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(Yan Boechat/VOA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Taking Ethiopia-Eritrea Tensions Seriously

A peace that is formal, transparent and of tangible benefit to the peoples of both Eritrea and Ethiopia is required.

Words: Michael Woldemariam
Pictures: Yan Boechat

The historically fraught relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea is deteriorating once again. A seemingly momentous peace deal that brought the two sides together in 2018 now appears to have been a brief interlude in a longer arc of enduring rivalry. The sources of recent tension include Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s public posturing around sea access and dynamics seeded by the 2018 peace deal itself. Neither side can afford escalation, but open conflict remains a possibility and even outcomes well short of direct hostilities — perhaps a return to the “no war, no peace” situation of preceding decades — would be disastrous for the two nations and the broader region.

Concerned international actors should act urgently to deescalate tensions between Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki; but over the longer term only a transparent, inclusive and well-institutionalized framework for Ethiopia-Eritrea ties can deliver sustainable peace.

Red Sea Power Play

Abiy’s recent public claims that his landlocked nation should control a port are the immediate backdrop to recent tensions. In an October speech, the prime minister insisted Ethiopia’s claim to sea access was backed by history, as well as a practical necessity due to the economic, demographic and security vulnerabilities landlocked status imposed on its 120-million strong population. Although Abiy played down the use of force in this speech and in a November statement before parliament, he warned that a failure to resolve the issue through negotiation could lead to conflict. State-run media, and some Ethiopian officials and pro-government personalities, have since echoed this agenda. Notably, in the months leading up to this public campaign, Abiy had pressed the need for an Ethiopian port in closed-door engagements with several foreign and Ethiopian interlocutors.

Littoral neighbors implicated in Abiy’s emerging port discourse responded with terse rejections, in effect signaling that sovereign control of their coastlines was nonnegotiable. This included Eritrea, which joined Djibouti and Somalia in the public pushback. But Eritrea has special reason to be concerned by Abiy’s port agenda, and in particular the restorationist impulse in which much of it is grounded. From 1952 to 1993, Eritrea and its Red Sea ports had been part of Ethiopia, and it was only a bloody national liberation struggle that delivered Eritrean statehood. Although much of the Ethiopia body politic has moved on from the Eritrea question, there is a current of Ethiopian nationalist thought that regards Eritrea’s departure — which made Ethiopia the most-populous landlocked country in the world by a considerable margin — a historic error. At a November Saudi-Africa summit in Riyadh, Abiy held dialogues with the presidents of Djibouti and Somalia, and later signed a defense memorandum of understanding with the former that same month, perhaps in a bid to reassure these two neighbors of Ethiopia’s intentions. Ominously, similar engagements with the Eritrean leadership have not been forthcoming.

Layered Tensions

The emerging fallout between Addis Ababa and Asmara is about more than sea access. Abiy had signaled that the issue was a priority just two months into his tenure, an agenda that did not appear to trouble Eritrean leaders and which they did little to discourage. Perhaps the honeymoon of the 2018 Eritrea-Ethiopia peace deal suppressed early doubts Asmara might have had; others think the Eritrean president may have supported a confederal arrangement that would facilitate Ethiopian access to the Red Sea. Whatever the reality, more proximate bilateral tensions were rooted in the 2018 peace deal itself, which at its heart was an alliance between Addis Ababa and Asmara to contain, corral and perhaps defeat the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). This alliance was fully activated when open war broke out in Tigray in November 2020, but the conflict soon created tactical and strategic differences between Addis Ababa and Asmara about how to prosecute it.

Abiy’s eventual decision to make peace with the TPLF in Pretoria in November 2022, over and above the resistance of Isaias, sharpened these disagreements. Although Eritrean leaders have been careful not to formally oppose the Pretoria agreement — lest they position themselves as spoilers — they view it as generating three dynamics dangerous to Eritrean national security: the survival of the TPLF, the maintenance of a large Tigrayan militia force and closer strategic alignment between Addis Ababa, Tigray and Asmara’s bête noire, the United States.

From 1952 to 1993, Eritrea and its Red Sea ports had been part of Ethiopia, and it was only a bloody national liberation struggle that delivered Eritrean statehood.

Asmara has responded to these unfavorable trends by pursuing balance-of-power politics. Within the region, Isaias has moved closer to Presidents William Ruto and Hassan Sheikh, of Kenya and Somalia, respectively, and may be quietly rehabilitating historically difficult ties with Djibouti’s president, Ismaïl Omar Guelleh. In the Red Sea, Eritrea has shifted into the orbit of Cairo and Riyadh. And Isaias’ performances during May-July 2023 visits to Russia and China demonstrate an eagerness to cultivate great-power support. Similar logic applies to Eritrea’s alleged security relationship with Amhara militia opposed to the Ethiopia’s ruling Prosperity Party, a connection that remains opaque but is of significant concern in Addis Ababa.

Genuine Conflict Risks

Open conflict between the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia is a distinct possibility. Reports of military movements in the Eritrea-Ethiopia borderlands, always challenging to verify, underscore the risks. But armed confrontation at this juncture remains unlikely for the simple reason that neither party can afford it. Abiy faces intractable rebellions in Amhara and Oromia and generalized insecurity across the country. Mobilizing the requisite force against the Eritrean leadership would likely involve Tigray’s participation, but the region is exhausted by war and distrustful of Abiy’s intentions. Ethiopia’s economy is also in serious distress, encumbered by inflation and debt, and any war would jeopardize support packages from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank it needs to remain afloat.

Eritrea is also in no position to entertain conflict. Although its regional stature has risen by default — most of its neighbors are in deep political crisis — it remains a small country with a fragile economy. Decades of youth migration have likely eroded the manpower of the Eritrean military, and it is unclear how the country’s armed forces would respond to a call to action scarcely a year removed from the bloody conflagration in Tigray. There are also major diplomatic risks: while Asmara is in much better international position than a decade ago, the last time it fell out with its much larger southern neighbor it soon found itself isolated in the region and beyond.

The tragic history of Eritrea-Ethiopia relations between 1998 and 2018 teaches us three important lessons. First, while war might leave all parties worse off, that is no guarantee of restraint. Second, the potential for inadvertent escalation cannot be dismissed. In 1998, when the last war between Eritrea and Ethiopia broke out, it was a disaster that neither side anticipated nor sought, with small border incidents soon morphing into a cataclysmic struggle that killed tens of thousands. And third, even in the absence of open conflict, a return to the rivalry of previous decades — the “no war, no peace” stalemate — would be bad for both countries and the region more broadly, reinforcing domestic authoritarianism and fueling proxy wars from Somalia to Sudan.

De-escalation and Sustainable Peace

It is imperative that concerned international stakeholders act to de-escalate tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia. This includes African actors and of course extra-regional players like the United States. US policymakers should encourage direct dialogue between Addis Ababa and Asmara; convey to Ethiopian leaders that Washington will support peaceful efforts to enhance Ethiopian port access, but that threats to forcibly revise the territorial status quo are a non-starter; and communicate to Asmara that its relations with the United States cannot improve until it fully disengages from Ethiopia’s domestic affairs. 

Recent US public commitments to the Algiers Agreement (which ended the 1998 Eritrea-Ethiopia war) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s Nov. 2 statement that “Both Ethiopia and Eritrea must refrain from provocation and respect the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of all countries in the region” echo what the United States has been saying privately for months, but the message must be pointedly conveyed by senior-most US officials on a consistent basis. US military and intelligence officials should assist this diplomatic effort, as they are likely to command the attention of the parties and can speak with credibility on the practical realities of de-escalation on the ground. Given the state of US-Eritrea relations, diplomatic approaches to Asmara have been difficult, but the Kenyans and Saudis can be helpful intermediaries if approached by appropriately senior US interlocutors.

Similar de-escalatory messages need to also be registered with the United Arab Emirates, which remains Ethiopia’s main military backer and a major disrupter across the Horn region. Here, frank conversations are required that to this point senior US policymakers have been unwilling to have. The reality is that the portfolio of US-Emirati ties is deep and wide-ranging, and the Horn is not an item prioritized in engagements with Abu Dhabi. This should change and quickly.

Over the longer term, those with an interest in promoting peace and stability between Eritrea and Ethiopia must recognize there are no quick fixes. Previous eras of cooperative ties between Addis Ababa and Asmara have mostly been elite pacts, wherein ruling establishments have forged private cross-border understandings that would aid their respective bids to consolidate power at home and further their ambitions abroad. This was as true of relations between the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and TPLF in the 1990s as it was of the Isaias-Abiy thaw in 2018. But bilateral ties built upon the narrow elite interests, weak institutional foundations and little to no popular legitimacy are not a recipe for sustainable peace and can often seed future wars. In this sense, what must be asked of those that occupy state power in Ethiopia and Eritrea is not simply de-escalation and a return the status quo ante of 2018; but rather, a peace that is formal, transparent and of tangible benefit to the peoples of both countries.

This piece was originally published by the United States Institute of Peace.

Michael Woldemariam

Michael Woldemariam is an associate professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.

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