Why the loss of momentum in Eritrean -Ethiopian relations was inevitable

Source: SIPRI

By Jason Mosley

Note: this is a short extract from his much longer analysis: Ethiopia’s Transition: Implications for the Horn of Africa and Red Sea Region

Eritrean–Ethiopian rapprochement

By far the most significant shift in regional relations under Abiy has been the rapprochement with Eritrea.

Abiy’s inaugural speech in April 2018 signalled his intention to repair relations with Eritrea, although these were received with some scepticism, given similar sentiments were expressed by Hailemariam when he took office as premier in 2012, with little effect.

However, the shift within the EPRDF to marginalize the TPLF, combined with Abiy’s tendency to govern from the prime minister’s office, meant that he was in a position to make some significant departures from previous policy.

Indeed, his rapprochement with the administration in Eritrea was also a signal to the TPLF and the senior figures in the security sector (historically aligned with the TPLF, if formally apolitical) that their concerns were being sidelined. This put political pressure on the TPLF, whose Tigray region borders Eritrea, that dovetailed with the Abiy administration’s prosecutions of leaders (often associated with the TPLF) of state-owned or party-affiliated enterprises.

The Saudis and the Emiratis were both keen to support the rapprochement process. Relations between Eritrea and both countries have deepened somewhat since 2015. Eritrea made Assab port available to the Emirati military for operations related to the war in Yemen. Eritrea has also participated in the establishment of a new regional body—the Council of Arab and African Coastal States of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (or Red Sea Council, see below)—launched by the Saudi Government, adapting a platform that Egypt had been advocating for some time.

The Saudis and the Emiratis have also been keen to improve relations with Ethiopia, and Abiy’s rise gave them an opportunity to engage. While Eritrea and Ethiopia’s initiative to repair relations was overwhelmingly driven by domestic political considerations, the support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE provided a useful additional benefit to both governments. For Ethiopia, the embrace of Saudi Arabia and the UAE produced some quick financial support to (temporarily) alleviate foreign exchange pressure amid economic disruption and tepid export performance.

For Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s embrace (as well as Ethiopia’s new stance) provided an avenue to the elimination in 2018 of the UN Security Council’s sanctions regime, first initiated in 2009.

However, after an initial flurry of goodwill meetings—including awards ceremonies for both leaders in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the reopening of border crossings for the first time since 1998—by early 2019 momentum had begun to drain out of the process.

By April 2019 all the border crossings had been closed on the Eritrean side. The Ethiopian Airlines flights between Addis Ababa and Asmara that were quickly restored after the initial agreement still connect the two countries; however, questions have been raised about the viability of these flights and the prospect of reducing their frequency has been floated.

President Isaias did not attend a ceremony to mark the inauguration of Ethiopia’s Unity Park in October 2019 (which included heads of state from all other IGAD members), and Eritrea has not resumed its participation in IGAD, despite Ethiopia finally relinquishing the rotating chair to Sudan in November 2019.

In some sense the loss of momentum was inevitable: neither the initial Asmara declaration in June 2018 nor the subsequent Jeddah declaration signed by Abiy and Isaias in September provided clarity on the path forward, beyond agreement by the two countries to cooperate. Many economic factors have still not been worked out since before the war, not least a new bilateral trade framework after the introduction of the Eritrean currency in 1997.

An initial wave of trade and movement of people from in 2018 allowed for some pent-up economic pressures to be eased in Eritrea. However, this was not sustainable for the Eritrean Government, whose tight control over the formal economy was challenged by the influx of goods from Ethiopia. Indications are that Eritrea has shut the crossings while a trade arrangement is being negotiated.

This would be consistent with Eritrea’s history since independence. The limited access order of Eritrea’s political economy has been a stumbling block for external engagement, undercutting the assumption (by donors or other bilateral actors, including from the Gulf) that the government is seeking significant inflows of aid or other payments.

For example, while Somalia and Sudan have received aid for their cooperation with the Saudi–Emirati alliance, Eritrea does not appear to have done so, and even takes payment for the use of Assab port in kind rather than in rents. Moving beyond this order will be a difficult transition for the current government, which does not appear ready to liberalize or exit power. As such, progress towards full normalization of relations with Ethiopia will be slow.

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