Ethiopia-Eritrea: The olive branch remains extended, no change of policy

While in Qatar, Prime Minister Hailemariam also had an interview with Al Jezeera. It has received considerable coverage not least because his response to a question on Ethiopia-Eritrea relations was widely, and inaccurately, reported as a policy shift by Ethiopia. In fact, some media outlets didn’t wait even for the broadcast of the full interview to present the Prime Minister’s remark as a change in Ethiopian policy on the basis of short excerpts from the interview. Nor did they bother to check whether the Prime Minister’s statement was actually something new or the reiteration of an often stated Ethiopian position that it would be prepared to hold talks with Eritrea on any bilateral issues at any time, anywhere.

As is well known ever since Ethiopia accepted the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission’s Decisions in November 2004, it has repeatedly extended an olive branch to Eritrea for comprehensive negotiations, for the finalization of the demarcation process and the normalization of relations. Even in the face of persistent attempts by the regime in Asmara to carry out destabilization activities, Ethiopia has continued to make it clear its desire to talk. It also called in earnest for the start of talks on comprehensive normalization of relations. The Ethiopian government has had a firm and consistent position that the maintenance of lasting peace must go beyond the settling of border disputes.

It is also common knowledge that the late Prime Minister Meles said on numerous occasions and in many fora that that Ethiopia is ready to talk with Eritrea anywhere, any time and on any issue relating to the relations between the two countries. This has been the case ever since November 2004, and there has been no policy change towards Eritrea since then. In other words, Ethiopia has never retracted the olive branch it extended in the aftermath of the bloody war fought between the countries after Eritrea invaded Ethiopia in May 1998.

The only addition made by Prime Minister Hailemariam was the mention of Asmara. In the past, Ethiopia has made it clear it would be prepared to talk to Eritrea any time or any where, though it has not mentioned Asmara specifically. This, however, can scarcely be classified as a policy change in any sense. The Prime Minister’s remarks can only be seen in that sense if his statements are read in a total vacuum in the absence of any knowledge of the facts.

Regrettably, the calls for peace continue to fall on deaf ears in Asmara. As the Prime Minister said, the only thing that prevents talks is the “stubbornness of the leadership of Eritrea”. The late Prime Minister Meles made numerous efforts to get talks going during the last decade. All failed due to the intransigence of the Eritrean government. In fact, if one thing can be shown to characterize the Eritrean government’s behavior in this last decade it is a belligerent foreign policy and its determination to continue with all manner of destabilizing activities within the region and most particularly against Ethiopia. Indeed, the last ten years has demonstrated considerable ingenuity by the leadership in Asmara in planning and executing such activities within the region. Equally, its sole profit from these adventures has been two rounds of sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, and a general appreciation of an isolated Eritrea widely regarded as a pariah state. Indeed, the regime in Asmara is now virtually synonymous with brazen lawlessness and contempt for all the norms of international relations. To put it another way, it is very clear that the vocabulary of peace seems to have eluded the government of Eritrea over the past decade.

It is, however, of concern that so many media outlets and commentators apparently saw this comment of willingness to talk to Eritrea in Asmara as a policy change. It suggests that few, if any, had any real understanding, or knowledge, of the relations between the two countries. Worse, it apparently reduces the argument to an issue of venue. This, of course, has never been an issue to stall peace-making efforts. Ethiopia has never raised this as an issue, nor has it shown either preference for a venue or rejected any place. The mention of Asmara by Prime Minister Hailemariam merely demonstrated, yet again, Ethiopia’s willingness to go the extra mile to bring peace between two brotherly peoples.

Indeed, Prime Minister Hailemariam stressed that restoring peaceful relations goes beyond avoiding tensions. He underlined that both countries could both benefit a lot from the peace dividend that would follow the normalization of relations. Ethiopia certainly envisages economic regional integration with all its neighbors, including Eritrea, to allow the Horn of Africa to thrive in this competitive global market. In a world where interdependence is the hallmark of regional and international relations, regional integration provides the obvious strategy to maximize the benefit to be derived from development. IGAD is an African Union Regional Economic Community, and Ethiopia takes this principle seriously. Indeed, it is spearheading regional integration and has long made the extension of an olive branch to Eritrea a central element in this. There has not been, and there will not be, any change to that policy. Any suggestions of a policy shaft are moonshine. The Prime Minister’s statement is in fact an unequivocal confirmation of continuity of policy towards Eritrea.

While the Prime Minister’s answers on Ethio-Eritrean relations received most attention, because of the inaccurate reports of a policy shift, he also spoke about the current situation in Somalia and the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and on its implications for the relations between Ethiopia and the downstream countries. On current developments in Somalia, Prime Minister Hailemariam emphasized the progress of the Somalia peace process, describing this as a remarkable achievement for the counties of the region which had been worked closely with the Somali government. Referring to the establishment of a Jubaland state, he said that this was not a complex issue and would be “dealt with in the framework of IGAD’. He emphasized the cardinal importance of inclusiveness for the process, and dismissed as baseless any suggestion that Kenya was supporting a few clans in Kismayo in preference to others. He cited his discussions with President Kibaki where, he said, they had agreed on the inclusiveness of the process.

In relation to the Construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Hailemariam strongly denied any suggestion that Ethiopia had been secretive over the plans for construction. This was, he said, no more than a “lack of information” on the part of the interviewer. There was no secrecy about the Dam. He also emphasized the benefits of the construction for downstream countries, and highlighted the importance of the activities of the International Panel of Experts. This, he pointed out, was an Ethiopian initiative to provide an additional assessment of the possible impact, both positive and negative, of the dam on Egypt and Sudan. He totally dismissed the wild rumours of downstream countries considering military activity as nonsense, quoting the official statements of Egypt and Sudan denying any such suggestions.

* Originally published on A Week in the Horn – Dec. 14, 2012 issue, titled “The olive branch remains extended: no change of policy towards Eritrea”. Items from A Week in the Horn are re-published here with a permission to do so. You may republish it with attribution and no modification to its contents.

Check the archives for related posts.

more recommended stories