Date: Tuesday, 24 July 2018
The visit of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to Washington later this month presents President Donald Trump with a chance to make his first meaningful diplomatic contribution in Africa, a continent that appears to rank dead last in his global priorities. Trump can seize the opportunity by extending a White House invitation to his counterpart, who is in the United States for meetings with diaspora groups. By doing so, he would lend the weight of his office to a recent peace deal ending the war between Ethiopia and its neighbor Eritrea. The conflict lasted from 1998-2000 and cost tens of thousands of lives.
Abiy was key to ending the stalemate. Appointed prime minister in April after Hailemariam Desalegn, hobbled by more than two years of anti-government protests, resigned, Abiy immediately initiated a flurry of internal reforms. He ended the country’s state of emergency, released thousands of political prisoners, unblocked opposition websites, halted some economic controls and removed scores of the regime’s most notorious security officials. His most daring move, however, was to reach out to Eritrea’s enigmatic President Isaias Afwerki to end hostilities, which originated in a territorial dispute and festered into a situation of “no war, no peace” when Ethiopia failed to abide by an international commission ruling that went against its claims. Abiy’s outreach paid off, to the delight of citizens in both countries. Earlier this month, the two leaders declared an end to the war at a ceremony in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara.
These bold moves have created an opening that, if sustained, could make the Horn of Africa more peaceful and prosperous for its citizens. But why should Trump invest personal capital in Ethiopia, a country he has shown no previous sign of interest in?
Simply put, this is an opportunity for the president to record a personal win that will have broader benefits. The hard work has already been done behind the scenes by his diplomats, who played a useful supporting role in nudging Ethiopia and Eritrea toward peace. Trump’s acting assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Don Yamamoto, met representatives from both sides in Washington last year and visited Ethiopia and Eritrea in April to encourage a rapprochement. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, both Eritrean allies, urged Afwerki to consider Ethiopia’s offer. Their combined efforts provide Trump with the opportunity to perform his favorite role of dealmaker and score a modest foreign policy success to partially offset the disasters of his recent trip to Europe.
Beyond the president himself, the United States has interlocking interests in Ethiopia focused on three policy objectives: security cooperation and counterterrorism; harnessing development; and promoting democracy and governance. Previous U.S. administrations faced accusations that their pursuit of democracy lagged behind the other parts of the policy triad. But now Abiy is starting to close the gap. Washington should throw its weight behind his efforts, because the dividends of a peaceful Ethiopia and Eritrea would be felt throughout the Horn of Africa and increase opportunities for the United States in a region where China wields greater influence.
For two decades, enmity between Addis Ababa and Asmara has destabilized the entire region, notably in Somalia where both sides have supported proxy forces. More broadly, the Horn has increasingly become a field of geopolitical competition. In addition to overlooking commercial shipping lanes on the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, its proximity to Yemen makes it a convenient launchpad for the Saudi coalition’s military operations against Houthi rebels. Djibouti leases military bases to China, France, Italy and Japan, and is the location of the only permanent U.S. military installation in Africa. A reduction in tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea would provide a range of benefits across this strategically important region.
Abiy’s peace deal and domestic reforms could also unleash Ethiopia’s trade and investment potential by connecting it with the region and the world beyond, including the United States. With a population of more than 100 million people, Ethiopia is the largest landlocked nation in the world. Now, with access to the sea on offer via the Eritrean ports of Assab and Massawa, Ethiopia—already projected to record the biggest GDP growth in East Africa in 2018—has a chance to diversify its export routes and forge commercial partnerships with Eritrea that could transform Asmara’s brittle economy.
A stable, peaceful Ethiopia would present a more favorable operating environment for U.S.-funded development work, particularly in the periphery of the country where needs are greatest and access was problematic during emergency rule. Abiy’s tentative moves to loosen some controls on political freedoms and civil liberties also present openings for U.S. democracy and governance programs.
The robust support of the United States will be important to ensure that progress is maintained in Ethiopia and incentivized in Eritrea. Abiy, the youngest head of state in Africa, faces resistance at home as he pursues his agenda. The dangers were underscored by a grenade attack at a rally he addressed in Addis Ababa in June. The U.S. must strike a balance between buttressing the prime minister’s fragile position and pressuring him to back up his announcements with a reform program. Washington should try to sideline potential opponents of reform, particularly members of the ruling party coalition from the Tigray region, who are accustomed to holding power and have been dislodged by Abiy and his Oromo ethnic group. Abiy will also need help to bring a peaceful end to Ethiopia’s multiple internal conflicts, including violence in the Somali national region, which has displaced more than 1 million people, and intercommunal clashes in parts of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s region.
The United States can indirectly strengthen Ethiopia by preventing the collapse of Eritrea, which is weak, overmilitarized and ruled by one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Washington should support the speedy removal of United Nations sanctions against Eritrea and end its diplomatic isolation of Asmara in return for political, economic and security sector reforms that it would pledge to assist. The biggest policy dilemma will be to halt the open-ended military service that Afwerki claimed was needed to protect Eritrea from Ethiopian hostility, without unleashing a torrent of jobless citizens onto a weak labor market. The U.S. can assist by devising an ambitious economic development plan with the help of the European Union, which sees investment as a way to stem the flow of Eritrean migrants to Europe.
The sudden end to a conflict that has defined the security dynamics of the region for so long could also have unintended consequences that must be anticipated and managed. Neighboring Djibouti has benefited from the regional standoff by providing port access to Ethiopia and leasing military bases to international powers. Now that Eritrea can be expected to compete for this business, vigilance is required to ensure Djibouti, which also has a border dispute with Eritrea, does not turn into a spoiler.
The situation is delicate, but Abiy’s political skill and bravery has created an opportunity to set a new course for his country and the wider region. As a trusted ally of Ethiopia, the United States should use his visit to support peacebuilding in the Horn of Africa, strengthen its relationship with Addis Ababa, and reset relations with Eritrea.
Richard Downie is senior associate with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
How Peace in the Horn of Africa Can Transform U.S.-Ethiopia Relations