The Necessity of Circumspection in Ethiopia’s Foreign Policy with respect to the future Ethiopia-Eritrea Relations
By Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD
Tigrai Online, April 14, 2017
This article intends to critically examine the future relations of Ethiopia and Eritrea in the context of the prevailing complicated political scenario that has impacted on the respective foreign policies of the two countries following the Algiers Agreement and subsequent delimitation of the Ethiopian-Eritrean border by the Boundary Commission (April 13, 2002).
I personally was not in favor of the Algiers Agreement, although in principle I condone the latter’s package of peace initiative. The reason why I opposed the Algiers Agreement and the subsequent Decision of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) is because I have then anticipated Ethiopia’s disadvantages at Algiers in spite of its military victory at the battle of Badme and also the negative consequence on its national interest and territorial integrity as a result of the Decision that compromised its territorial integrity.
Once Ethiopia accepted the Algiers arbitration and the decision of the EEBC, I realized (like many of my colleagues) that Ethiopia would encounter complex foreign policy parameters while it attempted to redeem its relations with Eritrea. And facing the Border Commission, at the outset, Ethiopia was dealing with colonial treaties of 1900 (for the central sector), 1902 (for the western sector), and 1908 (for the eastern sector), all treaties that were long dead and also made null and void by Italy when it temporarily occupied Ethiopia from 1936 to 1941. On top of this, in due course of deliberations by the Border Commission, there were so many confusing names of places and rivers that were presented by the two parties as part of their documentary evidences or exhibits. I recall that Ethiopia maintained that there was no such river named Muna in the 1900 Treaty; Ethiopia’s position was right because Muna was just part of the Endeli River stream. However, contrary to Ethiopia’s correct position, the EEBC upheld the name ‘Muna’ tout court.
Moreover, Ethiopia’s contrary position on the 1908 Treaty regarding Eritrea’s contention that the boundary was already delimited was also correct, simply because the boundary was not delimited and the EEBC arguably endorsed Ethiopia’s position. Nevertheless, Ethiopia missed a golden opportunity not only from exploiting its correct stances on the Treaties but also for not accepting the EEBC’s findings and approval that Forto Cardona and Tsorona historically belonged to Ethiopia.
Ethiopia again missed an opportunity when Eritrea first restricted fuel supply to the UN Peacekeeping forces of the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) in January 2008 and ultimately the Government of Isaias Afewerki ordered the troops to leave border on February of the same year. Ethiopia could have invoked the comprehensive peace agreement and binding arbitration, including the establishment of a 25-kilometer wide temporary security zone (TSZ) that the two parties agreed upon on June 18, 2000; and based on this agreement and Eritrea’s behavior in expelling UNMEE troops, Ethiopia could have argued that Eritrea has violated the Algiers Agreement and rendered it null and void. But, there was no such stance on the part of Ethiopia and I have then wondered why the EPRDF-led Ethiopia was unable to maximize such kind of unforeseen bonus in the midst of a tangled up politics surrounding delimitation and demarcation of the common border. Had Ethiopia avoided propitiating propensities during the overall EEBC’s decision making process, it could have employed alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and extend an effective preemptive strike to forthcoming entanglements.
Ever since the UNMEE troops pulled out from Eritrea, major wars did not erupt between Ethiopia and Eritrea, but there were many intermittent and sporadic skirmishes on the border; and one relatively major battle that was conducted at Tsorona and that was underreported at international level took place on June 2016; there were heavy casualties on either side and it further complicated the Ethiopian-Eritrean relations and rendered the EEBC decision ineffective and unrealizable. By then, many Horn of Africa observers have concluded that the EEBC delimitation decision was destined to become a paper work of conflict resolution mechanism but short of implementation.
Back in 2014, Herman Cohen and David Shinn commented on Ethiopian and Eritrean relations, and according to the VOA Tigrigna report of January 2014, both statesmen tried to prove that Eritrea was not involved in arming the Al Shabab in Somalia; and Ambassador Shinn, in particular, came up with the idea of “Bringing Eritrea from the Cold: We Need to Un-break the US-Ethiopia-Eritrea Triangle”. The intentions of these statesmen was not clear to me then; I was not sure whether they were trying to influence the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea to come to a round table and peacefully resolve their differences, or they were interested in face lifting the image of Isaias Afewerki, who for the most part adopted an isolationist policy (if that is what ‘bringing out of the cold’ means) as opposed to the global diplomatic engagement of Ethiopia. At any rate, I had responded at the time as follows:
What Ethiopia ought to do is promoting its national interest vis-à-vis its good relations with its neighbors… However, in order for Ethiopia to carry out a meaningful foreign policy the political leadership should first and foremost safeguard Ethiopian sovereignty that, in turn, enables the country to exercise independence in matters of foreign relations.1
In the above quick response of mine, the key words are ‘national interest’ and ‘sovereignty’, but I had already presented the same themes elaborately some fourteen years ago and again in the article mentioned above (2008) and since the argument I advanced then is still relevant, I am compelled to reiterate it for the purpose of this essay:
If at all relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea are normalized via dialogue, I am of the opinion that Badme would not make a huge difference in the life of Eritreans, although Eritreans repeatedly argued in favor of the Algiers Decision, the stark reality in Eritrea clearly demonstrates a bread and butter issue; the bottom line is the Eritrean economy and not a piece of land that would miraculously transform the current dire situation in Eritrea. By the same token, the use of Assab as a port of Ethiopia in lieu of huge payment would benefit Eritrea and not Ethiopia, and Ethiopia is already paying millions of dollars to Djibouti for using the port, and it would be a great mistake to indulge in the Cohen-Shinn conundrum unless it is going to use Assab gratis or “own” it as its de facto, if not de jure port… Same logic applies to Badme. It is sovereign Ethiopian territory and if Ethiopia blindly agrees to the handing over of the land to Eritrea, a huge backlash will ensue on the part of Ethiopians, and the Ethiopian people will feel betrayed by their own government. The Ethiopian government, thus, should make a calculated move in the context of Djibouti and Assab. In terms of geographical proximity, Assab is close to Kombelcha and Djibouti to Dire Dawa and there is no point in negotiating Assab unless there is some mystery behind the Cohen-Shinn agenda that would grossly reward Ethiopia.2
As of recent, it looks there is a new wave of diplomatic venture to resolve the stalemate between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Prime Minster of Ethiopia, Mr. Haile-Mariam Desalegn, in his visit of Tigray Regional State told his audience that he has a new solution to the problem with Eritrea, but he did not specifically mentioned the contents of the new Ethiopian policy toward Eritrea. In the same vein, Ato Abay Woldu, in his visit to Shiraro told the residents of the area that the government of Tigray Regional State would not complete the construction of the road from Shiraro to Badme.
In the absence of tangible evidence and/or valid and verifiable information in regards to political issues, people tend to come up with their own interpretation and a significant number of Ethiopians have surmised that the Ethiopian government is ready to hand over Badme to Eritrea, and this conjecture of the Ethiopian observers is based on PM Haile-Mariam and Ato Abay’s assertions. And by default or by design, President Omar al- Bashir of Sudan made an official visit to Ethiopia on April 2, 2017, and among the many important issues that he discussed and exchanged with PM Haile-Mariam, he suggested that Eritrea be returned to the Horn of Africa regional organization, IGAD or Inter-Governmental Agency for Development; at the same time, Egyptian envoys have gone to Eritrea and had a stay with the Eritrean naval forces.
Based on the above diplomatic ventures and Ethiopia’s new Eritrean policy, one could safely assume a new peace initiative will be brokered between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and I for one would salute the initiative if indeed peace will prevail at long last and the Ethiopians and Eritreans will once again enjoy the dividends of peace. However, I am still of the opinion that Ethiopia should be extra vigilant and exhibit prudence and discretion in formulating its new policy and in dealing with the opposite party in the negotiating table.
As I have done in the past and underscored in my previous writings, I like to share with my fellow Ethiopians and the government officials (especially those who would represent Ethiopia in the peace negotiation) in Ethiopia what I have argued all along since 2000. My main concern is transparency and accountability in the policy making matrix and the peoples’ role and say in the decision making process. It is understandable that governments represent people especially in relatively democratic societies, but the government ought to inform the people and seek feedback from them long before any policy is implemented. In the context of this essay, thus, I want to stress that the Ethiopian government should not take any political measure in regards to the Ethiopian-Eritrean relations without the knowledge and endorsement of the people, and this rationale reminds me of a paper entitled A New Paradigm in Ethiopian Politics: A Discussion on what Ethiopians can do at this historical juncture to bring about change in Ethiopia that I contributed in 2008. Below is an excerpt of the article:
Whether we are engaged in a general common cause or poised to dissect a specific problem, we must first understand that politics is a gregarious business. There is no such thing as individual politics unless a certain psychopath or tyrant lives in a dream of soliloquy governance in a remote isolated, romantic, and ideal island with no inhabitants. Therefore, the basis for the effective execution of all politics is the collective effort of all members of society…Incidentally, a government that operates without involving the people, or a political party that operates clandestinely for the most part is likely to make huge mistakes, and again, they will be checked and counter-checked by the people who are genuinely empowered.3
By ‘the people counterchecking the authorities’, I don’t mean to imply that we have a checks-and-balances structure within the political system of Ethiopia; but since public forums have been conducted at local and regional levels and the people have been using such forums to criticize officials and also get answers to their demands and questions, relative empowerment zones have mushroomed in all Ethiopia although we are not yet on a full-fledged democratic threshold. The government should now bring the Ethiopian-Eritrean issue before these forums and get feedback from the people. Let the people speak this time and let history witness that Ethiopians, at grassroots level, have spoken and made an input to the Government’s peace proposal.
The reason why I am emphatic on the significance of the empowerment of the people is not simply to imply the democratic rights of the people in the broader sense, but also to convey a message to the government officials that the people at the periphery are more knowledgeable about their condition, their history, and their land than any government bureaucrat at the center. While this logical argument is applicable to all Ethiopians, it is more so palpable when it comes to the people of Tigray, who in the distant past and now at present have shouldered the brunt of the destructive effects of foreign incursions and major wars.
Among the Tigray people too (apart from the sacrifices made by all Ethiopians during the war), it is the people in the Shire area (north-western district near Badme) and the Agame area (north-eastern districts of Gulo-Mekeda and Irob) that have made huge sacrifices, including the devastation of their villages and the risk of some of their lands being allocated to Eritrea. Most Ethiopians are aware of the extent of devastation that took place in the embattled zones, but it is the people who live there that have really witnessed the effects of the destruction. For instance the people of Gulo-Mekeda have now a sad recollection of the once thriving town of Zalambessa that has now turned into a ghost ruined landscape; similarly the people of Irob have concerns that the destiny of Alitena is hanging in the balance.
Following my proposal above, if the government of Ethiopia conducts a public forum with the people of Irob, the sojourning officials will learn the following facts: The Irob wereda is geographically located in the Eastern District of the Tigray Regional State and it borders Eritrea at the Endeli River to the north; Saésié-TsaedaEmba to the south; Afar to the east; and Gulo-Mekeda to the west. The Irob will also tell the officials that the historic capital city of Irob is Alitena and not Dawhan (the current administrative center); they have also concerns that they might lose Alitena that was once occupied by Eritrean forces during the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea due to the wrong decision of the EEBC. Apparently, I for one have once lived in Irob and witnessed Alitena as the capital of Irob Wereda. I suggest that Ato Abay Woldu descends down to Irob and have a talk with the people as he has done with the people of Chercher, EmbaSeneiti, Shiraro, Zana, and Aider.
The concern of people of Shire and Irob is the concern of all Ethiopians, and the Ethiopian government has an obligation to listen to the people and honor their demands and aspirations, and it is in light o the peoples’ concerns and overall Ethiopia’s national interest that the Ethiopian Government must enter peace negotiations with Eritrea.
- Ghelawdewos Araia, Ethiopian Foreign Policy and How the Delicate Balance of Diplomacy and Negotiation should be Maintained, July 25, 2014 www.africanidea.org/Ethiopian_foreign_policy.html
- Ghelawdewos Araia, Ibid
- Ghelawdewos Araia, A New Paradigm in Ethiopian Politics: A Discussion on what Ethiopians can do at this Historical Juncture to bring about Change in Ethiopia, January 14, 2008
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