Winds of change are blowing through Eritrea

4 mins read

By Ebba Holmström

Winds of change have been blowing through the Horn of Africa since Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace accord in July 2018. During the past 20 years, there has been a persisting conflict between the two countries and people in the region have been longing for peace. Since the signing of the agreement the border has opened up, diplomatic relations have been established and the UN has lifted sanctions from Eritrea. Media has mainly been focusing on Ethiopia and its ongoing reform process, whereas there is less focus on Eritrea – a country previously known as one of the world’s worst autocracies. Regarding the recent development in the region, the crucial question follows; how will the peace agreement affect Eritrea?

The geographical area that we today know as Eritrea has previously been a part of Ethiopia. Eritrean liberation movements were initiated in the 1950’s and the fight for independence endured until 1993, when Eritrea gained formal independence from Ethiopia. Eritrea’s  new-found autonomy required arbitration on where to draw the border between the two countries. They failed to reach an agreement and the relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea deteriorated. In May 1998, Eritrean troops entered an area under Ethiopian control which escalated into an all-out conventional war that killed tens of thousands of people the two following years. The Algiers agreement was signed in 2000. However, Ethiopia refused to agree on the demarcation of the border as Eritrea was awarded most of the disputed territory. The relations between the two countries have since then remained very tense.

In July this year, when the peace accord between Ethiopia and Eritrea was signed, the world was overwhelmed. There have been no diplomatic relations at all for the past 20 years and many families living on different sides of the border, only a few kilometres away from each other, have been torn apart. When the border opened up, many families were reunited for the first time since 1998. Phone lines and flight services have been restored, embassies in each country are now open and Ethiopia has access to port facilities in Eritrea. Diplomatic relations are no longer restricted between the countries and the heads of state have been very proud to show what a peaceful harmony there is between the countries.

It was surprising that Ethiopia, after 20 years of conflict, suddenly decided to comply with the peace accord and ultimately hand over parts of the territory to Eritrea. In April 2018, Abiy Ahmed was elected as the new Prime Minister of Ethiopia. Since then numerous reforms have been issued, several women have been appointed to important governmental posts, and political prisoners have been released. Ethiopia is undergoing a massive change and the peace accord with Eritrea has been a part of this reform process.

The border conflict has heavily influenced the Eritrean domestic politics during the past decades. President Isaias Afewerki has been governing Eritrea with austere control for 25 years. There has never been a presidential election and the one-party state has often been described as one of the worst authoritarian regimes in the world. No opposition is allowed, people criticising the regime have been silenced and journalists have been imprisoned without trial. The Swedish citizen and journalist Dawit Isaak is only one of many. All young men have to undergo 18 months of national service, but in reality, it has been extended indefinitely – causing many young men to flee from their home country. The UN has strongly criticised Eritrea and sanctioned the country for i.a. its force conscription. The arguments amongst supporters of the government have been that the mandatory national service has been necessary in order to protect the nation from the powerful enemy, Ethiopia. The neighbouring country has been portrayed as Eritrea’s greatest rival and the perception of Ethiopia as an external threat have played into the Eritrean politics. But what happens when the enemy no longer is an enemy?

The short answer to how the peace deal will affect Eritrea is that no one knows. It is still too early to know what will happen and the predictions about Eritrea’s future differ. Amongst the optimists there are now expectations that the peace accord will lead to great economic transformation and a broadening of political space within Eritrea. As the external threat of Ethiopia is starting to fade, the mandatory national conscription might be taken away. The border issue is now solved and the relations between the countries are ready to be restored. On November 14th, the UN Security Council decided to lift sanctions from Eritrea, which might further positive effects. Many hope that a reform process will come in this time of reconciliation. But will the government be able to bring about economic and political reforms?

An open border does not only imply reunions, a blooming trade and increased diplomatic relations. The number of Eritrean asylum seekers in Ethiopia have increased the past months. There are estimations suggesting that 200 000 Eritreans have fled to Ethiopia and the main reason is the discontent with the government. Amongst Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, there is a widespread pessimism regarding the future since the end of the conflict does not guarantee political change in Eritrea. Internal issues have to be addressed and the anticipation that Afewerki would start a reform process is in general very low. To portray Ethiopia as the worst enemy have been permeating the Eritrean regime and nobody knows what will happen when there is no clear antagonist. The end of the conflict could actually be more dangerous than the war. “The peace will not lead to democracy in Eritrea, people will continue to flee in larger numbers and president Afewerki will remain in power until God himself takes him away”, a young Eritrean man told Radio Sweden in an interview.

The peace accord is a turning point for Eritrea as it is putting pressure on Isaias Afewerki. If the Eritrean population will continue to flee to the same extent as they have done until now, a change is most likely unstoppable. The open border has been praised by the people in the region as the long-sworn enemy is now turning into a friend. The question is whether Afewerki will work towards economic and political development or if he will continue as he has done the past 25 years. If the Eritrean government wants people to stay in the country, there is a great need for change. The future for Eritrea remains unclear as winds of change continues to blow – in what direction remains to be seen.

Ebba Holmström is taking a major in Development Studies at Uppsala University. She is a curious person with a great love for coffee and Swedish candy. Ebba is currently preparing to spend the next semester in Burkina Faso, where she will do a field study (MFS) about water resource management. In the future she wishes to work with questions concerning Africa.

Photo credits: In Ethiopia, close to Eritrean border, by Nena Terrell, USAID Ethiopia

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