By Sani Awol
Tigrai Onlne - February 18, 2014
It is common to hear, every year or two, a suggestion that it is time to re-engage with Eritrea. The latest came from Messrs Cohen and Shinn. Both seem to accept the idea that President Isaias’ hostility to the outside world, the US and everybody else, is caused by insecurity in the face of a continued threat posed by Ethiopia which is US ally. The excuses for the increasing sacrifices demanded of the population is provided by the threat of the “evil, hostile, menace of Ethiopia,” or by the machinations of the US and its control of the UN and indeed almost everybody else. Indeed, to paraphrase an older US diplomat, referring to Stalin’s policies after the Second World War: “A hostile international environment is the breath of life for the prevailing internal system…” The “threat” of Ethiopia is the standard official line provided by Eritrea and has provided the excuse for keeping national conscripts mobilized since 1998, but it no longer appears to be working. The population is hemorrhaging at a rate of 600 people a week across the border with Ethiopia and similar numbers to the Sudan, in spite of shoot to kill orders along the frontiers. According to the UN Special Rapporteur for Eritrea, some of those now crossing the border are unaccompanied children as young as five or six.
Messrs. Cohen and Shinn go into some detail of the 1998-2000 war, but much of their comment is inaccurate. They also miss the central point, noted by the UN Claims Commission –“Eritrea violated Article 2, paragraph 4, of the Charter of the United Nations by resorting to armed force to attack and occupy Badme, then under peaceful administration by Ethiopia as well as other territory…in an attack that began on May 12, 1998…”. (Claims Commission’s Partial Award Jus Ad Bellum (December 19, 2005), paragraph 16). The war was the result of Eritrea sending pre-prepared mobilized infantry and mechanized brigades across what was, at the time, the accepted administrative border between the two countries. It was a very clear case of aggression.
Eritrea’s defeat in June 2000 and its signing of a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, followed by the Algiers Peace Agreement in December, produced no change in attitude. The Algiers Agreements required the creation of a 25 kms wide Temporary Security Zone along the border inside Eritrea, and the deployment of a United Nations Peacekeeping Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) to monitor this and the ceasefire. UNMEE was also given the task of providing logistical and security assistance to the demarcation exercise which was due to follow the Decisions of the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission, announced in April 2002.
This is, indeed, a government that relies so totally on the fiction of external threats to maintain its own internal legitimacy that whenever and wherever the fantasy appears threadbare, it has deliberately recreated it with another outbreak of violence or aggression. This is in the conflicts it started with Yemen in 1996/7, Ethiopia in 1998-2000 and Djibouti in 2008. On other occasions it has repeatedly backed opposition forces, extremists and known terrorists, consistently attempting to destabilize Ethiopia and Somalia and interfere in the internal affairs of Sudan and later of South Sudan. Its foreign policy has, in fact, consistently and persistently continued to demonstrate a pattern of aggression and hostility.
In fact, like any bully, Eritrea rapidly backs down when faced by firm action. Indeed, it is clear from past experience that the government in Asmara only responds to the threat of superior strength. Nothing less will produce change. As the UN Monitoring Group reports for both 2012 and 2013, as well as a mass of additional evidence, make clear, Eritrea has continued its efforts at regional destabilization. There has been no change of policy, merely some misrepresentation and verbal fiction. To lift sanctions now would send very much the wrong signals, giving Eritrea a green light to continue its policies of aggression and regional destabilization.
The lack of movement, whether in normalizing relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia, in response to UN sanctions over regional destabilization or UN demands over the conflict with Djibouti, is quite clearly the responsibility of Eritrea, and Eritrea alone. It has nothing to do with Ethiopia or Eritrea’s border “dispute” with Ethiopia. Bringing in Eritrea “from the cold” can only come after a visible change of attitude in Eritrea, with implementation of a fundamental shift in attitude, an end to all aggressive policies, dismantling of training camps for extremists and terrorists, abandoning support for armed opposition groups and all other efforts to destabilize its neighbors. This needs to be accompanied by acknowledgement of the necessity for dialogue and acceptance of the norms of international diplomacy and adult relationships. Then and then only the lifting of sanctions and Eritrea’s reintegration into regional organizations and international politics might follow.
In yet another confirmation of his unwillingness to engage in peaceful and meaningful interaction with its neighbors or the larger world, President Isaias Afewerki has once again expressed complete dismissal of any thought of rapprochement with Ethiopia. He was equally scornful of IGAD’s efforts to bring peace to South Sudan or of suggestions that US-Eritrean relations might improve. In another of his lengthy monologue interviews to Eritrea’s State TV, the President unequivocally stated his and Eritrea’s position on topics ranging from the country’s political future under his rule to his views on regional peace and stability.
Eritrea has often drawn comparisons with North Korea not least from its firm determination to remain a one party system with no room whatever for alternative political opinion or dissent. The idea of building a democratic order, with free elections and other necessary institutions, has always been no more than a topic to provide the President and others in his regime with the opportunity to cry out the rhetoric of ‘imperialist fouls’. It was no different in the President’s recent interview, when he said that to think there would be ‘‘democracy and a multi-party system in Eritrea” would be a delusion that belongs in outer space and that people who thought there could be an alternative to his Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice were wasting their time. He made it quite clear the PFDJ would remain the only party in Eritrea, saying “we do not want to see any parties exist here other than the PFDJ…they do not exist…it is unthinkable”. He added: “if there are parties who wish to operate in this country, there is no place for them; they can go elsewhere, either in the moon or another planet.”
President Isaias’ view of those Eritreans who have fled from the misery of their own country to face problems and persecution as refugees elsewhere is that they are no more than “thieves who have not paid their dues to their people and government”. As far as he is concerned the country will not suffer from their absence or be affected by their departure. He shows no interest in their fate or their disappearance from Eritrea. They are merely dismissed as “thieves. Astonishing as the President’s statement is, it is also typical of the way President Isaias addresses the problems that besiege his people. It is also an indicator of just how repressive and detached the regime has become and indeed of how increasingly disillusioned the people of Eritrea have become with a government that merely treats them as no more than inanimate objects.
Ethiopia’s own desire, its willingness and indeed its repeated efforts to bring stability and peace to the region have been demonstrated on numerous occasions. Its commitment to dialogue as the only viable means to achieve meaningful solutions to political deadlock has proved fruitful not only in dealing with its own internal problems but also in its much acclaimed role of a peacemaker around the region. The stalemate over relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea continues only because Eritrea’s ruling party, and its President, unreasonably and arrogantly persists in refusing to engage in dialogue; and that despite repeated offers from Ethiopia to talk any place, anywhere and anytime. Ethiopia has been quite consistent in its efforts to settle all outstanding issues through dialogue as it demonstrated in its five point peace plan in 2004. The plan, which follows international norms, underlines Ethiopia’s acceptance of the Boundary Commission’s Decisions and calls for dialogue to work out the details of their implementation on the ground and of comprehensively normalizing the relations between the two countries. The response from Eritrea has been unyielding and repeated rejection.
President Isaias’ appears addicted to the belittlement of multi-state cooperation platforms, whether the African Union, the United Nations or IGAD. His equally shamelessly ridicule of other sovereign states and their leaders also found expression in his interview, this time regarding South Sudan and IGAD’s efforts at mediation. President Isaias’ usual bizarre take on the conflict in South Sudan was that it should have happened earlier and that it was long overdue. IGAD’s widely recognized and supported efforts at mediation were, according to the President, a waste of time which could be dismissed as merely unimportant “business”. In dismissing the regional bloc’s commitment and determined mediation effort which has successfully begun the process of de-escalation of the violence in South Sudan and launched a comprehensive political dialogue, President Isaias underlined the fact that he had absolutely no respect for IGAD or the regional community of states. Indeed, it also emphasizes that the Eritrean regime’s continued failure to adhere to even the most basic rules of international conduct make it difficult to take any of its often contradictory declarations and expressions of peace at all seriously. Its long-held and repeated policy of rejection of any rule-based engagement with neighbors or the international community continues to vindicate those who have been dubious about the government’s alleged support for peace and stability in the region. Its continued activities, in fact, make it quite clear that it is offering no more than lip-service to the idea of co-operation and peace.
In fact, President Isaias’ latest interview on Eritrean State TV only served to reinforce the lack of any real interest in peace from the side of the Eritrean regime. His comments underline his on-going refusal to abide by the norms of international relations, and emphasize his continued interest in aggression and belligerence. The repeated interest and unremitting support for regional destabilization, for which there is ample evidence even today, continue to demonstrate the regime’s adherence to violence. It remains very difficult, indeed impossible, to take any declarations or expressions of peace from the government of Eritrea or its President at face value.
Ethiopia’s offer to negotiate without pre-conditions and even travel to the Eritrean capital was in line with the Ethiopia’s position that the relation with neighboring countries “should be free of different sentiments and proceed from a sober analysis of the situation, keeping in constant view of [Ethiopia’s] development and democracy agenda”.
Even prior to the preparation of the Foreign Affairs and National Security Policy document in 2002, Ethiopia’s handling of neighborly relations were deeply rooted in the principles of promoting peace, cooperation and economic diplomacy.
The ruling party, EPRDF, had all along advanced a policy free of adventurism and sentiment, even before seizing governmental power and when the Eritreans were fighting for the central government in Addis Ababa.
Despite its misgivings about the leadership and organizational quality of the then insurgent group (now Eritrean ruling party) PFDJ, the EPRDF took a rational decision to endorse the Eritrean right for self-determination.
The EPRDF understood the lives of the two people can not be improved with an endless war driven by adventurism and sentimentalism. Therefore, the right course was to let the Eritrean people determine their destiny and work together whatever the outcome of the referendum.
Though PFDJ captured Asmara and declared independence before EPRDF entered Addis Ababa, the EPRDF didn’t change its sober approach even after forming a multi-party Transitional government, where the remnants of old-fashioned politics were actively pushing against Eritrea’s succession.
It didn’t rush to recognize Eritrea’s premature announcement of independence nor did it adopted the militaristic adventurism suggested at home. It persisted on its position that the Eritrean people should determine their future through a referendum.
Following independence and the formation of the state of Eritrea, the EPRDF continued working towards a brotherly relationship taking into account the benefits of building on the historic ties and common interests of the two peoples. While the same has been done with regard to other neighbors, it went a step further towards Eritrea.
Despite calls for antagonistic and punitive measures against Eritrea, the Ethiopian government insisted the long-term interests of Ethiopia will not be advanced by enforcing drastic changes towards the new state Eritrea.
Giving time for the newest and poorest state of Africa to structure its economy and trade relations was necessary at it will always remain a neighbour, even possibly develop a confederate relation, with Ethiopia.
However, the Eritrean ruling party couldn’t develop a sober policy for its domestic and foreign relations. Even if it seized governmental power and became able to benefit from the consultations of foreign and local scholars, international institutions and had the time to think calmly, it couldn’t escape its militaristic approach to every issue.
It refused to respect the political rights of Eritreans at home and started military conflicts with each of its neighbors one by one in only a decade period.
The Eritrea regime didn’t see me to realize the 30 years of war with the government in Addis Ababa had ended in 1991 and it was time to craft a new relationship based on discussion, mutualism and cooperation.
To the opposite, it insisted on maintaining a predatory approach believing there is no expiry date on the grace period Ethiopia has granted it. Asmara focused on taking advantage of the good will gesture of Ethiopia rather than seeing the long-term interests of both people.
The short-sightedness of Eritrea’s officials was demonstrated in their hopes to develop their economy by extracting unfair advantages from Ethiopia. An unsustainable approach, even if Ethiopia was to allow them.
Even though Ethiopia noticed the predatory and short-sighted calculations of Eritrea’s government, which was witnessed by Asmara’s activity from Sudan to D.R. Congo, it continued with its original decision to sort out their bilateral relations step by step.
Ethiopia initiated Joint Ministerial Commissions on several political, economic, security and cultural issues, so that their relationship will be developed into separate but highly cooperative nature.
However, as the Eritrea side dragged its foots on implementing the basic and agreed matters, Ethiopia went to enforce customs check-points in border areas, curbing money laundering activities by agents of the Eritrea government, halting its purchase of her overpriced outputs the old refinery of Eritrea.
Surprisingly, the Eritrea officials didn’t get the message. Instead of aligning to the reality that Ethiopia is a separate state with its own interests and they cannot endlessly rely on her resources, they started complaining that the construction of a couple of factories south of their border, in Ethiopia, was some sort of conspiracy against them, since Eritrea got factories of similar nature.
Their clear wish was to be the exporter of manufactured goods towards Ethiopia. Though they have few old factories which could only sustain a fraction of their labor force and national income, while Ethiopia is a big market able to absorb Eritrean products if produced in good quality and price, no matter what new factories built at home.
However, they miraculously assumed they are better off antagonizing Ethiopia by such ridiculous claims.
Even worse, they continued on money laundering, attempting to establish a proxy commercial bank in Ethiopia and printed a new currency without concluding the joint discussions on how manage currency change related issues.
Ethiopia had no option except to secretly move to unilaterally print a new currency and put it in use in a few weeks time.
The answer from the Eritrean dictator was to launch a war in the pretext of border dispute, despite the advice of some of his officials that it was a disastrous move.
Even after the aggression, Ethiopia had no interest on military adventurism, therefore didn’t hesitate to accept the America-Rwana peace proposal to restore the status quo and resolve issues through legal and diplomatic means. After all, it is not sensible to try have border conflicts in the 20th century when such issues eventually go to Court or arbitration tribunal.
But the Eritrea government refused the proposal as its real interst was not a border issue. He can not raise his parasitic demands in any negotiation except to be a laugh stock. Therefore, he insisted on his aggression on several fronts alongside Ethiopian border, hoping that Ethiopia will eventually become distablized internally and bend to its wishes of economic demands.
After giving months chance for diplomatic efforts, Ethiopia had no option except to restore her sovereignty through military power.
Even after the Eritrea army suffered a humiliating deaf and Ethiopia’s forces entered deep into Eritrea territory, Ethiopia’s determination to quickly settle the matter and return to her war on poverty remained unwavering.
Having restored her sovereignty, Ethiopia only demanded that Eritrea demilitarize 25 killometer deep from the border and be patrolled by international peacekeeping troops until all outstanding matters are resolved. A humiliating treaty Asmara signed in Algiers, as it had no alternative.
Though Eritrea’s government violated the agreement for cessation of hostilities by arming terror groups in Ethiopia, Somalia and elsewhere, and even though it increasingly interrupted the patrol by peace keeping troops, Ethiopia chose not to escalate the matter and not be diverted from the economic development path which is now astonishing the world.
Even when the peacekeeping forces withdrew being unable to operate and even if the border commission delivered an erroneous decision that would only create a recurrent time-bomb by dividing small towns and even homes into two, Ethiopia’s response didn’t digress from its long-standing determination for a peaceful co-existence.
Despite calls for adventurism from some sections, by November 2004 the Ethiopian government clearly affirmed its willingness to abide by the border decision. It underlined the need to negotiate on all outstanding matters, so that the matter would be resolved once and for all.
Unfortunately, the Eritrean government was once again in another vicious circle of short-sighted policy of adventurism and rent-seeking. It simply continued on its adventurism by shifting to a policy of arming rebel and terror groups throughout the region.
Instead of changing course towards a productive economic path, the Eritrean dictatorship chose to instill fear on its population by claiming an impending Ethiopia aggression.
It started enlisting almost all high school graduates in the guise of national service, which is virtually endless and where the youth end-up providing free or underpaid labor service for companies owned by the Eritrea ruling party and its officials.
A host of intimidation, coercion and deception tools were deployed to force the Eritrean abroad raise funds, in addition to the 2% tax and deductibles from remittance, for the national budget which has never been officially disclosed in more than a decade.
Asmara even started serving as conduit for finance and weapons destined to terror groups in the region, acquiring some revenue from the transaction.
Some suggested that Eritrea’s destructive behaviors would be changed if Ethiopia gives her a piece of land around the border.
However, it was a naïve idea that didn’t consider the track record of Asmara and its officials’ inability to think outside the box of adventurism and predatory paradigm.
The Asmara government demonstrated its scale of irresponsibility by sending troops in support of terror groupings in Somalia and then by masterminding a plot to bomb the meeting of African Union in Addis Ababa. Two main acts, among others, that affirmed Eritrea’s pariah status and brought two rounds of sanctions by the UN Security Council, condemnations by regional bodies and the international community at large.
Still, the Eritrean government continued to make comical claims of international conspiracy and impending aggression, so that it could maintain a state of war and have an excuse to ignore persistent calls from its citizens for bread, basic rights and constitutionalism.
However, Ethiopia, in line with her commitment for peace kept on the table the offer for an unconditional comprehensive peace talks. Though it had been forced to undertake a couple of surgical operations to dismantle terrorist training centers near its border, as part of her policy to proportionally respond to acts of provocation. The necessity of the measures was well-understood by the international community.
Ethiopia’s firm belief in long-term peaceful co-existence was not limited to mere offers for unconditional peace talks with Asmara.
It has taken several unilateral measures out of humanitarianism and considering the worth of building people-to-people relations.
Hundreds of Eritrean youth crossing the border everyday are received warmly in refugee camps monitored by international aid agencies.
The government ensured the refugees’ dignity was respected and access to basic services. Ethiopia went even as far as to grant them access to her Higher Educational Institutions and allowed them to live outside their refugee area, provided they find a host.
The root cause of all these and several more efforts for peace is rooted in none but Ethiopia’s understanding that the need to build the good relation of the two peoples who will live side by side for the foreseeable future.
Indeed, Ethiopia's repeated calls that the two countries are better off living in cooperation rather than animosity is a position clearly stated in Ethiopia’s Foreign Policy. The 2002 policy documents states:
“The contribution the Eritrean market makes to our economy is negligible, at least in the immediate and foreseeable future. The same is true as regards investment and finance. Eritrean ports are, however, more convenient ports for us, especially to the northern and central parts of the country, than other ports. We also believe that the significant electric power potential we have can be a better and cheaper alternative for Eritrea which has scarce power resources. Our wider market opportunity is more to the economic advantage of Eritrea than their limited market is to Ethiopia. Given all these considerations, a healthy relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea would bring about mutual benefits for the peoples of both countries.”