horn of Africa?

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed (R) walks with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (C) as an Eritrean delegation arrives for peace talks with Ethiopia at the international airport in Addis Ababa on June 26, 2018.

Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed (R) walks with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (C) as an Eritrean delegation arrives for peace talks with Ethiopia at the international airport in Addis Ababa on June 26, 2018.

The Horn of Africa has struggled with consistently slow economic growth, in contrast with other regions of the continent. Whereas member states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) saw average growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 7% in 2016, Somalia saw GDP growth of 3.4% in 2016, Eritrea had 3.8% in 2016, Djibouti was at 6.5% in 2016, while Ethiopia led the region at 8.3% in 2016. In some cases, such as Djibouti, higher-than-average economic growth has been accompanied by a worrying expansion of public debt, and all countries in the region are plagued by rampant youth unemployment. These poor economic conditions can in part be attributed to the security situation in the region; many West African states have been able to set aside their territorial disputes in order to pursue economic integration, while East Africa’s own regional organ, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), has been hampered by armed conflicts among its members.

Illustrative of this, Eritrea withdrew its membership in IGAD from 2007 to 2011 to protest perceived aggression by Ethiopia against neighbouring Somalia. A border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998-2000 resulted in an estimated 120,000 casualties, and persistent clashes since then over the disputed community of Badme have claimed still more lives. Somalia also accused the Eritrean authorities of arming al-Shabaab, a militant Islamist group affiliated with al-Qaeda. Similar accusations have been levelled by Sudan, which claimed in the early 2000’s that Eritrea had supplied weapons and other equipment to several organizations in Darfur, specifically the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army, the Federal Democratic Union, and the Justice and Equality Movement.

However, the election of Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister of Ethiopia in April 2018 has brought about a rapid improvement in the security situation in East Africa. Just two months later, in late June, a delegation led by Eritrea’s Foreign Minister Osman Saleh visited the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to formally open peace talks between the two countries. A flurry of negotiations followed, culminating in the visit by the President of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, on July 14 to conclude a formal peace agreement with Ethiopia. On July 25, Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi traveled to the Eritrean capital of Asmara to establish diplomatic relations. Ethiopia is now mediating between Eritrea and Djibouti in an effort to normalize relations between those states as well.

A boy rides a biycle past damaged houses during Ethiopia-Eritrea war fought between 1998 to 2000 in Badme, territorial dispute town between Eritrea and Ethiopia currently occupied by Ethiopia, June 8, 2018.

A boy rides a biycle past damaged houses during Ethiopia-Eritrea war fought between 1998 to 2000 in Badme, territorial dispute town between Eritrea and Ethiopia currently occupied by Ethiopia, June 8, 2018.

The sudden rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea is particularly interesting, as tensions have persisted since Eritrea fought a bloody 30-year war to gain independence from Ethiopia, culminating in an internationally recognized independence referendum in Eritrea in 1993. That the parties to such a protracted conflict were able to reach a resolution without external involvement contradicts much of the prevailing academic theories regarding international conflict resolution. For example, in their review of successful mediation strategies over the past century, Jacob Bercovitch and Scott Sigmund Gartner identify the need for external parties to occupy two roles in any successful effort to resolve a protracted international conflict – that of “mediator” and “guarantor” (Jacob Bercovitch and Scott Sigmund Gartner, “International Conflict Mediation: New Approaches and Findings“, Routledge, 2009, p. 39-41). The “mediator” is oftentimes a small state which does not neighbour any of the parties to the conflict and so is seen by the parties to be impartial. Meanwhile, the “guarantor” is a global or regional power capable of enforcing the agreement, whether this might be through the deployment of peacekeepers to the region or the use of military force to deter aggression by one or more of the parties. Based on this theoretical framework, the Algiers Agreement would have presented the best hope of creating a lasting peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Consented to by both parties in 2000, the Algiers Agreement was mediated by Rwanda with the support of the United States, whose involvement in the talks indicated to both Ethiopia and Eritrea a willingness to act as guarantor.

One of the provisions of the Algiers Agreement was the establishment of an independent Boundary Commission to delimit the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, settling disputes over the territories of Tsorona-Zalambessa, Bure, and the aforementioned Badme. However, Ethiopia rejected the Commission’s 2003 ruling that Badme is Eritrean territory and refused to remove troops that it had stationed there, rendering the Algiers Agreement moot. While it could be argued that the Algiers Agreement does not follow the model developed by Bercovitch and Gartner insofar as the US did not credibly back-up its role as guarantor, the achievements reached so far by the Ethiopian and Eritrean leaders is remarkable.

The challenge, however, will be the implementation of the new bilateral peace agreement. Many of the Ethiopian residents of Badme have openly rejected Prime Minister Abiy’s decision to cede that territory to Eritrea and thus honour the 2003 ruling by the Boundary Commission. Hardliners in the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a political party in Ethiopia that has long held considerable sway, have also indicated their opposition to many of the concessions made by Ethiopia in the most recent peace agreement. A clash over Badme as Eritrea seeks to apply its sovereignty in the community could unravel the progress made thus far toward peace on the Horn of Africa. Prime Minister Abiy will therefore need to walk a difficult political tight-rope in the coming months, having to preserve his own support base in Ethiopia while also demonstrating to Eritrea and other neighbours that he is a credible partner. This highlights one of the vulnerabilities to this self-starter peace process: without an external party serving as the guarantor, Prime Minister Abiy may face the terrible dilemma of deploying troops to Badme to assist Eritrea in gaining control of that territory and risk losing support at home, or else standby as Badme residents take matters into their own hands and so lose all credibility with the Eritreans.

This entry was posted in English, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Paul Pryce, Peacekeeping, Security Policy.

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