The Wall that Ethiopia Had Carefully Erected Against Eritrea Has Crumbled

Eritrea is coming in from the cold. Could that spark a shooting war with Ethiopia?

Humiliating. Wider winds in the region are blowing in Eritrea’s favor that effectively crumbling Ethiopia’s 17 years old strategy of containment.

BY TOM GARDNER | FOREIGN POLICY

Two recent and seemingly incongruous events may one day be seen as symbolic turning points for Eritrea, a one-party state often referred to as Africa’s hermit kingdom. The first was a bloody clash on Eritrea’s border with Ethiopia in June 2016, which left hundreds of people dead and brought back memories of the devastating 1998-2000 war between the two archenemies.

The second was an academic conference in the Eritrean capital of Asmara in July, the first of its kind in 15 years. Visiting academics were shocked by the relative freedom for debate — on everything from women’s rights to foreign policy.



“It was as much a political event as an academic event,” said Harry Verhoeven, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar who attended the conference. “It was remarkable — by regional standards and certainly by Eritrean standards.”

These apparently contradictory episodes were in fact both subplots of the same story: Eritrea’s gradual emergence from more than a decade of international isolation and the uncertain attempts to come to terms with that shift by its rival neighbor, Ethiopia.

The conference indicated that the Eritrean government is coming tentatively in from the cold; the border war showed that Ethiopia is worried that a rehabilitated Eritrea could threaten its regional dominance.  Together, the two events demonstrated that the 17-year-old status quo of “no peace, no war” is coming undone.

In April, Ethiopia announced that it is working on a new policy toward its Red Sea neighbor. The details are still emerging, but one thing is clear: The government recognizes that its strategy of containment, imposed on Eritrea after the end of the border war in 2000 and ratcheted up with a U.N. arms embargo in 2009, has failed.

For the first time in years, there is serious talk of a change of course in Addis Ababa.

The U.N. sanctions regime is dependent on support from the international community, which is gradually eroding. The sanctions were always controversial for singling out Eritrea as a uniquely bad actor in a region of bad actors.

Now there is growing consensus at the United Nations that the main justification for the sanctions no longer applies: There is no evidence that Eritrea is still supporting al-Shabab militants in Somalia, and though it continues to support armed opposition groups in the region — notably in Ethiopia — its neighbors do as well.

Ethiopia may be able to stave off a softening — or lifting — of the sanctions until the end of 2018, when its term as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council is slated to end.

Tensions between Eritrea and Djibouti, which have spiked in the past week following Qatar’s decision to remove its peacekeepers from the troubled border between the two countries, may well strengthen Ethiopia’s case in the short term.

But in the long run, it will struggle to persuade other members to continue the status quo without the backing of the United States, which now that President Barack Obama — and in particular his national security advisor, Susan Rice, who was seen as implacably hostile to the Eritrean regime — has departed may be less inclined to keep Asmara in the penalty box.

“They didn’t have an inch of space when she was there,” Bronwyn Bruton, the deputy director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., said of Rice. Now that Donald Trump is in office, “all the African strongmen are rejoicing,” she added.

Wider winds are blowing in Eritrea’s favor, too. The war in Yemen, which is less than 70 miles away across the Red Sea, has sparked a rush on Eritrean coastal real estate by Gulf states looking to base their troops there.

For example, the United Arab Emirates has been leasing the port of Assab since 2015 and is reportedly building a military base there. Meanwhile, some 400 Eritrean troops are reportedly fighting as part of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, in return for which Asmara has received fuel and finance.

“The Gulf countries have repositioned Eritrea in the geopolitical context of the Horn in quite a remarkable way,” said Kjetil Tronvoll, a senior partner at the International Law and Policy Institute in Norway.

Meanwhile, the migration crisis has spurred renewed engagement by the European Union, which is desperate to stem the flow of refugees and migrants across the Mediterranean. Eritrea was Africa’s largest single source of refugees to Europe from 2014 to 2016, a distinction that won President Isaias Afwerki, an additional source of income. In 2015, the EU approved a 200 million euro aid package for Eritrea, though it has yet to disburse all the funds. This came on top of promises of training for the judiciary and security services designed to combat trafficking.

Individual European countries and humanitarian agencies are also stepping up engagement. Germany has resumed technical assistance programs while Britain’s Department for International Development is planning to open an office in Asmara. U.S. State Department officials, who long avoided the country, have started visiting again.

“The wall that the Ethiopians had carefully erected has frankly crumbled,” said Martin Plaut, the author of Understanding Eritrea.

“Everybody seems to be queuing up to love them.”

Most unnervingly from the Ethiopian perspective is Eritrea’s strengthening relationship with Egypt, Ethiopia’s historic rival and now the closest thing Eritrea has to a regional ally. Addis Ababa accuses Cairo of working with Eritrea to support armed groups that have attempted to sabotage the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the continent’s largest hydroelectric project, which Egypt regards as an existential threat because of its dependence on the Nile River’s downstream waters.



High-level exchanges between Asmara and Cairo have intensified in recent months. Afwerki traveled to Egypt in November to meet President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Eritrea’s foreign minister held talks with his Egyptian counterpart in May.

Multiple Egyptian delegations have descended on Asmara, fuelling rumors of a potential Egyptian air base in Eritrea. Such a provocation is highly unlikely, analysts say, but not impossible: Egypt has not ruled out the possibility of airstrikes against the dam.

Meanwhile, Eritrea has made its own efforts to rid itself of pariah status. It has begun courting foreign investors, especially in the mining sector. Three new mines are expected to be operational by 2018, joining the majority-Canadian-owned Bisha gold, copper, and zinc mine, which opened in 2011 and generated nearly $2 billion in revenues in its first four years of operation. The government also created a free trade zone in the port of Massawa in an effort to attract more investors.

This comes on top of small but symbolically significant measures by the government to improve its reputation on human rights. According to the Atlantic Council, some 50 foreign journalists were permitted to enter and report on the country between May 2015 and May 2016, and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was recently permitted to tour a prison.

Much of this is worrying to Ethiopia, which dislikes the prospect of Eritrea projecting its influence over the Red Sea littoral — a deep-seated anxiety tied to its own landlocked status.

Addis Ababa also worries that Afwerki will use his growing financial resources to step up support for armed opposition in Ethiopia at a time when the country is already under a State of Emergency following months of unrest. Above all, Ethiopia fears encirclement by hostile regimes. But so far it has struggled to craft a coherent response to Eritrea’s rapidly changing circumstances.

“Ethiopia was completely blindsided by what happened in Yemen,” said Cedric Barnes, the director of research and communications at the Rift Valley Institute. “They seem to have lost their way diplomatically.”

Unlike Eritrea, Ethiopia has only distant relations with the Gulf states, and its efforts to dissuade the UAE and Saudi Arabia from engaging with Asmara have apparently been unsuccessful.

As a result, it has resorted to displays of military strength, including bombing the Bisha mine in 2015. In private, government officials in Asmara claim that scores of similar provocations have occurred in recent years.

Analysts are unsure what a new Ethiopian policy toward Eritrea might entail. Some suggest it will amount to little more than a re-articulation of its existing approach, setting firm red lines and spelling out exactly what sort of military action their breach might warrant.

Others wonder if the government is considering secret bilateral talks, perhaps including the offer of withdrawal from the border town of Badme, which Ethiopian troops have occupied illegally for the past 15 years. But war — to bring about regime change in Asmara — is not out of the question either, though military overstretch and fear of full-blown state collapse [LOL] north of the border make this unlikely.

The problem is that domestic politics in Ethiopia makes bold thinking difficult. The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front is deeply divided, and the prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, lacks the authority to make a bold move toward resetting relations with Eritrea.

Whatever happens, hawks in the military and intelligence agencies will need to be brought onside, which will mean avoiding anything that looks like a humiliating climb down from the country’s aggressive stance.

Eritrea may have earned the title of Africa’s North Korea, but it has no patron like China that can force it to the table. Afwerki still benefits from the status quo, which justifies keeping the country on a permanent war footing.

Reports that Eritrean troops have occupied disputed territory following the withdrawal of Qatari peacekeepers from the Djibouti border last week serve as reminder that Eritrea can still play the part of regional spoiler.

And though it’s now less isolated, Asmara remains much weaker than Addis Ababa. In the end, movement must come from the Ethiopian side. “It’s a high-risk, high-reward situation,” Verhoeven said. “But I’m cautiously optimistic.”


* This article was first published on Foreign Policy website under the title “The Rehabilitation of Africa’s Most Isolated Dictatorship”

  • “Ethiopia recognizes that its strategy of containment, imposed on Eritrea .. in 2000…. has failed.” – ohhh

    https://twitter.com/Ternafi/status/877602829929594881

    • You mean the theatrical prop of a ‘wall’ that was only held up by the personal dislike of Susan Rice.

      https://twitter.com/ZYafet/status/877611897431793664

      • wedinakfa

        What a wall? the rotten wall created and built by Obama the good president for nothing and his nefarious Susan Rice and Janda Frazer did not have a chance to face the galant Eritrean leadership and it’s people; I for one, am not move by the lame news to resuscitate the dead woy-ane. No matter how they recycle their fake news, manufacture or rebrand it, the camel is stridently marching and the rabid dogs and their pigs are squelching louder and louder.

        • William

          Obama was a useless president and a disaster for the Horn of Africa. Goodriddance of the Obummer.

    • YapiYapo

      No wonder, they are migrating everywhere and starving. There’s not an enough land to keep them and feed them. Have they heard of birth control contraceptives?

      • wedinakfa

        I need a dollop of salt to accept your comment!! hence they don’t need contraceptive or anything as such, all they need is need a government that thinks ahead and for the people by the people, after all are they good source for begging!!!

  • @tewerwari_1: TPLF thought it can encircle Eritrea & isolate it, so now who is encircled? Disgraced Gen. Tsadkan summed up everything. TPLF is in trouble

  • 2017

    Alash abelnayom….
    https://youtu.be/YYqlmRYqF_k

  • Meaza

    The Gulf states strategic engagement with Eritrea including militarily was a master piece and the perfect checkmate to any spoiler in this troubled region. One party, that is Ethiopia, is indeed not comfortable with that, not because the Gulf states are its adversaries but because it benefitted Eritrea greatly. Other wise, this green eyed mercenary regime called TPLf would have been heard objecting them when they open bases after bases in Djibouti.

    Having said that, the only means for TPLF to sooth its self-induced fear is by either surrendering to Eritrea’s demand and vacate from all its territories to give peace and normalization of relation a chance, or to scare away Gulf countries by bombing their military bases in Assab. I’m pretty much certain, the later option will simply bring regime change in Ethiopia so not advisable. So go for the only other option left. Make peace!

    If not, accept the reality of the day and stop whining about Eritrea. Eritrea is now in much stronger position than last year or the year before, thanks largely for Trump’s victory – kicking the house nigger Obama and his little bitch Susan out of job, and for its principled policy.

    As PIA recently said, TPLF is done! Finished! I think I am start getting the real picture of this meaning now than when he actually said it the first time. Loved it.

    • YapiYapo

      Unnecessary usage of the N word.

      • Ebay-Asmara

        Really? I say, very fitting. The greatest disappointment of the century- is what Obimbo is. How many millions, hadn’t laid their hopes on him? He was even given the Nobel Peace Prize, without achieving anything.

      • Phi Lax

        not really. just calling it how it is. In fact, she forgot to include the “F” word

        • wedinakfa

          lool

      • Hafash

        yeah, house negro is politically correct.

        • P. C.

          The correct usage is “House Slave” and not the “N” word….

      • Kaleab B

        I agree. I hope Meaza would rethink and remove both the N and B words quickly. NoBama was a bad president. That’s all.

        • Bio

          Obama dedicated all his presidency to dismantle and destroy Eritrea even if it failed. We have paid Price for that. N- word is the least we have to use for him.

    • Really

      Problem is TPLF has no strategic acumen. I mean, how stupid are they? They thought if Ethiopia doesn’t use Assab it’s worthless.

  • ራኢ

    ምምባር ጽቡቕ
    =========
    ጸቢብ ጭፍራ ኤረይ ዝበደለ
    ልኡኽ ባዕዲ ዉሽጡ ዝመንመነ
    ወሪድዎ ካብ ህዝቢ ኩናኔ

    እንዳለመነ ክጉብልል ዝህቅን
    ጎርቢ ዞባ ኣብ ሰላም ዘይኣምን
    ራኢ-ኣልቦ ጽባሕ ዘይግምግም
    ተቓሪቡ ሂይወቱ ከትምም

    ኣብ ባዶ ዝዕበ ኢዱ ዊጥ ኣቢሉ
    ቁጥሚ መላዓሊ መወቀፍ ዘይብሉ
    ዝመረጸ ጸድፊ ንኤረይ በዲሉ
    ግዜ ግሩም እንታይ ከውጽኣሉ
    ምምባር ጽቡቕ ኣርእዩኒ ኩሉ!

  • Ballance

    And I quote, “Asmera is weaker than Addis. In the end, the movement must come from Ethiopia, its high risk, high reward situation”. Wtf? Who is taking the risk of creating another Somalia and who is going to to be rewarded?
    Containment by definition means, limited influence or under control. Eritrea today has no influence in the Horn, West or Arabs as they couldn’t even bring themselves to invest 10% of what they brought to Ethiopia. The only thing shabo broke is the ambition of the youth from living their lives. Qatar didn’t even open a line of communication with Djibouti but no one questioned how much the leader got paid while keeping the youth splitting rocks. Ten years later the same kind of article from 2008 are written to suggest GCC is coming to save the day? If that’s the case, why not introduce a policy other than Ethiopia is coming? Like the constitution or single budget? Face it, so long as you don’t don’t come for badme or go crazy by attacking out brotherly people in Djibouti, we don’t move an inch for an Arab bait till GERD is done.

    • Mulu G

      Since Eritrea is weaker what’s stopping you from invading or change regime. You know you really don’t believe that or come test the water. You are one stubborn donkey

      • Ballance

        It’s not me who told you how weak or strong but the article in the last paragraph. If you read it before making a comment, it would have been nice. For the record, Ethiopians known this fact for a long time, just avoiding insults or creating Somali.

        • Mulu G

          Yes I have. Since you pick and choose that paragraph you must believe it. We have being told many things is not a secret or surprise how about poor, tiny should I keep going you get my point. Like I said come and test the water ???? you already know that answer.

      • guest-2

        The war was not about asmara or about changing regime, it was about badme. We have what we want today. Who cares abt asmara or nakfa, it is your concern. Now a new concept, are you telling us ” if we get out of asmara the sun will never rise again?” Hahahaha…

        • Mulu G

          You must have been born yesterday. Agame wayane. Your days are over ask for forgiveness while still alive. Badme is always will be Eritrea ????????. So no worries.

    • Phi Lax

      ata derbai, give up already. Your constant rambling on every article and issue 100% of the time lack substance, depth, basic logic and most importantly any semblance of truth. You have no true audience and quite frankly its a bit comedic when reading the bullsh*t you type.
      Just face the truth (if thats even possible), your Woyane led Ethiopia is crumbling at this very moment considering the lingering FAMINE, security-related State of Emergency, insurgency brewing with constant attacks, and a population of 100 million coming for your necks.
      So no matter what gwohaf you try to propogate (especially on this site), you or your Woyane clique/thieves will not be able to undermine Eritrea’s progression. EVER. Hopefully you will be able to understand this, given your hangwol adgi/IQ63 status !!

      • Ballance

        According to you, we were crumbling since 2005 election, 12 years went by without even getting that potash industry up and running. Any day please.

        • wedinakfa

          ppfffff what a poor boy, if you can tell what is under your bloody nose you would have known better than the garbage you write day in day out but DEDEBIT ALWAYS DEDEBIT!!!

        • Shaebia Warriors

          12 years? How about more then 50 years of begging to be feed by your masters. Stand on your feet already and quit holding your hands out for handouts. Eritrea is not weaker, just because the article said so. Ethiopia is fighting itself while Eritreans are sipping tea waiting for Weyane to crumble and we are patient. Lol

      • Alem Mehari

        Brother

        This MLLT crud is a filthy agent of the dying junta. Don´t give him the nutrition he needs to survive, just ignore him, his imbecility has no boundaries, which by the way is omnipresent and a prime trait among the Weyane cyber zombies.

    • wedinakfa

      blah blah blah sooth your tormented mind!!!!

    • Dawit

      I wonder if you are smoking some, if Eritrea does not have any infulance in the Horn of Africa, why then are you trolling Ere websites nonstop 24/7 with your inferior comments ?

    • MammoQilo

      Did you say ‘Face it, so long as you don’t don’t come for badme or go crazy by attacking out brotherly people in Djibouti, we don’t move an inch for an Arab bait till GERD is done.’?

      Really, Agame boy? I didn’t know that 100,000 Oromos and Amharas souls that perished in 1998 war was for Badme? Or was it for your delusion of having a Red Sea-straddled ዓባይ ትግራይ ? Besides, bullets are still flying in your Ethiopia…..in four corners to bleed you slowly but surely. No sympathetic ears either from your masters….you’ve been crying at the international forums begging them to tie up Eritrea’s hands……the ‘weak’ nation. What does that say about you, Mr. IQ63?

      The irony is though Eritrea, reluctantly, has imposed ‘sanction’ on your Tiny Tigray for quites some time, and you did the rest for us- culminated in your state of Emergency declaration- sanctioning the whole Ethiopia. Under these circumstances, even the author of the article doesn’t see any way out of your predicament…..except to nudge you to gamble with your survival by going to full-scale war. For he seems to understand your psyche and he’s forced to massage your little ego. And as a low IQ and as someone who suffers from incurable inferiroity complex….you latch on to the last phrase, even if the whole world knows facts on the ground, in your woyane land, is as meaningful as your ‘100% election victory’, ‘double-digit economic growth’, ‘Badme awarded to us’ and ‘Mekelle Sapce center’……..

      May God Have Mercy on Ethiopia!

    • lion of nacfa

      Ask yourself where did Hailesilasie and Derg go ?You know it better you are living in state of emergency .Feed your hungry people first .

    • ayda

      splitting rocks is the art of building and construction. in Ethiopia there isno rock. in Tigray they do not split rock. oh what do they do when construction, building houses. they build house with what?
      imbalalance id denying the reality. does he not split rocks or some poorer than him do it for him, we quary stone and split it and build roads, houses dams, that is what we do . It is hard work, but better than begging and sittiing and waiting for handouts while their mouths are full of flies. I know imbalance choose the latter, to see his people begging in Tekelhaimanot, CHirkos areas.

    • ayda

      big risk for Ethiopia,break down into pices and woyane driven out from the palace to makalle.

  • Eritrea First

    Even our own-half Eritrean from Shabia father side (i’m assuming hehe) is teaching thousands of young artist in a global stage how to out outmaneuver the public city police with illegal raid of his brothers store without legal warrants and getting shut down and re-opening for the 3rd time.

    Today that same store is The WORLDS FIRST SMART STORE which opened up last week. This street smart guy (probably the only rapper who reads) and who is even Jay-Z’s inspiration and spent $10,000 on one of Nipsey Hussle (Ermias Asghedom) 100 CD. Yes that’s $100 each for 100 total. Nipsey was even featured on Forbes for making such marketing move. This is the DNA of an Eritrean Merchant. quitting is not in our blood. We always equip our mind to find a way. And this way of thinking is inspiring hundreds of thousands in the world.

    It’s really comes from his story and how he uses it to impact his movement.

    More importantly, his unifying the streets of Los Angeles being authentic and attracting big name talents to his movement and his brand line The Marathon Clothing. His even being watched by even top global music executives from a serious business standpoint to re-invent a better deal for artist.

    As one of the most respected artist in the city of Los Angeles and USA, .even by his former rival gangs which says alot.

    Best of all, he even visited Eritrea when he was 17-18yr and even visited SAWA for 3 month trip. Before he flew back to California with new music launch, he told people in Asmara music shop where he visited that he would be a famous rapper in America on day. This same guy now has been buzzing the music industry with an highly anticipated Album called Victory Lap. Its expected to become a classic.

    His own label (he owns his whole music catalog), own thriving clothing line, first smart store, his own burger franchise, other autonomous businesses he owns with his brother and becoming multi-millionaire WITHOUT putting out a debut album is the true definition of Self-Reliance at work with long term thinking. The Marathon Continues…

    Enjoy!

  • gemelley

    I’ve no word to add.

    • Raee

      Simply beautiful! Thanks a million Samuel.

  • guest-22

    TN! I know you are afraid of the truth. That’s why you delete my message every time and block me. The good news is you can’t block us on the ground. Everytime my comment is deleted am happy b/c you know the truth.

  • MIK

    “[I]t has resorted to displays of military strength, including bombing the Bisha Mine in 2015 . . . ,” + ” . . . earned the title of Africa’s North Korea . . . ” This guy must have seen the photo shopped pictures from Tigrai on Line and believe it! You do not show your military strength, but weakness with fake pictures! How can the author mention the June 2016 debacle at Tsorena and this in one article? The author should not take some of his news sources at face value. Otherwise, good job to recognizing the wall has crumbled!

  • Andat

    Tkhis dumu mehemel anchiwa Though Ethiopia is going through difficult period ,by the woyane juntas, we need to thread the heavy turbulence of the rough sea very carefully. We must hear, digest analyze and take action accordingly. It is not time for Ha Ha. It is time to consider the situation very carefully

  • The Observer

    This proves, yet again, that the global Eritrean MEKETE has and continues to work as planned. Did it take a little more time? Perhaps, but it has been executed in such strategic fashion that not only Eritrea survived (and will eventually blossom), Ethiopia is at a critical intersection of converging disintegration and chaos.

    TPLF and its enablers (particularly business people) will pay the price wherever they are.

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