Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a thirty-year long independence struggle that forced about one million people to flee the country. After only five years of peace, Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a bitter border war that resulted in the death of up to 100,000 people, which also marked the end of all hopes for a sound development of the young State of Eritrea. The Algiers Peace Agreement of December 2000 ended the military conflict but did not solve the underlying problems between the ruling elites of Ethiopia and Eritrea. In the aftermath of the war, potential reformers within the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) were made to disappear in harsh prisons along with the journalists of the nascent independent press, and President Isaias Afewerki has since ruled the country with an iron fist without an implemented constitution and in the absence of rule of law. National elections were never held, there has been no active legislative organ since 2002 and the judiciary fell into disarray. Isaias introduced an open-ended national service for all Eritreans aged between 18 and 50 years. This led to the militarization of Eritrea’s society and economy, which has since been based on forced labour provided by national service conscripts under the command of high-ranking military officers or PFD cadres. Ethiopia was portrayed as the “enemy”, since its government had refused to cede territory around the symbolic place of Badme, which had been awarded to Eritrea by the Ethiopia Eritrea Boundary Commission (EEBC).
However, things changed rapidly when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in Ethiopia in April 2018 as a result of political turmoil that weakened the old Tigrayan political elite in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition. Not only did Abiy start to turn things around in Ethiopia, he also made a surprising move to break the stalemate between Eritrea and Ethiopia by formally accepting the EEBC decision. Quite surprisingly, Eritrea’s president responded favourably to Abiy’s initiative and on 9 July, the Prime Minister was warmly welcomed in Asmara, where both parties signed a joint declaration of peace. In mid-July Isaias visited Ethiopia, and the pictures broadcasted live by both national TV stations made many observers speechless: an emotionally moved Isaias who seemed to have turned from a harsh-looking dictator into a child in front of his birthday cake and reportedly remarked: “Hate, discrimination and conspiracy is now over. Our focus from now on should be on developing and growing together. We are ready to move forward with you as one. No one can steal the love we have regained now. Now is the time to make up for the lost times”.
Borders between the countries were opened in September, and in the same month another peace agreement was signed in Jeddah, Saudi-Arabia, marking this country’s interest in Horn of Africa developments due to its geo-strategic interests. As a result, tens of thousands of Eritreans took the opportunity to cross into the neighbouring country: either just out of curiosity, to join relatives who had fled earlier, to continue their way to the north, or merely to seek rescue from the national service in an Ethiopian refugee camp. On the other hand, large numbers of Ethiopian traders entered Eritrea, selling all kinds of basic consumer goods that had been scarce in the country for years due to the government’s failed command economy of the government.
The Lack of a Roadmap
The major points of the peace agreement are cooperation in the fields of economy, security, defence, trade and investment, and to demarcate the border. Several committees should be established to work out the details. However, very little progress was made in the following months. First, the border was not demarcated and talk about this issue ceased very soon. The demarcation would affect Ethiopia’s Tigray Regional State bordering Eritrea, whose political elite had been dominant until Abiy’s rise to power. From Isaias Afewerki’s point of view, Abiy’s measures to contain the dominance of the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) in the Ethiopian ruling coalition was a welcome step against those he considered his archenemies. Yet, Abiy is struggling against ethnic unrest spreading across Ethiopia and probably does not want to provoke the TPLF further and the Eritrean government itself has stopped talking about border demarcation. However, Eritrea unilaterally closed all borders months after their opening, thus barring Ethiopian traders from entering and Eritreans from leaving. No proper explanation was given, but most probably the regime fears the risk of losing control over the command economy and further acceleration of the mass exodus. From time to time, the Ethiopian side has announced progress in the preparation of transport services, hoping to be able to commence trade and the use of Eritrean ports soon, and even made ambitious plans to re-establish an Ethiopian navy. However, the Eritrean president has remained silent and a renewed visit of Abiy to Asmara in August 2019 seems not to have yielded many tangible results.
The National Service Issue
Internally, the peace agreement raised hopes for much-needed reforms, first of all a reform of the national service that was originally limited to 18-months with the intention to facilitate the reconstruction of the war-devastated country. However, since its transformation into “service for life” (Human Rights Watch 2009), it was abused to simulate a war-like situation that demanded the self-sacrifice of the post-independence generation even in the absence of armed conflict. As a result, thousands of Eritreans fled the country every year in spite of shoot-to-kill orders at the border, unwilling to sacrifice their lives for the weird ideological concepts of their superiors. In that way, a vicious circle emerged, in which Eritreans had to flee in order to lead a decent life abroad and to send remittances which kept their families in the country alive. Interestingly, this situation helped to stabilize the government, which made great efforts to maintain the support of the diverse diaspora communities. However, with the peace agreement the justification for the timely unlimited service no longer exists, and growing numbers of diaspora Eritreans, and some inside the country are demanding reforms. Eventually, the “Enough!” (or in local languages “Yiakl! or “Kifaya!”) movement was born, a campaign demanding an end to the national service in its present form, democratisation and the release of political prisoners. Yet, the government has not shown any kind of willingness to respond to these demands, and Isaias’ promises of 2018 have faded away.
Outlook: is there still hope?
One good thing about the peace agreement which should not be forgotten is that the immediate threat of armed hostilities is low at the moment. Beyond this fact, it is difficult to predict any form of rapid progress towards sustainable peace. In order to understand the present stalemate, it is helpful to look at the stakeholders: First, Isaias Afewerki and his small ruling elite have only one interest: clinging to power for the foreseeable future without undertaking any kind of reforms. Their rigid worldview has not been changed by a few emotional moments in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia’s prime minister is struggling with its own problems in the face of upcoming national elections in 2020, a destabilized ruling-coalition, widespread ethnic unrest and other problems in Ethiopia, which seems to have made him drop the Eritrea issue from his top-priority list. The international community, as has often been the case, does not play any actively encouraging role. Saudi-Arabia and the United Emirates have been facilitators of the agreement and most probably Eritrea’s president has received rewards for his readiness to cooperate. This must be seen against the background of Eritrea providing a military base in the war against the Houthis in nearby Yemen and increased efforts of the Gulf states to gain influence in the strategically important Horn region. However, they do not seem to bother about details regarding the implementation of the peace agreement on the ground. The USA under Donald Trump is siding with the Saudis due to its anti-Iranian stance, which make Prince Mohammed bin Salman its “natural ally”. Europe, on the other hand is pre-occupied with “migration management”, but seemingly unable to consider the greater picture. Through the Khartoum Process, it has sent support to East African dictators, but has not made any efforts to pressure Eritrea towards a national service reform, despite being aware that this is the main reason that causes Eritreans to flee towards Europe in the tens of thousands. The efforts of the Eritrean diaspora have so far been in vain because it struggles with internal splits. It has been unable to convince Western policy makers to take an alternative approach on Eritrea that goes beyond a 20 million road building project recently approved by the EU, which tacitly accepts that national service recruits are employed as forced construction workers. Thus, the road to peace will be long and winding.
 AP News, 15 July 2018, “Eritrean, Ethiopian Leaders Call New Peace Example to Africa”, https://www.apnews.com/065d3615db984238928e2cec531ec627, accessed 7 September 2019.