Last month the International Crisis Group (ICG) presented a report on future scenarios for Eritrea, whose repressive government has shown recent signs of instability. According to this report, the Ethiopian army incursions in 2012 revealed Eritrea’s capacity to defend itself is at its weakest since its independence in 1993.
ICG said several defections – from ordinary citizens to elite pilots, and Information minister Ali Abdu, a close ally of President Isaias Afeworki – and a mutiny by soldiers who took control of the Information Ministry, are just some of the incidents in one year alone that show how the regime in Asmara is becoming fragile.
The report urged the international community to pay more attention to Eritrea, which has remained mobilised for war since a ceasefire ended its conflict with Ethiopia in 2000, and to plan to help avert internal chaos and wider regional conflict in the event of a further breakdown of order in Asmara.
However, Ethiopia, which remains in conflict with Asmara, does not seem interested in confronting the Eritrean government at this critical time where it is becoming evident that a regime change in Asmara is fast approaching, either with a natural death of the 67-year-old ailing President or in a more violent way such as coup d’état.
On December 5, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told Qatar’s Al Jazeera network that he is willing to negotiate with his counterpart, President Isaias, without any precondition, even if it takes him to Asmara. Hailemariam also noted that his predecessor had made the same offer to Eritrean regime several times to no avail.
According to reports, President Isaias asked Qatar to negotiate between the two arch rivals shortly after Hailemariam’s statement. If true, this is a surprise because all previous requests made by Ethiopia for dialogue had been rejected by Asmara in protest at Ethiopia’s refusal to implement the United Nations ruling that puts the flashpoint town of Badme in Eritrea.
Notably, in April this year, a week after President Isaias visited Qatar and held talks with Sheikh Hamed Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Emir, the Emir paid a two-day official visit to Ethiopia. Although officially the visit was to boost bilateral relations, the issue of Ethiopia and Eritrea was unlikely to be ignored in such a high-level meeting, especially as Qatar is striving to become an internationally-recognised peacemaker.
The 2011 Arab uprising that toppled a number of dictators across the Middle East and North Africa has impacted Eritrea enormously. Before the revolution, Eritrea had three important friends even if the regime was isolated by most of the countries in the region and beyond. These countries were Libya, Egypt and Qatar.
To win the race to become an influential figure in the region and the African Union with Ethiopia and the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the former Libyan ruler, Muammar Gaddafi provided Eritrea all round support. Between the years 1998-2010 Libya has given hundreds of millions of dollars to Eritrea to help to improve its ailing economy.
Libya under Gaddafi has also showed its support to Eritrea in being the only security council member state in voting against the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1907, adopted on December 23, 2009, which imposed an arms embargo on Eritrea, travel bans on its leaders, and froze the assets of some of the country’s political and military officials.
This was after the Eritrean government was accused of aiding Al-Shabaab in Somalia and reportedly refusing to withdraw troops from its disputed border with Djibouti, following a conflict in 2008 even if the African Union, the IGAD and other organisations which Libya itself is a member had been calling in favour of the resolution.
In return Eritrea had been supporting Gaddafi in all the time and denouncing the revolution against him labelling it as a Western plot against the will of the Libyan people and this in the long run has also negatively affected its relation with the new Libyan government established after the downfall of Gaddafi.
Egypt under Hosni Mubarak had also been supporting Eritrea for the mere reason of avoiding the perceived threat on the river Nile. Eritrea has also reiterated its support for the Egyptian claim of its rights over the river emanating mainly from the controversial 1929 and 1959 agreements which Ethiopia regards as unacceptable on the ground that the 1929 pact is colonial and the 1959 one is unilateral Egyptian and Sudanese ploy which had been rejected by Ethiopia outright.
However the new Egyptian administration seems more interested in negotiation and cooperation with Ethiopia than trying to threaten Ethiopia using Eritrea. The previous relationship between President Mubarak and President Isaias also negatively affected the current Egypt-Eritrean relationship significantly as the later reiterated its support to the former even at the midst of Egyptian revolution at 2011.
The last friend Eritrea now has is therefore Qatar. Eritrea and Qatar have long standing relations since decades ago since Eritrea attained its independence in 1993. However, Qatar-Ethiopia relations were not so good. On April 21, 2008, Ethiopia announced it was severing ties with Qatar, accusing Qatar of supporting armed opposition groups within Ethiopia and others such as Islamist insurgents in Somalia.
This also created a conducive environment to Eritrea to enjoy the friendship with Qatar as the latter has been becoming one of the most influential countries in the region especially in the last couple of years.
However, during the Arab uprising their commendable relationship started to show fracture as Qatar was a main advocate of a regime change in Libya, Eritrea remained loyal to Gaddafi. For many analysts this was the first, perhaps also the most contentious issue that started to make a rift between the two countries.
In addition to this the ever increasing influential role of Ethiopia in the region and the African Union also pushed Qatar to seek an amicable solution for the diplomatic row between the two states. The two countries have expressed their wish to conduct diplomatic relations and work together in regional issues with mutual consent and cooperation during the Qatari emir visit to Addis Ababa on April 10, 2013.
In considering the above facts it is clear that Qatar has a big role in resolving the problem between the two countries once and for all. The Eritrean regime may make some retreats from its preconditions and push forward to settle its dispute with Ethiopia if Qatar insisted as it is now the only country in the world to have amicable relations with Asmara.
Qatar can also influence Ethiopia as Ethiopia is very aware of the increasing role and influence of Qatar in regional and international affairs.
The normalisation of relations with Ethiopia would definitely help Asmara in improving its relationship with important regional and international organizations in which Ethiopia’s influence is seen quite crucial, like IGAD and the AU. It will also give Eritrea the chance to exploit the big market inside Ethiopia.
Peace with Eritrea would also bring some important benefits to Ethiopia mainly in providing access to well established ports of Assab and Massawa. Due to the high cost of trade, Ethiopia has been looking for alternative port services to Djibouti.
Peace between the two countries would also help to improve the security situation of the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region.
But most importantly, peace between the two countries would benefit the citizens who share the same culture, religion and identity. Other peace dividends would be redirecting military spending in both states towards critical areas such as health and education.
*Originally published on African Review, May 10 2013 at 14:39