The signing of the peace agreement between Ethiopia and its neighbor, Eritrea, on July 9, 2018 brought new economic and political hopes to the region. Moreover, for both Addis Ababa and Asmara, it meant not only the end of two decades of a frozen-positions war, but also the opening of unexpected perspectives. One year on, however, progresses seem to have remained mainly symbolic.
Many symbols, and few concrete changes
The images of the embrace between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean Head of State Isaias Afwerki on the tarmac of Asmara International Airport have become symbols of reconciliation between the two countries in the Horn of Africa. This was the first official visit of an Ethiopian leader to Asmara in twenty years, and despite the disbelief of some commentators, the two men showed a good willingness to continue the rapprochement between their two countries. Political symbols of a comparable scope have since multiplied. On September 12, 2018, Asmara made its comeback to IGAD (the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, in which Ethiopia’s leadership is almost exclusive), a few weeks after the establishment of an air link between the two capitals, the reopening of two land border crossings, the reopening of phone lines and the re-establishment of their respective diplomatic representations, among other things, an event immortalized in Addis Ababa, with a photo by Michael Tewelde for the AFP, showing the two leaders together raising the Eritrean flag in the new embassy. But the multiplication of these political symbols, which are positive in any case, does not totally hide the limited concrete progress made over the past year.
First, the situation of the land borders between the two countries, and in particular that of the border town of Badme – the main front line – has not been seriously addressed yet. The July 2018 agreement provides for the establishment of a commission for the delimitation of the border and the acceptance of the colonial treaties of 1900, 1902 and 1908, which define the border route between the two countries. Promises made by both sides to this end have so far been followed up with little effect: the Ethiopian army maintains a position in Badme, as do the Eritrean military; and Asmara unilaterally closed its land borders in early 2019.
Secondly, on the economic front, the lack of progress in opening borders makes it impossible to revitalize economic and trade links, as desired and announced by both sides in July 2018. Well, the question does not arise in these terms at the national level, as evidenced by the delegation that accompanied Abiy Ahmed during his visit to Asmara on 18 July 2019 (composed of the Minister of Finance, Ahmed Shide, and Tewolde Gebremariam, CEO of the Ethiopian Airlines, among others). At the local level still, the full reopening of borders is one of the greatest expectations of the peace agreement. Indeed, the regional state of Tigray, which borders Ethiopia and shares the same language (Tigrinya) with more than 50% of Eritreans, sees in this agreement the possibility of a new economic impetus, encouraged by cross-border trade.
Ahmed and Afwerki facing their own countries’ challenges
The main obstacle to the implementation of July 9, 2018 the peace agreement remains a tense national context, albeit for different reasons. In Addis Ababa, the political and economic reforms undertaken since the beginning of Abiy Ahmed’s term as Prime Minister are not well received by all the political players. The decrease in the influence of the Tigrayans (a little more than 5% of the population) in the ranks of the federal army, rekindles tensions within the ruling coalition, the EPRDF (Revolutionary Democratic Front of the Ethiopian People), where the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) occupies a dominant position. Similarly, the opening of the political space, including the legal recognition of certain political parties, seems to strengthen regional nationalist movements such as the Amhara Nationalist Party, NaMa, whose popular base in the regional state of Amhara considerably weakens the ADP (the Amhara Democratic Party), a member of the ruling coalition. This significant reconfiguration of the political environment and the rise of regional nationalisms partly explain the incidents of June 22, 2019 in Bahir Dar and Addis Ababa, which resulted in the death of the Governor of the Regional State of Amhara, and the Chief of Staff Seare Mekonnen.
On the Eritrean side, the PFDJ (Popular Front for Democracy and Justice) still has to reconfigure a war rhetoric that has enabled it to maintain the country in almost complete autarky since 1994. This paradigm shift is all the more difficult as the tense regional context is perceived as a threat by leaders. For example, Asmara closed its borders with Sudan in April 2019 – after a short opening in January 2019 on the Sudanese side. In addition, the country frequently accuses Qatar, Turkey and Sudan of providing logistical and financial support to the Moslem League, a religious and political movement not recognized by Asmara, and the only political opposition to the unchallenged rule of the PFDJ.
While the July 2019 peace agreement still seems to bring few of the expected benefits for Addis Ababa and Asmara, the two neighbors seem to show constant good faith in pursuing their pacification. The trajectory of Abiy Ahmed’s political and economic reforms in Ethiopia, on the one hand, and the evolution of the Eritrean PFDJ’s political rhetoric, on the other, will undoubtedly play a crucial role in the future steps that will be taken to convert the good intentions of both sides into concrete progress.