The cultural and political intimacy and sense of fraternity that developed during their time as rebel movements led both parties to delay institutionalising the relationship between their newly established regimes in 1993 – and thus made possible the border war. These sentimental aspects also played an important role in making the conflict prolonged and eventually intractable.
This sense of “intimacy” has also had some positive implications. One such effect is the preferential treatment given to Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia – who now number around 100,000 people. Eritrean refugees – provided that they satisfy certain criteria – are given residency and work permits and the opportunity to study in Ethiopian universities (as opposed to refugees from other neighbouring countries). Around 1,200 university scholarships have so far been offered to Eritrean refugees.
However, the passing of time has brought with it substantial changes, and the more than a decade-long political and physical barriers led to an increasing cultural disconnectedness even among the people that live along the border. In Addis Ababa and other urban centres, it is even more challenging to arouse interest for Eritrean affairs among the average Ethiopian.
Post-Zenawi And Post-Afwerki
A refugee crisis, high-level defections, and a recent mutiny in the army, are some of many indications that Afwerki’s regime is facing an existential threat that may lead to its demise in the near future.
Afwerki is now on “survival mode” and may engage in new and desperate gestures to prolong his time in power, such as opening up to the international community for dialogue and humanitarian aid. However, if his past behaviour is anything to go by, such moves are only likely to be tactical survival manoeuvres that will not reverse the current political trajectory.
It is now time to think about what the relationship between these two states will look like without the two omnipresent strongmen that have heavily shaped their histories.
In Ethiopia, this process of change has already begun, and the time when both countries will be led by a generation without the historical and political baggage inherited from the liberation war, the border war and subsequent peace settlement might not be far ahead in time. Free from these constraints, the post-Afwerki and post-Zenawi Eritrea-Ethiopia relations will most likely not only be normalised, but also much more institutionalised.
By: Kjetil Tronvoll and Goitom Gebreluel
Kjetil Tronvoll is a professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjorknes College, and Senior Partner at the International Law and Policy Institute. He has written Brothers at War: Making Sense of the Ethiopian-Eritrean War and The Lasting Struggle for Freedom in Eritrea: Human Rights and Political Development, 1991-2009.
Goitom Gebreluel is an advisor at the International Law and Policy Institute. He has previously worked for the Norwegian government (Norad) and taught foreign policy studies at Mekelle University, Ethiopia.