While it has been praised as monumental, earning the Nobel Prize for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, details of the 2018 agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea remain shrouded. The prodigious peace agreement between the two states which had remained in a cold war for two decades is a big positive step for the entire Horn of Africa.
From what we know the agreement pledged to normalize relations, a fact that has been made apparent by recent engagements. After President Isaias and Abiy visited each other’s capitals, there has been a visible convergence of between the two. While this engagement has been viewed positively by most Ethiopians, the country’s previous rulers from the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) remained recalcitrant, eventually deciding to begin a war of insurrection, attacking army bases of the country’s northern command on November 4, 2020.
The TPLF planned their insurrection to correspond with the U.S presidential election of 2020, to the day. Some have argued few members of the incoming Biden administration, who had long links with Ethiopia’s former ruling party seem to have given a tacit green-light to the TPLF insurgency. It is highly likely the TPLF shared their plans with Egyptian and Sudanese intelligence immediately prior to the start of fighting. Recall, Sudan had used this opportunity to reclaim territory from Ethiopia’s northwest simultaneous with the TPLF uprising. This may be sign of communication between the two.
In retrospect, both Eritrea and Ethiopia seem to have understood their continued convergence is one of the reasons behind the start of the war. Disruptive moves by the TPLF may not have succeeded in thwarting the engagement between the two countries for now, but there is a real possibility the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region aims to fester into a wider ethnic configuration. External powers seek use the ongoing “Tigray War”, as well as other conflicts to threaten the long-term relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Given the circumstance, it would be ideal for both countries to elevate their engagements from tactical to strategic. This of course will require a publicly visible roadmap for future cooperation. It starts with being transparent about agreements made in 2018, as a way for confidence building.
Given the opaque nature of past dealings between Horn of Africa nations, more transparency is needed to cement and to uphold the continued détente between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Since the “Tigray War”, instigated by the TPLF has the major geopolitical goal of driving a permanent wedge between Ethiopia and Eritrea, leaders of both nations should take measures now to counteract it. Failure to do so by committing to grow the relationship now may lead to misunderstandings later.
Growing the relationship can be exemplified by allowing Ethiopia to utilize the ports of Assab for example. Already roadwork to connect Assab to Ethiopia has begun. This can be part of an overall regional security framework involving Somalia and others, as pledged by the tripartite agreement. However, the countries must be wary of attacks. Their recent maneuverings will have major push-back from external powers, but the benefits of moving boldly outweigh the costs. As things stand, support for insurgencies to destabilize Ethiopia, and even Eritrea has strong external support. We are seeing in in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.
The complex circumstance in which the Horn of Africa is currently immersed will decide the future course for a long time to come. The situation demands strategic understanding between neighboring states that are committed to avoiding a zero-sum game. It also requires a flexible platform for more cooperation. Failure to elevate the tactical alliance may lead to renewed forms of corrosive competition between Eritrea and Ethiopia.