ADDIS ABABA (FOREIGN POLICY)--The United States has plenty of strategic reasons to immediately invest diplomatic capital in the rapidly thawing relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea. It’s a historic opportunity that, if it continues heading in the right direction, promises fewer refugees for the West, more stability in the Horn of Africa region, and a potential new ally for the Trump administration in Eritrea, assuming it changes some of its behavior.
I was in Eritrea a few weeks ago for my day job looking at why so many people are fleeing to Europe and other parts of Africa. These root causes of migration are underresearched and often misunderstood, even more so in countries such as Eritrea that few have ever studied. Eritrea has a recognizably bad track record on human rights, a recognizably bad track record on democracy, and a recognizably bad track record on forcing people to leave and become refugees. It has earned its reputation, though there may now be an unprecedented opening for reform.
While in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, I met with several senior Eritrean officials and senior diplomats from Western countries. By chance, I witnessed President Isaias Afwerki’s speech on Martyrs’ Day. The president’s speech called for a peace delegation to Ethiopia — a breakthrough in light of the two nations’ 20-year conflict. Less than a week later, and for the first time in 20 years, an Eritrean delegation, led by Foreign Minister Osman Saleh, was welcomed into Addis Ababa. After talks with the delegation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s prime minister arrived in Asmara in the last couple of days for a historic meeting with Isaias at which they declared the war to be over.
Clearly, this is a rapidly moving situation. Though remarkable progress has already been made, U.S. diplomacy will be needed to definitively end the 20-year Ethiopia-Eritrea frozen conflict. Ending this conflict would strengthen Ethiopia’s new political leadership and create the conditions necessary for an end to Eritrea’s indefinite national service — along with Eritrea’s other human rights violations, which are a major driver of migration by the tens of thousands to other countries in Africa and to Europe.
There are many benefits to achieving a peace deal. First, such an agreement would create a new economic dynamic in the Horn of Africa, especially if Ethiopia were then able to use Eritrea’s two ports at Massawa and Assab. Eritrea would connect to an economy nearly 25 times its size. Second, ending this conflict could open the door to political liberalization in Eritrea. Eritrea uses the conflict with Ethiopia as an excuse for not making any government reforms. Third, a peace deal would open a new dynamic in the dysfunctional and tension-ridden Horn of Africa. It is true that Eritrea has supported bad actors in its neighborhood. If Eritrea had peace with Ethiopia, it would feel more secure and Eritrea would be less prone to causing trouble in the region and more likely to reduce tensions. Fourth, if the United States and Eritrea had a new relationship, Eritrea could be our Plan B African military base, as Djibouti is getting a little too friendlywith China.
The first thing to know about Eritrea is that it nearly didn’t exist. The United Kingdom and the United States — through the United Nations — proposed merging the former Italian colony with Ethiopia in the early 1950s. Eritreans disagreed with this solution, fought a 30-year war against Ethiopia and won independence in 1991. During its struggle, Eritrea had no reliable friends. The current Eritrean leadership is made up of the former military leaders who led the country to its independence.
Eritrea has had tense relations with the West. In the early 1990s, the Clinton administration provided financial aid and military assistance to the country. Less than a decade later, the United States ended those relations and suspended the sale of weapons to Eritrea when war broke out in 1998. The Bush administration had serious concerns in the mid-2000s that Eritrea was providing sanctuary to al-Shabab terrorists, which led to the imposition of an arms embargo in 2009. The Obama administration signed an executive order in 2009 with a series of financial sanctions against Eritrea for its failure to address human trafficking.
I asked senior leaders in Eritrea if they see al-Shabab as a terrorist group, and all of them agreed that it is. It is important to note that Eritrea has been deemed al-Shabab-free for more than six years, according to outside monitors known as the Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group. Given that this is the case, this would be a moment to revisit the sanctions on Eritrea and consider removing them.
Even if Eritrea has rid itself of its ties to the worst terrorist groups, it remains true that Eritrea has a persistently bad record as a human rights violator. According to a 2018 Human Rights Watch report, “Eritrea remains a one-man dictatorship under President Isaias Afewerki, now in his 26th year in power. It has no legislature, no independent civil society organizations or media outlets, and no independent judiciary. The government restricts religious freedoms, banning all but four groups.”
Eritrea also has had tense relations with most of its neighbors. Its worst relations are with Ethiopia, which it has fought two wars against in the last 50 years. The latest Eritrea-Ethiopia war was fought over lingering border disputes and lasted from 1998 to 2000, continuing to cause conflict between the two countries to this day. This war was notorious for being one of the deadliest wars in Africa, killing some 90,000 people.
At the end of hostilities, a peace agreement was put together in Algeria. The border dispute was taken to border experts, and the countries agreed to accept the findings of those experts. The final conclusion was in Eritrea’s favor, but Ethiopia refused to accept the findings. In other words, Eritrea largely won the diplomatic and political war, but Ethiopia continues to hold the disputed territory, including the small village of Badme. This week, Ethiopia said it will return Badme and help end the war.
The United States and other Western powers have been hampered in solving this dispute because they rely on Ethiopia to help police the larger Horn of Africa against terrorism and do not want to push it too hard on other issues.
Though open fighting ceased almost two decades ago, Eritrea’s frozen conflict with Ethiopia, often referred to as “no war, no peace,” remains — although we may be seeing this come to an end before our eyes — and is the stated reason for indefinite mobilization of the country’s population through its national service conscription. Eritrea is heavily militarized, with one of the largest armies in Africa. Seeing no hope for a future dominated by indefinite and mandatory national service, tens of thousands — possibly hundreds of thousands — of Eritreans have fled the country.
There remains real hope of an official end to the conflict, restoration of relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and an end to indefinite conscription, with history moving quickly over the past six months. The most senior U.S. diplomat for Africa, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto, visited both Ethiopia and Eritrea in April. Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, announced that his country would accept the terms of the Algiers peace agreement, including the decision to award Eritrea the border town of Badme. A push for peace now by the United States would be the right step.
If the two countries had a different relationship, the United States could benefit from Eritrea’s strategic location. With more than 700 miles of Red Sea coast and proximity to the Suez Canal to the north, through which more than 10 percent of global trade passes, Eritrea could provide obvious benefits. It has strong relations with countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Eritrea has allowed the UAE to use the port of Assab as a military base during the war in Yemen.
Eritrea is in a dangerous neighborhood. They are about 20 miles from Yemen, where famine is rampant, war rages, and more than 90,000 people have fled into the Horn of Africa. South Sudan, Somalia, and Kenya also face their own conflicts that have collectively destabilized the region, while Ethiopia faces internal displacement and humanitarian challenges.
The United States has an outsized role in the region, and this is a historic opportunity. The people of Eritrea clearly want peace: When President Isaias said on Martyr’s Day that he would send a peace delegation to Ethiopia, the audience broke into spontaneous applause. It is worth some diplomatic effort now from the United States to push the peace process along.
Daniel Runde served in the George W. Bush administration at USAID. He also worked at the World Bank Group (IFC). He currently holds the William A. Schreyer Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.