Date: Tuesday, 18 December 2018
After years of conflict and a tense stalemate between the two countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace deal in July. It marks a new chapter in the relations between the two countries. If it is true that these are frankly positive news, the sudden change of pace seemed having taken everyone by surprise.
Of the many reasons driving this sudden change, the main one is arguably the change of political and power dynamics in Ethiopia. The new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali has pushed for political reform. He implemented his agenda releasing thousands of political prisoners while pledging national unity and reconciliation. His recent appointment of a gender balanced cabinet, with the Defence Minister being a woman, has also attracted major headlines. Economic reform, addressing the high rate of unemployment in the country, has also been promised. In fact, the presidency of Ahmed is in itself a new chapter in Ethiopian politics. PM Ahmed is the first Ethiopian head of state from the Oromo ethnic group, one of the largest in the country but also one that historically has been away from power. This new reformist dynamic has made shockwaves throughout the country and while it has been mostly well received by Ethiopians. However, the July grenade attack during a speech by PM Ahmed in Addis Ababa is a sign there is some internal resistance to change.
In Eritrea, it is still hard to predict what political consequences this agreement will bring. Nonetheless, mandatory military service in the country is long, lasting from 18 to 50. A UN inquiry deemed it as featuring “slave-like practices”. Its toughness is pointed out as the main reason for the high number of Eritreans fleeing the country, to the tune of 5,000 per month. The main justification for the military service to last so long is the frozen conflict with Ethiopia. It will then make sense that military conscription has recently been announced to come to an end. In turn, it should stop the thousands of people fleeing Eritrea monthly, encouraging them to stay in the country and contribute to its stabilisation. However, it is worth pointing out that such review has not been officially announced yet, although the Eritrean Government has recently announced it may make changes to its military. If it is true that recent events are a unique opportunity to the opening up of the regime, there are also reasons not to be too optimistic.
Looking further to the region, the main consequences of this deal will have to do with the balance of power in the Horn. Even after Eritrea became independent, Ethiopia remained heavily reliant on Eritrean ports to export its products. After 1998, when all contacts between the two countries were severed, other coastal countries in the region took up that task, and none more than Djibouti. For now, other than sporadic incidents between Ethiopia and Djibouti nationals, the geopolitical implications are not yet obvious. In any case, Ethiopia had already been seeking to expand its options in the region, like the recent deal with Dubai’s DP World regarding a stake in the port of Berbera. The Djibouti option seems to be Ethiopia’s favourite, in no small part due to the commercial links between the two countries over the past years. They are all links that have been reinforced by the recently inaugurated Chinese-supported Ethiopia-Djibouti railway. Despite these concerns, however, the restoring of diplomatic relations between Eritrea and Somalia in late July and the recent historic meeting between Eritrea and Djibouti are a good sign for the stabilization of the region, although no further concrete steps have been taken.
With all these agreements seeming to entrench the stabilization of the region and its countries, perhaps it is Somaliland that has the most to lose. The unrecognized republic finds its quest for international recognition in an unknown status. Ethiopia was, at least until recently, the biggest backer of Somaliland, having installed a Consulate in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. However, under Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia has been looking to a rapprochement with Somalia. Both leaders have recently stated: “their mutual respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence and the unity of both nations” in a June joint declaration. Will Ethiopia maintain its ties with Somaliland or will it quietly rollback its involvement? What happens with Ethiopia’s 19% stake in the Berbera port will provide a big part of the answer. The fact that there was no Ethiopian delegation present at the opening ceremony for the expansion of the port is surely not the best sign for Somaliland. All the signs pointing to the stabilization of the region and the establishment of peaceful relations between the countries in the Horn, the room for recognizing Somaliland’s independence seems to have shrunk even more.
In any case, all eyes are on the Horn these days. The region seems to be on the path to more peaceful relations between its several countries. Moreover, it has also recently seen a renewed influx of external actors’ activity. UAE is seeking to establish bases in Eritrea and Somaliland. China is joining the ranks of the US and France (and Italy and Japan) and setting up a military base in Djibouti. Meanwhile Turkey has been present – and influent – in Somalia for the most part of this decade. These are undoubtedly exciting times for the Horn.