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Ethiopia-Eritrea peace: The ball is in President Isaias Afeworki's court

By Zenebu Ayele
Tigrai Online, September 26, 2013

A few weeks ago, the Eritrean Pesident Isaias Afeworki gave an interview to the state television. As usual, it was very long and constitutes unrealisting propaganda and hectoring that anything else. However, he managed to drop some vague lines that caught the attention of many.

As Awate.com summarised it as follows:

"Isaias Afeworki's sudden shift of tone towards Ethiopia, the references that he made concerning some signed “contract” to develop the port of Assab, the complete silence regarding the border demarcation, the reference to Ethiopian government as “goblel” roughly meaning big guy, as opposed to what he used to call them, “kedemti” meaning housemaids, and many other cues have led to wild speculations that the regime is [or has] already taken steps to mend relations.

Eritrean president for life isayass afeworki - Tigrai Online
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.

Isaias Afeworki argued the seriousness of the power shortages that Eritrea is faced with, and spoke positively regarding the prospects of Ethiopia’s proposal to generate electricity to meet its own needs and export to regional countries."

It is not clear yet whether Isaias Afeworki is serious or not. It is not unsual for the President to make unrealistic and fanciful remarks. Is the recent interview an indication of his interst in peace or is it intended for mere media and diplomatic comsumption.

Whether Isaias Afeworki considers gives primacy to a lasting peace or short-term manuevers, the international community should not  overlook Ethiopia's unwavering committment to "a healthy relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea would bring about mutual benefits for the peoples of both countries.”

A look at the relationships between the two governments and the ruling parties attests that fact.

The Ethiopian 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.

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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.

The latest evidence of that committment ceme during Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegne interview with Al-Jazeera a few weeks ago where he offered to negotiate without pre-conditions and even travel to the Eritrean capital for peace talks.

That remark 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”.

Ethiopia's unwavering commitment to peace and good neighborlihood is a position clearly stated in her Foreign Policy. The 2002 policy document underlined:

“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.”

Let's hope that President Isaias for once takes the path of peace with genuine interest and seriousness. After all, the ball is still in his court, as it has been for more than a decade.

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