The peace process between Eritrea and Ethiopia is about ten months old. After eighteen years of obfuscation by his predecessors, Prime Minister (PM) Abiy Ahmed declared that he will comply with the final and binding peace deal from the year 2000, based on the Algiers Agreement. What has happened since? Enough time has elapsed to take at least partial stock. Who gained and who lost?
In Eritrea, soon after his announcement of peace, PM Abiy Ahmed was received with jubilation only matched by that given to Tegadelti (Eritrean freedom fighters) in 1991, when they returned after the Thirty Years War. The reception given to Abiy was probably less about Abiy and more about the deep yearning of Eritreans for peace that has eluded them for over six decades.
PM Abiy has certainly gained a lot of mileage out of his gesture for peace, both domestically and internationally. He built expectations of a greater Ethiopia for domestic political consumption, received badly needed economic aid from Middle Eastern countries and Europe, as well as being nominated for the Nobel Prize for appearing like a “man of peace.” Abiy also made Time Magazine’s one hundred most influential list for 2019. This is the second time in history that Time Magazine is recognizing an Ethiopian leader. In 1936, Time selected Emperor Haile Selassie as its man of the year.
For Eritrea, on the other hand, despite the
initial euphoria, things have changed for the worse. On the positive side of
the ledger: (1) there are families from mixed heritage who were able to finally
reunite with their family members in Ethiopia and Eritrea; (2) UN
imposed sanctions were lifted from Eritrea with an active campaign by Abiy
himself. However, it now appears that Abiy campaigned hard to lift the
sanctions because he was promised a lucrative secret deal from Eritrean
President Isaias, at the expense of Eritrean sovereignty. For Eritrea, as a
young nation, the demarcation
of its borders should have been a priority at independence. This was not to
be, due to the callousness of the Eritrean dictator, who downplayed it. Eritrea
paid and continues to pay dearly for this mistake both in lives and missed
Contrary to the widely held international view, there is now a consensus among Eritreans that they are losing a lot from this so-called rapprochement with Abiy. Most crucially, Abiy has yet to deliver on the fundamental concern of Eritreans, which is a final demarcation of their border with Ethiopia.
Abiy has no practical jurisdiction over Tigray, the Ethiopian region contiguous with Eritrea; therefore, his promise that he respects The Hague verdict of 2002 and that he will comply with it has been a hollow promise because the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in Tigray is functioning as if it is separate from Ethiopia and has shown no intention of cooperating with Abiy. The idea of being able to rely on Abiy is looking like a mirage. He is not even able to oblige the TPLF to hand over the former spy chief Getachew Assefa, who has been indicted for corruption and serious human rights abuse, to federal authorities. Worse yet, the Eritrean dictator, after holding Eritreans hostage over the issue of demarcation for two decades, has openly declared that the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia is not a priority, that he will work towards integration with Abiy, and that Eritreans and Ethiopians are one people.
No one objects to cooperation with neighbours based on defined terms agreed to by both peoples, but these statements from Isaias without any input from the people have had a disorienting and disturbing effect on Eritreans. If Isaias believes what he is saying, then what was the point of the thirty years of debilitating war that Eritreans endured to bring about independence? Unlike the TPLF, which vacillated about its objectives, Eritreans in both the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) were always clear and are still clear about what they want. Through a United Nations monitored referendum in 1993, Eritreans overwhelmingly voted for independence with 99.83% in favour and a 98.5% turnout.
The opening of the border has benefited only Tigray by providing it a captive market in Eritrea for wealthy Tigrean traders to sell their goods. Many Tigrayans have become wealthy during the twenty-seven years that they dominated Ethiopia, through a combination of legitimate business activities as well as corruption. Most of the wealth stolen from Eritreans when the TPLF deported 75,000 Eritreans during the 1998-2000 war was confiscated and transferred to Tigrayans. The rest of Ethiopia is no longer hospitable to Tigrayans, so they’re looking to invest and take advantage of the decimated economy in Eritrea. This is being accomplished through a people-to-people campaign, while downplaying the return of Eritrean territories still occupied by the TPLF. In this, the TPLF has been assisted by some European and American academics and so-called Eritrean regime opponents and human rights activists. Wittingly or unwittingly, these individuals have played into the propaganda games of the TPLF.
Foremost for Eritreans before other confidence-building measures can be undertaken is securing Eritrean sovereignty. Under present conditions in Eritrea, economic integration with Ethiopia will only mean economic apartheid for Eritreans. Since independence, Eritreans with know-how and the means to invest, including those who returned from the diaspora, have been chased out of the country, after losing their life earned savings. These Eritreans are now scattered throughout Africa and the world investing in places that they can’t call home. The city of Mekelle in Tigray, which was just a village when Asmara in Eritrea was a thriving and beautiful city, is now a showplace, their economic positions reversed. Eritrea in general is a shell of its former self.
With an enlightened leadership, there is absolutely no reason why Eritrea should be a poor country. Eritrea's coastline is only second to Egypt with 2,234 kilometers long, with 1,151 kilometers along the Red Sea and 1,083 kilometers of island coastline in the Red Sea. Eritrea's maritime claim in the Red Sea extends 12 nautical miles. These endowments alone combined with the can-do attitude of the Eritrean people should lift Eritreans from poverty to wealth. Standing in the way are the extremely repressive government and the blackmail of ‘no war, no peace’ imposed on Eritreans by the TPLF.
What has been taking place between Abiy and Isaias is a case of putting the cart before the horse. Eritrea is a young nation brutalized and traumatized by war and dictatorship. Once again, an opportunity to settle the territorial issues with Ethiopia has been squandered by the misadventures of the Eritrean dictator – a dictator who only cares about his personal delusions of grandeur, at the expense of the long-suffering Eritreans.
The opening of the border has further weakened Eritrea as a country because young Eritreans are fleeing to Ethiopia as refugees, a significant percentage of whom are soldiers from the National Service, women and vulnerable underage children. This exigency is fast depopulating the country, depriving it of its youth. The influx of hundreds of thousands of Eritreans also gives the TPLF another source of revenue, which is derived from the international community to help with the uptake of refugees. Eritrea under Isaias has distinguished itself as one of the top refugee-producing countries in the world. The human rights situation in Eritrea remains extremely bleak. A significant percentage of those refugees trapped between crosshairs of warring factions in Libya are Eritreans.
There are strong indications that the Eritrean dictator has carried out secret agreements with Abiy regarding Eritrean ports, which Eritreans fear may have compromised their hard-earned sovereignty. PM Abiy has acted unethically by fully embracing the Eritrean dictator, knowing full well the iron grip with which the dictator has blackmailed and suffocated Eritreans. He is presently concluding secret agreements with the dictator: the two have signed documents in the UAE and in Saudi Arabia in the presence of the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, the contents of which have been kept secret from the Eritrean people. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are utilizing the opportunity to enhance their regional hegemonic influence.Abiy and his generals have made known their intentions of establishing a navy, and there are reports that France is in collaboration with Ethiopia in training and financing this expensive project. Ethiopia being a landlocked country, it was unclear as to where this navy will be housed, until president Ismail Guelleh of Djibouti exposed it by revealing that it will be based in the Eritrean port of Massawa. The Eritrean information minister Yemane Gebre Meskel tried to deny the news by tweeting: “Have not seen the interview...but since when did President Guelle become a spokesman for Eritrea! In any case, this is utterly false…”
Note that most Eritreans have stopped believing what comes from the government. In fairness to Yemane, it is entirely possible that he might not even know the facts. The Eritrean dictator has no respect for those who work for him.
Nevertheless, the revelation has hit Eritreans like a bomb shell. The Eritrean people paid a heavy sacrifice in what is known as Operation Fenkil in order to eject the Ethiopian navy from Massawa in February of 1990, when Ethiopians used napalm and cluster bombs to target civilians. The commander who directed that successful but costly operation, which caught the Ethiopians by surprise, was Petros Solomon, who is now languishing in Isaias’s dungeons, along with his wife Aster Yohannes and tens of thousands of patriots. A former finance minister, Berhane Abrehe is the latest high profile victim to be imprisoned, for writing a book critical of Isaias.
The first effort to capture Massawa in 1977 ended with heavy Eritrean losses, in the face of massive Soviet assistance to the then Dergue regime. The news that Ethiopia’s navy will be housed in Massawa is an affront to Eritrean sensibilities and an insult to those who gave their precious lives to liberate it. It has caused unprecedented disquiet and crisis among Eritreans and is further evidence that Eritrean sovereignty is being betrayed by the so-called president of the country.
There is no functioning Baito (parliament) in Eritrea. The dictator has destroyed almost all institutions, entrenching his personal rule in every aspect of the country’s life. Through it all, the dictator has remained hidden and has only given one interview through the government media, which he completely controls. As usual, the interview was incoherent and designed to deceive and confuse rather than clarify issues. This has proved to be the last straw even for many true believers. As the disquiet grows, Isaias has sent his lieutenants to conduct “seminars” with Eritreans inside the country, ostensibly to calm and assuage the growing suspicion that he is committing treason. Those sent to deliver the scripted seminars have faced tough questions on demarcation, release of political prisoners and implementation of the Constitution that they are, of course, in no position to answer. By all accounts, this has backfired as the resistance and anger of Eritreans is only growing. Isaias has lost what little credibility he may have had even among his ardent supporters. This has found a partial expression through Eritreans coming on YouTube videos and social media and demonstrations with the slogan ‘Yiakl’ which means ‘enough’ in Tigrinya.
People who rarely took the risk to speak out against the dictator are now openly and earnestly doing so. To complicate matters for the dictator’s plan with Abiy, Ethiopia is facing unprecedented anarchy from within, threatening the very foundations of the country. The country has four million internally displaced people (IDPs) which is approximately equal to the entire population of Eritrea. And the TPLF is taking the opportunity to flex its muscles and try to appear self-righteous. It is accusing Abiy of incompetence and of turning Ethiopia into a failed state. It has also blamed Abiy for his relationship with Isaias by implying that Abiy is trying to encircle Tigray by allying with a foreign country, Eritrea. Eighty percent of the weapons purchased for the (1998-2000) war to be used against Eritrea still remain in Tigray. The region’s President, Dr. Debre Tsion Ghebremichael, boasts that Tigray can take care of itself against any federal, Amhara or Eritrean threat, while the Eritrean dictator is telling Eritreans to prepare for war citing the refusal of the TPLF to leave Eritrean lands. Eritreans have nothing to gain from another war! For Tigray, abiding by international law in demarcating the border would go a long ways towards rebuilding trust with Eritreans and breaking away from its growing isolation.
Next door in Sudan, until he was overthrown, Al Bashir had been friendly with the TPLF. It is too early to tell, but the momentous change in Sudan may not be good news for the TPLF or even Abiy, albeit for different reasons. Indications are that Egypt might stand to gain from change in Sudan. Earlier, Isaias accused Turkey, Qatar and Al Bashir’s Sudan of sponsoring Eritrean Islamic extremists with the purpose of derailing the peace process between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Abiy has been silent about this. Why the search for scapegoating and this sudden outburst from the dictator? It may be to try to divert attention from the brewing internal resistance or to remind Egypt of his significance by emphasizing that they share a common threat from Turkey, after their off-again, on-again relations, before his flirtations with Abiy. He was cozy with Al Sisi of Egypt before Abiy’s Ethiopia became his and his family’s preferred ally and destination. He may also be feeling squeezed from the growing Eritrean opposition, worried about the deterioration in Abiy’s Ethiopia and feeling isolated and cornered. He makes frequent visits to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. What is discussed in these meetings is never revealed to Eritreans. That a people who have sacrificed so much are completely shut out from the fate of their country is a travesty of justice.
The countries of the Horn of Africa have been wooed in recent years by the Saudi-UAE-Egyptian axis in competition with the Turkey-Iran-Qatar axis. There is renewed fierce competition by regional and world powers to have a foothold in the geopolitically important Red Sea and surrounding Horn of Africa countries. The city-state of Djibouti is hosting five world powers (China, USA, France, Italy, and Japan). France also hosts German and Spanish troops. The Red Sea is an artery of global trade with over 10% of the world’s trade passing through it and expanding.
Already, the UAE has built an air base in Assab, Eritrea, which it is using to bomb the people of Yemen. Eritrea has no business involving itself in this unholy and criminal misadventure of the UAE and Saudi Arabia against the people of Yemen. Before switching his alliance to the UAE and Mohammed Bin Salman, Qatar was the dictator’s lifeline. Characteristically, the dictator has not revealed anything regarding his agreements with the UAE and Saudi Arabia over the usage of the base. One of the motives is more than likely money, but the Eritrean people are in the dark about the money he is receiving from “leasing” Assab or from the Canadian Nevsun Company’s Bisha mining project, which employs Eritrean slave labour and is under litigation in the Canadian Supreme Court.
Emboldened by the treasonous posture of Isaias, former Dergue General Kassaye Chemeda, who committed war crimes in Eritrea, and Tigrayan General Tsadkan GebreTensae, who is another war criminal, are openly stating their ambition for Ethiopia to become a Red Sea power. Dawit Woldeghiorgis, another shameless former Dergue official went as far as asking Eritreans to build a statue for Ethiopian soldiers who died in Eritrea while committing atrocities. The Ethiopian embassy in London actually posted a map incorporating Eritrea into Ethiopia, during the celebration of Ethiopian athletes’ victory in the Dubai Marathon Race. Lemma Megersa who was the president of the Oromia region and Abiy’s closest confidant said, “Who knows we may have our own Red Sea in the near future” and was just appointed as Ethiopia’s Defense Minister by Abiy. The last year has shown PM Abiy to be in a similar category. Abiy also revealed that he will share Assab with Issu (an endearing way that people who like Isaias address him with). He is acting unethically by taking advantage of Eritreans who are in the grip of a brutal dictator. As a former spy chief for Ethiopia’s Network Security Agency (INSA), he is well aware of who Isaias is and knows of the true Eritrean patriots who led Eritrea to independence and are now in dungeons or dead. He is dealing with a ruthless dictator who is completely isolated from Eritreans. Isaias has been killing and purging Eritrean patriots for fifty years, both inside the country and the diaspora.
Whatever agreements Abiy is secretly making with Isaias cannot be sustainable. There will be a day of reckoning and Eritreans will not honour these dubious deals made with an illegitimate dictator. Sadly, Isaias is further compounding Eritrean problems, instead of putting a cap on the debilitating border conflict. He manufactures crises to prolong his days in power. However, Isaias, like Al Bashir of Sudan, should soon be relegated to the dustbin of history, forever remembered for suffocating Eritrean aspirations for peace, for his cruelty and treason.
*Yohannes Woldemariam follows and writes about political developments in the Horn of Africa Region. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org