Great article. Here we've got a recently modernizing Ethiopia, the
impending death of Isais Efawerki who has made Eritrea into the "North
Korea of Africa" and geopolitical interest in the Horn of Africa due to
Red Sea shipping lanes. All fascinating stuff.
What once seemed unsustainable — an indefinite state of neither peace
nor war — became the norm. Both countries hosted guerrilla groups
committed to overthrowing the other one’s government. They cynically
fought a proxy war in neighboring Somalia. There were repeated
flare-ups at their border, triggering apocalyptic predictions that
Ethiopia and Eritrea were going to fight again, and next time to the
Legally, Ethiopia clearly was in breach, having committed in the 2000
peace deal, like Eritrea, to uphold whatever decision the boundary
commission issued. The United Nations, the European Union, the
Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) and the United
States had pledged to act as guarantors, and so were also in the wrong.
Eritrea, for its part, had good reason as a fledgling country to crave
international recognition for its borders.
But given the choice between a giant traditional ally led by an
emollient prime minister and a tiny new-kid-on-the-block with a
notoriously prickly president, the major Western powers opted to side
with the bigger player — and all the more readily because it cast
itself as an ally in the fight against Islamist terrorism.
So what prompted Ethiopia’s announcement this week? Age and sickness is
one answer. Over the years, local analysts and former guerrilla
fighters have told me that Ethiopia’s dispute with Eritrea was partly
being kept alive by animosity between the two countries’ longtime
leaders and their immediate entourages.
Years ago, Meles Zenawi and Isaias Afewerki, whose families both hail
from the Tigray region that straddles the border, joined the forces of
their rebel movements against Ethiopia’s Marxist dictator Mengistu
Haile Mariam. They managed to oust him in 1991, paving the way for
Eritrea’s formal independence from Ethiopia in 1993 — and then Mr.
Meles’s rise to prime minister of Ethiopia and Mr. Isaias’s to
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But rivalry and resentment simmered below the surface. In 1998, a
dispute over the nondescript border village of Badme escalated into a
war that would kill more than 100,000 people. Many Horn of Africa
watchers predicted that relations between the two countries would only
normalize once the two leaders quit the scene.
Mr. Isaias, 72, is still at the helm, although only last month he was
reported to have left Eritrea for emergency medical treatment in Abu
Dhabi. Mr. Meles died in 2012. His immediate successor, Halemariam
Desalegn, resigned in February, seemingly overwhelmed by the task of
running his discontented nation of some 105 million people. Mr.
Halemariam’s fresh replacement, Abiy Ahmed — a spruce 41-year-old with
a background in military intelligence — is a man in a hurry.
And with good reason. Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, may be booming,
but so is unrest among a young population that scoffs at official
8-to-10 percent annual growth rates, accuses Mr. Meles’s party — which
long dominated the ruling coalition — of ethnic chauvinism and
corruption, and chafes at government repression. Foreign exchange
reserves are running low; the national debt is climbing. Ethiopia has
lived through coups and popular revolutions before, and in recent years
the Oromo, who make up the country’s biggest ethnic group but have long
been marginalized, have been at the forefront of protests. Appointing
Mr. Abiy, an Oromo, as prime minister was a smart survival move; the
Ethiopian government realized that real change was required.
So have its foreign allies.
In recent years, Western diplomats have grown more and more worried
that an increasingly isolated Eritrea, resentful at its treatment by
the international community and routinely dubbed a “pariah state” for
its domestic human rights record, might come to be seen as an
attractive destination by jihadists spilling out of nearby Yemen, Syria
Any such infiltration would be particularly unwelcome given rising
geostrategic interest in the Horn of Africa over the last decade and a
half. The Red Sea has quietly become one of the world’s most important
waterways, with foreign military assets and investment pouring into the
region’s ports, railways, airports and roads. Djibouti, landlocked
Ethiopia’s de facto outlet to the sea, now hosts troops from the United
States and France, but also China, Germany and Japan. The United Arab
Emirates’ military operates out of the ports of Assab in Eritrea and
Berbera in Somaliland.
RS Wood <firstname.lastname@example.org>