Is the Cold War in the Horn of Africa Finally Over? The Rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea

On July 9, 2018, Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a historical agreement as a sign of their commitment to put aside their mutual animosity and work for peace, development, and cooperation in the Horn of Africa.

The agreement comes largely as a manifestation of political changes in Ethiopia. It was made possible by the landmark election of the new head of state, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, in Ethiopia. His election can be seen as an attempt to remedy the anti-government protests that have destabilized particularly parts of the Oromia and Amhara Region since 2015. Abiy, hailing from the majority Oromo ethnic group in Ethiopia, which largely sees itself as politically and economically marginalized, was initially seen as a figure who might deliver cautious change in the country.

However, some of his early actions have been rather groundbreaking.

For his 16-member cabinet, appointed in April, Abiy selected only one minister from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which had dominated the liberation struggle and had subsequently held power since 1991. He then went on to permit the release of a great number of political detainees and presides over an ambitious plan to privatize much of the state-controlled economy.

Still, what appears to be his most impressive move until today is the bold rapprochement with Eritrea. Following the bloody Eritrean-Ethiopian War (1998-2000), the countries had maintained Cold War-like relations in which each often accused the other ofseeking influence in the Horn and meddling with their internal political stability. The two had become to be seen as arch rivals in the sub-region, both seeking a foothold in Somalia.

On June 5, following its executive committee meeting, the Ethiopian ruling coalition party Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) released a statement in which it expressed full acceptance of the recommended boundary between the two countries. This was a major turnaround because it had previously vigorously disputed the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission decision in the aftermath of the Algiers Agreement that had ended the Eritrean-Ethiopian War.

The statement paved way for unprecedented improvement of Ethiopian-Eritrean relations.

Soon after, on June 26, a high-level delegation from Eritrea visited Ethiopia paving way for further rapprochement. This visit laid the ground for an unprecedentedvisit by Ethiopian Prime Minister to Asmara.

On July 8, Abiy arrived in Asmara for a two-dayvisit. Already the same day, news emerged of an initial agreement on re-establishment of diplomatic, trade, transport, and communications connections. The next day, the leaders, Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afwerki signed the joint declaration in which they declared an end to the state of war and the opening of a new era of peace and friendshipwhile expressing their promise to “ensure regional peace, development andcooperation”. Subsequently, understanding the significance of the groundbreaking event, a number of African and world leaders congratulated the countries for their rather unexpected rapprochement.

Undoubtedly, the re-establishment of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea is a much-celebratedstep forward. It may mean the end of the Horn of Africa’s “cold war”. However, the joint declaration raises a number of questions which will only be answered in the course of time.

Since the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, both states have relied extensively on demonizing the other for justifying the domesticand foreign policy. The new era of ending the hostilities may require both governments to find new arguments for legitimizing their authority and policies. This may result in domestic readjustments that can have far-reaching consequences for the leadership and configuration of political power.

Moreover, the extent of the change in terms of future relations and cooperation between the two countries is still to be seen.

While some doubt that Abiy can rally overwhelming support for the move in the Ethiopian leadership, others wonder whether Afwerki will truly endorse the efforts and if the promised military de-escalation will eventually take place.

Still, the potential of successful rapprochement is massive. It may have far-reaching consequences between the two states, in the sub-region, and beyond. In the long term, Ethiopia securing yet another point of access to the Red Sea may lessen its dependence on Djibouti and interest in Somaliland. This could lower external support for Hargeisa’s claim for international recognition and resistance against Mogadishu’s effort to extend its influence and authority over Somalia’s regions.

Another significant consequence of deepening cooperation between the two countries may be Eritrea’s de-militarization and rapid economic development. In the long term, reducing the length and having a concrete limit to the national service, and experiencing increasing economic opportunities especially for the youth, could translate into weakening “push factors” for mass migration. This could diminish the current migratory current from Eritrea and have consequences elsewhere.

More on the topic

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely the authors’ point of view and do not bind the Center for International Studies, its Director or any other researcher.

President Isaias Afewerki and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sign the Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship between Eritrea and Ethiopia on 9 July 2018 / photo by Yemane Gebremeskel / public domain

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Aleksi Ylönen

Research Fellow at CEI-IUL. Current work: FCT funded postdoctoral research project, “The ‘Domino Effect’ of Secessions in the Horn of Africa: Exploring Secessionism in Post-Partition Ethiopia and Sudan”.

Leave a Reply