This week, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited the United States to meet with the Ethiopian diaspora community. His trip included visits to Washington, D.C., where he met with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, and Minneapolis. The prime minister’s messages of peace and reconciliation built on the momentous step toward ending decades of unresolved conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. USIP’s Susan Stigant and Payton Knopf discuss what led Ethiopia and Eritrea to sign the peace deal, how it can improve the economic and humanitarian conditions in both countries, and the broader strategic and regional implications for the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s during his visit to Washington, DC (Office of Mayor Muriel Bowser via Flickr).
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s during his visit to Washington, DC (Office of Mayor Muriel Bowser via Flickr).

Why did Ethiopia finally agree to the 2002 boundary decision regarding its border with Eritrea? What led Asmara and Addis Ababa to end the state of war between the two sides now?

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki agreed in early July to end the longest standing “frozen war” in the Horn of Africa. For nearly two decades, the countries were neither at war, nor at peace. 

In early 2018, the prospects of resolving the Ethiopia-Eritrea war seemed distant. Ethiopia was focused inwards. All efforts were centered on negotiating the leadership transition and preventing further domestic unrest. On the other side, Eritrea showed signs of emerging from years of isolation. The country’s ports on the Red Sea gained strategic relevance as a base for the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and their partners in the war in Yemen. 

When Prime Minister Abiy took office in April 2018, the tide turned. He immediately signaled his intent for rapprochement with Eritrea. He later announced that Ethiopia would accept the 2002 boundary decision of the independent commission established by the 2000 peace settlement. Previous Ethiopian governments had rejected that ruling. 

Ethiopia has much to gain from normalization with Eritrea. Ethiopia is a land-locked country. Negotiating access to Eritrea’s seaports has the potential to boost economic growth and development. Addis Ababa is also juggling multiple, complex negotiations with its neighbors. An entente with Eritrea alleviates the chronic threat to the east. Further, bringing onside Asmara may help Ethiopia navigate tense discussions with Egypt on the use of the Nile River waters. Both of these aspects are critical as the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)—and the hydroelectric power that it will generate—is poised to come online.

For Eritrea, the settlement opens a new path out of isolation. The Ethiopian prime minister has already submitted a request to the United Nations secretary general to lift the sanctions against Eritrea. The United Nations Security Council imposed travel bans, an arms embargo and economic restrictions against Eritrea in 2009. The measures were based on concerns that the Asmara government was funding and arming the Somali extremist group, al-Shabaab. Lifting sanctions could also help to unlock new avenues for investment and economic growth needed in the country. 

In all of this, Prime Minister Abiy’s leadership has been pivotal. From his listening tour across the country to his initiative with Eritrea, he has charted a new direction for Ethiopia. In order to do this, the prime minister has had to balance carefully the interests of the parties within the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). This also means calibrating the views of the states in the ethnically based federation and negotiating a new political space for Ethiopian citizens. The EPRDF party congress scheduled this summer and elections in 2020 will provide continued opportunities to exhibit that vision and leadership.

How can the peace deal improve economic and humanitarian conditions in both countries?

Ethiopia is home to more than 100 million people. It is the second most populous country in Africa. The country has reported consistent economic growth. However, it is also one of the poorest countries in the region. Eritrea is home to five-six million people. The country has reported consistent growth deficits and poverty is widespread. Asmara has repeatedly attributed large migration numbers to the poor economic situation. 

For both countries, the peace deal creates space to prioritize economic development over security. Even a “frozen war” shapes policies. Resources are diverted for national security. In Eritrea, for example, the country has a mandatory national service program. Asmara has said that the costly program is necessary to protect against the continued threat of fighting with Ethiopia. (Eritrean migrants have reported that they are fleeing the conscription program). 

For Ethiopia, the potential to access Eritrea’s seaports is a critical link in the economic development vision. For Eritrea, the removal of U.N. sanctions has the potential to unlock investment and open international engagement. Both of these dynamics promise to contribute to a shift to a more positive growth rate. 

However, the recent experience in neighboring Sudan offers a cautionary tale. Despite the removal of some of the U.S. sanctions against the Khartoum government in early 2018, the economic situation in the country has not improved. In fact, it has deteriorated. The removal of banking restrictions has not translated into the anticipated surge of investors. Absent broader economic and regulatory reforms, the costs of doing business and the associated risks are still perceived as high.  

For both countries, the future economic and humanitarian conditions will be determined by the direction of their domestic policies. This includes economic policies and broader governance reforms. Restoring trust between citizens and the government, as well as opening political space, will be fundamental for a stable environment for growth. 

What are the regional and strategic implications of normalized relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia?

Normalized relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia would have a stabilizing impact across the Horn of Africa. The region has experienced considerable challenges: civil war, support for armed proxies, mass displacements, and, humanitarian crises due both to conflict and to poor governance. The Horn of Africa hosts more U.N. peacekeeping missions than any other region in the world. The normalization could also reverberate across the Red Sea, where Eritrea contributes a strategic port resource to the war in Yemen. If Eritrea opens up more broadly, the concerns about support for extremist groups or North Korea could also address U.S. security priorities. 

Ethiopia has been a longstanding strategic partner to the United States in the Horn of Africa. The country has been a leading contributor to efforts to stabilize Somalia. Ethiopia also is the sole peacekeeping contributor to a U.N. mission in a disputed area between Sudan and South Sudan. On many occasions since 2002, the U.S. had supported—actively or implicitly—Ethiopia’s refusal to implement the boundary commission. The normalization between Ethiopia and Eritrea paves the way forward for the U.S. to advance other national security interests that require cooperation with both countries. 

Beyond U.S. interests, the strategic importance of the Ethiopia-Eritrea engagement has been not been lost on the United Arab Emirates. The UAE helped to pave the way toward the announcement of normalization. This included commitments to invest in Eritrean ports for joint use and an injection of significant funds to stabilize Ethiopia’s foreign exchange reserves. 

As important as the strategic implications, progress toward normalization offers a message that peace is possible. Ethiopia and Eritrea are being celebrated across Africa and the globe as examples, demonstrating that even old, deeply rooted disputes can be resolved. Indeed, the leadership shown in these early steps is critical—but the tasks ahead are great.

To move beyond divided histories and deep domestic fragility, sustained leadership and partnerships will be required. Engagement from the U.S., the UAE and beyond, will be pivotal to ensure that the handshake between Prime Minister Abiy and President Isaias will translate into broader peace. 

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