Ethiopia-Eritrea border rapprochement: Rewards and responsibilities

Since Abiy Ahmed assumed the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s office this April – following years-long anti-government protests – the country has embarked on key reforms including privatization of state companies, dismissal of army chiefs and port deals.

Earlier this month, Ethiopia declared that it wants to end a long-running border dispute with Eritrea. In a move that caught the region completely off guard, the country said it would fully accept the Algiers Agreement signed on Dec. 12, 2000. The agreement had established a special boundary commission after a 1998-2000 brutal war between the two countries took some 100,000 lives and displaced around a million others.

The Algiers agreement laid down the two countries would accept the decision of the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) as final and binding. However, Ethiopia failed to honor its commitment after the EEBC’s decision awarded Badme – the flashpoint town of the conflict – to Eritrea. The two neighbors have been in a state of a “No war-No peace” situation since.

On June 20, Eritrean President Asaias Afwerki announced that he will send a delegation to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, to “gauge current developments” in the region following Ethiopia’s peace proposal.

Biting the bullet

Addis Ababa’s recent decision to accept the EEBC ruling is a great opportunity for sustainable peace after two decades of conflict between the two neighbors. A peaceful settlement of this stalemate will yield positive dividends. It would solve the border frustration between the two states and increases cross-border trade between communities. It will be good for Ethiopia’s ailing, albeit growing economy by using Eritrea’s ports. It would end Eritrea’s arduous military conscription and scale back the 5,000 annual exoduses of Eritreans who head to the West, particularly Europe. Most importantly, it would save the Horn of African region, one of the continent’s more unstable parts, from conflicts and would spur economic integration among countries in the region.

What the two parties should do

However, to achieve a successful settlement, specific vital issues, albeit difficult, should be solved. First, both states stated at Algiers their decision, not EEBC, based on the “pertinent colonial treaties [1900, 1902 and 1908] and applicable international law,” would decide where the border runs and “The Commission shall not have the power to make decisions ex aequo et bono.” Consequently, a border divides villages, farms and communities.

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Now Eritrea and Ethiopia should agree on durable adjustments that would need comprehensive cooperation, good faith and diplomacy. Secondly, both countries would have to agree on the implementation date of the border ruling. This will be a prerequisite for avoiding a power vacuum along the porous 1000-kilometer border as one nation withdraws its troops with the other arriving.

Thirdly, due to Asmara’s loss in the fight, the Algiers Agreement unofficially established a 25-kilometer temporary security zone on the Eritrean side. For this reason, Ethiopia would have to withdraw its troops from the Eritrean lands. Because the EEBC allocated lands along the borders to each belligerent, both Eritreans and Ethiopians would have to retreat some fronts while advancing on other areas at the same time.

Additionally, the countries may opt to swap lands to avoid potential border disputes. All these demand thoughtful coordination between the two parties. Fourthly, parties would have to agree on areas to establish border and customs posts. This, too, requires the two countries to work together closely. Finally, as a sign of goodwill, the two countries would have to shun and renounce the use of opposition groups and proxies against each other.

Tigray argues the toss

Addis Ababa’s rapprochement with Eritrea has angered Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Ethiopia’s traditional dominant party and the eldest member of the six-member ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition.

On June 13, the TPLF said the Prime Minister Abiy’s recent decision to accept the Algiers agreement, among other things, has “fundamental flaws” and called for reconsideration. In further opposition, the party decried Prime Minister Abiy’s recent reform efforts, including the privatization of state companies and new appointments, and criticized his administration of having a lack of proper recognition for veteran TPLF members.

Abiy’s decision also sparked public protests in Tigray, the northeast region that borders Eritrea and TPLF’s constituency, including those in Badme.

The role of international community

The two-decades-old Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict has long been a source of frustration to the countries in the region as well as the wider international community. Prime Minister Abiy’s recent efforts to defuse one of the longest running diplomatic disputes in the Horn of Africa has already gained momentum. However, the community of nations has a role to play to contribute to a peaceful settlement of this long-running climate of fear between the two neighbors.

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First, the Algiers agreement itself is helpful. It stipulates that EEBC ruling should be sent to the United Nations Secretary-General and the African Union (AU). Article 4 (16) of the agreement states, “Recognizing that the results of the delimitation and demarcation process are not yet known, the parties request the United Nations to facilitate resolution of problems which may arise due to the transfer of territorial control, including the consequences for individuals residing in the previously disputed territory.” For this reason, the good offices of the U.N. Secretary-General and AU Chairman should take the lead in facilitating a peaceful resolution.

Second, the European Union and the U.S. have both participated in the Algiers Agreement as witnesses. The EU and the U.S. can and should, in good conscience, play a significant role in ending the stalemate. They both have good relations with the government in Addis Ababa and can, therefore, pressure Ethiopia to fully commit to the EEBC border ruling.

Third, some members of the Arab League countries maintain working relationships with Eritrea and can use their leverage to convince Asmara to enter negotiations in good faith. In 2015, for instance, Eritrea offered its airspace and waters to the Saudi-led coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Consequently, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have military facilities in Eritrea’s Red Sea Port of Assab, where they conduct anti-Houthi airstrikes. Egypt also maintains ties with Asmara. These Arab countries have a role to play in the Ethiopian-Eritrean rapprochement.

Finally, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) – the Horn of Africa’s regional bloc, should lead the process by readmitting Eritrea to the bloc and acting as an impartial intermediary between the negotiating parties. Regarding IGAD’s role, it is the responsibility of Ethiopia to exchange ideas and notes with other members of the bloc to avoid the suspicion that Addis Ababa is pursuing its national agenda at the expense of the Horn of Africa countries.

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