Some of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders, ranging from the Blue Nile to the Red Sea coastline, are native to the African countries currently known as Ethiopia and Eritrea, whose vast resources and rich cultural history have intrigued the rest of the world for centuries. Unfortunately, the natural wonders of these regions are often overshadowed in contemporary media due to decades of conflict between (and within) the two countries, in which both sides have suffered catastrophic casualties. In 2018, peace processes and negotiations sought to bring an end to years of devastating hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea, eventually leading to a formal comprehensive cooperation pact that was signed in 2019, which codified a new age of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The latest development within these peace processes was seen this month on Oct 12, 2020, when Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki arrived in the city of Jimma to meet with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and continue working towards an objective of the “further enhancement of bilateral ties as well as the consolidation of regional cooperation” (as quoted by the Eritrean information minister). While these diplomatic developments inspire cautious optimism for a more peaceful and bilateral relationship between the two countries, it is also important to provide an international and historical context as to how Ethiopia and Eritrea arrived at this point, and what this history may mean for the future of diplomacy in the region.
Italian Imperial Expansion
It is impossible to analyze the case of Eritrea and Ethiopia without considering 19th century Italian imperial expansion and its lasting impacts on the region. The present-day borders of Eritrea were conceptualized in the late 1890s when Ethiopia conceded the region to Italy as part of negotiations following the Italian defeat in the Battle of Adwa. Under these agreements, Italy was mandated to cease all of its planned imperial expansion in the region (a clause it later negated on), and in exchange, the colonial power was permitted to maintain control over the small coastal territory.
In January of 1890, this region was officially proclaimed the colony of Italian Eritrea. European powers, including Italy and Great Britain, would proceed to assert colonial control over Ethiopia and Eritrea throughout the first half of the 20th century. This caused a variety of other internal issues, but it was the original act of Italian imperial aggression that set the stage for Eritrean-Ethiopian hostilities decades later.
Annexation, Independence, and Further Conflict
Although geopolitically divided by borders facilitated through Italian colonial expansion, the political landscapes of Ethiopia and Eritrea continued to be intertwined throughout the 20th century. The relations between the two states became increasingly militarized due to the 1962 Ethiopian annexation of Eritrea, and the reactionary mobilization of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). This instigated years of violent conflict, in which the ELF forces were simultaneously fighting for independence from Ethiopia, while also engaging in civil conflict with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), an extreme left-wing faction of the liberation movement. Eventually, the two factions agreed to join forces in the continued struggle against Ethiopia, who had gained Soviet military support due to the communist tendencies of the new military government (known as the Derg) that was put into power after a 1974 coup.
The resulting years of Ethiopian government aggressions against both Eritrea and its own civilians (who suffered a famine in the 1980s during the government’s extensive military campaign) eventually came to a halt, as the Soviet downfall in 1991 meant that they could no longer continue providing military support to the Derg. This served as a crippling blow to the Ethiopian government offensive, leading to the eventual collapse of the ruling Mengistu regime and the agreement of the interim government to let the Eritrean people hold a referendum for independence.
Although an overwhelming vote for Eritrean independence in 1993 was a monumental advancement, it was unfortunately not the stable guarantor of peace between the two countries that many had hoped for. What started as relatively minor border disputes between Ethiopia and the newly independent Eritrea quickly progressed into a full-scale war by the late 1990s (the Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration ultimately ruled that Eritrea had broken international law by invading Ethiopia as an act of aggression). The war lasted from 1998 to 2000, during which tens of thousands of casualties affected both sides. Despite the war officially ending in June of 2000, sustained conflict continued to have a devastating impact for another 18 years, exacerbated by horrific government suppression of civilian rights and freedoms.
The Path Forward
The 2018 transition to a state of peace between the two countries, headed by the new Ethiopian president and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Abiy Ahmed, is a promising development in a historical record defined by years of intense hostilities. As the governments and citizens of these two countries continue to navigate this long-awaited era of bilateral diplomacy, the global community must recognize that although the peace is “African led,” the reasons behind the prolonged nature of the conflict were heavily influenced by international involvement. Interference by Italian colonial interests, as well as the military assistance of the Soviet Union in later disputes, facilitated and prolonged a catastrophic conflict that cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
Moving forward, governments and representatives from the international community must play a very different role in this region. Foreign governments have a duty to respect the autonomy of Ethiopia and Eritrea to execute peace processes and resulting bilateral policies as they see fit. However, key global actors must also do their due diligence to hold these governments accountable not only in upholding peaceful interstate relations but also in respecting the rights of their own civilians. The Eritrean government especially has a continuing record of human rights violations relating to the suppression of the press and other civic freedoms.
Finding a way to ensure these outcomes, while also avoiding direct interventions that may facilitate hostilities between the two countries, is a delicate yet integral contribution by the global community to the objective of sustained Eritrean-Ethiopian peace.