Ethiopians and Eritreans were rejoicing on 8 July as a peace deal was reached between the respective leaders of Eritrea (Isaias Afwerki) and Ethiopia (Abiy Ahmed), who agreed to normalise relations between the two neighbouring countries, which had cut off all links with each other starting with a 2-year war from 1998-2000 and lasting until now– to their mutual disadvantage.
What caused the rift?
Following the ending of colonial rule in Eritrea after the end of the second world war, its area was effectively annexed by Ethiopia in 1962, after 10 years of federation in which the rights of Eritrea, including the right to use its own national language, were gradually eroded.
Naturally, the Eritreans responded to Ethiopian oppression with a long-standing armed struggle to secede – a struggle led by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, of which Isaias Afwerki was a leading cadre.
These Eritreans allied with the Ethiopian anti-government rebels of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, led at that time by Meles Zenawi, to overthrow the Soviet-backed Mengistu government in Ethiopia.
By 1991, the Soviet Union had abandoned all support for Mengistu, with the result that the Ethiopian rebels were able to overthrow his government in 1991. The price that the Eritreans had demanded for their role in that overthrow was that Eritrea’s right to secede should be recognised. By a referendum held in 1993, that is exactly what happened, with the total consent of the allied Zenawi government.
Severe difficulties arose between the two allies, however, ostensibly over the question of delineating the Ethiopia/Eritrea border, although lying behind this issue was a dispute over economic matters.
After the overthrown of Mengistu’s regime and the independence of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Eritrea adopted entirely different economic policies. Ethiopia promoted privatisation and ethnic-based federalism, while Eritrea promoted a national economy on the basis of self-reliance and nation-building.
These two different economic policies, adopted while Eritrea was still using Ethiopian currency, gave rise to a contradiction in the economic field that drove Eritrea to decide it was necessary to adopt its own separate currency, the Nacfa, in1997.
This decision angered the TPLF regime in Ethiopia, as well as US and British imperialism, which is why the TPLF started to provoke Eritrea at the border by blocking goods. The border conflict was ever a cover for promoting regime change in Eritrea, engineered by US imperialism and the TPLF.
Thus the contradiction expressed itself as a dispute over the question of to which country a region and town named Badme should be assigned. This area is described by the Daily Telegraph as follows: “The Badme Triangle, 250 desolate square miles of disputed rock and scrub along Ethiopia’s frontier with Eritrea, had no resources and few people.
“Yet, for this most paltry of prizes, two of the continent’s poorest states expended billions of pounds and as many as 100,000 lives. Over three years, from 1998 to 2000, young conscripts were mown down as they charged across no-man’s land in the bloodiest trench warfare since the slaughter on the western front eight decades earlier.” (Can Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed really bring peace and democracy to the Horn of Africa? by Adrian Blomfield, 18 July 2018)
In this guise, the TPLF was able to excite against Eritrea the hostility of large numbers in the various Ethiopian communities who had lived for decades in conditions where the ruling elites had pursued a policy of divide and rule that pitted the various communities against each other.
A commission was appointed to determine the border issues, and reported in November 1997, but Ethiopia broke an understanding that the area should belong to neither until such time as the commission had issued its determination, quite unable to accept that Badme, being in the province of Tigray, and the new Ethiopian government being firmly in the hands of the country’s Tigrayan minority, might properly belong to Eritrea.
Eritrea took the view that locally it was well understood that Badme belonged to Eritrea, and therefore the area had always been part of that country. On that basis, in May 1998 the Eritrean army entered Badme to take possession of it, and the result was war. Straight away, Ethiopia recaptured Badme and then went on to occupy a quarter of Eritrea’s territory, displacing some 650,000 people and destroying infrastructure.
Wikipedia tells us: “According to World Bank estimates, Eritrea lost US$225m worth of livestock and 55,000 homes during the war. GDP growth fell to zero in 1999 and to -1 percent in 2000.Planting of crops was prevented in Eritrea’s most productive western region, causing food production to drop by 62 percent. Damage to public buildings is estimated to have been in the region of US$24m.” (Economy of Eritrea)
The war ended in 2000, with a peace agreement signed in Algiers on 18 June, and on 13 April 2002 an Eritrea-Ethiopia boundary commission was set up under the terms of the Algiers agreement, in collaboration with the permanent court of arbitration in The Hague.
Both Eritrea and Ethiopia agreed to be bound by its determinations. This boundary commission duly awarded Badme to Eritrea, a decision by which Ethiopia refused to abide, demanding instead that a new commission be set up – a proposal which Eritrea naturally rejected.
At this point, US imperialism, already hostile to Eritrea because of its policy of independent development, and anxious to use Ethiopia to advance its policy of domination over Somalia, chose to support Ethiopia in ignoring the decision of the permanent court of arbitration.
This led to Eritrea cutting off ties with imperialist ‘peacekeepers’ in the region. In December 2007, it banned UN helicopter flights over its territory and ordered a UN ‘peacekeeping mission’ (consisting of troops from the US, Canada, Europe and Russia) to leave the country.
This was enough to turn Eritrea and its government into pariahs in the imperialist media, which continue to this day ruthlessly to denigrate its government as tyrannical and economically inefficient, despite the fact that it now seems probable that US imperialism wants to restore friendly relations with Eritrea, and that that desire has been one of the factors facilitating the normalisation agreement reached last month between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Ethiopia agrees to abide by the Algiers agreement
What made the normalisation agreement possible was the government of Ethiopia declaring that it would after all abide by the arbitration award given under the terms of the Algiers agreement, and it would return Badme to Eritrea.
Although the actual evacuation of Badme has yet to take place, the whole basis on which the antagonism was built between Ethiopia and Eritrea has come to an end, and, in the blink of an eye, normal links – such as telecommunications and travel routes – have been restored.
Ethiopia’s volte face on the issue of Badme was only possible because of a change of government that has decimated the influence of the Tigrayan faction on the Ethiopian government. But this statement of the obvious masks the question: why did the government change? And why did the new government not follow the same entrenched policy towards Eritrea that its predecessor did?
When Ethiopian intransigence forced Eritrea into closing its borders, not only did Ethiopia lose access to the Eritrean market for its exports but it also became landlocked, unable to use Eritrea’s ports for its international trade, causing untold harm to its economy. For 20 years it was seemingly happy to cut off its nose to spite its face, so why change now?
Unrest in Ethiopia
One factor has definitely been the widespread and growing dissatisfaction within Ethiopia with the 27-year government rule of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front alliance, dominated as it was by a Tigrayan elite almost to the exclusion of anybody else, despite the fact that Tigrayans represent only some 6 percent of the Ethiopian population and that theoretically the Oromos, Amharas and southern Ethiopians were also participants in the front.
Tigrayans provide, according to “an analysis of the Ethiopian military several years ago … 57 of 61 generals in mission-critical positions … It is estimated that two-thirds of the broader officer class” is also Tigrayan. (Ethiopia and Eritrea have a common enemy by Bronwyn Bruton, Foreign Policy, 12 July 2018)
On the basis of this government and military supremacy, Tigrayans dominated and enriched themselves from the state-owned industries, which include most of the important industries of the country, while increasingly squabbling among themselves over the spoils.
In order to maintain this iniquitous state of affairs, they had to resort to extreme repression, with the many thousands of peaceful demonstrators against the regime being regularly met with state violence, being killed, or arrested and imprisoned, as well as being tortured and abused.
“By early this year, the TPLF’s stranglehold on power had brought Ethiopia to the verge of collapse, as larger ethnic groups, led by the Oromo and Amhara, blocked roads into Addis Ababa in protest. To avert a showdown – which would have taken the form of a catastrophic food and fuel shortage in the capital – the ruling coalition’s government was forced to oust its prime minister, release thousands of political prisoners, and consent to the appointment of Abiy, an Oromo leader, as the new head of state.” (Foreign Policy, ibid)
It would seem to be the case that US imperialist strategy may be changing in the Horn of Africa, and that while for all those years it was, in the interests of maintaining a close alliance with Ethiopia for the purpose of waging its ‘war on terror’ in Somalia, prepared to encourage Ethiopian intransigence over Eritrea and tolerate its repressive policies at home, with the Tigrayan fall from grace among the Ethiopian population, other interests of US imperialism itself and its allies in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Rwanda and South Sudan are beginning to weigh more heavily in the balance.
It is vitally important to US imperialism to maintain influence in the region because of its strategic location bordering the world’s most important sea trade routes, but China is beginning to muscle in, building up its trade links with the various countries in the region, and has even set up a military base in Djibouti.
With the Ethiopian government beginning to look distinctly shaky, it was clearly time to change tack.
Policies of Ethiopia’s new government
It is not surprising that the new Oromo prime minister feels kindly disposed towards Eritrea. Not only is the disputed land Tigrayan rather than Oromo, but Eritrea, naturally, was very supportive of the Oromo liberation struggle against the regime.
It is therefore much easier for Abiy to see that retention of a desolate triangle of land is much less important than the economic gains to be made from the normalisation of relations. Nevertheless, it came as a great surprise when, within days of his appointment, Abiy was already reaching out to Eritrea with a view to reconciliation.
At the same time, Abiy immediately democratised the Ethiopian state: “Since coming to power in Ethiopia in April he has made moves unthinkable under previous regimes: scrapping a highly politicised state of emergency, freeing thousands of political prisoners and inviting home thousands more who had fled fearing repression.
“He has moved quickly to announce plans to open a traditionally closed economy to foreign investors and vowed to break the hold of corruption and nepotism. Already scores of previously untouchable military and intelligence chiefs have been replaced.” (Messages of love and peace from a new kind of African ruler by Jane Flanagan, The Times, 11 July 2018)
Foreign interests in the reconciliation
Assuming this trend continues and is able to withstand any Tigrayan backlash, it is not only Ethiopia and Eritrea that will be able to benefit from increased trading opportunities and the dismantling of their respective war machines, but also countries in the east African interior that will now have an outlet to the sea via Ethiopia.
There is likely to be a rush to build Red Sea ports to accommodate the expected increase in demand. According to The Economist, the area is already suffering a dire shortage of port facilities. DP World, a Dubai-based investor in port facilities, estimates that the area needs 10-12 ports but has only half as many. (The UAE is scrambling to control ports in Africa, 19 July 2018)
Eritrea and Ethiopia are already large trading partners of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and China, all of whom will undoubtedly have been involved in encouraging the reconciliation of the two countries.
In addition, in April, the US’s senior diplomat in Africa, Donald Yamamoto, visited Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, before travelling to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and it is difficult to believe that he too would not have been encouraging reconciliation.
For some four or five years now there have been voices in Washington calling for the lifting of the 2009 sanctions imposed on Eritrea on the grounds that they were unjust. As an example – one of many – Newsweek last year reported: “For the past eight years, Eritrea – a tiny country in East Africa – has been under a comprehensive arms embargo and tough sanctions on political leaders.
“The sanctions were imposed in 2009 by the United Nations security council after it found that Eritrea had ‘provided support to armed groups undermining peace and reconciliation in Somalia’, including al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliate that continues to wage war on the Somali government.
“But a new report by a monitoring group has found no evidence of Eritrean support for al-Shabaab and recommended that the security council ends its current sanctions regime on the country.
“The monitoring group on Somalia and Eritrea was not able to access the country in compiling the report – Eritrea has refused to comply with the security council on the matter – but nevertheless said it had ‘not found conclusive evidence of support provided by Eritrea to al-Shabaab’.” (The US and its allies may have been wrongly sanctioning Eritrea for years over alleged al-Shabaab support by Conor Gaffey, 14 November 2017)
With Ethiopia now opening wide the door to foreign investment, it is likely that various imperialist and other capitalist concerns will be flooding in to take advantage of the region’s rich resources.
The EU has already been investing in the area in the hope of being able to stimulate enough economic activity to keep local people at home rather than seeking to enter Europe as migrants. Economic development is certainly to be welcomed, though of course under the conditions of capitalism the benefits are likely to be extremely unevenly divided.
In Ethiopia, it is being proposed that land should be fully privatised, which is bound to lead to immense hardship among the peasantry, most of whom can expect in the not too distant future to be parted from any land allocated to them in a private capacity.
At this stage it is unclear to what extent Eritrea will be willing to open up its economy to foreign investment. Its relative economic isolation over the last 20 years has enabled it to develop self-sufficiency to an enviable degree, and perhaps that will be the basis, given the promised detente with Ethiopia, for Eritrea to be able dramatically to increase its GDP through domestic rather than foreign concerns. Only time will tell.