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Ethiopian Girl

14 Sept 2018

The leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea will attend a summit in Saudi Arabia on Sunday to sign a peace agreement "cementing" the relations between the two former Horn of Africa bitter rivals, according to a United Nations spokesperson.

Farhan Haq said on Friday that the signing ceremony will be hosted by Saudi King Salman in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and African Union Commission chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat are also expected to attend.

Haq did not provide further details about the agreement.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki signed a declaration of peace in July that formally ended a two-decade standoff and restored diplomatic relations.

On Tuesday, Ethiopia and Eritrea reopened two land border crossing points for the first time in 20 years, clearing the way for trade between the two nations.

Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990s. War broke out later that decade over a border dispute.

A 2002 UN-backed boundary demarcation was meant to settle the dispute for good, but Ethiopia refused to abide by it.

A turnaround began in June when Abiy announced that Ethiopia would hand back to Eritrea the disputed areas, including the flashpoint town of Badme where the first shots of the border war were fired.


Eritrea Ethiopia flags

This article is a fascinating read. Posted on Eritrea Digest it highlights issues that have been swirling around in the last few weeks.

By Sal Younis

An excellent report has been published by the Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’. It highlights the impact of EU policy on the smuggling of refugees across the Sahara.

You can read the full report EU policies and Saharan migration.

Below are extracts of the report showing how the smuggling has effected Eritreans. It highlights the role of the Sudanese government.

Eritreans as commodities

In recent years, notably as a result of anti-migrant policies in both Niger and Sudan, Chad has become a new transit country for both West African and East African migrants. Migrants from countries such as Senegal, Mali, Liberia, Somalia and Eritrea, who were rarely seen in Chad in the past, are now crossing the country towards Libya.

According to a former Chadian rebel based in Libya, Chadian rebels or former rebels have been involved, rather than in ‘buying’ migrants, in capturing or ‘stealing’ them from their original smugglers or traffickers. Such operations specifically target Eritreans who, according to the former rebel, ‘represent the second business, just after drugs’

Routes from Sudan to Libya

Sudanese migration routes have evolved and become more diverse. Eritrean migrants mostly used to cross from eastern Sudan to Egypt, while Sudanese also reached Egypt from Sudan’s northern region. In recent years, flows have shifted towards Libya, along two main routes, which in the past were used by Sudanese migrants looking for work in Libya but are now used by refugees fleeing wars and undemocratic regimes across the entire Horn of Africa. The easternmost route, used notably by Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalians, goes from Khartoum to Dongola by an asphalt road, then crosses north-western Sudan to the Libyan border and Kufra.

Some were arrested by regular forces, but the task has to large extent been assigned to the so-called Rapid Support Forces (RSF). In 2013, Khartoum re-hatted some of the Darfur Arab militias generally known by the nickname of janjawid, which led most of the counter-insurgency campaign that devastated the region and displaced some 3 million civilians, into a new paramilitary force, the RSF. The new force is better equipped, better funded, and deployed not only in Darfur, but all over Sudan. Since 2016 it has been directly under presidential control, in the hope it would be better controlled and more loyal than the former janjawid. It is led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, aka ‘Hemmeti’, who proved less disloyal towards Khartoum than other Darfur Arab militia chiefs.

In 2016, coinciding with the EU dialogue with Sudan on migration, Khartoum redeployed RSF in the Northern State, from where they patrolled up to the Libyan and Egyptian borders. In an April 2018 video, Hemmeti claimed the RSF had 23,000 men ‘scattered throughout the desert borders’ – a credible count for RSF forces deployed from North Darfur and the Chadian border, to Eastern Sudan and the Egyptian and Eritrean borders.

Double game: migrants smuggled or trafficked by Sudanese government militias

Since being deployed in Sudan’s north-western quarter, the RSF have gradually monopolised control of routes to Libya. But they do not always arrest the smugglers and migrants they intercept. ‘Officially, our orders are to drive the migrants back toward their country of origin,’ an RSF member explains. ‘So, from time to time, we intercept migrants and transfer them back to Khartoum, in order to show the authorities that we are doing the job. We’re not supposed to take money from the migrants to let them escape or to transport them to Libya… but the reality is rather different…’Several smugglers and migrants confirm that the RSF tax the vehicles or migrants they intercept then let them go.

In some cases, the RSF did not drive migrants in their own cars but provided an escort to civilian smugglers. In 2016, S., an Eritrean asylum seeker, was intercepted by Sudanese government forces in the desert and brought back to Khartoum. ‘Some of the migrants paid to be released,’ he explains. One year later, he tried again, through the same Eritrean intermediaries based in Khartoum. The whole process was unchanged: the migrants were gathered in a Khartoum house together with other mostly Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants. One year to the next, even the fare was the same: USD 1,700 for the desert crossing and USD 2,300 from Libya to Europe. ‘Thus, 4,000 dollars is the official fare to Europe but we know it is likely to be much higher as we are kidnapped.

From Darfur, Dongola or Khartoum to Libya, and from Darfur to Chad, the RSF transported or escorted migrants from Sudan as well as from other Horn of Africa countries. According to several migrants, ‘the RSF prefer the non-Sudanese, especially Ethiopians, Eritreans and Somalians, as they consider them as very valuable. Their family in the diaspora pays for them when they are kidnapped.

Ties between Sudanese government militias and Libyan traffickers

Migrants who were smuggled by the RSF to Libya report that the RSF systematically ‘sold’ them to Libyan traffickers, in the Sudan-Libya borderlands. The practice is generally known as taslim (delivery) in Arabic, a word that is also used for exchanges of drug loads across the Sahara. Those Libyan traffickers often torture and enslave the migrants.

According to an RSF member, ‘the RSF receive money for each migrant handed over to the Libyans.’This explains why migrants could board RSF cars on credit: in principle, this involved repaying their debt later after finding work in Libya, but obviously the RSF did not care about being reimbursed and were getting the migrants’ ‘debt’ paid by the Libyan traffickers. This generally allows the Libyans to ask the migrants to reimburse their debt, torturing them until they could get relatives to pay for their release or obliging them to work without payment.

But even migrants who had paid the RSF for their whole trip were ‘bought’ by Libyan traffickers and endured abuses. Thus, in June 2017, S., the Eritrean asylum seeker mentioned above, was sold to Libyan Arabs, together with more than a hundred fellow passengers. ‘They told us that we were their property, that we had been sold,’ he remembers. The migrants were obliged to telephone their relatives to ask them to pay a USD 1,700 ransom – precisely the amount S. had paid the RSF for travelling to Libya. Those who could not find the money were forced to pick dates from palm trees.

Generally, RSF and other Sudanese smugglers sell their passengers to Libyan traffickers in the Sudan-Libya borderlands, and do not go further.

Involvement of other Darfur rebels and ex-rebels in migrant smuggling

Other Darfur rebels and former rebels have allegedly been involved in migrant smuggling. In 2017, Darfurian combatants reportedly guarded a farm in Jufra area, in central Libya, where 300 to 400 Eritreans were detained, but it is unclear whether those troops were active or former rebels. According to one of the leaders of a faction that joined the government in 2012 – known as JEM (Justice and Equality Movement)-Dabajo – some combatants from this group defected and became smugglers.

RSF deployment in eastern Sudan

In early 2018, the RSF were also deployed in eastern Sudan, on the Eritrean border. According to Sudanese government sources, about a quarter of migrant smugglers arrested in January-February 2018 on this border were arrested by the RSF. Yet, as along the Sudan-Libya border, the RSF deployment in the east may respond to another agenda: it coincided with the closure of the Eritrean border, following Sudanese accusations that Egypt and Eritrea were colluding to reopen rear bases for Sudanese rebels in Eritrea. Until 2006, Eritrea had hosted rebel groups from both Darfur and eastern Sudan. Among the latter were the Free Lions, a movement recruiting among the Rashaida Arabs straddling the Sudan-Eritrea border. Since 2006, former Free Lions leaders were allegedly involved in smuggling Eritrean migrants to Egypt through eastern Sudan, with the complicity of both Eritrean and Sudanese security apparatuses. This smuggling entente is now threatened, notably by the new anti-smuggling policies.

According to a former Chadian rebel based in Libya, Chadian rebels or former rebels have been involved, rather than in ‘buying’ migrants, in capturing or ‘stealing’ them from their original smugglers or traffickers. Such operations specifically target Eritreans who, according to the former rebel, ‘represent the second business, just after drugs’: they reportedly can be sold for LYD 2,000 to 30,000 (EUR 300-4,500). Chadian rebels or former rebels reportedly raided convoys with Eritrean migrants as far away as Jebel Aweynat at the Libya-Sudan-Egypt tri-border. Eritrean migrants are also commonly ‘stolen’ in places where they are kept, for instance in Um-el-Araneb. In late 2017, bandits based in Um-el-Araneb also reportedly drove to Jufra area where they captured some 300 Eritrean migrants held on a farm, before reselling them.

NISS agents involved in migrant smuggling

It is not only Sudanese paramilitary forces but also members of regular forces who are reportedly involved in migrant smuggling. There have been various reports on the involvement of members of Sudanese regular forces, notably of the NISS (National Intelligence and Security Service) in human trafficking between Eritrea and Egypt, through eastern Sudan.166 More recently, it appears NISS is also involved in smuggling migrants from Sudan to Libya, including through Darfur.


Country emerging from isolation after Ethiopia rapprochement

Source: Bloomberg

September 13, 2018, 7:00 PM EDT

Eritrea is casting off its reputation as a hermit state and pushing to become a key player in one of the world’s most strategically important regions.

Decades of eschewing international cooperation by the Red Sea state are giving way to renewed ties. Relations with Ethiopia, its sworn enemy since a border war at the end of last century, are blossoming after the two states agreed a rapprochement in July. Somalia signed a trilateral cooperation accord with the two countries that includes an initiative to seek peace with Djibouti, which in turn has welcomed the move.

Photographer: Nizar Manek/Blooomberg

The effects of the improving bonds are rippling beyond the Horn of Africa, drawing the attention of countries including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, China and Russia. A quarter of a century after it won independence from Ethiopia, Eritrea is welcoming the interest.


“Eritrea is not an island but can thrive in an environment of regional cooperation,” Yemane Gebreab, the top political adviser to President Isaias Afwerki, said in an interview in the capital, Asmara.

Trump Card

Geography is Eritrea’s trump card. It’s situated across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia and Yemen near the Bab el Mandab, a shipping choke-point used by oil tankers and other cargo vessels en route to Europe and the U.S. through the Suez Canal. China has lauded the country’s position on the Maritime Silk Road, which links shipping lanes along the proposed multi-trillion dollar Belt & Road Initiative.

That makes Eritrea “a key component of any power with interests in the region’s security architecture,” Saud al-Sarhan, secretary-general of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, said by email from Riyadh.

The U.A.E. has already exploited its strategic location. Part of the Saudi-led coalition that’s been fighting Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen for the past three years, the U.A.E. has built a military facility at the Eritrean port town of Assab to support its forces.

War, Sanctions

Yemane, providing the first official Eritrean confirmation of the installation’s existence, said its construction is “not about bases, it’s not about cash,” but an acknowledgment that there are vital interests that need to be protected in the Red Sea. For instance, neighboring Djibouti is home to the only U.S. and Chinese military bases in Africa.


Isaias’s ruling party has envisaged closer regional cooperation since its days as a liberation movement before the country gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, according to Yemane. The drive stalled after Somalia collapsed into civil war in 1991, the emergence of an Islamist state in Sudan under President Umar al-Bashir, war with Ethiopia and the imposition in 2009 of United Nations sanctions over Eritrea’s alleged links — denied by the government — to Islamist militants in Somalia.

The “basic requirement” for forging the peace accord with Ethiopia was to find a partner in its giant neighbor for regional cooperation and integration, Yemane said. It only became possible after Abiy Ahmed took over as prime minister in Addis Ababa in April and immediately initiated a broad array of political and economic reforms.

Aid Billions

“If there was a different situation in Ethiopia and a different setup, all the efforts and encouragements would not have produced results,” said Yemane, who heads the political department of the ruling Eritrean People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. “For us, the crucial point was determining whether real change had come to Ethiopia.”

The rapprochement has reopened a route to Ethiopia, the continent’s fastest-growing economy and second-most populous nation, that had been closed since the war between the two countries ended in 2000. The prospect of access to the broader region is also drawing potential investors.

In the wake of the peace accord, the Abu Dhabi Fund for International Development pledged a $3 billion aid package to Ethiopia, including $1 billion for its central bank, while state-owned Dubai Ports World Ltd. announced plans for a regional logistics facility in Ethiopia.

Russian Interests

Ethiopia’s water surplus and vast stretches of arable land might help solve food-security concerns among the Gulf Arab states, while its proposed sale of state-owned stakes in key enterprises such as telecommunications and the national airline offer investment opportunities, according to Taimur Khan, non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last month the improved relations present an opportunity for Russian businesses to expand their interests in the region, such as a logistics center in the country and participating in a regional oil pipeline and transport corridors. In March, Lavrov announced talks with Ethiopia to establish a nuclear-technology center dedicated primarily to research, after Moscow and Cairo last year signed a $30 billion deal for a nuclear power plant in Egypt and announced talks to use each other’s airspace and air bases.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on Friday was cited by the Eritrean Information Ministry as saying strengthening relations between the two states will make a “significant contribution” to enhancing security in the Horn of Africa and Red Sea basin. The two countries agreed last year to work together in “all fields” including marine resources, and counter-terrorism.

(Updates with comment by Egyptian foreign minister in last paragraph.)


Eritrean community demonstrates outside UNHCR over refugees in Libya

Eritreans from Italy, Germany, Sweden, Italy and Holland came together to call on the UN refugee agency to step up its efforts in Libya.

In London the community gathered outside the offices of the UNHCR – chanting slogans and holding up the placards they had brought.

Eritrean community demonstrates outside UNHCR over refugees in Libya

Young and old, they stood in solidarity with their countrymen and women who are trapped in the hell of Libyan detention centres.

Eritrean community demonstrates outside UNHCR over refugees in Libya

More than 1,000 Eritreans are currently held in the detention centres. Some suffering from gunshot wounds; women facing the daily threat of rape; children suffering from hunger and fear.

A delegation led by Sham Gabriel went into the UNHCR London headquarters.

Eritrean community demonstrates outside UNHCR over refugees in Libya - Sham Gabriel speaking

“We met Michael Saltmarsh, the UNHCR’s representative,” Sham reports to the demonstrators. “We asked the organisation to set up its efforts. Refugees must be evacuated to Niger or other countries. But Niger has become a bottleneck.”

“European powers are not fulfilling the pledges they made to assist: they have a responsibility to protect the lives of these extremely vulnerable people.”

Sham explained that Mr Saltmarsh promised to take their concerns to the UNHCR High Commissioner – and to let the community have his reply.

“It is vital that the UN gains access to the detention centres and those being returned from the sea to Libya must be registered by the UNHCR,” Sham said.


New United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has expressed excitement at the Eritrea – Ethiopia peace deal which she says must be a foundation for protection of human rights in both countries.

Bachelet said her outfit looked forward to the abolition of national service by Eritrea in the wake of peace and that Ethiopia will also scale up efforts to cure an acute internal humanitarian crisis.

She said her office stood ready to support any such efforts aimed at deepening the protection of human rights in both countries.

The Office stands ready to support both countries in protecting human rights. We particularly look forward to seeing an end to indefinite conscription into the Eritrean military.

Bachelet’s comments were part of her opening statement at the 39th session of the Human Rights Council on 10 September 2018. Her predecessor, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein had in several statements bemoaned the falling human rights situation in both countries and tasked both governments to pursue concrete resolutions.

Ethiopia since April 2018 has been on a wave of speedy democratic reforms led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Political prisoners have been released en masse, laws are being scrapped and amended to open the democratic playing field especially ahead of polls in 2020.

Over in Eritrea, the government has given the strongest hint yet that an indefinite national service justified by threat of aggression from Ethiopia will soon be reshaped. A UN rapporteur has said the conscription amounted to slavery and crimes against humanity.

Asmara’s bad human rights record has included reports of how political opponents and journalists have been jailed. In some instances religious activists have also been detained according to rights groups.

Post the July 9, 2018 peace deal reached between Abiy and Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki, political and human rights watchers are looking on as to how fast and when Asmara will roll out a democratic structure.

Michelle Bachelet’s full comments on Eritrea – Ethiopia

The Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship signed in July between Eritrea and Ethiopia offers hope for an end to the decades-long stalemate between the two countries, which has had very severe impact on the people on both sides of the border.

The Office stands ready to support both countries in protecting human rights. We particularly look forward to seeing an end to indefinite conscription into the Eritrean military.

In Ethiopia, the Office has recently visited regions affected by intercommunal violence between the Gedeos and the Gujies communities, where recent clashes have reportedly forced over a million people to flee their homes.

We welcome initial steps taken by the Government and urge a thorough, impartial and independent investigation into the human rights violations which allegedly occurred, with full accountability for the perpetrators.


Lesley Wroughton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. diplomat for Africa welcomed a rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea ending two decades of hostility but said concerns over Eritrea’s human rights record hindered cooperation with Washington.

Abiy and IssaiasFILE PHOTO: Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed arrive for an inauguration ceremony marking the reopening of the Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri//File Photo


The leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea re-opened crossing points on their shared border for the first time in 20 years on Tuesday, raising hopes of reduced tensions in the region.

Tibor Nagy, the U.S. State Department’s assistant secretary for Africa, told a congressional hearing on Wednesday that the United States had “deliberately engaged” with Eritrea in recent months but it was too soon to talk about lifting United Nations sanctions imposed in 2009, which accused it of supporting Islamist militants in Somalia. Eritrea denied the charge.

Among concerns that the United States had raised with Eritrea was the detention of U.S. embassy local staff and several Americans for what Nagy called politically-motivated reasons.

The United States also wanted a full explanation from Eritrea over past weapons purchases from North Korea highlighted in a U.N. report, said Nagy, without elaborating.

He said the jailing of religious and political prisoners and indefinite, obligatory national service, as well as a tightly-controlled system of government were also a worry.

“Eritrea cannot assume that by saying wonderful things and opening good relations with the neighbors that will automatically lead to sanctions relief,” said Nagy, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia.

“There have to be concrete actions taken and we will remain very engaged and say things that may not always be popular but have to be said,” he added.

Eritrea has long dismissed accusations of human rights abuses by the U.N., including alleged extrajudicial killings and torture, as “totally unfounded and without merit.”

The U.N. imposed sanctions on Eritrea in 2009, backed by 13 of the 15 members of the U.N. Security Council. The sanctions included an arms embargo, travel restrictions and asset freezes for some of the country’s top officials.

But warming ties between Eritrea and Ethiopia this year and sweeping reforms by Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed have reshaped the political landscape in the Horn of Africa.

Abiy’s ruling coalition has ended a state of emergency and released political prisoners, while also announcing plans to partially open up the economy to foreign investors.

In his boldest move, Abiy offered last month to make peace with Eritrea, 20 years after the neighbors started a border war that killed an estimated 80,000 people. Full-blown fighting ended by 2000, but their troops have faced off across their disputed frontier ever since.

“Up to now for the last 20-plus years Eritrea has used Ethiopia as an excuse to maintain what I would almost call a ‘fortress state’,” Nagy said. “With the opening of peace they really will no longer have a reason to do that.”


Reporting by Lesley Wroughton, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien


Eritrea’s recent foreign policy shifts have been driven by President Afwerki and his Red Sea allies. Neither has an interest in Eritrea democratising.
Eritrea's government building in Asmara.

Eritrea’s government building in Asmara.

This is the fifth part of The Thin Red Line, an African Arguments series focusing on dynamics around the Red Sea.

Over the past few years, alliances and rivalries across the Horn of Africa have shifted significantly. This is perhaps nowhere clearer than in Eritrea, which has embodied the truism that counties have no permanent friends or permanent enemies, but only permanent interests.

Recently, those interests have led Asmara to make peace with Ethiopia after twenty years and improve its relations with others in the region. These breakthroughs have led to hopes that the government may soon enact long overdue reforms at home. After all, for two decades, its oppressive behaviour and economic woes have been blamed on hostility with Ethiopia and living a “bad neighbourhood”.

A closer look at the factors leading to Eritrea’s changing relations, however, dampen these expectations.

Eritrea’s changing allegiances

In the first few years of independence in the 1990s, Eritrea built its foreign ties on principles and loyalties. Though not always completely consistent, it shunned governments that had supported its rival liberation movement as well as monarchies or Islamist regimes deemed to be a threat.

Following the 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia, these determinations quickly shifted. Tensions with neighbours Ethiopia, Djibouti and Sudan ratcheted up, while relations with the West took a turn for the worse. Under this growing international isolation and domestic pressure, foreign relations became more pragmatic. The goal became, first and foremost, about regime survival.

President Isaias Afwerki thus looked to cut deals with a range of other powers looking to extend their influence in the region. These partnerships range from China and Russia to Israel, Iran and Libya. From the mid-2000s, however, Qatar became particularly crucial to the maintenance of Afwerki’s increasingly repressive rule. The small Gulf nation provided essential and extensive financial and military assistance and became the Horn of Africa country’s most important economic partner.

In the early-2010s, this close relationship started to fray. Afwerki was reportedly angered by Qatar’s attempts to tame his recalcitrant behaviour and break Asmara’s long-running impasse with Ethiopia. He was additionally alarmed at the Gulf nation’s catalysing role in popular uprisings in the 2011 Arab Spring.

Eritrea therefore took the opportunity of increasing interest from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to shift its alliances. In 2015, it signed a security partnership agreement allowing the UAE to build a military base in Assab for its war-effort in Yemen. Afwerki’s new allies agreed to provide significant financial aid, build infrastructure in Eritrea, and increase fuel supplies to the country. Eritrea provided land, airspace and also reportedly deployed around 400 of its own troops to Yemen.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE quickly became essential partners as Eritrea switched allegiances. The extent of this change was clear in the 2017 Gulf crisis when the government threw its weight behind the Saudi-led camp in its attempts to isolate Qatar.

In the last couple of years, Asmara has also given the cold shoulder to this bloc’s regional rivals. It has cut off military and diplomatic relations with Iran, whose nuclear programme Afwerki had publicly defended in 2009, and snubbed Turkey in its attempts to extend its influence in the Horn. At the same time, Afwerki has visited Egypt, an affiliate of the Arab axis, on several occasions and supported Cairo in its diplomatic row with Ethiopia and Sudan regarding the Nile waters.

Peace with Ethiopia

All these foreign policy changes have been significant for Eritrea. But perhaps the most momentous shift has been its rapprochement with Ethiopia after twenty years of hostility. Beginning this June, the two neighbours ended their long-standing stalemate and promised to open a new chapter of peace.

This understandably rocked the region. The conflict has cast a shadow over the Horn of Africa for two decades. Ethiopia has used the dispute to encourage others to isolate Eritrea. Meanwhile, Afwerki has used Ethiopian hostility as a pretext for widespread prohibitions on freedoms, the banning of the free press, and the imposition of indefinite military service at home.

Following the announcement of peace, and Ethiopia’s calls for the UN to lift sanctions on its neighbour, it was understandable that many were excited an opening up of Eritrea might be in the offing.

However, there are reasons to be sceptical this change is coming.

Change abroad, change at home?

Firstly, this development is related to Eritrea’s broader relations across the Red Sea, and therefore the dynamics and interests these contain.

As documented in the Thin Red Line series, the Red Sea has regained its geopolitical significance recently with rival powers scrambling for strategic footprints on the sea’s western shores. Different competing blocs have built allegiances – bolstered by attractive economic deals – from Egypt down to Somalia, gaining leverage over many of their new partners. Some African countries, most notably Ethiopia, have been able to stay independent in the face of this attention, but others have struggled. Eritrea has clearly thrown in its lot with the Saudi bloc to which it is reliant and indebted.

These patrons, however, have little interest in Eritrea undergoing reforms, which might risk its internal instability. After all, the Gulf’s engagement is not based on principles but self-interest. For various reasons, a rapprochement between Addis Ababa and Asmara was deemed to serve these interests; Emirati leaders notably met with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Afwerki on several occasions in the run-up to the announcement of peace. But democratisation in Eritrea is unlikely to. In fact, the opposite may be true.

In this way, Eritrea and Ethiopia’s peace can be seen as part of wider Red Sea dynamics, rivalries and interests being projected onto the Horn, which are more likely to raise tensions in an already volatile region than encourage democratisation.

Secondly, the reality is that as long as Afwerki remains at the helm, it is difficult to see genuine reforms happening. For a whole generation, the president has suspended Eritrea’s democratisation and cracked down on any dissenters in order to maintain his rule.

Former foreign minister Petros Solomon, a member of the G-15 opposition who disappeared in 2001, once claimed that Afwerki’s foreign policy was erratic and that the ministry’s main job was simply to do damage control. But this underplays the underlying logic of the president’s approach to foreign relations, which has mostly been about his own survival. Previously, hostility with Ethiopia served this purpose. Under new circumstances, Afwerki has deemed that a UAE-brokered peace is advantageous. But the ultimate motivation is the same.

Eritrea’s lucrative alliances with powers across the Red Sea may have precipitated some sweeping changes in its foreign policy, but they have also bolstered the president’s position domestically. In fact, rather than pushing for change, they have given him a new lifeline. Afwerki’s new partnerships have allowed him to avoid the economic and political liberalisation that Western donors or continued misery might have demanded, and they have fortified his security and military base against direct threats or internal demands for reforms.



Peace prospects are much higher in the Horn of Africa. But obstacles remain

by Martin Plaut
September 11, 2018 8.15am BST


1.     Martin Plaut

Senior Research Fellow, Horn of Africa and Southern Africa, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study

Disclosure statement

Martin Plaut is affiliated with the Commonwealth Institute of the University of London, the Royal African Society and Chatham House.

    Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (left) and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki re-opening the Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa.EPA-EFE/Stringer It’s just five months since Abiy Ahmed took overas Ethiopian Prime Minister yet the pace of change in the Horn of Africa has been simply staggering. Insuperable obstacles have been swept away. So many hurdles have been vaulted that it’s difficult to keep track.

First, Ethiopia and Eritrea ended years of hostilities. And just two months after Abiy’s first path-breaking visit to Eritrea meetings have been held in Djiboutito try and eliminate some of the major international problems besetting the region.

The background to the Djibouti mission was the conflict between Eritrea and Djibouti that erupted in 2008. For many years it was unresolved and there was a serious source of tension in the region. The Djibouti-Eritrea issue was also the reason why United Nations sanctions against Eritrea were not lifted – despite UN monitors declaringthat Eritrea was no longer aiding the Somali Islamist group, Al-Shabaab.

The armed confrontations between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and between Eritrea and Djibouti, have now vanished in a puff of smoke. Or so it would appear.

It would be a mistake to ridicule what has been achieved. Eritrea seems to have genuinely dropped its hostility towards its southern and its eastern neighbour. But it’s also prudent to note the obstacles that remain.

Eritrea is still locked in a confrontation with its western neighbour, Sudan. In January Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir closed the country’s border with Eritrea, sending crack troops to patrol the frontier. The dispute was never officially explainedand seems to have been parked for now. But others remain.

Abiy is aware that a lot still needs to be done. As he put it recently:

When the time came both peoples Eritrea and Ethiopia woke up from their sleep and said enough is enough and brought back their peace. The next question will be not about who contributed how much to the peace deal, it should be on how to keep and sustain the peace, because the peace needs to be maintained. So, all people have to work together to sustain it.

In addition, for the peace efforts to stick both Ethiopia and Eritrea must complete internal reforms. Abiy has pushed Ethiopia much further down the road of reform while Eritrea still has a long way to go. Consolidating democracy and internal peace building will be needed if the dramatic pace of change is to hold in the region.

What still needs to be done

As Abiy rightly says, a great deal still needs to be done to sustain the peace. People and villages all along the Ethiopian border need to be assigned to their respective countries, as the new border comes into force. Tens of thousands of troops will have to be withdrawn from the trenches they have inhabited since the end of the border war of 1998–2000. A host of customs arrangements and immigration issues must be resolved. This is the hard graft that needs to follow the handshakes and smiles of the leaders.

Then there are internal reforms in both Ethiopia and Eritrea that have to be addressed if peace and security are to be consolidated.

Ethiopia has made considerable progress on this front. Journalists have been freed from jail, the internet restrictions lifted and media regulations relaxed. Political prisoners have been released and opposition leaders have come home.

Even hardline rebels based in Eritrea have returned. Berhanu Nega, the elected mayor of Addis Ababa, who fled into exilein the US, has arrived home. Speaking to the BBChe described Ethiopia as

a fundamentally changed country.

These developments have transformed the atmosphere in the capital. But in the rest of Ethiopia there are still major issues confronting the government. More than two million people have been displaced in recent ethnic clashes. The Tigrayans, who ruled the country after seizing the capital in 1991, are smarting from their loss of influence.

Still some way to go in Eritrea

In Eritrea there have only been the most feeble of moves towards reform. Bloomberg reported that the government is “definitely studying”the possibility of demobilisation of its vast army of national service conscripts. In an interview the Minister for Labour and Human Welfare Luul Gebreab said:

Definitely a small army will remain, and the others will concentrate on the developmental work as planned.

When this might take place is not clear.

On other reforms, including the implementation of the country’s constitution, the freeing of political prisoners and the lifting of the ban on independent media and all opposition political parties, there is a stony silence from the Eritrean government.

Herman Cohen, the former US Secretary of State for African Affairs who brokered an end to the Eritrean-Ethiopian War in 1991 has offered encouragement. He has has argued that President Isaias “should not fear a more open Eritrea system. Now would be a good time to start the process.”

There are no signs of this taking place and as a result no drop in the number of Eritreans fleeing to neighbouring Ethiopia. The UN Refugee agency registered 1,738 in July this year – very much on trend with previous years.

Welcome developments

The developments between states in the Horn of Africa are clearly very welcome. The question now is whether they can be translated into reality on the ground, and whether the international developments will be reflected in internal reforms.

Once both of these steps have been taken it would be possible to conclude that the region has truly been transformed.

Martin Plaut | September 11, 2018 at 7:41 am | Tags: Eritrea Ethiopia, Horn of Africa | Categories: News | URL:

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