Who stands to gain and lose from peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea?

This week in North Philly Notes, Jennifer Riggan, author of The Struggling State, and Amanda Poole write about Eritrea and Ethiopia’s new peace deal in this article reposted from Middle East Eye.

On 9 July 2018, in a historic meeting in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, and Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afewerki, signed an agreement on peace and friendship, officially ending their almost two-decades-long cold war. To reach this point, on 5 June, Ethiopia finally accepted a peace agreement that both countries had signed 18 years earlier.

Following two weeks of what appeared to be total silence, in his 20 June Eritrean Martyrs Day speech, President Afewerki responded favourably to Prime Minister Ahmed. Since then, events have proceeded rapidly.

A game changer

Following an emotionally evocative visit by a high-level Eritrean delegation to Addis Ababa, Prime Minister Ahmed travelled to Asmara. The prime minister’s visit to Asmara was rife with symbolism and emotion as thousands of Eritreans filled the streets of Asmara while Eritreans and Ethiopians in Ethiopia were visibly moved as they witnessed images of the Ethiopian and Eritrean flags flying together.

Most significantly, within moments of signing the agreement, phone lines between the two countries opened up for the first time in 20 years, connecting people across borders to a momentous historical event. On 15 July, President Afwerki visited Ethiopia for the first time in 22 years, coinciding with the opening of the old Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa.

The emotional significance of this moment of peace between the two countries cannot be dismissed nor can its potential

Commentators, analysts and diplomats have hailed the peace agreement as a game changer that will lead to openness, benevolence and cooperation benefiting Eritrea and Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa, and Africa and the Middle East more broadly.

The emotional significance of this moment of peace between the two countries cannot be dismissed nor can its potential. It mends broken friendships and sutures together ruptured identities. It allows Eritreans and Ethiopians to think of each other as brothers and sisters and gives many citizens of both countries a much-needed and long-awaited sense of hope.

But does everyone stand to gain from peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea? The benefits are potentially greater to some than to others.

Arab allies’ role

At the center of peace negotiations is the sleepy southern Eritrean port of Assab bordering Djibouti at the mouth of the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, strategically located at the southern mouth of the Red Sea.

The United Arab Emirates has expressed a keen interest in Assab and stands to gain a great deal from Eritrean and Ethiopian cooperation over port usage. Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country and one of its fastest-growing economies.

With a burgeoning textile industry, the country has been desperate for expanded sea access. Prior to the beginning of the border war with Eritrea in 1998, Assab served as Ethiopia’s main port. Since the war began, Ethiopia invested heavily in Djibouti but has found that arrangement insufficient for its growing industries.

Although Assab is an indisputable part of Eritrean territory, the fact that Eritrea’s northern port of Massawa is sufficient for its shipping needs meant that Assab largely fell into disuse when the border war broke out until the United Arab Emirates leased it in 2016.

While reports show that UAE has developed the port for military use related to the war in Yemen, the port has a great deal of untapped commercial potential. Thus, UAE is well positioned to benefit once Ethiopia begins using the port to its full potential.

 It is not surprising that UAE is reported to be a key player in the peace deal although the specifics of its role are not entirely clear

A number of actors played a key role in bringing about peace, most notably Ethiopia and Eritrea themselves. Arab allies also played a key role. Saudi Arabia and UAE, on good terms with both countries, played a bridging role between the two. It is not surprising that UAE is reported to be a key player in the peace deal although the specifics of its role are not entirely clear.

The Eritrean president visited UAE in early July just as peace was being negotiated. And UAE recently gave Ethiopia $1bn to alleviate currency shortages, a move that coincided with the resumption of Ethiopian diplomatic relations with Eritrea. One of the five provisions of the recently signed agreement on peace and friendship notes the opening up of the port for Ethiopian use.

Struggling State_smLeft in the cold

Meanwhile, other stakeholders may fare less well in the peace agreement. Djibouti, arguably, may be unhappy with these arrangements having provided Ethiopia with a port since 1998.Assab has been effectively isolated since the border war began, giving Djibouti something of a monopoly over strategic control over the Bab-el-Mandab strait and enabling it to attract key investments and political alliances.

But there are others who will potentially be left in the cold as Eritrea and Ethiopia warm up to each other. While Ethiopians have been gleefully waiting to board flights to Eritrea, Eritreans in Eritrea are unsure whether they will be allowed to leave and Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia are wary of whether the country will be a place that they can ever return to.

It is expected that peace between the two countries will lead to economic benefits to both Eritrea and Ethiopia as commerce, trade and tourism crosses the border. Ethiopian airlines flights to Asmara resumed on 18 July and were full, but social media reports suggested that only 80 people were on the return flight.

Given Eritrea’s travel restrictions, it is not surprising that there would be much more traffic to Asmara than from it. To leave Eritrea legally, Eritreans are required to have exit visas, which are almost impossible to acquire. Many welcome an open border if it leads to increased mobility for Eritreans, but this will require the Eritrean government to alter longstanding practices of restricting population movements. Unlike Ethiopians, Eritreans may not benefit from these newly opened travel routes.

Refugees are another population who may not benefit from peace. Open borders and increased mobility between the two countries are a source of concern and fear for many of the 160,000 Eritrean refugees hosted by Ethiopia, many of whom live in camps close to the border. Refugees voice concerns about protection of political asylees when the nearby border opens up and representatives of the regime in Asmara are free to travel across that border into Ethiopia.

Some of those political asylees were labelled as political dissidents while still in Eritrea, leading to their flight. Some have aligned themselves directly or indirectly with Eritrean opposition groups who until now were supported by Ethiopia.

A greater number of refugees fear repercussions that could amount to a witch hunt for political dissidents should Eritrean spies or officials have access to the camps, some of which are open and easily accessible to major roadways.

Many Eritrean refugees are fearful that their relative safety which has been guaranteed by the enmity between the two countries will be eroded as camps and urban spaces become penetrable by agents of the Eritrean government. Ironically, peace may make refugee lives in Ethiopia less peaceful.

Peace questions

Along with protection concerns, increased mobility between the two countries raises other issues for refugees, such as the continuation of the prima facia basis for granting Eritreans refugee status in Ethiopia. Will Eritreans who currently have political asylum for their opposition to the regime in Asmara continue to be protected in Ethiopia? Or will Ethiopia become a place, like Sudan, where they are vulnerable to capture and forced return by the Eritrean military?

On the other hand, some refugees wonder if the presence of an Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa might help them. Refugees needing documents, particularly passports, to reunify with family members in other countries, have not been able to get them in Ethiopia.

Many have travelled to Uganda or Kenya to visit an Eritrean embassy where they are required to sign a letter apologising for leaving the country, admitting that they left for economic rather than political reasons, accepting punishment upon their return and agreeing to pay the two percent tax to the government, all in exchange for consular services.

A handful of refugees seem to be looking ahead towards repatriation. Some worry about whether it will be truly voluntary. Others wonder what resources will be provided for them to facilitate their return home. Almost all express concerns for their safety and the desire to see peace, and the chance to live free of government harassment in Eritrea, not only between the two countries.

Considering the Eritrean state operates on a logic of control and continues to deny that citizens who have fled are refugees in need of asylum, the safe and voluntary return of refugees currently residing in Ethiopia seems uncertain.

There is no doubt that peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia will change things in the region giving Ethiopia much-coveted sea access, boosting the economies of both countries possibly to the benefit of its Arab allies such as UAE. But closer to home, peace raises a number of questions that have yet to be answered as Eritreans wonder whether peace will benefit them.

– Dr. Jennifer Riggan is Associate Professor of International Studies at Arcadia University.

– Dr. Amanda Poole is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Both have been researching Eritrea for two decades and have been engaged in research on Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia for the past two years. 

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Knowledge Unlatched enables a further 78 books to be Open Access

This week, we highlight the Knowledge Unlatched (KU) program. Round 2 of this open access program “unlatched” three Temple University Press titles:  We Shall Not Be Moved/No Nos Moverán by David Spener,  The Muslim Question in Europe by Peter O’Brien, and The Struggling State, by Jennifer Riggan.  The KU program allows publishers to recover costs while making important current content available openly online.

These Temple University Press titles are among the 78 unlatched* books that have been made open access through the support of both individual libraries and library consortia from across the globe. This round brings the total to more than 100 titles now available as open access since 2014, when the KU Pilot Collection of 28 humanities and social science monographs from 13 publishers was unlatched by nearly 300 libraries worldwide.  Constructing Muslims in France, by Jennifer Fredette, was included in the Pilot Collection.

These 78 new books from 26 publishers (including the original 13 participants) have been successfully unlatched by libraries in 21 countries along with support from a number of library consortia, who together raised over $1 million. The books are being loaded onto the OAPEN and HathiTrust platforms, where they will be available for free as fully downloadable PDFs. The titles cover five humanities and social science subject areas (Anthropology, History, Literature, Media and Communications, and Politics): http://collections.knowledgeunlatched.org/packages/.

The second round of KU allowed libraries to choose from subject packages as well as publisher packages. It also introduced consortium participation into the program. Additional plans for KU expansion will be announced soon.

* ‘Unlatching’ is term for KU’s  collaborative and sustainable way of making content available using Creative Commons licences and fully downloadable by the end user.

Understanding the Struggles of Citizens and State in Eritrea

In this blog entry, Jennifer Riggan, author of The Struggling State,  sheds light on life in Eritrea, a highly militarized, authoritarian country where educational institutions were directly implicated in the making of soldiers.

Europe’s “migrant crisis”—the historically unprecedented flight of refugees—has recently taken center stage. Those from Eritrea, a country of six million people, comprise 8 percent of all migrants entering Europe and represent Europe’s third largest immigrant group. The large number of Eritrean refugees is stunning considering that, unlike Syria and Afghanistan, Eritrea is currently not at war. Also striking is the fact that Eritrean refugees are disproportionately young men and increasingly unaccompanied children. Why are these particular populations of refugees fleeing?

Struggling State_smMy new book,  The Struggling State, sheds light on life inside Eritrea, a country governed by what is often regarded as one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Conditions in Eritrea are more complex than we might expect. Human rights violations and a lack of civil liberties in Eritrea explain why so many leave, but this peculiar pattern of refugee flight is also caused by the evolution of state-society relations in the country.

Eritrea is a highly militarized authoritarian dictatorship. The government shut down independent media in 2001. Independent civil society organizations are not allowed. Any attempt to protest has been brutally cracked down on. Detentions without cause are common. All but four religions are banned. Most controversial is Eritrea’s national service program. National/ military service by law consists of 6 months of military training and 12 months of unpaid service, most often in the military. However, very few people have been released from military service since a border war with Ethiopia broke out in 1998. Many have been serving for close to two decades even though there has been no fighting since 2000. “Service,” which has been equated with forced labor and slavery, has become endless. Eritreans are not allowed to leave the country legally while in national/ military service.

Eritrea is known for its thirty-year-long, tenacious, military “struggle” which resulted in independence from Ethiopia, effectively in 1991 and officially in 1993. The Struggle, however, was not just a military one, but a revolutionary process to build a nation based on principles of ethnic, gender and class equality and unity among Eritrea’s nine ethnic groups and two major religions. In fall 2003, when embarked on a two-year period of ethnographic fieldwork, I initially planned to study teachers’ reactions to and interpretations of Eritrea’s nation-building project. However, new educational policies were introduced which radically changed not only the education system, but the relationship between citizens and the state and, ultimately, my research project. The 2003 policies merged national/military service with secondary education by mandating that all students, male and female, complete their final year of high school at a boarding facility located in the nation’s main military training center, Sawa.

Teachers and students were disillusioned by this repurposing of education—schooling no longer embodied their hopes and dreams, but became a conduit to the military. My research focuses on how teachers, as state employees, responded to these changes, placing teacher and student reactions against the backdrop of broader experiences living under an increasingly coercive government. Secondary school students, previously disciplined and diligent, began cutting class and misbehaving in unprecedented numbers. Teachers responded, paradoxically, by joining students in their indiscipline but also cracking down on students with increased coercion, and, at times, violence.  Today, many young people flee the country before they enter into the educational-military conduit. Many teachers have fled as well.

Eritreans’ encounter with the state is characterized by experiences of coercion, being punished and feeling imprisoned. There is no reliably applied rule of law, meaning that Eritreans are not only susceptible to coercive and punishing policies set in place by the country’s leaders, but are also susceptible to the will and whims of an array of state employees—supervisors, military commanders, police and even teachers. However, these state employees are also susceptible to the will and whims of more powerful state actors. One of my central arguments is that this “punishing state” is the result of a vicious cycle in which state employees are themselves “punished” and they, in turn, punish others and/or evade being punished, often by fleeing the country.

The Struggling State raises a number of questions about the nature of the state, particularly authoritarian states such as Eritrea. The book complicates our understanding of Eritrea, neither depicting it as benevolent but misunderstood, as the ruling party’s nationalist narratives would have us do, nor maligning it, as international media and human rights narratives tend to. Instead I show how the experience of government coercion leads Eritreans to think of their state as punishing. Eritreans imagining the state, not as promising, but as punishing, has unraveled the ruling party’s national project, separating the nation from the state. Strong feelings of nationalism are intact among Eritreans, but are no longer affixed solely to the ruling part and its revolutionary struggle. Teachers have been central to this process. Schooling, in general, and teachers in particular, are often thought to reproduce state power.  In contrast, The Struggling State shows that teachers play a much more ambivalent role as they struggle to instill in students a sense of national belonging and hope for the future of the nation even when they themselves have so little hope given the strictures of life under the current regime.

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