Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister unexpectedly extended olive branches to regional rivals Eritrea and Egypt.
The first of Premier Ahmed’s two interconnected moves over the weekend was his announcement that Ethiopia will unilaterally comply with a 2002 international court ruling that the contested town of Badme at the center of his country’s 1998-2000 war with neighboring Eritrea should belong to the neighboring state. This frozen conflict was sparked by much more than just a geographically forsaken settlement of little strategic importance but by both countries’ lingering distrust of the other. Landlocked Ethiopia wanted to keep its former province of Eritrea weak in order to control it by proxy and regain its historical access to the Red Sea, while Eritrea has long had an interest in supporting various “rebel” groups against Addis Ababa in order to embroil Ethiopia in so many domestic crises that it could never pose a threat to its independence.
The prolongation of the “cold peace” that set in more than a decade and a half ago after over 100,000 people were killed for scant territorial changes is considered to be the cause of Eritrea’s underdevelopment. The tiny state felt compelled to retain the controversial policy of forced and indefinite conscription of its citizens for national security reasons, though this is largely responsible for triggering the exodus of thousands of people each year. Furthermore, Asmara’s purported patronage of the Al Shabaab terrorist group as a proxy force against the Ethiopian troops in Somalia following Addis Ababa’s mid-2000s invasion there drew UNSC sanctions that continue to this day. Eritrea recently received relief from its international isolation after joining the War on Yemen and entering into a rumored alliance with Egypt, though Ethiopia’s peacemaking moves with the latter might undercut this crucial relationship.
Egypt has long accused Ethiopia of weaponizing water through its plans to construct a dam along the Blue Nile River that provides most of the North African country’s hydrological resources, even threatening to bomb it on previous occasions and presumably using the threat perception of this project as its basis for the rumored military deal with Eritrea. Premier Ahmed’s surprise visit to Cairo over the weekend saw him and President Sisi agree to peacefully settle their differences over this issue, however, with the regional spillover effect being that Eritrea is no longer that useful to Egypt as its supposed anti-Ethiopian proxy. Not being able to count on Cairo anymore like it may have previously thought it could, Asmara is now pressed into constructively reciprocating Addis Ababa’s Badme move in attempting to normalize relations between the two neighboring states.
It’s undoubtedly to Eritrea’s advantage to formalize a real peace with Ethiopia and begin its comprehensive emergence from international isolation, but this could nevertheless have some unintended consequences for the country’s domestic political situation. The ruling “People’s Front for Democracy and Justice” has hitherto relied on the Ethiopian threat as an excuse for explaining Eritrea’s underdevelopment, though this will no longer be the case if a rapprochement takes place. Aging President Isaias Afwerki might consequently come under grassroots pressure to liberalize his one-party “socialist” state in order to facilitate a political transformation that could be catalyzed by this “reopening”, with international economic assistance and sanctions relief possibly being made contingent on this happening.
The irony of it all is that for as much as Eritrea has tried to carry out regime change against Ethiopia through militant means for years already, it might just end up being Ethiopia that succeeds with this against Eritrea through the consequences of its two-pronged peacemaking moves over the weekend.