Early this month, the Ethiopian government declared that it was finally ready to implement a peace deal it signed with Eritrea nearly two decades ago. The Eritrean government didn’t respond to the announcement for over two weeks — until Wednesday, when President Isaias Afwerki said that “the positive direction that has been set in motion is crystal clear.” Mr. Isaias also promised to send a delegation to Ethiopia “to gauge current developments directly and in depth.”
For many years, however, even as Ethiopia declared its willingness to implement a 2002 judgment about the two states’ border, it refused to withdraw its troops from Eritrean territory until other issues — about armed groups, trade, access to Eritrea’s ports on the Red Sea — were settled. But Eritrea refused to negotiate at gunpoint, especially over a boundary decision that both governments had committed to uphold whatever its outcome.
So why the surprise breakthrough now?
Analysts have pointed to two factors: the advent of Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who in just a few months has embarked on a series of ambitious domestic reforms, and a recent trip to Eritrea by Donald Yamamoto, the acting head of the State Department’s Africa bureau, a rare visit for a senior American diplomat. A changing of the guard in both countries appears to explain this watershed moment.
Except that it doesn’t. Ethiopia’s policy toward Eritrea was shifting well before Mr. Abiy came to power, largely as a result of fundamental domestic factors. And America’s policy in the Horn of Africa hardly has changed: It is as misguided as ever, with its overriding focus on counterterrorism. What’s more, the United States has far less sway over Ethiopia than it would like or than is often assumed.
In the years that followed the 2002 boundary decision, Ethiopia became a regional powerhouse and a major security partner of the West, and it played on that influence to isolate Eritrea, seemingly in the hope of destabilizing the country until it collapsed. The Eritrean government only made matters worse by shelving its Constitution, arresting dissidents and supporting armed rebels throughout the Horn of Africa — policies that alienated its neighbors and Western powers alike.
But over time, containing Eritrea became less and less tenable as a strategy for the Ethiopian government.
For one thing, Eritrea has emerged from its near-total isolation in recent years. In particular, in 2015 it began developing new alliances with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, both eager to use its territory as a base for operations in Yemen, for example. Ethiopia nonetheless tried to marginalize Eritrea, supporting efforts in 2016 to mount a case against the Isaias government for crimes against humanity. When that failed, it attacked the border — again in hopes of precipitating an internal crisis in Eritrea. But that, too, failed.
More important, the costs of isolating Eritrea became too onerous for Ethiopia as it struggled to contain mounting unrest at home.
Ethiopia has more than 80 different ethnicities, but the Tigrayan minority, which makes up only about 6 percent of the total population, holds the reins of the country’s wealth and political power, notably through the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (T.P.L.F.), long the country’s dominant party. Ethiopia’s Somali population in the southeastern region of Ogaden has been fighting the central government since the early 1990s. And since 2015, the Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group, has staged protests in more than 200 towns in the vast central region of Oromia, demanding wholesale political reform.
But it was when tens of thousands of Amhara joined Oromo protesters in August 2016 that the scales finally tipped. Facing escalating unrest from so many sides, the government declared a state of emergency that October. Ethiopia seemed to be coming apart at the seams.
The military already was stretched thin, with thousands of troops tied up in peacekeeping operations in Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan. As the need to deploy soldiers across the country to quell popular unrest grew, the Ethiopian government could no longer afford to keep tens of thousands of forces stationed on the border with Eritrea. In April 2017, Hailemariam Desalegn, then the prime minister, announced a “new policy direction regarding Eritrea” centered on “creating a sustainable peace.”
Mr. Abiy’s recent peace declaration doesn’t cover any new ground, and it is as vague as Mr. Hailemariam’s policy was.
Nor is Mr. Abiy’s announcement the result of some dramatic diplomatic push from the United States. For years now, Washington’s policy in the region has been dominated by security concerns, and human rights and the Eritrea issue, among other things, have fallen by the wayside. In any event, Ethiopia always has had the upper hand in the relationship.
It’s easy for the government to withhold intelligence from the United States, sit out a counterterrorism operation in Somalia or commit fewer troops to a peacekeeping mission. American support to Ethiopia, on the other hand, is nearly inflexible. America’s military assistance is delivered by way of formal commitments to the African Union’s peacekeeping missions; most of its humanitarian aid comes in packages approved by Congress. And Washington doesn’t have any good long-term alternatives to its security partnership with Ethiopia.
In other words, any progress on the Ethiopia-Eritrea dispute these days is happening in spite of American policy in the region, not thanks to it.
And what kind of progress is Ethiopia’s recent declaration anyway? If the T.P.L.F. can spoil Mr. Abiy’s efforts, the government may be forced to backtrack.
Mr. Hailemariam resigned as prime minister in February after protesters started blocking the roads into Addis Ababa. The T.P.L.F. feared that it might lose its grip on power, which already was slipping, if fuel and food shortages and then unrest spread to the capital. To stop the protests’ advance, the government forced out Mr. Hailemariam and released several thousand political prisoners.
But those moves only gave the Oromo protesters a real taste of their strength. Crowds flooded the streets again to celebrate the prisoners’ release, and with that, the T.P.L.F. lost its absolute say over the nomination process for the next prime minister.
The party didn’t care for Mr. Abiy, an Oromo, but its leaders were divided between endorsing a party lackey or a hard-liner. On the other hand, the T.P.L.F. couldn’t possibly get behind the firebrand reformer favored by Oromo leaders. In the end, Mr. Abiy seemed like the least-bad option, an all-around compromise candidate.
That weak endorsement leaves Mr. Abiy in a vulnerable position today. He seems to be rushing to pass radical, popular reforms in the hope of both calming protesters and broadening his base. Meanwhile the T.P.L.F. — conveniently forgetting its authorship of the “sustainable peace” policy last year — is protesting Mr. Abiy’s overtures to Eritrea (and other things besides). Tigrayans living near Eritrea have objected, too, and have held demonstrations. With the T.P.L.F. presumably still in control of Ethiopia’s army, it’s also unclear if the officers stationed on the Eritrean border, many of whom are Tigrayan, would obey a government order to withdraw. Serious negotiations with Eritrea will be a heavy lift for Mr. Abiy.
But he may have support from an unexpected corner: the Eritrean government. Mr. Isaias’ advisers have told me that at this stage ensuring stability in Ethiopia is more important to them than rushing to finally end the old stalemate over the border. Eritrea may be the least of Mr. Abiy’s problems. Now that he has made an overture, peace between the two countries might be best served by being delayed.
Bronwyn Bruton is deputy director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, in Washington, and director of the center’s Eritrea Working Group.