Border conflicts have marred east African states for decades, but some political goodwill has finally emerged in the region, seeking to build an enduring peace.

Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and Somalia's President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (left to right) photographed after cutting the ribbon at a hospital inauguration in northern Ethiopia, on November 10, 2018. On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Counsel voted to lift sanctions on Eritrea as relations warm between the once-rival nations.
Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and Somalia's President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (left to right) photographed after cutting the ribbon at a hospital inauguration in northern Ethiopia, on November 10, 2018. On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Counsel voted to lift sanctions on Eritrea as relations warm between the once-rival nations. (Eduardo Soteras / AFP)

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) voted on Wednesday to lift sanctions imposed on Eritrea nearly 10 years ago in 2009, when Resolution 1907 was adopted, accusing Eritrea of supporting armed groups in Somalia.

The 15 members of the UNSC completed negotiations on Monday and agreed on a resolution drafted by Britain, lifting the arms embargo as well as some targeted sanctions and an asset freeze for individuals in the “Eritrean political and military leadership.”

The UNSC applied the sanctions because of allegations that Eritrea had been supporting “armed groups” and “undermining peace and reconciliation in Somalia.” Eritrea denies these allegations. 

Andebrhan Welde Giorgis, a former Eritrean ambassador and President of Eri-Platform told TRT World that the sanctions were unjustified, as there was no “incontrovertible evidence” to prove Eritrea had in fact supported Al Shabab. 

“Eritrea is domestically repressive and internationally reclusive,” he explained. 

“The absence of rule of law, and reluctance to engage the international community to address its concerns led to isolation, and Ethiopia was then able to support sanctions and marginalise Eritrea.”

Former US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Herman Cohen, also described the decision as a “gross miscarriage of justice”.

The two countries were divided when Italy took control of Eritrea in 1889. Ethiopia re-absorbed Eritrea as an autonomous territory but then annexed it completely in 1962.

Eritrea's temporary government general secretary, Isaias Afwerki, during the celebration of the country's first independence anniversary which took place on May 24, 1991. When the capital city, Asmara, was conquered, a temporary government was set up in July and Afwerki who then led Eritrea's Popular Liberation Front was named President of the Republic.
Eritrea's temporary government general secretary, Isaias Afwerki, during the celebration of the country's first independence anniversary which took place on May 24, 1991. When the capital city, Asmara, was conquered, a temporary government was set up in July and Afwerki who then led Eritrea's Popular Liberation Front was named President of the Republic. (Patrick Durand / Getty Images)

This triggered hostilities which eventually turned into a guerrilla movement and then a war for independence. A two-year border dispute followed in 1998, killing close to 100,000 people. The Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Commission was established to mediate the border dispute, which Eritrea accepted and wanted upheld. Ethiopia rejected it, creating long military standoff between the two countries. 

“Since the tragic war between Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1998 to 2000, a state of no peace, no war emerged between them,” said Martin Plaut, a senior fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and author of the book Understanding Eritrea.

When Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 to oust the Union of Islamic Courts, Eritrea allegedly supported armed groups in both Ethiopia and Somalia. 

“The Eritreans as a result were accused of supporting Al Shabab in Somalia and Oromo groups against Ethiopia, and quite frankly the Ethiopians did the same in reverse,” Plaut told TRT World

“This conflict,” he continued, “dragged in the whole of the Horn of Africa destabilising the region, because the Eritreans saw ‘the enemy of my enemy as my friend’.”

Somalia and Ethiopia, supported by Djibouti which has an ongoing border dispute with Eritrea, worked to isolate Eritrea.  

The region's resources as a result were spent on security rather than development, eventually exacerbating rather than addressing the root causes of a lot of the instability in the Horn. 

The Eritreans viewed the sheer size of Ethiopia, as well as the border dispute and Ethiopia’s desire for access to the Red Sea, as an issue which posed an existential threat, but the tone of politics in the region radically changed after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in Ethiopia earlier this year. 

Normalising relations: The Abiy effect 

When political leaders meet, even when they’re allied, initial greetings are usually stolid, firm and formal. But when Prime Minister Ahmed disembarked from his plane in Asmara a few months ago, things panned out differently.

A wide smile appeared on the faces of both Eritrean President Afwerki and Prime Minister Ahmed.

In a matter of weeks, Ahmed accepted the ruling by the border commission, diplomatic ties were restored, a Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship was signed, flights resumed between the countries, phone lines reconnected and families separated by the war and its aftermath were brought back together.

Ahmed also visited Mogadishu, following an invitation by Somali President Mohammed Abdullahi Mohammed. The two leaders issued a joint communique, vowing to develop trade, increase the free movement of goods and people and joint investment in four key ports. 

By August 22, flights were resumed between Addis Ababa and Mogadishu for the first time in more than four decades. 

Supporters of Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed rally for US support outside the State Department on June 26, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Supporters of Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed rally for US support outside the State Department on June 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

This new trend of reconciliatory politics reached its culmination in a series of trilateral meetings between the leaders of Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, focussing on regional economic integration and deeper cooperation. 

Giorgis is hopeful about where things are going in the region but says the peace we are seeing is very fragile. 

“The relationship between Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afwerki is a personal one and is not an institutionalised state to state relationship,” he said. 

As a result he fears that the unresolved border disputes, as well as the inertia of the historic conflicts, might unravel regional peace. 

Abukar Arman, a former Somali special envoy to the US agrees, highlighting the fact that building trust is a long-term process. 

“Despite their swift diplomatic reinstatement and trade deals, Ethiopia and Eritrea are at a symbolic phase of a sustainable reconciliation,” he told TRT World.

“Eritrea might trust the Oromo leadership, but it is extremely vigilant about the Tigray and Amhara specters — two ethnic groups that waged wars against it.”

Eritrean soldiers wait in a line on September 11, 2018 to cross the border to attend the border reopening ceremony with Ethiopians as two land border crossings between Ethiopia and Eritrea were reopened for the first time in 20 years in Serha, Eritrea.
Eritrean soldiers wait in a line on September 11, 2018 to cross the border to attend the border reopening ceremony with Ethiopians as two land border crossings between Ethiopia and Eritrea were reopened for the first time in 20 years in Serha, Eritrea. (AFP)

Ahmed’s power largely stems from the fact that he successfully displaced the political power of the Tigrayan elite in Ethiopia whilst winning the support of other major parties in the Ethiopian Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and across the country. The EPRDF is the Ethiopia's ruling coalition. 

When the EPRDF council was considering who its new chairman would be after Hailemariam Desalegn resigned, Ahmed received 108 out of 180 votes, with strong support from the Amhara National Democratic Movement, according to reports. The party entered into an alliance with Ahmed’s Oromo Democratic Party.

However, Ahmed, who recently retained his position as chairman of the EPRDF, has had to deal with increased rates of ethnic violence which have accompanied his political reforms. 

“The one thing that could undermine its [Ethiopia’s] exclusive advantage is internal turmoil or civil unrest,” Arman said. “And combustible ethnic grievances and mistrust are not in short supply.” 

Systematic state-violence against its population has largely been replaced with concerning levels of inter-ethnic violence. Alongside floods, violence in the Oromia, Amhara, Somali, Gedeo and West Guji region in southern Ethiopia mean that Ethiopia currently has two million internally displaced people, one of the largest displaced populations in the world. 

“The major reason behind inter-ethnic violence is the country’s ethnic federal arrangement,” said Yohannes Gedamu, a specialist in Ethiopian politics at Georgia Gwinnett College. 

A crowd of onlookers watch as a suspected bomber is escorted by Ethiopian police force personnel in Addis Ababa on June 23, 2018.
A crowd of onlookers watch as a suspected bomber is escorted by Ethiopian police force personnel in Addis Ababa on June 23, 2018. (Getty Images)

Various ethnic groups are now more aggressively asserting their identities, following years of suppression and are making economic, territorial and political demands often with the hope of redressing historical grievances. 

“This system has created a race for resources, territories, and forced displacement or eviction of groups that have lived in different parts of the country for generations,” Gedamu explained. 

He said this is because Ethiopia’s political system “prioritises and respects groups rights, that means that an individual’s liberties will be compromised”. 

While politics in the region, propelled by Ethiopia’s new charismatic prime minister, has put all countries on a new trajectory, many risks endure. But the decision to support the lifting of sanctions demonstrates a commitment to follow through on their gestures of goodwill. 

Djibouti-Eritrea’s border dispute

The last piece in this jigsaw yet to fit neatly is the Djibouti-Eritrea border dispute over Doumeira Mountain and Doumeira Island, as well as 13 prisoners of war that Djibouti alleges Eritrea has yet to account for. 

Both countries have decided to normalise ties following arbitration by the Somali president, who also welcomed the lifting of sanctions. 

From being close to war in 1996, when Djibouti claimed Eritrea had shelled Ras Dumeira, to mutual visits in 2001, which paved the way for cooperation agreements in 2004, Djibouti-Eritrea relations have ebbed and flowed. 

Their relations in recent years have been defined by hostilities at the border, beginning in 2008. 

When Djibouti offered its views at the UN, as the body considered lifting sanctions, Djibouti’s ambassador to the UN Mohamed Siad Doualeh said: “Continued stalemate is not an option.” “We need to expedite the process,” he continued. 

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (C), Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki (2ndL) and Somalia's President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (R) cut the ribbon during the inauguration of the Tibebe Ghion Specialized Hospital in Bahir Dar, northern Ethiopia, on November 10, 2018.
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (C), Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki (2ndL) and Somalia's President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (R) cut the ribbon during the inauguration of the Tibebe Ghion Specialized Hospital in Bahir Dar, northern Ethiopia, on November 10, 2018. (Eduardo Soteras / AFP)

Djibouti was notably absent from both trilateral meetings between the heads of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. And other analysts have speculated that Eritrea might gain from isolating Djibouti, as Assab port could re-emerge as a serious rival to Djibouti’s ports which manage 90 percent of Ethiopia's trade. 

Plaut expects the problem to be resolved the same way as many of the other conflicts as the region moves toward relationships based on the recognition of the utility of trade and cooperation.

However, “when you look at President Afwerki, he is such a mercurial figure. There is still a possibility he might change his mind.”

Source: TRT World