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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

Will the 'bridge of love'  prosper between Eritrea and Ethiopia?

After years of cold war and conflict, the two countries have declared peace. Alan Philps analyses the prospects for a lasting settlement

Ethiopia's Prime minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerk sign a declaration in Eritrea on July 9. Reuters
Ethiopia's Prime minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerk sign a declaration in Eritrea on July 9. Reuters

In a world full of intractable conflicts, a sudden outbreak of peace in the perennially unstable Horn of Africa has taken some observers by surprise. After 18 years of cold war which followed a bloody border conflict in 1998-2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea declared peace on July 8, with Ethiopia finally promising to implement an agreement on the demarcation of their border.

The speed of the change has been helped by the appointment of Ethiopian’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who at 41 is the youngest in Africa. After a whirlwind of domestic reforms to the one-party state, he has embraced the Eritrean leader, Isaias Afwerki, a former guerrilla chieftain who has been at the head of a dictatorial regime since independence in 1993.

Flights and phone communications are to resume, and Ethiopia, landlocked since Eritrea broke away, will be able to use the Red Sea port of Assab again. In place of a contested border, Mr Abiy said, “We have built a bridge of love.”

Several questions arise. Why now? And will the eruption of love actually last?

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Ethiopia, a regional power with a population of 100 million, has been growing at a rate of up to 10 per cent a year and has close relations with the United States, having astutely played its cards during the years of the US-led war on terror.

This has allowed Addis Ababa to pursue a policy of isolating Eritrea, with the hope of strangling the regime there. With a population of five million, its intellectual capital depleted by the emigration of the young people who want to avoid the brutal system of open-ended military service, it has been largely friendless in recent years, a sort of African North Korea, without the benefit of that country’s ally in the form of China.

What has now changed is growing political and economic instability in Ethiopia, combined with the rising strategic importance of Eritrea’s Red Sea coastline not only to the Gulf States but also to China, and in consequence to Washington. These factors have made it impossible for Ethiopia to pursue its containment of its smaller neighbour.

Ethiopia, home to some 80 different ethnicities, is a federation held together by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of four ethnically-based parties which has until recently provided cover for the dominance of the Tigrayans, who account for a mere six per cent of the population.

Popular protests have led to the imposition of a state of emergency, and a stalemate among the leadership led to the appointment of Mr Abiy, a compromise candidate. He has set about reducing the power of the Tigrayans, risking a backlash from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the former guerrilla group which spearheaded the struggle to topple the Marxist regime known as the Dergue in 1987. He has been touring the country, suggesting a new, more open form of government and prompting speculation about free elections.

At the same time, it is clear that Ethiopia’s eye-popping growth rate is the result of an infrastructure building binge that the country cannot afford. The Kenyan economist David Ndii argues that the economy is sinking into a foreign exchange crisis.

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With Ethiopia’s army stretched in peace-keeping operations, it can no longer afford to keep troops on the border with Eritrea. At the same time, reopening trade with Eritrea could provide a fillip to the Ethiopian economy.

Meanwhile geopolitical shifts have eased Eritrea’s isolation. The war in Yemen has reinforced the Arab view that Gulf security cannot be separated from security in the Horn of Africa.

Since China established a naval base in Djibouti – a regional hub for the America military – Washington has looked more favourably on Eritrea. The UAE has been granted a 25-year lease at the port of Berbera, in Somaliland, further south.

These changes will have repercussions for years to come. It is possible that delineating the border may lead to new conflict or that Mr Abiy may not be able to force the Ethiopian military to withdraw from the town of Badme, which was awarded to Eritrea under the peace settlement.

Questions hang over the future of both leaders. Put crudely the key question is: who will be the Gorbachev? Though it is far too early to compare these two countries to the Soviet Union, which Mikhail Gorbachev tried to reform but ended up destroying, his fate is never far from the thoughts of autocrats.

Ethiopian politics are hard to penetrate at the best of times but it is clear that Mr Abiy is taking a risk in challenging the power of the TPLF. Its leaders may fear that his policy of openness and economic liberalisation will split the country which, for all its ancient history, is riven with ethnic tensions. In what may be a sign of things to come, a grenade was thrown into rally Mr Abiy was addressing in Addis Ababa last month, killing one person and injuring dozens more.

But the future of no clearer for Mr Isaias. If peace is entrenched, what will happen to the recruits whose military service can turn into endless forced labour? They will want jobs and education and the prospect of a better life, which has not figured in his list of priorities. This will be fateful challenge for him after 25 years of uncontested power.