Monday, July 23, 2018

Ethiopia-Eritrea: rapprochement achieved; now for implementation

The silver cloud (of peace) has a dark lining (the TPLF).
Elizabeth Kendal

On 5 June, Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Amhed (41) announced that Ethiopia was ready to abide by the Algiers Declaration, accept the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission ruling of 2002, and withdraw from disputed territories pursuant of peace.

For full background see Religious Liberty Monitoring
Ethiopia and Eritrea: Reforms and Resistance
by Elizabeth Kendal, 25 June 2018

Since then, progress has been rapid.

26 June: Eritrean Delegation visits Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Tuesday 26 June, an Eritrean delegation arrived in Addis Ababa for a three-day official visit. It was the first high level meeting between the states since diplomatic relations were broken off in 1998, and it was a sensational success.

For more details see Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin
Ethiopia and Eritrea: leaders have “opened the door of peace”
by Elizabeth Kendal, 4 July 2018

8 July: Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed visits Asmara, Eritrea.

PM Abiy (l) arrives in Asmara and is
met by President Afwerki (r),
8 July 2018.
On Sunday 8 July, an Ethiopian Airlines aeroplane touched down in
Asmara – the first in 20 years. The plane was carrying Ethiopian Prime Minister, Dr Abiy Ahmed, who was met at the airport by Eritrean President, Isaias Afwerki. It was the first time the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea had met in more than 20 years. 

Eritreans were out in numbers, eager to welcome the Ethiopian Prime Minister. According to one eyewitness, “The yearning for peace was palpable.” 

9 July: declaration signed; ‘state of war’ over.

On Monday 9 July, Prime Minister Abiy and President Afwerki held a historic bilateral summit in which they signed a “declaration of peace and friendship” and declared the “state of war” over.

“We have agreed,” said PM Abiy, “to open up embassies in our respective countries, allow our people to visit each other’s cities, and allow our airlines and ports to operate freely. Love is greater than modern weapons like tanks and missiles. Love can win hearts, and we have seen a great deal of it today here in Asmara.” 

Video news report: Al-Jazeera, 9 July 2018
Ethiopia, Eritrea sign “declaration of peace and friendship”,

(Includes comment by Horn of Africa specialist Matt Bryden, on the challenge of implementation.)

10 July: Phone lines opened

On the eve of the 1998-2000 Ethiopia-Eritrea war, the Ethiopian government expelled more than 70,000 Eritreans from Ethiopian territory while Eritrea likewise expelled thousands of Ethiopians from its territory. The expulsions resulted in lives being turned upside down and families being torn apart. The pain of separation was cruelly compounded by the severing of, not merely all transport and trade links, but all telecommunication and postal services as well.  

Consequently, on Tuesday 10 July 2018 when telephone services between the two states were restored, the lines lit up. Telephone lines dormant for decades buzzed excitedly as loved ones long-separated established contact for the first time in 20 years. Others excitedly made random calls, just to chat with a stranger on the other side of the border. 

14 July: Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki visits Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

On Saturday 14 July, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki flew into Addis Ababa for a three day visit. Thousands of cheering and dancing Ethiopians turned out to greet him. As reported by France24, “Some excited Ethiopians have compared the restoration of relations with one of the world’s most closed-off countries to the fall of the Berlin Wall.” 

“A visibly moved Abiy on Saturday [14 July] praised Ethiopians for their warm welcome of the Eritrean president with chants of ‘Isaias! Isaias!’ and flag-waving. ‘I’m very emotional right now,’ Abiy told a luncheon at the National Palace.

“Thank you,” said Afwerki, “for the genuine love that you all showed us.”

16 July: Eritrean Embassy re-opens in Addis Ababa

Abiy and Afwerki raise the Eritrean flag
at the re-opened Eritrean Embassy
in Addis Ababa, 16 July 2018.
Closed since 1998, the Eritrean Embassy in Addis Ababa remained like a time capsule "frozen in time" collecting dusk for 20 years [BBC images]. 

However, at a special ceremony on Monday 16 July the embassy was inaugurated. PM Abiy handed the keys to President Afwerki and together the two leaders raised the Eritrean flag. 

After inaugurating the embassy, President Afwerki left Addis Ababa to return to Asmara; he was seen off by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. 

18 July: Flights resume enabling family reunions

On Wednesday 18 July, 465 Ethiopians travelled to Asmara on the first commercial flight between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 20 years. While the flight did carry some dignitaries – including former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegne and Ethiopian Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Mathias – the passengers were mostly people separated from their families by the war.

With tickets selling out in less than one hour, a second flight was scheduled for 15-minutes later. “With the demand we are witnessing, I think we’re going to increase the frequency to twice a day, thrice a day and even more,” said Ethiopian Airline’s chief executive, Tewolde GebreMariam, at a ceremony ahead of the maiden flight. 

On the plane, passengers received roses and champagne, and sang and danced in the aisles during the 60-minute flight. 

However, the mood changed when they landed in Asmara. 

Tears flowed freely as family members were reunited with loved-ones whom they had not seen or touched for 20 years. Among them was Ethiopian journalist Addisalem Hadgu (58) of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC). During the war his Eritrean wife took their two teenage daughters to Eritrea, and despite all his efforts over the next 18 years he had been unable to make contact with them. For Addisalem, the reunion with his now adult daughters was almost more than he could bear. 

Ninety Eritreans flew to Addis Ababa on the return trip. 

withdrawing Ethiopian troops from Eritrean territory.

Bronwyn Bruton is the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Centre in Washington, D.C. In an insightful, nearly 3000-word analysis she explains that “there is a very clear reason why both leaders [Abiy and Afwerki] are suddenly so eager to cooperate. They are united by the presence of a still-potent mutual enemy: the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).”

See: Ethiopia and Eritrea Have a Common Enemy 
by Bronwyn Bruton, for Foreign Policy magazine (subscription) 12 July 2018


“Though it governed behind the fig leaf of a larger ruling coalition, the TPLF and the tiny ethnic minority it represents have wielded unlimited power in Ethiopia for the past two decades.

“The party has used its power to obliterate civil society, the press, religious freedoms, and all forms of political opposition.

“By early this year, the TPLF’s stranglehold on power had brought Ethiopia to the verge of collapse, as larger ethnic groups, led by the Oromo and Amhara, blocked roads into Addis Ababa in protest. To avert a showdown — which would have taken the form of a catastrophic food and fuel shortage in the capital — the ruling coalition’s government was forced to oust its prime minister, release thousands of political prisoners, and consent to the appointment of Abiy, an Oromo leader, as the new head of state. Abiy has proved more of a firebrand than expected and has been moving quickly to generate a political following and dismantle the TPLF’s grip on power. . . 

“Abiy has even more reason than Isaias to fear the holdouts in the TPLF. They are the key impediments to political reform in Ethiopia, and since taking office, he has frantically sought to undo their hold on power. He diminished the military’s authority by lifting a repressive state of emergency, repealed laws that allowed the security forces to label dissidents as terrorists and arrest them, and fired a slew of senior security and intelligence officers, most of whom were Tigrayans.

“His much-lauded decision to lift the government monopolies on several of Ethiopia’s key industries, including telecommunications and energy, was lauded as a free market advance — but it was also an important swipe at the TPLF’s bank accounts. TPLF leaders have profited from self-dealing by directing these monopolies to award lucrative government contracts to firms that they own or are run by their military cronies.
“Abiy is working hard and fast to gain ground against the TPLF before its bickering leaders can organize a coherent response . . .

“The bad news for Abiy is that his maneuvers will probably have minimal effects. After 27 years of autocratic rule, the TPLF has patronage networks that run deep and are rooted in ethnic demographics. Although Tigrayans represent only 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population, an analysis of the Ethiopian military several years ago found that 57 of 61 generals in mission-critical positions were ethnically Tigrayan. It is estimated that two-thirds of the broader officer class is, too.”

Concerning the generals, Bruton notes that while PM Abiy has already started to “thin their ranks”, that “doesn’t make them disappear”. What's more, PM Abiy “can’t possibly afford to fire 95 percent of Ethiopia’s generals. To consolidate his power, he needs to fire the worst but co-opt the rest, and that process could take years.” Until then, Bruton warns, they will continue to foment trouble. As an example, she raises the case of Maj. Gen. Tekleberhan Woldearegay who, after being forced to resign from his powerful post as director of the notorious Information Network Security Agency (INSA), went on the radio and “appeared to call for a coup”. Describing himself as a representative of the military, he lambasted the government calling it “an enemy force” and “not of the people”. 

While Bruton does not believe that disgruntled TPLF hardliners could persuade the military into open revolt, she does expect them act as spoilers. “The assassination attempt on Abiy in Meskel Square on June 26 appears to have been just such an incident — the deputy police commissioner has been arrested, alongside 30 other police and government officials.”

Peace Process Requires International Support

As Bruton explains: “Abiy’s moves — including his overtures to Eritrea and firing of key generals — are intensely provocative to the TPLF, and they may well backfire. Ethiopia’s allies, especially Washington, should be watching the developments there with alarm and should act to ensure that the situation there does not spiral out of control. If TPLF hard-liners use their influence over the military to illegally retake power — either through assassination, ethnic destabilization tactics, or a coup — Ethiopia will face a civil war.”

Bruton’s recommendation: “The European Union and the United States should be sending an unmistakable and public message to the TPLF that any seizure of power will not be tolerated — that aid funding, military cooperation, and political backing will disappear if there is a coup attempt or any other form of anti-democratic interference. Such a message would make it emphatically clear to the hard-liners that a graceful exit is their only option.”

Further to this, nothing will or even could change inside Eritrea so long as Ethiopian troops remain on Eritrean soil. 

Bruton concludes: “Peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia is long overdue. But it’s important for policymakers to understand that the current rush to peace is a tactical matter. As long as both Abiy and Isaias remain existentially threatened by the TPLF, both will be quick to gloss over their differences. . .

“For now, hard-liners within the TPLF can be held in check by the threat of popular fury. But they also may be desperate enough to act irrationally. In the meantime, a thaw with Eritrea — and the powerful military it has posted in the TPLF’s backyard — helps to even out the balance of power, if only by reminding the TPLF hard-liners of how many enemies they have.”


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).