By: Sayed Ghoneim
In late March 2018 the ruling coalition in Ethiopia, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, as new prime Minister following the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn in February. The 42-year-old father, a member of the Oromo majority tribe, a military intelligence officer who took part in the Ethiopian-Eritrean war as commander of an intelligence team to discover and locate the Eritrean army on the front lines of the fighting, is the first Muslim head of government in Ethiopia, in its history.
The Ethiopian-Eritrean situation before Abiy Ahmad
Eritrea declared its official independence from Ethiopia after a majority of its population voted in favor of secession in the 1993 referendum. After the secession, the two governments established tense friendly relations and concluded various agreements to regulate their bilateral relations. However, all the alliances formed during the days of the armed struggle and the agreements concluded after the separation did not last long.
There is no doubt that the emerging differences in the social, economic and political life of the two countries in the wake of the direct separation have compounded the problem of their relations, which later led to a two-year comprehensive war. Indeed, the passage of time has brought about major changes, and political and material barriers in the two decades to a growing cultural separation even among people living along the two-state border.
The border war left nearly 70,000 people dead during the conflict. After the war ended, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC), a United Nations-established body, considering Badme, the currently disputed area between the two nations, belongs to Eritrea.
Ethiopia, while opposed to the decision of the Commission that granted Eretria the right to rule Badme as part of Eritrea, also stated that it would fully accept the Commission’s decision as a final. However, Ethiopia has not withdrawn its military forces from Badme.
The agreement and the Boundary Commission resolution did not deal with vital issues such as giving Eritreans access to the massive Ethiopian market and investing in Ethiopia if they so wished. On the other hand, Ethiopia’s biggest problem in the agreement is to deny Ethiopia access to the Red Sea through the Eritrean seaport “Assab”. This is at a time when Ethiopia is paying $ 2 billion annually to Djibouti’s port services, whose security could be seriously compromised.
The real problem lies in Ethiopia’s failure to withdraw its forces from the Eritrean Badme, arguing that the implementation of this decision will lead to the transfer of some land to Eritrea and others to Ethiopia, which will cause disturbance and disruption of the lives of the inhabitants of that region as a result of the disruption of the lands and lives of their small families. Eritrea does not see any benefit from negotiations but must implement the decision to withdrawing the Ethiopian troops from “Badme” immediately.
Ambassador Donald Yamamoto, The US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, has made his first trip to Eritrea since few years, which I believe is an attempt to change and break Eritrea’s isolation. The Yamamoto’s visit aimed to involve the Eritrean government instead of the existing isolationist approach. Although he did not reveal on the details of the content of the discussion with Eritrean officials, he stressed that one of the issues he discussed in Asmara was about the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea. I think that the US considers Eritrea the same view of North Korea, as two countries characterized by aggression because of isolation. It’s worth to be mentioned that Eritrea holds the US, as the guarantor of the Ethiopian-Eritrean peace agreement, the whole responsibility for the Ethiopian position that the peace agreement, which would give Eritrea the city of Badme of symbolic importance to Eritrea, would not be fully implemented.
Third: Abiy Ahmed presents the possibility of a permanent solution to the border problem with Eritrea:
In an unprecedented move, Ethiopia’s newly appointed Prime Minister, in his inaugural address, took a bold step to call his counterpart in Eritrea to discuss the issue of borders and find a lasting solution to the problem. “We are fully committed to reconciling with our Eritrean brothers and sisters” Abiy Ahmed said, urging the Eritrean government to play its part by starting a dialogue that would help restore peaceful relations. On the other hand, Abiy Ahmed dismissed the army chief of staff and the head of intelligence, I think that he was sure that the old guard must be changed beside changing the regional and internal policies of Ethiopia.
I think that the change in the Chief of Staff and the head of the Ethiopian intelligence was not enough to convince Eritrea to resume negotiations and normalize relations with its counterpart. Eritrea insisted that Ethiopia is obligated to withdraw from the occupied territories.
It is worth be mentioned that the visit of the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, “Donald Yamamoto” last April in Ethiopia and Eritrea after his visit to Djibouti was to achieve reconciliation between the two countries, and I think that it was the real motive for the initiative of Abiy Ahmed.
Fourth: Countries of interest
Egypt continued to exert pressure on Ethiopia through Eritrea and Somaliland for long time, as it’s always seeking to secure its strategic Southern depth up to the Bab al-Mandab Strait, as well as securing the main lifeline of Egypt, the Nile River. Currently, Egypt’s policy is trying to find an outlet to get relations with Ethiopia in parallel with Eritrea and what it believes protecting its mentioned national interests (Bab al-Mandab and the Nile), which Egypt is trying to compromise in light of its relationship with the US, UAE and Saudi Arabia beside their common interests in the Horn of Africa.
Despite the UAE / Ethiopian trade relations, it does not represent an issue compared with the UAE investments in Egypt and Sudan, the two neighboring countries overlooking the Red Sea. On the political level, UAE and Ethiopia signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a political consultation mechanism on 8 March 2018.
Since 1991, despite the encouragement and efforts of Ethiopia to the UAE to invest in Ethiopia, the UAE has not responded recently, yet the volume of trade between the two countries has doubled, taking into account previous decisions of Saudi Arabia to discourage any investment in Ethiopia; however, I expect an increase of the UAE investments in Ethiopia with the inauguration of Abu Ahmed as Prime Minister in preparation for the start of more advanced relations between the two countries, and help in the formation of the new map of influence.
The sharp relations between Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia return to many years in the history and are explained by the impossibility of some positions on bilateral and regional issues. However, during the Gulf War in 1991, Ethiopia took a strong stand in the UN Security Council against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the Libyan civil war in 2011, which brought the GCC countries, especially UAE and Qatar, closer to Ethiopia than before. However, the relations between UAE and Qatar cannot be described in Ethiopia as strong relations. The close relationship between UAE and Eritrea adds another geopolitical reason for the lack of strong Emirati relations with Ethiopia, which may affect Abiy Ahmed’s success in normalizing Ethiopian-Eritrean relations. In any case, the interests of the Gulf in Yemen will remain a strong reason for the role and support of the Gulf countries (both opponents) for any country in the Horn of Africa that enable controlling Yemen, which confirms the need for UAE and Saudi Arabia to exploit the Ethiopian reconciliation with Eritrea for securing their interests with Egypt and maximizing their influence against Qatar and Turkey, all actions are organized with the US rhythm in the Horn of Africa.
Lack of influence management in the Horn of Africa
While Israel has achieved strong influence in East Africa, especially Ethiopia, Egyptian role on the continent was shrinking for decades, Egypt was focusing exclusively on the Horn of Africa. Currently, I think that we may see the regional rivalry on influence in the Horn of Africa through another angle as next; Qatar is part of the Turkish expansion in Somalia the southern neighbor of Ethiopia and in the Sudan the Northern neighbor of Eritrea and South Sudan On the other side, we find Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt in Somaliland, Eritrea and partially in South Sudan.
In the midst of this regional conflict for influence in the Horn of Africa, we may not find the usual rivalry between the superpowers, in which every country knows very well the right rules of the game and knows which power of its overall national powers should be used against its competitors with precision and perfection. While some of the rich countries (e.g. Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar) have created a major role for their economic power, often determined to financial capacity as a key element of imposing the influence. This has weakened the ability to manage influence in the Horn of Africa could lead to chaos.
US seeks to expand its influence in the Horn of Africa
In the same context, the US is keenly considering its strongest economic competitor in Africa, which is China and possibly Russia in the near future. The US regards Ethiopia as an important strategic partner, especially in terms of what it called the “Global War on Terrorism”, bearing in mind that the US is facing problems with Sudan, and bad relations with Eritrea. The US cannot make the unstable government of Somalia as a strategic partner. On the other hand, Djibouti, which has good relations with the US and has established military facilities there, is a very small country and will never be the cornerstone through which the US builds a regional strategy that achieves its long-term influence in the Indian ocean and Africa.
Therefore, the US may consider the necessity of enlarging its leadership location in East Africa, exploiting the Ethiopia’s geographical location and regional relations improvement, especially the Ethiopian / Eritrean reconciliation, and thus achieving the US’s ability to conclude the current Chinese and possible Russian presence in the Horn of Africa, preventing both from expanding in the region.
Major General (retired). Sayed Ghoneim
Fellow, Nasser Higher Military Academy
Chairman, Institute of Global Security & Defense Affairs (IGSDA)