The leaders of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia gathered in the Eritrean capital of Asmara last month for a surprise three-way meeting. The summit, which took place against the backdrop of a rapid thaw in Ethiopian-Eritrean relations, has raised hopes among observers for more frequent and durable cooperation in the Horn of Africa region. But its implications are uncertain for fractured Somalia. In an interview with WPR, Awet Weldemichael, a professor of African history and politics at Queen’s University in Canada, discusses the potential extent of a trilateral rapprochement between the historically troubled neighbors.
World Politics Review: What were the conditions that allowed leaders from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia to gather for a trilateral summit last month?
Awet Weldemichael: It is important to first touch on the rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which preceded the trilateral summit. After a bloody two-year border conflict from 1998 to 2000, followed by a 17-year stalemate, both Eritrea and Ethiopia faced serious internal crises, making it mutually beneficial for them to bury the hatchet. The rise to power of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia, his aggressive domestic reforms, and his repeated calls for the resolution of the conflict with Eritrea helped Asmara overcome its distrust of Addis Ababa.
On June 2, Ethiopia’s ruling coalition announced its decision to adhere to an international court’s 2002 ruling on the border between the two countries, which Ethiopia had previously refused to honor. Then, on June 20, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki announced plans to send a high-level delegation to Ethiopia for the first time in two decades. A series of further actions followed in quick succession: Prime Minister Abiy’s visit to Eritrea, President Isaias’s visit to Ethiopia, the resumption of direct telephone lines and air transport between the two countries and the opening of border crossings.
For the normalization of Eritrean-Ethiopian relations to come to full fruition, however, the lifting of U.N. Security Council sanctions placed on Eritrea in 2009 and 2011 is crucial. These sanctions were imposed against Eritrea on the basis of trumped up charges that it was supporting Al-Shabaab terrorists and destabilizing Somalia. But Eritrea and Somalia have reconciled in recent years, agreeing to establish diplomatic relations in July. Somalia and Ethiopia’s active diplomatic work at the U.N., advocating on Eritrea’s behalf, also add to the compelling case for lifting the sanctions.
The mending of fences between Eritrea and Ethiopia should also be seen against the backdrop of broader regional and global dynamics. The war in Yemen, Gulf nations’ rivalries with Iran, and U.S.-China tensions across the wider region are all important contributors to recent developments in the Horn of Africa. Since at least late 2017, the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in separate but loosely coordinated ways, worked quietly to bring Ethiopia and Eritrea together. It is also possible that Saudi Arabia and the UAE may have sought to use their new influence in Asmara and Addis Ababa to bring Mogadishu out of Qatar and Turkey’s orbit and into their own.
WPR: To what extent does the summit, and the broader regional rapprochement, provide a boost to the government in Somalia?
Weldemichael: I do not see the summit as particularly helpful to a government that continues to struggle in its efforts to balance between two rival Arab camps competing for influence in Somalia. Following the Saudi-led effort to isolate Qatar diplomatically and economically, Turkey came to Qatar’s rescue and the two are apparently working together to strengthen their positions in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, the seat of its weak federal government. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE maintain preponderant influence over the five Somali regional states that are technically supposed to be under the federal government.
This dynamic has contributed to an increasingly sour relationship between Mogadishu and the outer-lying regions, and last month, the five regional state governments severed ties with the central government. If anything, the Asmara summit could only have further complicated matters for President Farmajo of Somalia. That is especially so in light of the likely possibility that the Saudis and Emiratis are using their influence in Ethiopia and Eritrea to twist Mogadishu’s arm into distancing itself from Doha—and possibly from Ankara, too.
WPR: What effect will the strengthening of diplomatic ties in the region have on the fight against extremist groups like Al-Shabaab, given alleged support of the group by Eritrea?
Weldemichael: It may be too early to tell, as it depends on how far the trilateral rapprochement will go and what meaningful impact it will have on the ground.
The mending of fences between Eritrea and Ethiopia has ended each country’s backing of the others’ opponents, some of which are armed groups. But calling these rebel movements terrorists, like a now-defunct Ethiopian law did, stretches the concept beyond recognition.
Claims that Eritrea supported Al-Shabaab are inaccurate, and to that extent, the agreement in question won’t change anything because Eritrean support for Al-Shabaab was not there to begin with. Ethiopia’s strategy against Al-Shabaab and other terrorists did not depend on its relations with Eritrea, and in the past two decades, Ethiopia has largely had its way in Somalia regardless of who was in power in Mogadishu or the regional states.
In the very long term, however, home-grown and locally owned peace among the countries of the region would not only prevent another state failure and deny terrorists a foothold, but could also contribute meaningfully to the restoration of the Somali state. The strong ties that Eritrea and Ethiopia enjoyed through most of the 1990s had turned them into a bulwark against terrorism in the region. If the current warming of ties between Eritrea and Ethiopia were to be put on a solid, sustainable institutional footing, Asmara and Addis Ababa could very well restore their joint counterterrorism alliance, which would yield dividends in the form of economic development and regional peace and cooperation.