Managing Ethiopia’s Unsettled Transition

Friday, 22 February 2019 01:07 Written by

MapWhat’s new? Ethiopia’s new premier, Abiy Ahmed Ali, has made peace with Eritrea, extended a conciliatory hand to opponents, and promised moves to free and fair elections, expanded political space and economic reform. But amid the exhilarating changes, insecurity proliferates, the number of internally displaced people mounts and the economy struggles.

Why does it matter? Abiy’s bold moves have won plaudits from Ethiopians who have been protesting for change since 2014 and from donors who are eager to see democratic reform. But he now must make changes to his governance style in order to defuse ethnic and communal tensions and garner support for critical reforms.

What should be done? In seeking to restore security and calm ethnic tensions, Abiy should govern more inclusively, working collaboratively with state institutions on reforms and involving civil society in reconciliation efforts. He should also begin preparing for the 2020 elections (ensuring broad political support for any violence-related delays) and focus on economic modernisation

Executive Summary

After four years of street protests, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) elected Abiy Ahmed Ali prime minister on 2 April 2018. For many Ethiopians Abiy is a breath of fresh air. He admits the ruling coalition’s shortcomings, pledges reform, preaches unity and has made peace with Ethiopia’s old foe, Eritrea. Yet if Abiy has raised enormous expectations, he also faces daunting challenges. Insecurity has intensified and proliferated across the country, with communal violence tearing at the multi-ethnic fabric of Ethiopian society. Regional leaders demand more power. The economy is on life support, with foreign debt in excess of $24 billion, many young people without jobs and an old guard resistant to reform. There are no easy fixes for these challenges, but Abiy can give himself the best odds by focusing on three priorities – working to stop communal conflict, preparing for 2020 elections and reforming the dangerously weak economy.

The crisis that led to Abiy’s assumption of power was years in the making. Protests broke out in 2014 over discrimination against the Oromo – the country’s largest ethnic group – and spread to other groups, especially the Amhara, its second largest. Discontent with tough socio-economic conditions, as well as with the ruling party’s 27 years in power and its domination by a small, mostly Tigrayan, elite, was already widespread. The EPRDF, weakened by factional quarrels after the August 2012 death of strongman Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, struggled to contain the unrest. Meles’s successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, veered from cabinet reshuffles and political prisoner releases to crackdowns including new arrests of opposition leaders and demonstrators. In October 2016, a state of emergency brought temporary calm, but the protesters’ demands for political reform and socio-economic improvements still largely went unmet.

On 15 February 2018, Hailemariam resigned. By then the EPRDF elite – and especially its Tigrayan component – had lost its grip. With power dispersed among the security sector’s upper echelons, who were divided over whether to reform or protect the status quo, the EPRDF proved unable to steer the battle for succession. The Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, one member of the EPRDF coalition, stepped most assertively into the breach. Backed – in a break from tradition – by the Amhara National Democratic Movement, another EPRDF party, it propelled the Oromo nominee, Abiy Ahmed Ali, into the premiership. At age 42, Abiy is considerably younger than the old guard and, with the sympathy of many protesters, he appears well suited to the task of assuaging the grievances of the country’s neglected groups.

Changes during Abiy’s first months in office have been fast-paced. Abroad, he has signed a peace deal with Ethiopia’s long-time enemy Eritrea, while strengthening ties with other neighbours and with influential Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with whom relations were previously fraught. At home, he has sent long-serving politicians and security officials into overdue retirement and detained others. He has assembled a media-savvy team to disseminate an inclusive message, condemning the EPRDF’s past abuses and promising free and fair elections and a more legitimate and inclusive political system. In order to reduce the country’s crushing debt, he has vowed to open up the state-dominated economy – a major shift from the developmental state model espoused by Meles. Hopes in Ethiopia are high.

At the top of the new prime minister’s priority list must be the restoration of security through calming ethnic tension and violence.

So far, Abiy has set in motion important reforms, but enormous obstacles remain. Many Ethiopians are impatient for change. Communal violence has spread with an intensity unprecedented in the past quarter-century. Ethnic militias are proliferating. Unrest in the capital in September 2018 left at least 58 dead and led Abiy to cancel a trip to the UN General Assembly’s opening week. Within the ruling party, no consensus exists on how to tackle the country’s many challenges. Factions both inside and outside the EPRDF disagree over how much power should be devolved to federal regions and, as Abiy avoids taking a position, regional leaders jostle for greater autonomy, often under pressure from ethnic hardliners. Abiy himself contends with growing nationalist sentiment among his own Oromo constituents, many of whom expect him to serve their interests above those of others. For now, generous Gulf donations are keeping the economy afloat, but sky-high national debt means that Abiy at some point will have to embark upon belt-tightening.

At the top of the new prime minister’s priority list must be the restoration of security through calming ethnic tension and violence. To encourage a positive national tone, Abiy should develop a governance style that matches his inclusive rhetoric. Working with ministries and the civil service to develop the reforms that they will implement can help dispel the impression shared by some that he is governing from a closed circle of co-ethnic and co-religionist advisers. It also can reenergise a bureaucracy that has been adrift. To improve prospects for a planned national reconciliation process, the prime minister should invite civil society – particularly the Inter-Religious Council, a multi-faith group that promotes dialogue among various segments of society – to play a bigger role. Elders, too, should take a more prominent part. The latter two groups may enjoy greater credibility in stimulating frank dialogue at the grassroots level over issues driving violence, including border disputes and perceptions of injustice – historical and more recent – since they are not direct players in forthcoming electoral campaigns.

There are other priorities, too. With the 2020 elections fast approaching (and local elections due in mid-2019), the administration has precious little time to prepare, and the same is true of a raft of political parties that have never before had the opportunity to participate in a credible election. Donors should work collaboratively with authorities and the incipient local civil society movement to help surmount formidable logistical challenges, including ensuring a transparent voter registration process that does not exclude those who have been displaced by violence from their homes. Abiy should reach out to the opposition to agree on a dispute resolution framework ahead of the vote. This step might minimise the temptation of those unhappy with the outcome to resort to violence.

Lastly, the prime minister will need to institute comprehensive economic reforms: creating opportunities for greater domestic and foreign investment; streamlining regulation; breaking up inefficient state monopolies; carrying out banking reform to free up lending to the private sector; increasing manufacturing and agricultural productivity and revitalising the long-neglected small and medium-sized enterprise segment of the economy. All these measures will be critical to begin producing jobs for the burgeoning population.

For their part, Ethiopia’s international partners should, through a coordination mechanism, support his reform efforts with quiet counsel and the substantial financial aid needed to breathe new life into an economy whose pre-existing weaknesses have been compounded by five years of unrest and capital flight. They should disburse these funds as soon as possible to help the new administration address festering grievances over mass youth unemployment, which some leaders exploit to drive violence. All the while, they should keep in mind the dangers of an overly rapid transition and advise Abiy to adopt policies that favour long-term stability.

What happens in Ethiopia matters well beyond its borders. It is Africa’s second most populous country and one of its largest. It is also one of its more geopolitically significant – the only major country on the continent to have escaped colonialism and the seat of the African Union. Abiy’s drive to introduce more legitimate and inclusive governance in this prominent nation bucks a trend toward authoritarianism in the region and is closely watched across the continent and further afield. The stakes are high. If the experiment succeeds, the result could offer a powerful example to others. Failure – and especially a further turn into large-scale ethnic violence – would have major negative implications for an already unsettled region. The hope is that Abiy can create a more open and prosperous society, with benefits for Ethiopia and the region. This will require that the government bring under control the forces the transition has unleashed.

Nairobi/Brussels, 21 February 2019 


February 21, 2019 Ethiopia, News

Source: Financial Times

It is the compound from which Emperor Menelik II conquered swaths of territory, where Haile Selassie passed judgment until he was toppled by a Marxist revolt in 1974, and from which Meles Zenawi, strongman prime minister until his death in 2012, plotted an Asian-style economic miracle on the Nile.

Surveying the same 40-hectare plot in the centre of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, Abiy Ahmed, the most talked-about leader in Africa, sets out his grand plans for transforming Ethiopia. In an act of political theatre, he leads the FT on a tour of the prime ministerial grounds, from Menelik’s cathedral-sized banqueting hall to the cages where the emperor kept lions and the dungeon where he had disloyal generals and ministers tortured on the rack.

In Mr Abiy’s first one-on-one interview with the international media since he was catapulted to the premiership last April, he alternates between homespun prophet, hard man and visionary leader. He mixes humour with a tactile arm-grab worthy of LBJ. His sentences, delivered in proficient English, are laced with biblical references, big data and Michael Jackson.

Committed to opening up Ethiopia’s closed political system, he is fascinated by the nature of popularity. “If you change this,” says Mr Abiy, gesturing to the rubble-strewn compound and the rapidly changing skyline in the capital beyond, “you can change Addis. And if you can change Addis, definitely you can change Ethiopia.”

Improving his own surroundings, he says, is a metaphor for the transformation of a country that has, for 15 years, been the best-performing economy in Africa, but whose authoritarian government provoked a sustained popular uprising.

On his first day, he says, he ordered an overhaul of his office. In two months, what had been a dark and austere interior became a blindingly white luxury-hotel-style affair, replete with wall-to-wall videoconferencing screens, modern art and sleek white rooms for cabinet meetings and visiting delegations.

Cluttered storage rooms are now pulsing data banks and the ground floor is a California-style café — white, of course — where the premier’s mostly western-educated young staffers can sit and brainstorm. “I want to make this office futuristic. Many Ethiopians see yesterday. I see tomorrow,” he says. “This place has gone from hell to paradise.”

The youngest leader in Africa at 42, Mr Abiy is building a digital museum to celebrate Ethiopia’s history, a mini-Ethiopian theme park and a zoo with 250 animals. He envisages thousands of paying visitors coming each day.

“This is a prototype of the new Ethiopia,” says the former army intelligence officer and software engineer. “I have done so many great things compared to many leaders. But I didn’t do 1 per cent of what I am dreaming.”

His words may sound boastful, not to say arrogant, the sorts of qualities that have led many a leader in the past to cultivate a cult of personality.

The recent precariousness of the country should also give pause for thought: only a year ago, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the four-party coalition Mr Abiy leads, faced an almost existential crisis and there was even talk of a civil war. Yet Mr Abiy’s first 10 months in office have been remarkable by the yardstick of any leader around the world.

In that time, he has overseen the swiftest political liberalisation in Ethiopia’s more than 2,000-year history. He has made peace with Eritrea; freed 60,000 political prisoners, including every journalist previously detained; unbanned opposition groups once deemed terrorist organisations; and appointed women to half his cabinet.

He has pledged free elections in 2020 and made a prominent opposition activist head of the electoral commission. In a country where government spies were ubiquitous, people feel free to express opinions that a year ago would have had them clapped in jail.

“He says the most unbelievable things and then he ends up doing them,” says Blen Sahilu, a lawyer and women’s rights activist, referring partly to the unexpected peace treaty with Eritrea that brought an end to more than 20 years of military stand-off. “In many ways, Abiy has been a shock to the system,” she says. “I’m still waiting to see whether the country can sustain that much change in such a short period of time and if these actions have a thoughtful follow-up strategy.”

Mr Abiy’s emergence has unleashed opportunity and danger in equal measure. Some fear that rapid liberalisation could spin out of control, leading to anarchy or violent ethnic separatism.

“It was a given that the euphoria was not going to last,” says Tsedale Lemma, editor in chief of Addis Standard, a website she edits from Germany. “Everyone is waking up to the grim reality that the previous EPRDF administration has left behind,” she says, referring to the four-party coalition that has ruled with a vice-like grip since 1991.

The EPRDF’s track-record was not all bad. For nearly 15 years, the economy had been growing at more than 10 per cent annually, according to official statistics. Even if overstated, growth has propelled a nation long associated with famine from an $8bn minnow at the turn of the century to an $80bn economy that has surpassed Kenya as the biggest in east Africa.

Driven by former prime minister Meles’s vision of a South Korean or Chinese-style “developmental state”, the government poured money into roads, giant dams, agriculture, health and education.

Life expectancy has risen from 40 when the EPRDF took over by force in 1991 to 65. Ethiopia came to be seen by international agencies as a model of authoritarian development and Africa’s best hope of emulating the sort of economic and social transformation engineered in Asia.

But development came at a cost.

In a country with more than 80 ethnic groups, resentment built up against the Tigrayans, who comprise only 6 per cent of the 105m population but who were seen as dominating power.

That resentment was particularly strong among the Oromo, who make up roughly a third of the population, but who have long felt marginalised. The crisis intensified after 2015 when the EPRDF rigged an election so completely it ended up with every parliamentary seat.

Oromia, which surrounds Addis Ababa, erupted in violent protests, some of which targeted the foreign investments and industrial parks at the heart of the administration’s modernisation push.

In an unusual coalition, the Oromo were joined by the Amhara, who make up about a quarter of Ethiopians, and who had been used to running the country until the Tigrayans muscled in.

The EPRDF responded with repression, imposing states of emergency, throwing tens of thousands of people into prison and shooting hundreds, perhaps thousands, of protesters.

Last February, amid talk of civil war, Hailemariam Desalegn, the ineffectual prime minister who had succeeded Meles in 2012, resigned, paving the way for a succession struggle within the EPRDF. Mr Abiy, who was then deputy president of the Oromia region, emerged the winner after two days of heated debate.

Over the objections of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, one of the parties in the coalition, he was elected EPRDF chairman and hence prime minister, the first from Oromia in the nation’s history.

“I knew when they kept insulting me that I had won,” he says. “I ignored it and wrote my acceptance speech.”

Growing up poor, with a Muslim Oromo father and a Christian Amhara mother, in retrospect Mr Abiy seemed destined for the job. He even speaks Tigrinya after spending time as a young soldier in Tigray province.

Indeed, he claims he knew from the age of seven that he would one day lead the country. Stefan Dercon, professor of economic policy at Oxford university’s Blavatnik School of Government, says Mr Abiy’s historic task is to complete the economic transformation that Meles began.

If South Korea’s miracle took 25 years, he says, “Ethiopia has completed half a miracle”.

Mr Abiy must now oversee the political and economic liberalisation needed, he says, to keep rapid levels of growth going for a decade or more, which would bring the country comfortably into middle-income status.

“Meles was too controlling, like Mao,” says Mr Dercon, who knew the feared but respected Ethiopian leader. “But command and control only works so far. That makes Abiy like Deng Xiaoping,” he says, referring to the Chinese leader whose opening and reform from 1979 propelled China’s economic lift-off.

While Mr Abiy remains wildly popular, particularly in the capital, not everything has gone his way.

He has faced one assassination attempt. And on October 10, a cadre of junior officers forced their way into the compound demanding to be heard. “I showed them I was a soldier,” he recalls. “I told them, if something wrong happens, you can’t kill me before I kill five or six of you.”

He followed up with a macho burst of press-ups. Inside an hour, the incipient coup was over.

Such bravado aside, Mr Abiy must grapple with two challenges that would test even the most gifted of leaders.

The first is political.

With censorship lifted and formerly outlawed groups unbanned, some people are demanding greater autonomy for their ethnically constituted regions. Armed militia are forming and youth gangs are carrying out vigilante attacks.

Some 1.2m people were displaced in the first half of last year, although Mr Abiy says many of them have since returned home. The prime minister hints he would like to tinker with the 1994 constitution, which some see as exacerbating ethnic rivalries but others regard as enshrining their rights.

Such delicate changes, he adds, cannot be contemplated until he receives a hoped-for popular mandate in elections scheduled for next year. Some think the timing will slip. He would also like to move to a presidential system in which leaders are directly elected, he says, rather than the current indirect process conducted through an EPRDF-dominated parliament.

While the prime minister preaches “unity of the nation and national pride”, the notion of a greater Ethiopia grates with those pressing for more regional autonomy. He has also moved against generals and officials from the TPLF in what many in Tigray province interpret as an assault, not on the corruption of party cadres, but on Tigrayans themselves.

“Every region has its own reason to fight for the continuation of the current federal system,” says Ms Lemma of the Addis Standard.

“This is very dangerous. Abiy is stuck between a rock and a hard place,” she adds, referring to his need to unite the country and to satisfy demands for regional autonomy.

The prime minister professes to be unfazed by the forces he has unleashed. “Yesterday they were on the streets of Mekelle insulting me,” he says, referring to the Tigrayan capital. “But I love that. That is democracy.”

Mr Abiy says he wants to secure peace by persuasion, not through military pacification. “Negative peace is possible as long as you have a strong army. We are heading to positive peace,” he says.

Ultimately, Mr Abiy says, tensions will dissolve if the economy keeps expanding. “When you grow, you don’t have time for these communal issues.”

Keeping growth on track, he says, depends on dealing with past constraints, including debt and a seemingly perpetual foreign exchange crisis that puts import cover at barely two months. He also wants to tweak the Meles developmental model, where so much money was funnelled into public investment that the private sector got crowded out.

“Economically, we’re making big, big change, but the backlog is killing us. Today the debt is up to here,” he says, gesturing to his neck.

He has, he says, eased that situation by renegotiating commercial debt to concessional terms with China and others and by tapping states in the Gulf and the Middle East for loans and investment. Growth slowed to 7 per cent last year, though Mr Abiy suggests this owes more to a realistic assessment than to an actual slowdown.

Among his most critical challenges will be to decide how quickly to liberalise an economy that has produced impressive results, but also shown signs of running out of steam. Recommended Ethiopia Ethiopia arrests senior officials in corruption crackdown

Describing himself as “capitalist”, he nevertheless cites Meles as saying it is the government’s job to correct market failures. “The economy will grow naturally, but you have to lead it in a guided manner.”

Still, unlike Meles, Mr Abiy is less wedded to the idea that the state must control the economy’s commanding heights. He is moving swiftly towards privatisation of the telecoms sector in an exercise that should raise billions of dollars, as well as modernising a network that has fallen badly behind African peers.

Here too there are risks. “I need to realise the privatisation with zero corruption,” he says, adding that people who have stashed money abroad want to launder it back into the country.

Successful privatisation of telecoms could potentially lead to a similar exercise in energy and shipping, as well as sugar refineries and, most controversially, the successful national airline that has turned Addis Ababa into a continental hub. Mr Abiy says that, for the moment at least, he draws the line at banking.

“The biggest challenge for Abiy is not politics. It is jobs, jobs, jobs,” says Zemedeneh Negatu, an Ethiopian banker. With 800,000 students in university or college and 2.5m Ethiopians being born each year, lack of opportunity could quickly catalyse unrest, he adds.

A rally in support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa last July. It was later hit by an explosion As Mr Abiy steers through the political and economic rocks, one concern is that he could join a long line of once promising African leaders who turned authoritarian.

“Most of the dictators, including Mugabe [in Zimbabwe] and [Libya’s] Gaddafi, came as liberators,” says Befequadu Hailu, a blogger and activist, who was regularly jailed and beaten under the previous administration. “They ended up consolidating power in their own hands.”

Mr Abiy brushes aside such concerns, saying he will happily leave power if the people reject him. “I am sure I can’t be here eternally. I don’t know when, but I want to leave this office.” Still, another voice tells him that he has a once-in-a generation opportunity to etch his name in Ethiopian history.

“I will be popular if I lift 60m-70m people out of poverty,” he says. “If I do that, whether I like it or not, you will magnify my name.”


February 21, 2019 News

Will Peace With Ethiopia Usher In a Political Opening in Eritrea?

Tanja Müller Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019

Source: World Politics Review

Back in July 2016, I was invited to a gathering late one night at a popular bar in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. The gathering was a traditional and quite elaborate coffee ceremony, the kind typically held in the afternoon in most Eritrean or Ethiopian households in order to discuss the day’s events. It had been organized by a group of young people, mostly women.

The crowd of about 12 people in the backroom of the bar was visibly joyful; they giggled as they passed around a mobile phone that contained pictures of one of their close friends, a young woman I’ll call Asmeret. Three months earlier, Asmeret had embarked on a dangerous journey out of Eritrea: Despite not having a passport or a visa, she had managed to cross the border into Sudan and, through trafficking networks, had made it across the Mediterranean.

The photos showed Asmeret smiling after having arrived safely in Germany, her destination. Still wearing clothes more evocative of Eritrea than her new home, she looked happy and wary at the same time. It seemed like the fact that she had made it—out of Eritrea, to Germany—had begun to sink in, but along with that realization came uncertainty about her life ahead. The coffee ceremony had been organized to celebrate her success, and her friends told me that, because I was a German citizen, my presence made it all the more special.

Such ceremonies have become a common feature of daily life in the past decade—not just in Asmara but across the country. Too many of Eritrea’s young people take the route into exile. While concrete figures are not always easy to come by, the United Nations refugee agency reported in 2017 that the ninth-largest refugee population worldwide originated from Eritrea. In addition to the ceremonies marking someone’s successful arrival, there are also the mourning ceremonies that happen with only a little less frequency, organized after friends and relatives in Eritrea get word that a loved one has drowned in the Mediterranean, or been kidnapped in Libya or the Sinai.

Over the years, as a researcher who began working in the early 1990s in what was then post-liberation Eritrea, I’ve gotten to know numerous Eritreans whose loved ones have made the decision to leave. The most common reasons for this outflow are, for many, the inability to fulfill their aspirations due to mandatory national service and the lack of economic opportunities. There is also the lure of greener pastures elsewhere, which is particularly strong in a country like Eritrea that boasts a big diaspora all over the world.

In the deeply divided global perception of Eritrean politics, there are competing interpretations as to the precise nature of the administration of President Isaias Afwerki, who has been de-facto head of state ever since Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia in 1991 and achieved de jure independence in 1993, following a 30-year war for independence. Eritrea is often simply described as a brutal dictatorship that needs to be toppled. However, others see this as a gross misunderstanding of the Eritrean polity and advocate in favor of more constructive engagement on the part of the international community to, in the words of former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen “bring Eritrea in from the cold.”

But there is one point that almost everyone agrees on: The border war with Ethiopia that broke out in 1998, and the stalemate that prevailed for nearly two decades after, have played a huge role in shaping Eritrea’s short history as an independent state. The war was on the face of it caused by a dispute over a small piece of barren land around the hamlet of Badme, and quickly escalated into an all-out trench war along the border between the countries. It was also driven by diverging economic policies and conceptions of identity.

While Ethiopia gained the upper hand in the subsequent bouts of fighting, both sides agreed to a cessation of hostilities agreement in 2000 and demarcation of the entire common border by an independent International Boundary Commission. The commission’s verdict was to be final and binding. When that commission awarded the by now symbolic hamlet of Badme to Eritrea, Ethiopia refused to acknowledge its findings, and a “no war, no peace” stalemate ensued. The oft-repeated view from Asmara became, with some justification, that instead of standing up to Ethiopian intransigence in defying a ruling that was to end hostilities, the international community accommodated Ethiopia and vilified Eritrea.

The war had myriad repercussions for economic and political developments within Eritrea. The ruling party increasingly captured all economic activity starting with the quasi-nationalization of the construction industry. Politically, any form of dissent from within the ruling elite, or from independent media outlets that had only just sprung up, was crushed, and any moves toward elections or the implementation of a new constitution were put on hold. In essence, these developments turned Eritrea into a pariah state, sometimes referred to as “Africa’s North Korea,” known for repression and human rights violations of the gravest nature. The effect was to reinforce a feeling on the part of Eritreans that they were being let down by the international community once again—perpetuating a pattern that dates back to when the Italians arrived in the 1930s.

Last year, however, the unexpected happened. Following more than a year of widespread anti-government protests, Abiy Ahmed was named prime minister of Ethiopia, and he quickly moved to make peace with Eritrea. His declaration in June 2018 that his country would finally implement the ruling of the boundary commission and withdraw Ethiopian troops from territory awarded to Eritrea initially took the government in Asmara by surprise. But after a few days of silence on the part of the Eritrean leadership, events started to unfold at great speed. Abiy and Afwerki visited one another’s capitals and made a host of symbolic gestures of friendship. They opened a regional hospital together in Bahir Dar in Ethiopia, for example, and Afwerki announced that he was reopening the Eritrean Embassy in Addis Ababa. Various joint visits to the once-contested border were seen as further proof of the leaders’ new closeness.

The past few months have been a time of profound change for Eritrea, even if those changes are not the sort that grab international headlines.

Much has been written about the significance of this breakthrough for the world beyond Eritrea’s borders. Afwerki, whose whereabouts had often been uncertain for long stretches even within his own country, was newly visible on the international stage, jetting across the Horn of Africa region for trips to Somalia and Djibouti. The role of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in facilitating the peace deal invited discussion of what it might mean for regional politics and stability.

Less attention has been paid to what the peace deal means for ordinary Eritreans. A number of commentators have arguedthat, in contrast to Ethiopia, where the pace of recent reforms has been described as nothing short of breathtaking, nothing much has changed in Eritrea. While the peace deal might have ushered in change in the economic realm, there are few signs of a political opening that many Eritreans dearly hope for.

Beneath An Intact Status Quo, Profound Change

There is some justification for the argument that the status quo in Eritrea remains intact. An initial announcement by the Eritrean government that it planned to end indefinite conscription, instead limiting tours of duty to the originally stipulated 18 months, seems to have come to nothing. And while Abiy made a bold move in releasing political prisoners and imprisoned journalists, Eritrea has done nothing of the sort. To the contrary, such arrests have continued: Berhane Abrehe, a former finance minister and one of the rare critical voices within the country, was arrested in Asmara in September.

This is a missed opportunity. The fact that the country was officially at war with Ethiopia had been used to justify the arrest of politicians and journalists, so the end of the war would have been a logical time to release them. Moreover, those in the large Eritrean diaspora who long to return but are reluctant because they are on record as having stated critical views of the government will have little reason to think they are welcome.

At the same time, there is no denying that the past few months have been a time of profound change for Eritrea, even if those changes are not the sort that grab international headlines. Some of the most fundamental of these changes can be witnessed at the border with Ethiopia, where I traveled to conduct research last October.

Throughout the conflict, the border was heavily militarized. But with the announcement of the peace deal, it transformed seemingly overnight into a far less formidable boundary, one that Eritreans could cross with ease, often without having to show any papers. While it has periodically been closed again for short periods, allegedly in order to manage the flow of people in both directions in a more controlled way, for the most part people have been able to move freely back-and-forth without much trouble.

One of the key crossings, Zalembassa, brings Eritreans to Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia. Before the 1998-2000 war, Mekelle was a backwater, but in the years since, substantial investment and development have transformed the city. It now has a modern university and various suburbs dominated by modern apartment blocks. The city center is dominated by pleasant tree-lined streets newly furnished with cobblestones and full of small local coffeehouses. Mekelle, like all of Ethiopia, has a young population and high youth unemployment rate, so many young people spend a good deal of time hanging out in these establishments drinking coffee.
These days, the city is even more filled with young people, many of them Eritrean, though detailed figures are hard to come by. A sizeable number have checked into hotels or found other accommodation in Mekelle, and from there tried, via relatives in the diaspora, to get visas to third countries. Others have united with relatives living in Ethiopia. Still more have made their way to Addis Ababa to try and start a business—nearly impossible in Eritrea, where the economy is tightly controlled—or to make new lives for themselves in other ways.

In addition, according to the U.N. refugee agency, the number of Eritreans registering to apply for refugee status around Mekelle in particular has increased dramatically since the border opening. Many are women and children following their husbands or other family members who crossed as refugees before the peace agreement, often to avoid military service or to seek economic opportunities.

However, not all these people are necessarily Eritreans. One Ethiopian researcher who studies migration and spoke to me on condition of anonymity says that many people who register with the U.N. are in fact Tigrayans posing as Eritreans because they think they’ll have a better chance of being selected for a resettlement program in the West. “I actually have a distant relative who went to Australia that way,” the researcher says. I have no means of verifying this claim, but I also have no reason to doubt it. One can easily imagine why would-be refugees, both Eritreans and Ethiopians, would try to take what they see as their last chance for resettlement, before political change potentially makes successful asylum claims more difficult.

Traditionally, Eritreans have a higher chance of being recognized as refugees than Ethiopians. While researching migration from the Horn of Africa to Tel Aviv, Israel, for instance, I learned that many Ethiopians pretend to be Eritreans to obtain the limited protection the Israeli state has offered. These stories underscore the frustration and despair typical of youth in the Horn, who see no future in their home countries and feel that migration is the only path to a better life.

The Double-Edged Sword of Economic Opportunity

During my stay in Mekelle, I encountered numerous Eritreans whose reasons for being there were more nebulous. They came out of simple curiosity, or to stock up on items that are difficult or impossible to get in Eritrea, or a combination of both. After a while, some came to do business as well. Mekelle now has a thriving market for used shoes and fashionable clothes run by Eritreans who bring their wares mainly from Asmara. Others hawk high-end electronic devices.

But most Eritreans who come to Mekelle to engage in commerce are interested in buying rather than selling. In the streets, Eritrean women excitedly speak into their mobile phones to contacts in Asmara, taking orders of all the things they are to buy and bring back home with them. On the side of the road one afternoon, I saw a group of five Eritreans attempting to put a newly purchased refrigerator in the trunk of their old Toyota Corolla, which is one of the most common cars in Eritrea. The fridge was clearly too big and would never fit, but that didn’t stop them from trying.

The most coveted goods to be brought back over the border into Eritrea are cement and other building materials. An Eritrean who I met in Mekelle told me that in recent years, it seemed like nobody in Eritrea could build anything because there were no available materials. Even the simplest projects, like a water tank, were out of reach. Now, suddenly, everything seems affordable, and people are excited to carry out long-dreamed-about projects.

The Eritrean government has not explained why it accepted Abiy’s peace offering, nor has it articulated its vision for what its relationship with Ethiopia should be.

For now, these new trade opportunities and economic exchanges are quite ad-hoc and unregulated. This lack of formalization of the ties between Ethiopia and Eritrea should be cause for some concern. After all, even though it was downplayed at the time, disagreements over trade and economic integration were key factors in the outbreak of the border war in 1998. One of the specific catalysts was the introduction of Eritrea’s currency, the Nakfa, at an exchange rate that was perceived as advantageous to Eritrea, because its higher value than the Ethiopian Birr meant Eritreans could suddenly buy goods much more cheaply from Ethiopia. On the streets of Mekelle today, where one can again exchange Nakfa for Ethiopian Birr, money changers complain that the Nafka is very expensive, with the exchange rate about 180 Birr for every 100 Nakfa. And while this might benefit some Ethiopian merchants, it has the potential to cause anger among the population at large, who feel Eritreans have been given unfair advantage—again.

As mentioned previously, the Mekelle of 2018 is dramatically different from the pre-war backwater of 1997. At the same time, like most parts of Eritrea, it experiences frequent blackouts and electricity shortages. The day I left, there were long queues at gas stations, and my taxi driver, an Ethiopian, told me that gas was often in short supply. He says this was because gas was being sold to Eritrea, where shortages were even bigger, “but nobody has asked us what we think of that.”

Whether or not this is true, it was a reminder of the hostility that Ethiopians and Eritreans can sometimes have for each other—something that was on display even before the war. Back in 1997, shortly before the war broke out, I crossed the border at Zalembassa into the Ethiopian town of Adigrat with acquaintances from the Eritrean diaspora who were also traveling with German passports. Those of us with foreign passports encountered no problems at the crossing, but other Eritreans on the same bus were harassed by the border guards, belying the amicable relationship that officials at the time were insisting the two countries enjoyed.

The Competing Narratives of War and Peace

Today, people on both sides of the border seem to value the new opening, including the economic opportunities it has brought. But some of the discourse—and the absence of discourse—around the peace agreement should give us pause. On the Eritrean side, for instance, no public discussion has taken place about the thaw in relations with Ethiopia. The government has not explained its rationale for accepting Abiy’s peace offering, nor has it articulated its vision for what its relationship with Ethiopia should be.

Meanwhile, some in the Eritrean diaspora are dismissive of the peace agreement, accusing Afwerki of wanting to reintegrate Eritrea into a federal state with Ethiopia, thereby eradicating the heroic history of the Eritrean struggle for independence.

Even those who are in general supportive of peace with Ethiopia and relieved that the stalemate has finally come to an end have their doubts about the wider agenda of a government that seems to have become more secretive—particularly when it comes to relations with Ethiopia, other regional actors and the Gulf Arab states—rather than more open since the peace agreement was signed.

The Eritrean narrative of the stalemate of the past 20 years, but also the outbreak of war in 1998 in the first place, places the blame for the conflict solely on hard-liners in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front—one of the parties in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition and, until the death of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 2012, the dominant one. This interpretation, which has also been taken up by some commentators, is deeply ahistorical and one-sided, as it neglects the complexity of Ethiopia as a multi-ethnic federation whose different constituencies have very different political outlooks and approaches toward—and linkages with—Eritrea.

I did not find anyone in Mekelle repeating such propaganda. Rather, I witnessed a generally positive process in which people who had been separated by political dynamics were trying to come to terms with one another’s presence again. Because the actual border demarcation is still to be undertaken—a demarcation that in theory could separate families and communities straddling the frontier—this process of mutual habituation is important in order to mitigate potential tensions and maintain peace. Afwerki might have been alluding to this when he reportedly remarked in an interview that the demarcation itself is not the most important issue the two countries face.

Ultimately, while many Eritreans view the peace agreement as the result of a top-down decision by Afwerki made without any public consultation, they nonetheless cherish the peace and have embraced it. At the same time, while people in Eritrea seem better off economically and more goods are available in the shops, there is a widespread feeling that this is necessary but insufficient. As one acquaintance in Mekelle told me, “We did not want peace to buy more products.” Instead, Eritreans were hoping for political change, implementation of the constitution, and the release of political prisoners as seen in Ethiopia. Ultimately, they want a say in how their country should be governed in the future.

‘Change Must Come’

Thus far there is no indication of a move toward a more democratic form of government, nor are there signs that Afwerki plans to enact the constitution that was shelved in 1997, officially due to the outbreak of war in early 1998. Were it enacted, independent media could once more emerge, elections would eventually be held, and many rights and freedoms would be guaranteed—at least on paper.

While the Eritrean government might for now bank on the widespread relief that peace has finally come and put off making real concessions, a failure to create more accountable structures of government means there will be no repairing the relationship between many Eritreans and the country’s leadership. Without such an internal realignment, the high rates of Eritrean out-migration are unlikely to diminish substantially, and coffee ceremonies like the one I witnessed for Asmeret in 2016 will remain frequent occurrences.

One day in Mekelle, I met a man I’ll call Abraham, a former Eritrean solider who fought not far from Zalembassa during the war. He had just returned from the border, and he said it was “very emotional” to see Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers leave their control posts and sit in bars on the Ethiopian side drinking beer together. Among nine siblings, he is the only one still living in Eritrea—the rest are in the diaspora. “I believe change will come, and I want to be part of it,” he told me. After a short pause, he added, “Change must come.”

Emotions are an important component of political developments, and in this case the emotions of the people on the ground, even if they were not asked or told about their leaders’ plans, have been quite overwhelming. While no institutions are in place in Eritrea that would pass the test of democratic accountability as commonly understood, the sense of joy and relief felt by so many people should not be underestimated. Something did really break free, and there is hope that this not only makes peace irreversible, but will also ultimately usher in wider political changes within Eritrea.

Tanja R. Müller is reader in Development Studies at the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester, U.K. She first traveled to Eritrea as a journalist in the mid-1990s and has subsequently taught at the University of Asmara. She has conducted research in and on Eritrea for more than 20 years, and published widely on aspirations and political space, as well as Eritrean foreign policy, in key academic journals.


Djibouti/Eritrea Consultations

Source: What’s in blue

Djibouti Eritrea border

Tomorrow afternoon (21 February), Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo is expected to brief Council members in consultations on Eritrea-Djibouti relations under the agenda item “Peace and Security in Africa”. The briefing is taking place in accordance with resolution 2444 of 14 November 2018, which requested the Secretary-General “to keep the Security Council informed of developments towards the normalisation of relations between Eritrea and Djibouti” by 15 February 2019 and every six months thereafter.  Among other things, that resolution also renewed sanctions on Somalia and lifted sanctions on Eritrea.

The lifting of sanctions on Eritrea was the culmination of regional political developments that unfolded since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a peace agreement in Asmara on 9 July, ending a 20-year conflict. Eritrea and Ethiopia further signed an Agreement on Peace, Friendship and Comprehensive Cooperation on 16 September, which was welcomed by Council members in a press statement (SC/13516). Ethiopia, then a Council member, advocated the lifting of sanctions on Eritrea, which helped inform the Council decision to do so in resolution 2444.

However, issues that led to the imposition of UN sanctions on Eritrea through resolution 1907 of 23 December 2009 remain unresolved, including the Djibouti-Eritrea border dispute and the fate of Djiboutian soldiers missing in action as a consequence of the 10-12 June 2008 skirmishes along the border. On 11 July 2018, Djibouti transmitted a letter to the Secretary-General (S/2018/687) expressing concern about these and other challenges in the relationship between Djibouti and Eritrea, while also welcoming the “latest developments regarding the protracted conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.”  The letter also expressed receptivity to “a good offices process facilitated by the Secretary-General, in collaboration with the Security Council…”.

A letter submitted to the Council on 18 February (S/2019/154) will most likely serve as the basis of DiCarlo’s briefing tomorrow. The letter maintains that Djibouti and Eritrea “have both expressed their satisfaction with the positive developments in the Horn of Africa and their interest in advancing peace and economic integration in the region.” It briefly assesses the position of the two countries with regard to their dispute. It says that Djibouti would like “its border dispute with Eritrea resolved through a binding international arbitration” and remains “concerned about the fate of its soldiers still missing as a result of the border clashes between Djibouti and Eritrea from 10 to 12 June 2008”. With regard to Eritrea, the letter states that it “has been keen to stress the complexity and difficulty of regional transformation and its determination to avoid errors…while emphasizing a holistic approach to the normalization of all inter-state relations in the Horn of Africa and hoping for more progress in this regard, including in its relations with Djibouti.”

The letter concludes on a positive note by maintaining that the parties have behaved responsibly along their border and have not employed negative rhetoric towards each other. Additionally, it outlines goodwill gestures being undertaken by the neighbours, including the resumption of flights between Asmara and Djibouti City.

Council members are likely to welcome efforts being made to help improve relations between Djibouti and Eritrea. In this regard, they may be interested in any information that DiCarlo has about the contacts that Ethiopia has had with Djibouti and Eritrea in an effort to promote the normalisation of relations between the two countries. They may also want to know if any mediation efforts are being undertaken by the UN Secretariat—and what role the Council could play to support such efforts—especially given the openness expressed by Djibouti in its 11 July 2018 letter to a mediation process facilitated by the Secretary-General in collaboration with the Council.

Ethiopian, Eritrean leaders set to sign detail deal

February 20, 2019 newbusinessethiopia

The leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea are set to formalize relations by signing detail cooperation agreements to boost economic relations focusing on trade regulations and infrastructural connectivity.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, are soon to seal a comprehensive cooperation agreement aimed at formalizing the two countries This is indicated by Ethiopian Ambassador to Eritrea, Redwan Hussein.

The two countries have been undertaking extensive discussions on ways to institutionalize the national and border trade. Discussions have also made on port usage, custom, immigration and transport linkages and the comprehensive agreement would be tabled for the respective leaders for approval, according to Ambassador Redwan who spoke to the state daily- The Ethiopian Herald.

“After Ethiopia and Eritrea endorsed the agreements by their legislative organs, they would establish a joint commission that supervise the execution of accords in such a way ensuring the mutual benefit of people of the two countries and putting the rapprochement in solid base,” Ambassador Redwan said.

After the two countries decided to end hostility about a year ago, they have opened borders allowing free movement of the people of the two countries. Since then The leaders of the two countries have also met several times while Ethiopian Airlines has also began flight to Eritrea after two decades.

With the aim of strengthen the people to people, a 63-member Eritrean Public Diplomacy and Cultural Group has been in Ethiopia. Similar delegation from Ethiopia is expected to travel to Asmara for similar cultural diplomacy.

Ethiopia and Eritrea wet to war in 1998. The two years long war has led to the death of tens of thousands of people on both sides and economic loses on both sides.


February 20, 2019 Ethiopia, News

Ethiopia and Eritrea need to demarcate their common border. This was recognised in the deal signed by both countries in Saudi Arabia last September.

Article Seven

The two countries will establish a High-Level Joint Committee, as well as Sub-committees as required, to guide and oversee the implementation of this Agreement.

But how should this be carried out?

If the Eritrean commentator, Sophia Tesfamariam, is any guide then the countries may be about to carry this out ‘virtually’ rather than using the traditional practice of planting concrete posts along the border.

Virtual mapping border

Sophia refers to an article she published in 2013 (see below). What is interesting about this is that it quotes President Isaias as demanding physical demarcation.  She uses a leaked American diplomatic cable, which states that: “Johanson and Isaias had spoken about “virtual demarcation” of the border, but Isaias had insisted that there be “stakes in the ground” before any dialogue with Ethiopia could begin.

The question is why “stakes in the ground” were needed in 2017, but are no longer required.

Source: From where I sit

Eritrea Ethiopia-Virtual Demarcation is Legal and Enforceable

It is hypocritical of the US Administration and its allies, to preach about the rule of law and human rights, while it has abused its international diplomatic and military influence to undermine the rights of the Eritrean people to live in peace within their own internationally recognized borders. It is also hypocritical to raise issues such as “prolonged national service”, “right to leave their country”, “excessive militarization” etc. etc. while it has encouraged the 12-year long occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories. Surely, the US and its allies cannot possibly believe that they are better poised to know what the people of Eritrea want and need…as there is no track record to prove it. There is instead is a 100 long and bloody history of subjugation and terror, of gross violations of their human rights, a denial of their rights to self-determination and independence, as they appeased successive Ethiopian regimes.

For today, let us re-visit the Eritrea Ethiopia border issue and specifically, the demarcation decisions of the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission which the US and its allies on the Security Council have decided to “kill” or put on the back burner, emboldening the minority regime in Ethiopia to continue with its occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories. As we shall see below, the “concerns” raised by the various states on the Security Council have been rendered moot, but more importantly the excuses made for not accepting the EEBC’s demarcation decisions, that there is no precedence, or that it is “legal nonsense” have been found to be disingenuous.

When the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) delivered its Final and Binding Delimitation Decision on 13 April 2002, Kofi Annan and the Security Council welcomed the Boundary Commission’s ruling, and hailed it as a “final legal settlement” of the Eritrea Ethiopia border dispute. Welcoming the decision as “an important milestone in the peace process”, Kofi Annan lauded the parties for their “continued and consistent reaffirmation” that the ruling was final and binding, in accordance with the Algiers Peace Agreement of December 2000. In its Press Statement read by Sergey Lavrov (Russian Federation), President of the Security Council, on the decision of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission on 16 April 2002 it said:

“…Members of the Security Council express their satisfaction that a final legal settlement of the border issues between Ethiopia and Eritrea has been completed in accordance with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed by the parties in Algiers in December 2000.Members of the Security Council welcome the decision by the Boundary Commission, announced in The Hague on 13 April 2002, which is final and binding. Members of the Security Council underline their commitment to support the implementation of the Boundary Commission’s decision and to contribute to the completion of the peace process…”

Eritrea accepted the verdict and while Ethiopia accepted it at first, only to turn around and reject it as being “illegal, unjust and irresponsible”. The EEBC had “unequivocally” awarded Badme (the casus bellie for the Eritrea Ethiopia border conflict) to Eritrea, and Ethiopia refused to accept that decision. That began a five year long campaign to amend, revise, re-visit and revise the EEBC’s decision. Ever since the independent Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission rendered its final and binding decision on 13 April 2002, the minority regime in Ethiopia and its handlers have been trying to amend, revise and revisit that decision.

After waiting for over 5 years, the EEBC, due to Ethiopia’s refusal to allow for the expeditious demarcation of the Eritrea Ethiopia border in accordance with the Final and Binding EEBC decision, the Commission closed its offices and left the area. The Commission in its November 2006 Statement said that it was “ obliged to adopt another approach to effect the demarcation of the border” and complete its mandate to demarcate the Eritrea Ethiopia by placing coordinates on maps “virtual demarcation”, as opposed to pillars on the ground. The EEBC, in its Statement of 27 November 2006 explained its methodology:

“…Modern techniques of image processing and terrain modelling make it possible, in conjunction with the use of high resolution aerial photography, to demarcate the course of the boundary by identifying the location of turning points (hereinafter called “boundary points”) by both grid and geographical coordinates with a degree of accuracy that does not differ significantly from pillar site assessment and emplacement undertaken in the field. The Commission has therefore identified by these means the location of points for the emplacement of pillars as a physical manifestation of the boundary on the ground… Although these techniques have been available for some time, the Commission has not resorted to them because the actual fixing of boundary pillars, if at all possible, was the demarcation method of first choice. However, it is only possible to demarcate a boundary by the fixing of boundary pillars with the full cooperation of both the States concerned…”

On the same day, the EEBC sent a letter to the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry. It was in response to a letter sent by the regime to the EEBC and circulated at the Security Council. In that letter the EEBC responded to Ethiopia’s tantrums by stating the following:

“…This was not the first time that the Security Council has called on Ethiopia to fulfil its obligations in respect of the Demarcation Decision. Nor is Ethiopia’s failure to respond positively to such a call the first time that it has disregarded the call of the Security Council. It is a matter of regret that Ethiopia has so persistently maintained a position of non-compliance with its obligations in relation to the Commission… There is no basis for the suggestion that the Commission has been appeasing Eritrea. Nor can such a suggestion, however unfounded, obscure the fact that Ethiopia has itself been in breach of its obligations under the Algiers Agreement in several important respects…The truth of the matter appears to be that Ethiopia is dissatisfied with the substance of the Commission’s Delimitation Decision and has been seeking, ever since April 2002, to find ways of changing it… I regret that it has been necessary to address you in such direct terms but your letter — and the publicity that you have given it — have left me with no alternative. It would be unacceptable for an international tribunal to be exposed to the kind of criticism which you have lodged without replying to it in necessary detail…”

Ethiopia and its handlers conducted an orchestrated diplomatic blitz to stop the EEBC from moving forward with the new approach. As the American Embassy cables mentioned below show, there was never any genuine effort by the US and its partners to urge Ethiopia to abide by the rule of law. Instead, they promised to support Ethiopia’s intransigence and prevent the UN Security Council from taking any punitive actions against the belligerent regime. This undermines the credibility, integrity, neutrality and efficacy of the UN Security Council and undermines the confidence of member states who will rely on its judiciousness and impartiality in resolving border disputes in the future.

On 30 November 2007 speaking to Voice of America’s (VoA) Peter Heinlein about the “virtual demarcation” of the Eritrea Ethiopia border, Meles Zenawi said:

“…As far as the virtual demarcation of the boundary is concerned, I have heard well-respected diplomats and lawyers describe it as ‘legal nonsense’…Our lawyers agree with such characterization. Until the boundary is demarcated on the ground, it is not demarcated. As soon as it is demarcated, there will be relocation of administrations, police and so forth. But not before that. Only after actual demarcation on the ground. And we prefer to engage the Eritrean side in pushing forwards toward demarcation…”

Interesting that Meles Zenawi would insist on demarcation on the ground when it was his regime that prevented the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) from doing just that.

Meles Zenawi presumed to know more about the law than the distinguished members of the Boundary Commission and in a letter dated 27 November 2007, Ethiopia asserted that the demarcation coordinates set out in the Commission’s Statement of 27 November 2006 “are invalid because they are not the product of a demarcation process recognized by international law”.

Again, in its 18 January 2008 letter to the President of the Security Council Ethiopia claimed that virtual demarcation had “no validity in international law” and that the coordinates are invalid “because they are not the product of a demarcation process recognized by international law.” The regime’s lawyers and “respected diplomats” must know that while placing pillars is accepted practice, not all international borders are demarcated with pillars. New technologies bring new methods and approaches…As the EEBC said in its eloquent statement of 2006, “the feasibility and acceptability of the use of coordinates alone as a means of identifying international boundaries is clearly affirmed by the manner in which the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea deals with the limits of maritime claims by States.

Kathleen Claussen in “Invisible borders: Mapping out Virtual Law” dismisses Ethiopia’s arguments about precedence and legality of the approach used by the EEBC:

“…The actual process of carrying out all the calculations and measurements necessary for virtual demarcation varies depending on the technology employed. The most accurate and reliable method available today is stereophotogrammetry…Stereophotogrammetry is commonly used for marking points where it would be impossible to emplace monuments, such as on mountain tops. Geographers use stereophotogrammetry to ascertain a point that parties agree to on the basis of a particular set of stereo reference data. Thus, Ethiopia’s claim that there is no precedent for this type of demarcation is incorrect to the extent that stereophotogrammetry is used in these remote areas… With the precision and permanency of these geographic coordinates, this system would far out-last any monument and be less subject to abuse… many international lawyers concede that the monumentation principle is not, in fact, required by law. It is a purely technical operation of minor importance…”

The regime in Ethiopia has been emboldened by the US led international community to flout international law and the EEBC’s final and binding delimitation and demarcation decisions. Judging from the list of apologists the Ethiopian Prime Minister relied on for political and diplomatic advice and support in the past, we will once again see that the “well respected” diplomats are almost all from the United States and Europe. As for his lawyers, they are the same lawyers who advised him that the EEBC decision was “illegal, unjust and irresponsible”, the same decision that he was forced to grudgingly accept.

So who were these “well respected diplomats” who were advising Ethiopia and preventing the Security Council from taking punitive actions against the regime for it occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories for the last 12 years?

For that we will refer to the US Embassy cables as they are the most definitive-not hearsay or innuendos-straight from the horse’s mouth as they say…


According to this cable:

“…In meetings with FCO Minister for Africa Lord Triesman November 21 and Secretary of State for International Development Hilary Benn the next day, AF A/S Frazer stressed the need to adopt a UNSCR on Somalia flexible enough that frontline states could play a positive role.  She also floated the suggestion of a UK-Norway initiative to break the deadlock in the Eritrea/Ethiopia boundary dispute…”

That is her way of saying, let Ethiopia-a front line state- have a role in Somalia… she also tries to bring to the table another “initiative”-a time buying gimmick to appease the regime in Ethiopia. The cable goes on:

“…A/S Frazer expressed appreciation for Lord Triesman’s earlier offer of whatever support the UK might be able to provide to facilitate resolution of the Eritrea/Ethiopia boundary dispute, including use of the prestigious Lancaster House where historic agreements have been concluded in the past.  She said the USG has tried to revive the Boundary Commission process, but Isaias would not engage.  Triesman admitted he was not sure who could get Isaias to respond positively, and Lloyd added “it’s not clear we’re the right people,” because Eritrea sees the UK as biased in favor of Ethiopia.  Triesman was open to Dr. Frazer’s suggestion of a possible co-chair arrangement involving the UK and Norway. Both sides agreed that the Boundary Commission’s intent to proceed with “virtual demarcation” would do more harm than good.  The British indicated they were working indirectly to nudge the Commissioners away from that course of action…”


According to this cable, US diplomats:

“…discussed the Eritrea-Ethiopia border with Norwegian Deputy Permanent Representative Juul in the run-up to the November 27 deadline for demarcation by coordinates as imposed by the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC)… PolMinCouns and Poloff presented reftel demarche on June 5 to Norwegian Deputy PermRep Mona Juul, Military Advisor Arve Lauritzen and Political Counselor Berit Enge. Juul reported on a meeting between Norwegian Minister of State Raymond Johanson and Eritrean President Isaias in Asmara on May 30, which she described as a “frank, open discussion,” which nevertheless revealed that “not much had changed” on Isaias’ part.  Johanson and Isaias had spoken about “virtual demarcation” of the border, but Isaias had insisted that there be “stakes in the ground” before any dialogue with Ethiopia could begin.  Juul said that Johanson’s arguments for an economic normalization of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea had not resonated with Isaias…PolMinsCouns asked if Isaias had given any indication of Eritrean intentions if demarcation by coordinates were to take place upon the EEBC’s scheduled departure in November, stressing that a major U.S. concern was what would happen after November.  Juul said Isaias had downplayed any threat of war and had blamed the escalation of tensions squarely on Ethiopia…”


“…Pol/C reviewed reftel points with Harry Purwanto, Director for North American Affairs at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DEPLU), November 8.  Pol/C–noting ongoing tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea–urged Indonesia to avoid commenting publicly on the substantive merits of any decision by the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC). He also stressed the need for countries to avoid putting any pressure on either country to take any specific action re the EEBC’s decisions or decision-making process…Purwanto expressed appreciation for the information and said he had so far not been aware of the issue.  He said he would review the matter with relevant DEPLU officials using USG-provided points.  Purwanto seriously doubted whether Indonesian officials would make any public statements on the Ethiopia-Eritrea border issue or on the work of the EEBC…”


“…Africa Watcher conveyed reftel demarche to MFA AF DAS for East Africa Helene Le Gal on November 8.  Le Gal commented that France agreed on the need to support U/SYG Pascoe’s efforts and to allow space for the parties alone, as signatories of the Algiers Agreements, to decide the effect of and whether to implement the EEBC’s virtual demarcation decision…Maintaining that American and French views were similar, Le Gal expressed dissatisfaction with the plan of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) for virtual demarcation of the border by map coordinates at the end of November.  Le Gal’s core objection was that the EEBC, which she called a valuable independent instrument, intended to disband after virtual demarcation.  Without the EEBC, there would be a need either to reinvent it by establishing a new international body or some sort to monitor the crisis or else the Security Council itself would need to play a more frontline role, which could further escalate tensions.  It was unlikely, however, that the French delegation would voice criticisms of the EEBC plan when the UNSC meets to consider the situation…”


“…Poloff delivered reftel demarche to Ambassador Vladimir Lomen at the UNSC Coordination Unit at MFA. Lomen promised to share US concerns within the MFA and with Slovakia’s mission to the UN. Lomen opined that encouraging UNSC members to avoid statements on the merits of the EEBC’s demarcation decision and to avoid putting any pressure on Ethiopia or Eritrea to take specific steps to implement that decision is a departure from past US policy on this issue. …Lomen said Slovak policy on this issue would likely be made in New York, and encouraged Poloff to have USUN offer a more clear explanation of the reasons for this request to Slovakia’s mission to the UN…”


“…Poloff delivered reftel demarche to MFA East Africa Office Director Fabrizio Pignatelli November 15.  Poloff sought Italian agreement on a unified approach to avoid pressure on Ethiopia and Eritrea to implement the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) “virtual demarcation” of the border by map coordinates.  Pignatelli agreed enthusiastically with our points.  He said Italy fully supports UN Under Secretary General Lynn Pascoe’s attempts to mediate the conflict, saying it was our best chance for lowering tensions and resolving the disputes between the parties…Pignatelli said he thought the conflict now boiled down to a question of face saving for both sides.  Given Eritrea’s declaration in September that it would begin to remove its military forces from the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ) as soon as demarcation begins, Pignatelli saw some room for hope, if enough trust could be restored to allow simultaneous commencement of demarcation on the ground and the removal of Eritrean troops from the TSZ.  To supervise such a coordinated, simultaneous action, Pignatelli thought it might be possible to extend the mandate of the EEBC with the consent of both parties…”


“…MFA International Organizations Counselor Albert Sitnikov told us on November 20 that while the GOR supported UNSC Presidential Statement 9169 urging both Ethiopia and Eritrea to accept and implement the EEBC’s delineation decision “without preconditions,” the GOR was opposed to the EEBC’s idea of “virtual demarcation” and believed it may lead to violence.  According to Sitnikov, Lavrov called virtual demarcation “legal nonsense.”  The GOR believed virtual demarcation falls outside of the Algiers Agreement and that it was up to involved parties how to demarcate the border.  He said Russia would have to support Ethiopian withdrawal from the agreement were the EEBC to insist upon virtual demarcation…Deputy Director for Africa Nikolai Ratsiborinskiy told us the EEBC’s current proposal had paralyzed the situation.  He noted that Lavrov had stated publicly that a virtual demarcation could destabilize the entire region, and the GOR believed signals from Asmara and Addis Ababa had hinted at their readiness to resume conflict…Commenting on the November 7 visit of Ethiopian FM Seyoum, Ratsiborinskiy said Lavrov told Seyoum privately the GOR would support Ethiopia’s opposition to virtual demarcation in the UNSC, but also warned Seyoum about statements and actions that could destabilize the fragile situation…GOR support for the UN Presidential Statement was carefully worded to support “delineation,” not “demarcation.” If Ethiopia does not recognize the EEBC’s virtual demarcation, the GOR has said it will be prepared to take its side in a UNSC debate…” 

The US Embassy cables clearly show that, instead of upholding the rule of law and urging Ethiopia to abide by its treaty obligations, the United State and its allies were instead using their diplomatic clout to undermine the EEBC and its decisions regarding the Eritrea Ethiopia border. That does not bode well for peace, stability and security in our region, and it certainly does not give states much confidence in the UN Security Council (UNSC) and its ability to shoulder its moral and legal responsibilities. With so many new states being created and border conflicts on the rise, the UNSC will find itself irrelevant on issues relating to delimitation and demarcation of borders-matters of peace and security-its raison d’etre…

Eritrea Ethiopia border-UN

So is virtual demarcation “legal nonsense”?

No it is not and it is also not something Eritrea secretly created in the mountains of Sahel…it is a widely used method, and a preferred method as it is the most accurate… The coordinate-only demarcation method is of equal validity to that of erecting monuments or pillars.

As in all other aspects of our lives that have been affected positively by advanced technology and know-how, so has boundary-marking.  Technology and necessity have produced an alternative methodology. Simply discounting the new technology, especially by states where these technologies emerged from, is quite puzzling.

For reasons that are still unclear to all that have been following developments in the region, the Security Council, despite the fact that the EEBC has deposited the documents with the UN, remains mum on the issue. The Security Council endorsed the “virtual demarcation’ of the Iraq-Kuwait border and enforced its decision. Why is it then employing double standards today on the EEBC’s demarcation decisions? As we shall see below and has been attested to by Independent observers, the composition of the EEBC is more “legal” and impartial than the one created by the UN Secretary General in the case of Iraq-Kuwait.

The Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) was established pursuant to the 12 December 2000 Algiers Peace Agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia and its mandate was clearly spelled out in that Agreement. According to Article 4.15 of the Algiers Agreement:

“…The parties agree that the delimitation and demarcation determinations of the Commission shall be final and binding. Each party shall respect the border so determined, as well as the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the other party…

The parties handpicked the Commissioners after extensive vetting. Out of the 5 members of the EEBC, only one of the Commissioners was a UN appointee. The parties appointed 2 Commissioners each. The four Commissioners appointed by the parties were: Prince Bola Adesumbo Ajibola (appointed by Ethiopia), Professor W. Michael Reisman (appointed by Eritrea), Judge Stephen M. Schwebel (appointed by Eritrea) and Sir Arthur Watts, KCMG QC (appointed by Ethiopia). UN Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed Sir Elihu Lauterpacht as the President. The UN Cartographer served as the Secretary to the Commission.

On the other hand, the UN Iraq Kuwait Boundary Demarcation Commission (UNIKBDC) was not established by the two parties to the conflict as required by international law and the UN Charter. It was established pursuant to paragraph 3 of Resolution 687 adopted by the Security Council on 3 April 1991. Its mandate was also not agreed upon independently by the two parties, it was determined by the Secretary General as his 2 May 1991 Report to the Security Council will show. In that Report, Secretary General Javier Perez De Cuellar wrote:

“…After consultation with the Governments of Iraq and Kuwait, I will now establish a Iraq-Kuwait Boundary Demarcation Commission to be composed of one representative each of Iraq and Kuwait and three independent experts who will be appointed by me, one of which will serve as Chairman. The terms of reference of the Commission will be to demarcate in geographical coordinates of latitude and longitude the international boundary set out in the agreed Minutes between Kuwait and Iraq. The coordinates established by the Commission will constitute the final demarcation of the international boundary between Iraq and Kuwait. The Commission will take its decisions by majority. Its decisions regarding the demarcation of the border will be final…”

The Secretary General appointed Mr. Mochtar Kusuma-Atmadja, former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Indonesia as Chairman, Mr. Ian Brook, then Technical Director, Swedsurvey, National Land Survey of Sweden, and Mr. William Robertson, General/Director General of the Department of Survey and Land Information of New Zealand, as independent experts. Ambassador Riyadh Al-Qaysi represented Iraq and Ambassador Tarek A.Razzouki represented Kuwait. Mr. Miklos Pinter, Chief Cartographer of the United Nations Secretariat, was appointed Secretary to the Commission. The UN Secretary General spelled out UNIKBDC’s mandate. The delimitation formula was the 1932 Exchange of letters between the Prime Minister of Iraq and the Ruler of Kuwait.

As we can see above, while the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission was set up in accordance with general practice and parity, the UN Iraq Kuwait Boundary Demarcation Commission was not. Whilst the EEBC’s impartiality, independence and clear and coherent mandate was hailed and accepted by Eritrea, Ethiopia and the international community, including the Security Council, the same cannot be said about the independence and neutrality of UNIKBDC, its constitution or its politically motivated mandate.

Despite Iraq’s expressed reservations about the composition of the Commission, its mandate and its legality, succumbing to international pressure (Operation Desert Storm) it reluctantly accepted the terms and conditions set forth in Resolution 687. Suffice it to mention an excerpt from a letter dated 23 April 1991 sent by Ahmed Hussein, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, to the Secretary General to illustrate Iraq’s frustration with the Security Council and Resolution 687’s legality. The Iraqi Minister wrote:

“…just as we accepted resolution 687 (!991) despite our objections of and criticisms of its provisions, we will cooperate with you and nominate a representative of our government to participate in the Demarcation Commission, even if you take no account of the views and comments expressed above. We do this because the circumstances forcing our acceptance persists…”

The Secretary General was fulfilling a request by the Security Council to establish the Boundary Demarcation Commission. In responding to Iraq’s reservations about the proposed Commission and its mandate, the Secretary General was keen on stressing the Commission’s independence and methodology, in an attempt to assure Iraq of the Commission’s neutrality, in his 30 April 1991 letter to the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Javier Perez De Cuellar wrote:

“…It is up to the Commission to examine and identify the relevant documentation and to determine which technology or combination of can best be used for the fulfillment of its mandate. In my view, it would prejudice the work of the Commission and even hinder its independence if I were to go beyond the level of detail concerning the working methods of the Boundary Commission set out in my draft report…”

There were many that questioned Resolution 687’s neutrality and legality, but were powerless to do anything about it. Not only was it in contravention of Article 33 of the UN Charter and a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, it also contradicted the Council’s own Resolution 660 of 1990, which called on Iraq and Kuwait to resolve their differences through negotiations. It was cited as “the first in the annals of the international organization” and it raised many concerns and questions amongst the impartial members of the Security Council.

Article 33 of the UN charter is very clear as to what needs to be done when there is a dispute between member states. The Security Council does not have the mandate to amend, revise, revisit or change Agreements signed by two sovereign states.

Many independent observers and legal analysts considered Resolution 687 an immoral and politically motivated Resolution and one that was clearly ultra vires of the Security Council’s mandate under the UN Charter-even if it was acting under Chapter VII. The Resolution was labeled “iniquitous” and legal experts and analysts voiced their concerns and concurred that it constituted “a dangerous legal precedent”. Nonetheless, the Boundary Commission was allowed to execute its mandate and the Security Council immediately endorsed its demarcation decisions when delivered.

By its Resolution 833 (1993) adopted on 27 May 1993, the Security Council:

“…Welcomes also the successful conclusion of the work of the Commission. Reaffirms that the decisions of the Commission regarding the demarcation of the boundary are final; Demands that Iraq and Kuwait in accordance with international law and relevant Security Council resolutions respect the inviolability of the international boundary, as demarcated by the Commission, and the right to navigational access; Underlines and reaffirms its decision to guarantee the inviolability of the above-mentioned international boundary…”

As the EEBC noted in its Statement, “No doubt was expressed as to the legal acceptability of a “demarcation” by means of a list of coordinates”. The Security Council not only endorsed the UN Iraq-Kuwait Boundary Demarcation decisions, it also guaranteed its inviolability. The Security Council went on to enforce that decision and today Iraq and Kuwait have a secure and internationally recognized boundary. Ditto for Israel and Jordan.

Politics aside, what is important to note in this case is the fact that the terms of reference in the Iraq-Kuwait border demarcation provided that the international boundary be demarcated in geographical coordinates of latitude and longitude, as well as physical representations on the ground. The coordinates for the land boundary are physically demarcated by 106 monuments, approximately 2km apart, and 28 intermediate markers.

If virtual demarcation is “legal nonsense” or has no legal applicability, why did the Security Council accept the UN Iraq-Kuwait Boundary Demarcation Commission’s decision and endorse the virtual demarcation of the Iraq-Kuwait border and make efforts to enforce it?

If it managed to come up with mechanisms to enforce the inviolability of the Iraq-Kuwait international border, why can’t it also enforce the inviolability of the Eritrea Ethiopia border?

If the Security Council can endorse a decision delivered by a legally questionable body and enforce its decisions, why is it reluctant to endorse and enforce the EEBC decision when by all accounts and when compared, the EEBC is not only more independent and impartial but also one that both parties to the conflict chose and established?

Eritrea intends to take advantage of all technological advances to develop its war torn economy, to increase food production and ensure food security, and to develop its human and economic infrastructures etc. Eritrea understands that with advances in technology, there will be many changes in the methods used in various sectors including agriculture, education, communication, and a new approach to demarcation is no different. If the minority regime Ethiopia wants to remain in the dark ages, that is their choice, and the UN Security Council can help educate the backward regime and bring it to the modern. It should not be party to its ignobility and backwardness.

Surely, if Eritrea, a developing nation understands and accepts these new and innovative methods available for demarcating borders, and if the EEBC, a sound legal body composed of experienced legal scholars, also accepts them, what is preventing the UN Security Council and especially the United States and European states on the Council from accepting the EEBC’s demarcation decisions?

Kathleen Claussen writes:

“…The monumentation [pillars on the ground] approach might have made sense when no other means were available; however, in the twenty-first century, when the law has kept pace with technology in other areas of science, border demarcation should do the same. Moreover, inconsistencies among boundary commissions and the variety of state methodologies indicate a need for harmonization in order to clarify and establish coherent legal norms in this field. Virtual demarcation achieves that…The Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission has signaled a new approach for border-marking that, at the very least, merits jurisprudential and institutional consideration and has the potential to revolutionize boundary-marking and boundary-making…”

Ethiopia threatened to pull out of the Algiers Agreements and the US and its allies buckled…the fact is that boundaries remain even if treaties that created them, like the Colonial treaties of 1900, 1902 and 1908 that served as the basis for the delimitation decisions of the EEBC, are no longer in force.

Enforcing the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission’s demarcation decisions and calling on Ethiopia to vacate from sovereign Eritrean territories will go a long way in improving the lives of the people in both countries. The US led international community cannot decry the plight of Eritrean economic refugees and asylum seekers, and the “prolonged national service” in Eritrea, while refusing to address the cause of their discontent-the occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories and the economic and other sanctions placed on them.

The rule of law must prevail over the law of the jungle!

EU launches road project in Eritrea

Wednesday, 20 February 2019 13:43 Written by
Wednesday, 20 February 2019 06:36

Neven Mimica, EU commissioner for international cooperation and development, visited Eritrea, launching an initial US$22.69mn project for road connections between the Ethiopian border and Eritrean ports

eritrea road

The road project aims to connect between the Ethiopian border and the Eritrean port of Massawa. (Image source: Ryan McGuire/Pixabay)

During his visit, Commissioner Mimica met President Isaias to explore ways for the EU and Eritrea to step up political relations and dialogue on matters of concern to both sides.

He noted, “The EU is committed to supporting Eritrea and Ethiopia in delivering their historic peace agreement, which ended twenty years of conflict. This will boost trade, consolidate stability and have clear benefits for the citizens of both countries through the creation of sustainable growth and jobs.”

The new project will be financed through the EU Trust Fund for Africa and through the United Nation's Office for Project Services. It will rehabilitate road connections between the Ethiopian border and Eritrean ports to boost trade and create jobs.

This is the first phase of broader support to Eritrea, which is planned to scale up later this year. It is part of the EU's new dual-track approach of strengthening political dialogue with Eritrea, notably encouraging political and economic reforms and improvement of human rights, as well as pursuing development cooperation to tackle root causes of poverty and to reinforce the peace agreement and economic integration.

One of the commitments in 2018 Eritrea/Ethiopia peace agreement is that transport, trade and communications links between the two countries would resume. To achieve this, it requires rehabilitating the main arterial roads between the Ethiopian border and the Eritrean port of Massawa.


February 19, 2019 Ethiopia, News

Ethiopia contracts Chinese companies to complete Nile dam construction

Ethiopia contracts Chinese companies to complete Nile dam construction

In a bid to accelerate the pace of the construction of Ethiopia’s strategic dam, the country has contracted the services of two Chinese companies.

Source: Africa News

The Ethiopian Electric Power (EEP) on Tuesday signed a contract worth $40m with China Gezhouba Group Co., Ltd (CGGC). CGCG will henceforth handle the pre-commissioning activities at the dam, that is expected to be operational by 2020.

READ MORE: Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance dam to start operations in 2020‘‘CGGC is expected to work aggressively in partnership with other companies in order to complete the project as per schedule,’‘ EEP’s CEO Abrham Belay said.

EEP also signed a contract worth $113m with Voith Hydro Shanghai, that includes the electrical, mechanical, and various civil/structural works required to complete the construction of the generating station and spillways of GERD.

A long overdue project

The 6,000-megawatt Grand Renaissance Dam is the centrepiece of Ethiopia’s bid to become Africa’s biggest power exporter.

Last year, Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed cancelled the contract of a state-run military conglomerate, Metals and Engineering Corporation (METEC), to build the dam’s turbines.

Abiy said at the time that not a single turbine was operational more than seven years after the government awarded the contract to METEC.

The dam has also been a source of constant friction between Egypt and Ethiopia’s competing energy and water interests respectively.

Egypt fears the project will reduce waters that run to its fields and reservoirs from the Nile river in Ethiopia’s highlands and via Sudan.

A Tripartite Infrastructure Fund that to deal with issues relating to the GERD was established in May last year, in addition to a resolution to regularise the summit of the leaders, to be held every six months alternately in the capitals of the three countries.

February 18, 2019 Ethiopia, News

February 18, 2019 2.24pm GMT
A statue of Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, at the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa. Hailu Wudineh Tsegaye / Shutterstock

The unveiling of a statue to the Emperor Haile Selassie outside the African Union has stirred up a storm among Ethiopians and Eritreans. Some, including the Rastafarian community who still worship the Emperor as a god, were delighted. Others were furious, recalling his role in the 1973-74 famine or his suppression of Eritrean freedom.

Haile Selassie ruled Ethiopia for more than four decades, between 1930 and 1974. In 1935 his country was invaded by Italy and he sought refuge in Britain. He became a symbol of resistance to fascism in Africa, returning to the country in 1941.

An austere, aloof figure, he was finally overthrown by a group of left wing military officers in 1974, furious at the lethargy with which he had dealt with famine and the stagnation of the country. But years of war and instability since his murder and burial under a toilet in his palace, have led to a reassessment of his role and he is now seen in a more favourable light. In 2000 he was re-buried in Addis Ababa’s cathedral.

Emperor Haile Selassie is an example of how leaders have gone in and out of fashion. The movements they lead wax and wane – and with them go the reputations of those who led them. His statue, now unveiled at the African Union, is recognition of his role as a champion of African freedom against colonial intervention.

Fallen idols

In South Africa the statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes was removed from the University of Cape Town after students objected to his role as an imperialist. Nor did the protests end there. A whole range of works of art was removed or destroyed. This led to accusations of censorship, as the university authorities gave in to pressure from those who felt that the art demeaned the subjects they portrayed.

Cecil Rhodes was once venerated for his generosity: he donated all the land on which the University of Cape Town stands, as well as his own home, which is still the residence of the President of South Africa when he is in Cape Town.

Another fallen image includes Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, whose statue was destroyed even before the Libyan dictator had been captured and killed.

Other targets of student anger have included Mahatma Gandhi. His newly erected statue was removed at the University of Ghana in Accra. The objectors argued that he had held racist views of Africans during his time in South Africa. What they failed to understand was that his position had changed and that by the time he left the country in 1914 he was no longer the racist he had once been.

Another statue removed in South Africa was one to King Shaka Zulu at the airport in Durban that bears his name. The Zulu royal family objected to the way in which he was portrayed. Seven years later there is still no clarity on when it will be replaced. The decision to commemorate Shaka kaSenzangakhona, who ruled the Zulu people (1787 – 1828) is controversial in itself. The military campaign he led (the Mfecane – or “crushing”) killed and displaced a vast number of people, who were driven as far as Zambia and Malawi to escape in troops.

Some former African leaders still have statues they commissioned standing, but in the forlorn setting of their home villages, now largely abandoned and forgotten. For example, the statue of emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa of Central African Republic still stands some 80km from the capital, Bangui.

A similar fate has been suffered by Mobutu Sese Seko, the Congolese ruler of the state he then called Zaire. His palace once described as the “Versailles of Africa” is derelict, inhabited by his former troops. A statue depicting his first wife, Marie-Antoinette Mobutu, stands forgotten in the palace garden.

But there is one African president whose image is still revered by almost everybody: Nelson Mandela. Statues to South Africa’s first truly democratically elected leader can be found across the country, but it’s the one at Sandton in Johannesburg that draws the crowds. Six meters high, it towers over those who come to see it.

Way forward

What to do about the symbols of bygone regimes is always going to be a contested terrain. Few countries have got this right.

One way forward is suggested by the approach taken by the former Soviet republic of Georgia. They have no reason to worship Stalin. He was Georgian by birth but as leader of the Soviet Union he butchered 200,000 of his countrymen and women. Yet in Gori, Stalin’s birthplace, they not only preserve the hovel in which he was born, but also the vast museum built to glorify his achievement.

Visiting the museum a few years ago, I asked our young guide why every exhibit is retained intact, when his bloody legacy is so well known. “Ah,” she replied. “We must preserve the past as it was, so we can learn from it. But wait until the final room.”

Our guide was right. There – in the last room – Stalin’s crimes against the Georgians were laid out for all to see. The painful truth to put the hagiography of the rest of the museum in perspective

February 17, 2019 Ethiopia, News

MEKELLE/ETHIOPIA, 14 February 2019

“Ethnic tensions are the biggest problem for Ethiopia right now,” Tewodrose Tirfe, chair of the Amhara Association of America, a US-based advocacy group that played a significant role in lobbying the US government to censor the former regime. “You’ve got millions of people displaced – it’s a humanitarian crisis, and it could get out of control.”

During the first half of 2018, Ethiopia’s rate of 1.4 million new internally displaced people exceeded Syria’s. By the end of last year, the IDP population had mushroomed to nearly 2.4 million.

Tigrayans comprise just six percent of Ethiopia’s population of 100 million people but are perceived as a powerful minority because of their ethnic affinity with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The TPLF wielded almost unlimited power for more than two decades until reforms within the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front last year.

Since coming to power in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy – from the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest – has brought major changes to the politics of the country, including an unprecedented redistribution of power within the EPRDF and away from the TPLF.

The politics of ethnic tensions

Despite the conflicting interests and disagreements between ethnic groups, the Ethiopian government has managed to keep the peace on a national scale. But that juggling act has shown signs of strain in recent years.

“You’ve got millions of people displaced – it’s a humanitarian crisis, and it could get out of control.”

In 2017, an escalation in ethnic clashes in the Oromia and the Somali regions led to a spike in IDPs. This continued into 2018, when clashes between the Oromo and Gedeo ethnic groups displaced approximately 970,000 people in the West Guji and Gedeo zones of neighbouring Oromia and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region.

“The pace and scale of the change happening in Ethiopia is quite unbelievable,” said Ahmed Soliman, a research fellow with the Africa Programme at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

“The impact of inter-communal tensions and ethnic violence presents a serious challenge for the new leadership – in Tigray and elsewhere. Abiy’s aggressive reform agenda has won praise, but shaking up Ethiopia’s government risks exacerbating several long-simmering ethnic rivalries.”

Although clashes are sometimes fuelled by other disagreements, such as land or resources, people affected often claim that politicians across the spectrum use ethnic tensions as a means of divide and rule, or to consolidate their position as a perceived bulwark against further trouble.

“Sadly [around Ethiopia] ethnic bias and violence is affecting many people at the local level,” said a foreign humanitarian worker with an international organisation helping Ethiopian IDPs, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue. This includes fuelling the displacement crisis and worsening the humanitarian situation.

“The main humanitarian concern is that new displacements are occurring by the day, that due to the wide geographic scope, coordination and response in all locations is practically impossible,” the aid worker said.

“I would like to see more transparency as to what actions the government is taking to hold regional and zonal governments responsible for addressing conflict, for supporting reconciliation, and supporting humanitarian response.”

Tigray fears

Although Tigrayans constitute a relatively small part of overall IDP numbers so far, some Tigrayans fear the power shift in Addis Ababa away from the TPLF leaves them more vulnerable and exposed.

Already simmering anti-Tigrayan sentiments have led to violence, people told IRIN, from barricading roads and forcibly stopping traffic to looting and attacks on Tigrayan homes and businesses in the Amhara and Oromia regions.

James Jeffrey/IRIN
Tigrayans on the streets of Mekelle, the Tigray capital.

In the Tigray region’s capital of Mekelle, more than 750 kilometers north of the political changes taking place in Addis Ababa, many Tigrayans feel increasingly isolated from fellow Ethiopians.

“The rest of the country hates us,” Weyanay Gebremedhn, 25, told IRIN. Despite the reforms, Tigrayans say what hasn’t changed is the narrative that they are responsible by association for the ills of the TPLF.

Although he now struggles to find work, 35-year-old Huey Berhe, who does mostly odd jobs to pay the bills, said he felt safer living among his own community in Mekelle.

Huey said he had been a student at Jimma University in western Ethiopia, until growing ethnic tensions sparked fights on campus and led to Tigrayans being targeted. “I left my studies at Jimma after the trouble there,” he said. “It was bad – it’s not something I like to discuss.”

‘A better evil’

“There is a lot of [lies] and propaganda, and the TPLF has been made the scapegoat for all vice,” said Gebre Weleslase, a Tigrayan law professor at Mekelle University. He criticised Abiy for not condemning ethnic attacks, which he said had contributed to tens of thousands of Tigrayans leaving Amhara for Tigray in recent years.

But Amhara Association of America’s Tewodrose said the feeling of “hate” that Ethiopians have toward the TPLF “doesn’t extend to Tigrayans”.

“There is resentment toward them when other Ethiopians hear of rallies in Tigray supporting the TPLF, because that seems like they aren’t supporting reform efforts,” he said. “But that doesn’t lead to them being targeted, otherwise there would have been more displacements.”

☰ Read more: The complex Tigray evolution

Tigrayans, however, aren’t as reassured. Despite the vast majority enduring years of poverty and struggle under the TPLF, which should give them as many reasons as most Ethiopians to feel betrayed, even those Tigrayans who dislike the TPLF now say that turning to its patronage may be their only means of seeking protection.

“The TPLF political machinery extended everywhere in the country – into the judiciary, the universities… it became like something out of George Orwell’s ‘1984’,” Huey said. “But the fact is now the TPLF may represent a better evil as we are being made to feel so unsafe – they seem our only ally as we are threatened by the rest of the country.”

Others note that Abiy has a delicate balance to strike, especially for the sake of Tigrayans.

“The prime minister needs to be careful not to allow his targeting of anti-reform elements within the TPLF, to become an attack on the people of Tigray,” said Soliman.

“The region has a history of resolute peoples and will have to be included with all other regions, in order for Abiy to accomplish his goals of reconciliation, socio-political integration and regional development, as well as long-term peace with Eritrea.”

Although the government has a big role to play, some Ethiopians told IRIN it is essential for the general population to also face up to the inherent prejudices and problems that lie at the core of their society.

“It’s about the people being willing and taking individual responsibility – the government can’t do everything,” Weyanay said. “People need to read more and challenge their assumptions and get new perspectives.”

Freelance journalist specialising in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa

Disagreements over land and resources between the 80 different ethnic groups in Ethiopia have often led to violence and mass displacement, but a fast and unprecedented shift of power led by reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is causing new strains, experts say.