Suspicions are growing in Eritrea about the intentions of the two leaders.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed talks and acts not only as the leader of Ethiopia but also the wider Horn of Africa. The premier has also repeatedly proclaimed that Eritrea’s President Isaias Afeworki is a genuine partner in peace and development.
Since both leaders have taken it upon themselves to be the front-runners, we can safely assume that Ethio-Eritrean relations make the basis of the regional integration plan.
For it to succeed, it is essential that citizens of both countries have confidence in the process. It is for that reason Eritreans have intently followed Abiy’s movements since his first speech in parliament and visit to Eritrea in July 2018.
However, the lack of details in the respective Asmara and Jeddah Accords quickly triggered suspicion among Eritreans, and they were the first to warn that critical elements for a genuinely peaceful partnership were lacking.
Eritreans also had hoped that Abiy’s reconciliatory tone would have a spillover effect in their own country. To their dismay, a little more than two years after the peace deal, the borders are still closed and the human right situation remains the same in Eritrea, if not worse.
Contrary to their expectations, it is Abiy who is looking increasingly like Isaias. His recent purges of prominent opposition members are reminiscent of what Isaias did in 2001, when he put in jail members of the G-15, senior political leaders and government officials, not to mention other eliminations and shake-ups that took place in Eritrea. There has still been no formal Eritrean government account about the whereabouts of these officials.
Isaias is likely in this for one purpose only: exacting revenge on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for the 1998-2000 Badme War, and becoming the main stumbling block for the regional integration scheme. Since the pronouncement of ‘Game Over’ at his peace acceptance speech in June 2018, he has continually accused the TPLF of sabotaging the peace process. This includes refusing to leave occupied Eritrean territory, and building new infrastructure, including houses, in the Badme area.
Abiy probably sees this as an opportunity to consolidate his power, although the long-term consequence of his gamble could be disastrous for Ethiopia. If his intentions were to isolate the TPLF, it appears he has done the opposite. He has made the TPLF almost inseparable from the people of Tigray.
The tripartite alliance
The Abiy-Isaias regional integration project also extends to Somalia and includes an associate in the name of Mohammed Abdullahi, or Farmajo. At least on the surface, it looks like the main goal is strengthening the central governments in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan as regional anchor states.
Abiy and Isaias’s efforts to strengthen Somalia’s central government is creating uncertainties in the country and the region. Somalia’s federal arrangement is pragmatic and inclusive considering where the country was a decade ago, and involves a range of local and international stakeholders. As a result, many former Al Shabaab members and warlords have returned to normal life and gone on to take part in local and regional elections.
Farmajo’s arrival to power stems from that process.
As with the Isaias-Abiy, the details of the Abiy-Isaias-Farmajo pact are unclear. Nevertheless, it looks like it is alienating former members of Al Shabaab, as well as other regional leaders. Arrests and attempts of arrest of key stakeholders have endangered the peace process and caused resentment between Kenya and Ethiopia. The antagonism has escalated to the extent of interfering with the respective peacekeeping participation of Ethiopia and Kenya in South Sudan.
There are also signs that the tripartite alliance is undermining the sovereignty of Djibouti and Somaliland. Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh’s disclosure of Eritrea-Ethiopian agreement regarding an Ethiopian naval base in Massawa indicates things are not going as planned.
However, recent reports are indicating that the Ethiopian navy would base itself in Djibouti. Similarly, rejection by Somaliland authorities of repeated requests by Farmajo, as well as Abiy, to visit the country are ominous signs of distrust.
The farce of regional integration
The focus of the Tripartite Agreement signed in Asmara in September 2018, was consolidating peace, stability, and promoting economic and social development. The second summit (January 2020) stipulated that the mobilisation of human and natural resources is one of the main priorities. This suggests that the regional integration scheme revolves around Ethiopia. When in 2018 Isaias said to Abiy: “You are the one to lead us,” he was probably underlining this fact.
At first thought, it is only natural for a peaceful and stable Ethiopia to be the regional leader. It plays a central position in the Horn, has an abundance of both human and natural resources, and serves as the headquarters for the African Union. Equally, an Ethiopia that is unstable and at odds with its neighbours is most likely to be a source of insecurity that would drag the region into chaos.
As it stands, its structural and historical problems have become more discernible and may be about to engulf the country, and the whole region with it. Its ethnic politics are adding more fuel to the volatile political fire, making the regional integration scheme toothless. This applies to Somalia as well, though to a lesser extent.
Abiy seems obsessed with Ethiopia’s imperial past as indicated by the high importance given to the Unity Park, which received a huge investment despite far more pressing needs. This has added confusion how the premier intends to remodel Ethiopia. It is also contributing in reviving regional historical problems, as suspicions over Ethiopia’s ambitions are still rife. One does not have to look back long into history to learn that regional instability is often causally linked with the internal problems of Ethiopia, or the diplomatic conflicts and wars that the country conducts with other regional states.
A regional integration that is not based on the will of the various stakeholders but the whims of two or three individuals has little chance of succeeding. It could even have damaging effects. Do countries in the region have internal stability and confidence in each other to enable that? Almost all of them are beset with structural or socio-economic problems, if not both.
Undermining Eritrean sovereignty
Opinions of most Eritreans on Abiy have drastically changed since 2018, and they no longer consider him a force of regional peace.
On the contrary, suspicions are abounding, and every speech and interview he makes is heavily scrutinised. Since the moment he uttered the words, “What we will share with Isu (Isaias) is Assab,” in the Millennium Hall, every reference he makes about Eritrea is carefully dissected.
This is not because Eritreans lack due consideration for regional cooperation but want to be sure that it does not come at the expense of their national security and sovereignty. They want all nationally important agreements to be less secretive and most of all institutionalised. They have learned enough from the intrigues of the federal arrangement of the 1950s and the 1998-2000 Border War about the serious consequences of un-institutionalised and overly personalized undertakings.
Two of Aby’s recent remarks have received especially wide coverage on Eritrean social media.
First, many Eritreans understand that his claim that the Eritrean government was a force of peace and that the world was aware of the positive role it played was merely diplomatic speak. They probably had seen enough of Abiy to expect such remarks. They know their government better than anybody else does and Eritrea remains accused of ongoing, serious human rights violations to this day.
What has upset Eritreans the most is his statement that all the sacrifices made in the 30-year-long Eritrean War for Independence were in vain. Most Eritreans believe it is intended to undermine Eritrea’s sovereignty because it stands against a hard fact that Eritreans fought and paid dearly to free their country and reinstate the right to self-determination they were denied. They achieved that goal, with 99.8 percent voting for independence in the 1993 referendum.
However, they are the first ones to admit failure in building a democratic republic, a result that is only remotely connected to the struggle for independence. I have read Abiy’s two books and followed many of his speeches to be able to surmise that he has critical eyes to be able to decipher the real cause of the failure in Eritrea. At best, Abiy’s remarks about Eritrea’s failure and its government being a force of peace are self-contradictory, if not outright disingenuous. A force of peace cannot be a force of destruction at the same time.
A clip from the recent video on Ethiopian history, where Abiy is seen describing a map of wildlife distribution in Ethiopia is widely circulating in Eritrean social media circles. The old map includes Eritrea and the Red Sea and Abiy is clearly heard saying, “it was the thinking of the time.” But it has not stopped Eritreans from asking why he chose a map that incorporates Eritrea in the first place.
And, the deafening silence by Abiy and their own government over chauvinist voices that are obsessed with Eritrea and its Red Sea littoral zone while making false historical and legal claims has not gone unnoticed.
When Abiy offered an olive branch and visited Eritrea in 2018, many Eritreans hoped it would be the start of a new beginning. Alas, most Eritreans are now convinced that the peace process has stalled and Abiy’s secret dealings with Isaias are prolonging their misery. They also ponder whether Abiy might have been tricked by Isaias to think that Eritreans are ready to forgo their independence and return to their ‘motherland’ because of the problems that have befallen them.
This thought is likely reinforced by the overwhelming welcome Abiy received in his first visit to Eritrea. If that is the case, then Abiy has failed to recognise the warm welcome was for his message of peace—nothing more, nothing less. Those same women who were ululating in the streets are the mothers, spouses, sisters, and daughters of those that fought for independence and in the 1998-2000 Border War with Ethiopia.
It is also possible that there were promises made to him by Isaias behind closed doors as implied by, “What we will share with Isu is Assab.” Otherwise, it is extremely difficult to think Abiy would make such remarks of flagrant violation of Eritrean sovereignty without the green light from Isaias.
At the end of World War II, the question of disposing of former Italian colonies became an agenda at the UN.
Emperor Haile Selassie is remembered for his audacity in claiming Eritrea, and both British and Italian Somalia, thereby his desire to control the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and the north-western part of the Indian Ocean. British Military officers and administrators that accompanied the exiled autocrat to Addis via Sudan were astonished by his claims, especially that of Somaliland, their colony at the time.
Emperor Haile Selassie did not get control of the Gulf of Aden nor the Indian Ocean, and eventually lost Eritrea and the Red Sea that were offered to him through a sham federal arrangement that he abrogated in 1962 and annexed Eritrea.
Towards the end of his reign, the monarchy had completely ignored critical questions of land ownership and democracy in Ethiopia and instead focused on his own glorification. Likewise, with his focus outside and on personal grandeur, Abiy, looks like he has buried his head in the sand with regards to the numerous problems that face his country.
If he thinks the glorification of Ethiopia could be resurrected through a patched-up regional integration scheme, he needs to read a page or two from Emperor Haile Selassie’s book. While the Emperor is revered as a deity among Rastafarians and a cult figure in the songs of Bob Marley and Teddy Afro, they do not hide that one of his main legacies is a divided country and unstable region.
I believe that Abiy has the time to right these wrongs by focusing on his own country and letting others, including Isaias and Farmajo, deal with their own problems. That includes going back to the drawing board and follow institutionalized processes in bilateral and multilateral efforts with Eritrea and other countries in the region. If he continues the way he is going, Ethiopia’s situation will worsen, and he will have no escape but to move closer and closer to Isaias. Eventually, he will lose all of what little trust remains among Eritreans.
Similarly, Eritreans need to understand that although regional integration is vital for development, it should not come as a substitute for national reconciliation. Regional integration that is not based on internal stability will not last.
If Isaias and Abiy continue their cavalier ways, Eritreans will have no choice but to seek collaboration with other forces in Ethiopia, in the region, and beyond to protect their sovereignty. The experience of the war for independence shows just that.