ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Two recent and seemingly incongruous events may one day be seen as symbolic turning points for Eritrea, an authoritarian, 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 — in the notoriously repressive state.
“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 nonpermanent 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, who has been in power since 1993, 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
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, fueling 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 mine has been dogged by allegations of forced labor and dangerous working conditions.) 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 terrible 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 rearticulation 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 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.”