Written by: Martin Plaut, Senior Research Fellow, Horn of Africa and Southern Africa, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study
The end of hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea has been met with relief in the region as well as globally. But what does it mean for Eritrea, which has been dubbed the North Korea of Africa. The Conversation Africa’s Julius Maina spoke to Martin Plaut about the implications for the small and reclusive state.
How did Eritrea earn its reputation as a reclusive state?
Isaias Afwerki, the Eritrean president, has operated on the presumption that no-one would come to Eritrea’s aid after it launched its armed struggle for independence from Ethiopia in 1961. It was never entirely true, but they certainly didn’t have the support of any major power.
When Eritrea gained its independence in 1993 he saw no reason to alter his view. As a result, major international aid agencies were made unwelcome. Even the United Nations has found it difficult to work in the country.
After 2001, when the president cracked down on all opposition – including from within his own party – all major news organisations, including the BBC, Reuters and AFP – were banned from having offices in the country. International journalists have only been allowed to visit sporadically. This has left Eritrea under-reported.
Isaias is moody and reclusive by nature. Since the regime is a dictatorship which has never allowed elections of any kind, the country reflects the politics of its leader.
The country has been named as a sponsor of regional terrorism. To what extent is this still the case?
Following Eritrea’s bitter border war with Ethiopia between 1998 and 2000, the government in Asmara became a sponsor of the Somali Islamist group, Al-Shabaab, and a number of Ethiopian rebel groups . It did so to undermine the Ethiopian government, which was fighting a war in Somalia against the Islamists. Eritrea’s support for Ethiopian rebel groups had a similar aim in mind.
These activities – as well as a border clash with Djibouti – led to the UN Security Council imposing an arms embargo against Eritrea in 2009. The embargo didn’t include economic sanctions.
UN appointed experts monitored the arms and logistical support Eritrea provided to Al-Shabaab in great detail. In recent years they’ve reported back that they have no evidence of current Eritrean backing for Al-Shabaab.
In the last few weeks the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has said he thinks the sanctions regime will become obsolete, since Eritrea and Ethiopia have resolved their differences.
How will recent events affect politics and commerce in the Horn?
The prospects for the Horn could be transformed if the Ethiopia-Eritrea rapprochement holds and their border dispute is truly resolved.
The closure of their mutual frontier for the past two decades has had a terrible effect on people all along the 1,000 km long border. Family ties and trade patterns were severely disrupted.
The people of the two countries have never been at loggerheads: there is little real animosity between them. The divisions have been between the ruling parties of both countries.
With these apparently resolved, life in the Horn can resume as normal. The Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab will hum with life once more, as Ethiopian trade flows through them. And the potash deposits on their border can be developed. Since Ethiopia is currently Africa’s fastest growing economy this could ease bottlenecks such as international investment in Eritrea which will no longer be viewed as a war-risk. And instead of competing to fund and support rebel movements in each other’s countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea can combine to tackle the real enemy: poverty.
What will the impact be on Eritrean society?
This is the most difficult question and predictions are fraught with difficulty. Having been such a closed dictatorship it is impossible to say with any certainty how the country will be transformed.
On the one hand, Isaias could allow democracy to emerge, since he no longer has a foreign enemy on his doorstep. The constitution, which was ratified by the National Assembly, could be implemented. Free and fair elections could be held and a multi-party system allowed to emerge. The president might even decide to retire now that peace has been achieved – he is 72 years old.
This is all possible. But it’s not very likely. The president is extremely cautious and believes he is indispensable to the country: without him it will lose its way. He is more likely to move only gradually towards allowing limited freedoms. This could include ending indefinite conscription, since the rationale for this has ended. Such an approach would be consistent with his past behaviour.
But it might result in growing frustration from citizens who have accepted economic hardship and a lack of democracy during a time of war, but might do so no longer. What forces this might unleash and how the citizens will react, only time will tell.
How do these developments affect Eritrea’s refugee outflow?
The end of hostilities should mean that Eritrea’s indefinite National Service is ended. National Service (or conscription) is required of all citizens between 18 and 40 years old. In theory this lasts for no longer than 18 months. Yet many Eritreans have served for 20 years and more. Pay is minimal and conditions harsh: for women there is the threat of rape or sexual abuse. This has been – by a long shot – the main driver of the refugee exodus that has seen up to 5,000 people leaving the country every month.
Freed from conscription, some servicemen and women will return to their farms or seek employment in towns. One possible consequence is that unemployment could become serious, unless inward investment takes up the slack.
If the border with Ethiopia is opened up again thousands of people in refugee camps in Ethiopia might return home. The refugee outflow might even be reversed. This is an optimistic prognosis. More likely, refugees who have risked everything to reach safety will remain in the camps until the outcome of the dramatic changes can be assessed and the transformation is made permanent.
Eritrea’s refugee outflow will only end when both prosperity and freedom become established facts. Until then it is likely that some will continue to seek a better life abroad, even if in smaller numbers.
Martin Plaut is affiliated with Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London