Eritrea and Ethiopia: A peace deal or tactical alliance?

When the recently elected prime minister of Ethiopia announced that Ethiopia would “fully accept and implement” the Algiers peace deal signed in 2000, nobody thought the announcement would lead to the meeting between Eritrean President Isaias Afworki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed in Asmara, after 20 years of stalemate, and declare a joint “Declaration of Peace and Friendship” that has five pillars including implementing the border decision.

At the center of the 1998 border conflict was a small village called Badme. The Algiers treaty that ended the border war and the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration gave Badme to Eritrea. But Badme and the border are not at the center of the peace now. Both the regime in Asmara and Ahmed said, “There is no longer a border between Eritrea and Ethiopia, because a bridge of love has destroyed it.”

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Where did the love that suddenly “destroyed the border between Eritrean and Ethiopia” come from? The real reason behind the conflict was not the border, but a political and ideological difference between the TPLF-controlled government in Addis Ababa led by the late prime minister Meles Zenawi and the PFJD government in Asmara, mostly the language-based federal system in Ethiopia.

For the TPLF the federal system is the price of its 17 years of struggle to ensure equality among the different ethnic groups in Ethiopia, including their right to self-determination.

For the PFDJ, the federal system was an existential threat to the nation states of Eritrea, Ethiopia and the whole region. It believes that the federal system undermines the Ethiopian national identity and allows ethnic national identity to flourish. “I am the first one to see the federal system and I opposed it,” Afworki says.

According to Afworki the federal system is designed to ensure the supremacy of one ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Tigrayans.

Later the phrase “the TPLF supremacy over the rule of law” was used by Ethiopian opposition groups and the media.

The war was inevitable, and one can’t think of a better excuse than a border. Recently, Africa analyst Bronwyn Bruton, who has a good relationship with Eritrean officials, rightly argued, “Peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia has nothing to do with demarcating the border or withdrawing troops from Badme. Sustainable peace requires (1) reform of the federal system in Ethiopia; (2) normalization of politics in Eritrea. Without those, a new war can start anytime.”

So real peace is not coming anytime soon. The current talks don’t involve the TPLF, which engineered the current federal system and the people directly affected by the border conflict.

Instead, it isolates them. Apparently, it is more of an alliance between Ahmed and Afworki, who has done everything in his power to undermine the TPLFled Ethiopian government for the last 20 years.

It is important to consider a series of events to understand what brought this tactical alliance. Ahmed, unlike his predecessor, prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, came to power not by the goodwill of the TPLF, but as a result of anti-government protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions that began in late 2015 and were spearheaded by young activists known as the Qeerroo.

Ahmed rushed to pass radical and popular reforms in an attempt to both calm protesters and strengthen his base: release of prisoners, including those accused of serious national security crimes; privatization of some of Ethiopia’s giant companies, including Ethiopian Airlines, in contradiction of the existing developmental state economy, and implementing the Algiers border decision and the removal of banned political parties, including the armed ones.

Demagogic slogans, “let’s add,” “love wins,” “forgiveness wins,” resonated with millions of Ethiopians, and anti-Tigrayan slogans, “daytime hyenas,” a phrase commonly chanted at demonstrations in support of Ahmed and defaming the TPLF, accusing it of stealing public money and being responsible for the economic crisis. Firing of several Tigray higher military and security brass and even blackmailing his previous government as a terrorist won Ahmed popular public support and calmed protesters. Many Ethiopians even went on believing Abiy Ahmed was a saint sent by God to save Ethiopia.

The TPLF and the Tigray people never anticipated such changes were coming, and were skeptical of the prime minister and his intentions, saying his decisions have fundamental flaws. They called for an emergency meeting of the ruling EPRDF executive council committee.

To humiliate the TPLF, the prime minister has ignored their call and instead continued with his reform agenda.

The regime in Eritrea, inspired by the development, seized the opportunity to strengthen Ahmed and further weaken the TPLF. They rushed to send a delegation to Ethiopia “to gauge current developments directly and in depth,” saying “the positive direction that has been set in motion is crystal clear.” After meeting with Ahmed, Afwoki promised, “Don’t worry, we are together and are doing what you are doing; we are tighter,” seeming to send a clear message to the TPLF.

The US position, in favor of the power changes in Ethiopia, further infuriates the TPLF and reassures the regime in Asmara.

The arrival of the FBI in Addis Ababa to investigate a bomb explosion at a rally in support of the changes, was opposed by General Dr. Teklebrhan Weldearegay, a former boss of Ahmed and general director of INSA, who accused the US of violating Ethiopian sovereignty.

Some suspect the discontent between Ambassador Donald Yamamoto, the acting assistant secretary of the US, and TPLF, as the former is not pleased by “TPLF arrogance.”

This tactical alliance under the name of a peace deal brought the PFDJ regime to Addis Ababa. Everybody except the TPLF is now in the capital: the moderates, the radicals, the separatists and united Ethiopia, including the PFDJ, all with very contradictory interests.

This, coupled with the ongoing ethnic conflicts in different regions, has left the Ethiopian situation very complicated and unpredictable.

Nevertheless, the underlying issues that led to the public outrage have yet to be addressed and there seems to be no clear roadmap. The prime minister has to face the real challenges ahead in addressing the economic and fiscal challenges, youth unemployment, the historical and cultural war, the federal system, the land issue and implementing the border decision, because the devil is in the details. This will include the TPLF and the Tigray people, and peace has yet to start.

The writer is a PhD candidate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and director of the Aga’azian Media and Education Center.