How Could a Lasting Peace Between Ethiopia and Eritrea Be Achieved?

In the protracted cold war, however, there was a clear winner and loser. Ethiopia managed to seize the status of regional hegemon, leave Eritrea diplomatically isolated, win the support of major powers such as the US, and get UN sanctions imposed on Eritrea.

Eritrea, meanwhile, suffered economically, lost the upper-hand in the legal border battle, and came to be seen as a pariah state, accused of sponsoring regional instability and terrorism.

The regime in Asmara is now in a struggle for its own survival. Its military capability is checked, external pressure remains high, its economic situation is dire, and there appears to be simmering domestic dissent as exhibited by several high-level defections and an army mutiny on 21 January, 2013.

This could suggest that Eritrea is more likely to agree to talks, but this is not necessarily the case and there are still many hurdles remaining. Firstly, there is baggage of the past, contrasting political and national interests, and the ongoing rivalry.

Secondly, Ethiopia’s strong position could make it less willing to compromise. Thirdly, peace efforts may not even be in Afewerki’s interests. Afewerki’s regime has been subjecting Eritrea to political repression and economic hardships all in the name of defending against Ethiopian annexation.

Reconciliation with Ethiopia would undermine this strategy and confront the regime with an array of challenges such as demobilisation, a return to constitutionalism, and a move to democracy – all so far postponed given the alleged existential threats facing the country. For Afewerki, a ‘no war no peace’ status quo might well be preferable to a peace that could cost him his power.

How Peace Could Be Achieved?

Firstly, any initiative should uphold the terms and achievements of the Algiers agreement. Although its legal and political instruments have expired, the accord has not been abrogated. Eritrea in particular seems committed to the treaty and upholds its integrity. The agreement continues to provide a framework within which Ethiopia and Eritrea can settle their differences.

Secondly, any peace initiative should go beyond previous negotiations in seeking a comprehensive settlement of the root causes of the conflict – both economic and political.

One major contention is land-locked Ethiopia’s claim of a “right of access to sea” either through incorporation of some Eritrean territory along the coast or guaranteed lease of the port of Assab.

Previous fears that Ethiopia could claim access to the sea by military force make Eritrea’s insistence that Ethiopia unconditionally respect Eritrea’s territorial sovereignty all the more salient.

The lease of Assab to Ethiopia would likely be in Eritrea’s economic interest, but a history of Ethiopian (previously Abyssinian) attempts to annex the country mean mistrust is high. Any peace effort must come up with an intelligent way to address this and other complex issues.

Finally, a sustainable peace process should emphasise long-term reconciliation and cultivate the right environment for the normalisation of relations and possible future cooperation. Alongside formal negotiations, informal channels could also be important in this.

Non-official Track II diplomacy involving civil society, community elders, religious leaders and others could provide an effective peace-making mechanism.

It has the advantage, amongst other things, of laying the foundation for a more durable peace through broad social reconciliation by dealing with historical-political grievances and the deeper roots of inter-communal conflicts. Unlike more adversarial formal proceedings, it could help thaw hostilities between two governments locked in the pride and prejudice of their kin communities.

 

Salih Nur is an Eritrean writer and Public Policy and Good Governance scholar