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Ethiopian Foreign Policy & How the Delicate Balance of diplomacy and negotiation should be maintained

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                  

IDEA Editorial January 25, 2014

Since the beginnings of people-to-people and state-to-state interaction thousands of years ago, the Horn of Africa has always been a troubled region and by comparison the most volatile and unstable area in Africa. The impetus behind these continuous conflicts is partly induced by geopolitics and foreign intervention and partly engendered by complex mode of productions as well as the mindset and lack of vision of the people.

            This editorial intends to critically examine Ethiopia's role in the Horn and its foreign policy toward its neighbors and what it ought to do in promoting its national interests vis-à-vis its good relations with its neighbors. However, in order for Ethiopia to carry out a meaningful foreign policy, the political leadership should first and foremost safeguard Ethiopian sovereignty that, in turn, enables the country to exercise independence in matters of foreign relations.

            A country that could not shape, forge, polish, formulate, and implement its foreign policy is only symbolically independent (waving its flag only!) and largely dependent rather on major donor nations. This does not mean, however, that a country should completely encapsulate itself from regional and global forces in order to prove that it is independent. In one way or another, countries are going to be influenced by regional and global powers and to some extent their foreign policy will be shaped in accordance to international political theatre and/or global interests. Thus, countries could still exhibit independence while interacting with exogenous influencing factors insofar they maintain the delicate balance of diplomacy and negotiation.

            Nevertheless, in the midst of these complex global relations that is further complicated by globalization, if Ethiopia indeed performs independently it could also maintain the delicate balance while it engages with its neighbors. It is obvious that quid pro quo politics entails actions, moves, exchanges etc that are contingent on one another and on top of this the unpredictable behavior of local, regional, and international actors as well as the fluid nature of Horn of Africa politics make the realities on the ground extremely delicate.

            In many of my previous writings, I have underscored that the peace dividend is a precondition to development and when Ethiopia and Eritrea were at loggerheads and about to go to war in 1998, following Eritrea’s invasion of Badme and subsequent occupation of Zalambessa (both Ethiopian territories), I wrote a brief memo entitled ‘It is better to have peace’ in Tigrigna and Amharic (Selam Yi’hayish; Selam Yi’bejal) and was distributed in the form of pamphlet in Ethiopian and Eritrean circles.

            Following the above peace pamphlet, I was invited by the Institute of African Studies of Columbia University to attend a mini-conference in which Susan Rice, the current national security advisor, then assistant secretary of state department for African affairs, was going to give a speech on contemporary African politics. I then seized the opportunity and asked the speaker, “Do you think the US is going to play a role in bringing peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea and what about the US-Rwanda Plan; why is it that it is not implemented?” Ms. Rice responded by saying, “We are trying our best, but it is up to the two governments to bring about peace.” I guess she was right. But we all know now what happened. Instead of peace, the bloodiest confrontation ever took place between the two countries and 70 to 100 thousand fighters perished on either side.

            Now, again, the necessity to regenerate the Ethiopian-Eritrean relations seems to have resurfaced or even seems to have taken center stage, thanks in large part to Herman Cohen and David Shinn’s clamor of diplomatic ventures or unofficial US gestures suggesting that Ethiopia should handover Badme and Eritrea allows Ethiopia to use the Port of Assab. I am not sure what the two diplomats are up to, but I can safely assume that they are trying to offer some cosmetic facelift to Mr. Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea. On January 24, 2014 on VOA Tigrigna broadcast both diplomats said, “there is no proof that Eritrea is still involved with the Al Qaueda of Somalia.” It is also abundantly clear when David Shinn in his own blog wrote “Bringing Eritrea from the cold: We Need to Un- break the US-Ethiopia-Eritrea Triangle.”

            However, I have a hard time understanding Mr. Cohen’s stance because while he advocates for “good” relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and by implication “bring” the latter “from cold” as per Ambassador Shinn’s rationale, he also advanced an antidote or a diametrically opposite idea in Minnesota several months ago where he told an Oromo Ethiopian audience to opt or seek for “a South Sudan solution.” What does that mean really? If he is in favor of Oromia seceding from Ethiopia, he is contradicting with what he is talking about now. It is simple logic: if Ethiopia is dismembered, no peace could be realized in the region. But, Cohen to his credit was perhaps the first diplomat who brought the idea of Assab as Ethiopian port in the London talks before the EPRDF seized state power and before Eritrea became independent.      

            Incidentally, in 1989, that is, long before Assab became a focal discussion point amongst Ethiopian and Eritrean circles, I attempted to promote the idea of Assab as a sea outlet for Ethiopia in anticipation of Eritrean independence. What I argued then was posted on the East African Forum website of July 2000 under the title “Encounter with Isayas Afewerki and the Question of Assab.” Here I quote what I asked Isaias at the Inter-Church Center in New York and how he responded to me:

My question on the Assab controversy was definitely unexpected, but to me it was important because in anticipation of Eritrean independence I was seriously concerned by the sudden shut-off of Ethiopia in terms of sea outlet, and I was candid and frank about it given my support to the Eritrean struggle of independence.

This was the question, verbatim, I then forwarded to Isayas: “Rumor has it that you are here to negotiate with the Derg government of Ethiopia in a peace initiative brokered by President Carter in Atlanta. I personally believe that Eritrean independence will be gained by the culmination of armed struggle and not by negotiating with the Derg. However, if the negotiation is genuinely workable on your interest, you must bear in mind that once you sit in a round table, the principle of give and take becomes the modus operandi. Now, if the Derg may put on the negotiating table the question of Assab and may demand from you the recognition of Assab as Ethiopian sea port, [and] what will be your response?”

The answer to my question was pure and simple: “Are you saying [implying] that we must give up land in order to gain our independence?”

If at all relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea are normalized via dialogue, I am of the opinion that Badme would not make a huge difference in the life of Eritreans, and although Eritreans repeatedly argued in favor of the Algiers Decision, the stark reality in Eritrea clearly demonstrates a bread and butter issue; the bottom line is the Eritrean economy and not a piece of land that would miraculously transform the current dire situation in Eritrea. By the same token, the use of Assab as a port of Ethiopia in lieu of huge payment would benefit Eritrea and not Ethiopia, and Ethiopia is already paying millions of dollars to Djibouti for using the port, and it would be a great mistake for Ethiopia to indulge in the Cohen-Shinn conundrum unless it is going to use Assab gratis or “own” it as its de facto, if not de jure port. But the latter may not happen because the damage has already been done and it is not going to be easy to repair the damage, and same logic applies to Badme: It is sovereign Ethiopian territory and if Ethiopia blindly agrees to the handing over of the land to Eritrea, a huge backlash will ensue on the part of Ethiopians and the Ethiopian people will feel betrayed by their own government. The Ethiopian government, thus, must make a calculated move in the context of Djibouti and Assab. In terms of geographical proximity, Assab is close to Kombelcha and Djibouti to Dire Dawa and there is no point in negotiating for Assab at the expense of Djibouti unless there is some mystery behind the Cohen-Shinn agenda that would grossly reward Ethiopia. This mystic remains to be seen!  

Rather than entertain Badme-Assab political cards that would have a far-reaching negative impact on Ethiopian-Eritrean relations, I am of the opinion that the two governments enter relations on a much bigger agenda whose package includes the following:

  • Open door policy and trade relations without preconditions
  • Peace treaty without preconditions
  • Bilateral relations that are mutually inclusive and beneficiary to both parties
  • A long-term plan of Ethiopian-Eritrean confederacy
  • A long-term plan of Ethiopian-Eritrean federation or union
  • Cultural and educational exchanges between the peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia
  • Enhancing and strengthening the Inter-Governmental Agency for Development (IGAD)
  • Enhancing and strengthening the East African Common Market, in which Ethiopia and Eritrea also play a positive role

The above peace proposal would bring a lasting peace not only to Ethiopia and Eritrea but also to the Horn of Africa region as a whole. An Eritrea that negotiates peace with Ethiopia would ultimately foster friendly relations with Djibouti and other IGAD member countries.

But the two countries should independently execute the big agenda that I have suggested above. Moreover, although I am not sure how it is going to work out for Eritrea – and I am not qualified to propose on behalf of Eritrea – I have a word of caution and my two penny worth advice for the Ethiopian government.

First and foremost, the Government of Ethiopia has an obligation to advocate on behalf of Ethiopia’s national interest and promote an agenda that does not compromise Ethiopia’s strategic interests. Secondly, and more importantly, the Ethiopian Government should not initiate any negotiation without the knowledge and endorsement of the Ethiopian people. The Government should engage Ethiopians in a public and open forum in regards to any relation with Eritrea; the Ethiopian people cannot adjudicate the day-to-day performance and decision-making of the Government, which is understandable in the context of technical government operations. But the people must have a say in delicate matters such as sovereignty, territorial integrity, and bilateral as well as multilateral relations that directly affect the Ethiopian people. The Ethiopian people should be given a chance to voice on matters of bigger issues that impact all Ethiopians, and that is precisely what I mean by delicate balance in foreign policy.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © IDEA, Inc. 2014 Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org