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East Africa: Ethiopia/Eritrea Peace Hopes, Cautions
July 30, 2018 (180730)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
For those seeking good news from Africa, there is no better recent example than the
dramatic rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Pictures and videos of
the overjoyed crowds in Asmara and Addis Ababa greeting the other country's leaders
on mutual visits circulated rapidly on social media as well as in international news
There is no denying the optimism and joy evoked by this turn towards peace. But, as
Olivia Woldemikael wrote in a commentary ("History aside, what will peace mean for my
loved ones?" - available at http://tinyurl.com/y9xke8ze), it also brings many
"We are asking things like: Will my sister in school still be conscripted into
compulsory military service next year? Will my cousin, who is looking for ways to be
smuggled across the border, be allowed to leave legally instead? Will my aunt, who
has criticised the Eritrean government from outside the country, be allowed back in?
Will my uncle, languishing in jail for political reasons, finally be released?"
This AfricaFocus Bulletin, in addition to links to that article and others
immediately below, includes 3 short well-informed articles by journalists Martin
Plaut and Jason Burke and by Eritrean exile and human rights activist Abraham Zere.
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Ethiopia and Eritrea, visit
In particular, see http://www.africafocus.org/docs18/eth1804.php, "Wax, Gold, and
"Ethiopianess," April 23, 2018.
Among other recent articles and videos worth noting:
China Global Television Network (CGTN) report on visit of Eritrean leader to Addis
Ababa, - video, 2.17 minutes
Historical background on Eritrean leadership's hostility to Ethiopia, by Martin
Summaries of recent peace process, by Abraham Zere (http://tinyurl.com/y7kyx3jy) and
Africa Confidential (http://tinyurl.com/y8zrw67h)
Cautious commentary by Michela Wrong after first announcement in June.
Report from AP on caution among Eritrean diaspora.
Interesting background on the relevance of regional diplomacy and access to Red Sea
ports, by David Styan.
Why Voter Suppression Matters Even More than You Think
by William Minter
Of all the explanations offered for Donald Trump's unexpected victory in the
presidential election in 2016, one of the best documented – yet least discussed
in the public debate – is voter suppression. This is also arguably the one
with the most immediate and substantial implications for progressive strategy
before the 2018 midterm elections.
For additional context and background, see "Ten Ways to Misunderstand the Trump
Election, and Why They Still Matter" at
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++
Eritrea and Ethiopia have made peace. How it happened and what next
by Martin Plaut, Senior Research Fellow, Horn of Africa and Southern Africa,
Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study
The Conversation, July 10, 2018
https://theconversation.com/ - Direct URL: http://tinyurl.com/y7yr6wse
This week Ethiopian prime minister, Abiy Ahmed visited neighboring Eritrea, to be
greeted by president Isaias Afwerki. The vast crowds that thronged the normally quiet
streets of Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, were simply overjoyed. They sang and they
danced as Abiy’s car drove past. Few believed they would ever see such an
extraordinarily rapid end to two decades of vituperation and hostility between their
After talks the president and prime minister signed a declaration, ending 20 years of
hostility and restoring diplomatic relations and normal ties between the countries.
Both photos above, on the arrival of the Ethiopian prime minister in Asmara,
Eritrea, are taken from a Facebook post by Kenyan blogger David Maina Ndung'u,
July 18, 2018. Photo on left shows a father reunified with his two daughters after
20 years of separation. For more photos and the blogger's comments, see
The first indication that these historic events might be possible came on June 4.
Abiy declared that he would accept the outcome of an international commission’s
finding over a disputed border between the two countries. It was the border conflict
of 1998-2000, and Ethiopia’s refusal to accept the commission’s ruling, that was
behind two decades of armed confrontation. With this out of the way, everything began
to fall into place.
The two countries are now formally at peace. Airlines will connect their capitals
once more, Ethiopia will use Eritrea’s ports again, its natural outlet to the sea,
and diplomatic relations will be resumed.
Perhaps most important of all, the border will be demarcated. This won’t be an easy
task. Populations who thought themselves citizens of one country could find
themselves in another. This could provoke strong reactions, unless both sides show
flexibility and compassion.
For Eritrea there are real benefits – not only the revenues from Ethiopian trade
through its ports, but also the potential of very substantial potash developments on
the Ethiopia-Eritrea border that could be very lucrative.
For Ethiopia, there would be the end to Eritrean subversion, with rebel movements
deprived of a rear base from which to attack the government in Addis Ababa. In
return, there is every chance that Ethiopia will now push for an end to the UN arms
embargo against the Eritrean government.
This breakthrough didn’t just happen. It has been months in the making.
Some of the first moves came quietly from religious groups. In September last year
the World Council of Churches sent a team to see what common ground there was on both
sides. Donald Yamamoto, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, and one of America’s
most experienced Africa hands, played a major role.
Diplomatic sources suggest he held talks in Washington at which both sides were
represented. The Eritrean minister of foreign affairs, Osman Saleh, is said to have
been present, accompanied by Yemane Gebreab, president Isaias’s long-standing
adviser. They are said to have met the former Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam
Desalegn, laying the groundwork for the deal. Yamamoto visited both Eritrea and
Ethiopia in April.
Although next to nothing was announced following the visits, they are said to have
been important in firming up the dialogue.
But achieving reconciliation after so many years took more than American diplomatic
muscle. Eritrea’s Arab allies also played a key role. Shortly after the Yamamoto
visit, president Isaias paid a visit to Saudi Arabia. Ethiopia – aware of the trip –
encouraged the Saudi crown prince to get the Eritrean president to pick up the phone
and talk to him. President Isaias declined, but—as Abiy Ahmed later explained—he was
“hopeful with Saudi and US help the issue will be resolved soon.”
So it was, but one other actor played a part: the UAE. Earlier this month president
Isaias visited the Emirates. There are suggestions that large sums of money were
offered to help Eritrea develop its economy and infrastructure.
Finally, behind the scenes, the UN and the African Union have been encouraging both
sides to resolve their differences. This culminated in the UN Secretary General,
Antonio Guterres, flying to Addis Ababa for a meeting on Monday – just hours after
the joint declaration. Guterres told reporters that in his view the sanctions against
Eritrea could soon be lifted since they would soon likely become “obsolete.”
It has been an impressive combined effort by the international community, who have
for once acted in unison to try to resolve a regional issue that has festered for
Risks and dividends
For Isaias these developments also bring some element of risk. Peace would mean no
longer having the excuse of a national security threat to postpone the implementation
of basic freedoms. If the tens of thousands of conscripts, trapped in indefinite
national service are allowed to go home, what jobs await them? When will the country
have a working constitution, free elections, an independent media and judiciary? Many
political prisoners have been jailed for years without trail. Will they now be
For Ethiopia, the dividends of peace would be a relaxation of tension along its
northern border and an alternative route to the sea. Families on both sides of the
border would be reunited and social life and religious ceremonies, many of which go
back for centuries, could resume.
But the Tigrayan movement – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – that was
dominant force in Ethiopian politics until the election of prime minister Aiby in
February, has been side-lined. It was their quarrel with the Eritrean government that
led to the 1998–2000 border war.
The Eritrean authorities have rejoiced in their demise. “From this day forward, TPLF
as a political entity is dead,” declared a semi-official website, describing the
movement as a ‘zombie’ whose “soul has been bound in hell”. Such crowing is hardly
appropriate if differences are to be resolved. The front is still a significant force
in Ethiopia and could attempt to frustrate the peace deal.
These are just some of the problems that lie ahead. There is no guarantee that the
whole edifice won’t collapse, as the complex details of the relationship are worked
out. There are many issues that have to be resolved before relations between the two
countries can be returned to normal. But with goodwill these can be overcome,
ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity from which the entire region would
Ethiopia hails its charismatic young leader as a peacemaker
The Guardian, July 15, 2018
http://www.theguardian.com – Direct URL: http://tinyurl.com/y8scr3w5
The flags of the two nations flew bright and sharp. The two leaders waved at the
happy crowds. The formal meetings overran, amid ostentatious displays of bonhomie.
Even the hatchet-faced security officials appeared relaxed.
The meeting of Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s 41-year-old prime minister, and Isaias Afwerki,
the 71-year-old president of Eritrea, in Addis Ababa on Saturday left seasoned Africa
observers gasping for breath.
“The pace of this is simply astounding,” said Omar S Mahmood, of the Institute for
Peace and Security Studies in Ethiopia’s booming capital.
The meeting between Abiy and Isaias concluded an intense bout of diplomacy that
appears to have ended one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts. “Words cannot
express the joy we are feeling now,” Isaias said, as he had lunch with Abiy. “We are
one people. Whoever forgets that does not understand our situation.”
Many Ethiopians expressed their exhilaration on social media. “The events of these
past … days between Ethiopia and Eritrea are like the fall of the Berlin Wall. Only
amplified 1,000 times,” Samson Haileyesus wrote on Facebook. The reaction in Eritrea
has been equally ecstatic.
Analysts say such hyperbole may be justified. The bid for peace with Eritrea is just
the latest in a series of efforts that may bring revolutionary reform to Africa’s
second most populous nation, transform a region and send shockwaves from the
Mediterranean to the Cape of Good Hope.
Since coming to power in April, Abiy has electrified Ethiopia with his informal
style, charisma and energy, earning comparisons with Nelson Mandela, Justin Trudeau,
Barack Obama and Mikhail Gorbachev. He has reshuffled his cabinet, fired a series of
controversial and hitherto untouchable civil servants, including the head of
Ethiopia’s prison service, lifted bans on websites and other media, freed thousands
of political prisoners, ordered the partial privatisation of massive state-owned
companies, ended a state of emergency imposed to quell widespread unrest and removed
three opposition groups from a list of “terrorist” organisations.
Nic Cheeseman, an expert in African politics at Birmingham University, said Abiy’s
extraordinary campaign was a test of the argument that only repressive government can
guarantee the levels of development so desperately needed across Africa.
Despite an International Monetary Fund forecast predicting that Ethiopia, which has
relied on a centralised economic model and political repression for decades, would be
the fastest-growing economy in sub-Saharan Africa in 2018, even the officially
sanctioned press has admitted the country’s serious difficulties.
There is a shortage of foreign currency, growing inequality, a lack of jobs for a
huge number of graduates, environmental damage, ethnic tensions and deep hunger for
Different interest groups have come together in recent years to constitute a powerful
groundswell of discontent, with widespread anti-government protests led by young
people. At least 70% of the population is below the age of 30.
“Ethiopia was on the edge of the abyss. They have realised they cannot continue in
the same old way. Only an advanced democratic system would prevent the country coming
to pieces and a disaster that Africa has never seen before,” said Andargachew Tsege,
a British citizen unexpectedly pardoned in May after four years on death row on
terrorism charges. Abiy invited Tsege, who was abducted by Ethiopian security
services four years ago, to a meeting two days after his release. They spoke for 90
No one claims that Isaias, the “hard and rigid” ruler of Eritrea since 1991, has much
in the way of new ideas. A nation of about 5.1 million people, Eritrea is the only
African country where elections are not held. As many as 5,000 Eritreans flee their
country every month, notably to avoid indefinite military conscription. Many head to
Europe. The economy has flatlined for decades. The UN has accused the regime of
crimes against humanity.
“The entire history of [Isaias] is as a ruthless Marxist-Leninist ... Enemies were
shot and killed. Economically, his position has always been: we are completely selfreliant.
Is this guy going to become a happy-clappy liberal? It is possible he wants
to be Eritrea’s Mandela but seems unlikely,” said Martin Plaut, a senior research
fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London.
Once a province of Ethiopia that comprised its entire coastline on the Red Sea,
Eritrea voted to leave in 1993 after a decades-long, bloody struggle.
The thaw began last month when Abiy said he would abide by a UN-backed ruling and
hand back to Eritrea disputed territory. Analysts say conflicts across the region
fuelled by the rift are now likely to die down.
For the moment Abiy’s reforms have popular support, and the crucial backing of much
of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the rebel coalition
that came to power in 1991.
But there is resistance. Last month, a grenade was thrown at a rally organised to
showcase support for the reforms in Addis Ababa’s vast Meskel Square. Two died. “Love
always wins ... To those who tried to divide us, I want to tell you that you have not
succeeded,” Abiy said after the attack.
Much depends on the determination of the Ethiopian leader. Seen as a relative
outsider before being picked for the top job by the EPRDF council, Abiy is the first
leader from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic community, the Oromo, who have complained for
decades of economic, cultural and political marginalisation. The EPRDF is split by
battles between four ethnically based parties as well as fierce competition between
institutions and individuals.
Born in western Ethiopia, Abiy joined the resistance against the regime of Mengistu
Haile Mariam as a teenager before enlisting in the armed forces. After a stint
running Ethiopia’s cyberintelligence service, he entered politics eight years ago and
rose rapidly up the ranks of the Oromo faction of the EPRDF, which has historically
been at odds with the Tigrayans, who compose only 6% of the total population but have
long had disproportionate political and commercial influence. In a major break with
precedent, Abiy has been pictured with his wife and daughters, whom he has publicly
thanked for their support.
As Abiy’s reforms gather momentum, the risks rise too. “Democracy can be achieved
through benevolent leadership, but it can only be consolidated through democratic
institutions. What we are seeing now is more of a personality-cult kind of movement,”
said Mekonnen Mengesha, a lecturer at Wolkite University.
Like other African countries– such as Kenya and Zimbabwe just over a decade ago –
Ethiopia has seen previous efforts to reform its closed, autocratic system that have
not ended happily.
“It’s really exciting and great news, but Abiy has not done anything that really
threatens the regime,” said Cheeseman. “And until a government is actually faced with
losing power you don’t know what will happen.”
Isaias out of character: Why Eritreans are getting nervous
By Abraham T. Zere
African Arguments, July 18, 2018
http://africanarguments.org/ - Direct URL: http://tinyurl.com/yakj9qeh
Abraham T. Zere is executive director of PEN Eritrea. He lives in exile. His articles
have appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Al-Jazeera English, Index on
Censorship magazine, among others.
In barely the blink of an eye, Eritrea’s unpredictable president has completely
reversed his rhetoric of the past two decades.
In just a few weeks, relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea have not just shifted
dramatically but – in many ways – turned upside down.
For two decades, President Isaias Afwerki had demonised Ethiopia, seeing it as an
existential threat. He used the supposed Ethiopian menace as a pretext to establish
one of the world’s most repressive regimes, ban widespread freedoms, and impose
indefinite military conscription. Some of the only bits of music to get official
approval from Asmara were toxic war songs that reinforced this all-encompassing
enmity on which the nation’s identity was based.
Now, this could not have flipped more completely. In the past month, Ethiopia’s Prime
Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias have embraced warmly in both Asmara and
Addis Ababa, greeted by huge doting crowds. Eritrean praise-singers have literally
changed their tunes to praise peace in Amharic and Tigrinya. Today, the first flight
between the two countries in 20 years landed in Asmara, carrying a fully-booked plane
that included Ethiopia’s former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
In barely the blink of an eye, full-throated enmity seems to have turned into wholehearted
love – to the extent that hopeful Eritreans, whose lives have long been
determined by the mood of one man, are starting to worry.
Given the opaque way in which the regime governs, Eritreans are used to following
Isaias’ words and actions carefully in search of any hints. But for even those
unaccustomed to observing him, his recent performance in Ethiopia was startlingly. He
appeared out of character, praising the leader of his long-time foe excessively, and
proclaiming that the two nation’s populations are “one people”. He then remarkably
told Abiy “you are our leader” and announced happily to the crowd: “I’ve given him
all responsibility of leadership and power”.
It was not long ago that it was almost unthinkable that Isaias – a man who played a
leading role in Eritrea’s battle for independence and based his leadership on the
need to protect against Ethiopia – might one day shake hands with his counterpart in
Addis. But now, some Eritreans are afraid that the president might be about to
declare Eritrea reunited with Ethiopia.
Petitions have reportedly been started and demonstrations called. There are claims
being circulated on social media that certain army commanders have said that Isaias
has compromised Eritrea’s national interest and should not be allowed home.
Amidst all this uncertainty, one thing that is clear is that the former status quo
has been broken. So many of the regime’s actions were justified by referring to
Ethiopian hostility, but this pretext no longer exists.
If we are to follow the logic previously laid out by Isaias, Eritrea should now be
able to undergo a dramatic and rapid transformation. There have already been some
swift changes, such as the opening up of telecommunications and flight routes, but
there ought to be much more to come.
There should, in theory, no longer be the need for such a large army and the
oppressive system of indefinite military service. Political prisoners and jailed
journalists should be freed now they no longer pose a national security threat as the
government had claimed. The border should be opened up and trade resumed. And people
should be allowed to move freely both within and out of the country.
Eritreans are eagerly listening out for any signs that these moves may be coming, but
the government is remaining characteristically quiet on these fronts. If it were to
try to resume normal life in the country, however, it would take quite some time.
Thanks to the government’s short-sighted and reclusive policies for two decades, the
state has been reduced to a mere shell. Institutions have been dismantled over the
years and power has been concentrated into the hands of a few. Those with authority
are old and incapable of overseeing dynamic change, while the country loses thousands
of young people every month as they flee across the border.
If Isaias is genuine in his desire for change, he could use the justification that
“new blood” is needed – as he did in 1994 – to overhaul the government, removing
senior officials and go after those accused of corruption. He might also place the
blame for abuses and mistakes on military commanders and dispose of them. He could
try to transfer power to the next generation. But he would face the problem that
there is huge gap between the old and young, while decades of alienation have made
most people feel like mere observers in their own affairs.
Finally, even with all these changes, the elephant in the room would remain: the same
capricious individual responsible for creating one of the world’s most repressive
regimes – involving systemic torture, the imprisonment of opponents and much more –
would still reign supreme.
In reality, the only way that Eritrea can meaningfully move forwards now is for
President Isaias to step down after a quarter of a century in control. If he did take
such a courageous step, he might be remembered for playing a positive role in
Eritrea’s history. Both of these things seem unthinkable. But recently, the
unthinkable has been happening.
Best Books to Read on Eritrea
Abdi Latif Dahir provides a short listing and review of five recommended books.
For his descriptions of the books, see
The five, in order by date, are
2001: Brothers at War: Making Sense of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, by Tekeste Negash
and Kjetil Tronvoll https://amzn.to/2zRXgjo
2006: I Didn't Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation, by
Michela Wrong https://amzn.to/2O5H7di
2012: My Fathers' Daughter: A Story of Family and Belonging by Hannah Pool,
2014: Eritrea at a Crossroads: A Narrative of Triumph, Betrayal and Hope, by
Andebrhan Welde Giorgis https://amzn.to/2LyK1pi
2017 Understanding Eritrea: Inside Africa's Most Repressive State, by Martin Plaut
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