On the Ethio-Eritrean “Normalization”: Cautiously Optimistic

(Tekleab Shibru – PhD, Associate Prof. of Geomatics, Chicago State University)

Since the Ethio-Eritrean war ended in June 2000, there has been a buzzword “normalization” that has been floated. However, Ethio-Eritrean normalization as “the process of returning a relation back to its normal state”, one would ask to which “normal state” it is returning to? Is it to the state between 1991 – 1998 (i.e., Eritrean independence to Ethio-Eritrean war); 1962 – 1991 (i.e., Ethio-Eritrean Unification); 1952 – 1962 (i.e., Eritrean federation); 1941 – 1951 (i.e., Eritrean under British occupation); 1882 – 1941 (i.e., Italian Eritrean); or pre 1881 (Ethiopian Medi Bahri or Bahr Negash). This note, hence, is written cautiously discuss about the buzzword, on its merit, in detail.

There is no need for misconception. I do have a sane mind and like many others, I earnestly beseech and implore brotherhood between the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea. I want this brotherly people, not just to make peace, but also to unite. There is unfair and artificial boundary between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which no one should recognize as valid and binding. To put the matter in a very simple term, Eritrean nation is created by a colonial power. However, unlike other countries created through colonization, Eritrea was created after an occupation of a sovereign land that was Ethiopian. All treaties signed between Ethiopia and Italy, were meant to legalize this illegal and forceful occupation. Additionally, though Italian colonized, Ethiopian nationalism was never erased from the hearts of Eritreans. A protest of a Patriot Zerai Deres, against looted lion of Judah monument (i.e., a symbol of Ethiopian Emperors and Ethiopia) in Rome is a clear testimony of this nationalism. And so is the nationalism of Abraha Deboch and Moges Asgidom who fled, from Eritrea to Ethiopia in search of freedom including a freedom to advance their education that was limited to 4th grade in then Italian colonized Eritrea. Later, angry at the scale of brutality of Italian occupation on their Ethiopian counterparts, these nationalists turned what was the celebration of the 2nd year anniversary of Italian occupation into a hallmark of Ethiopia’s heroic defiance against occupation.

In light of these and other countless Ethiopian nationalists of Eritrea’s origin, the quest of independence through 30 years of costly war and lives of 60,000 Eritrean youths isn’t as prudent as Eritrea’s ultranationalists want us to believe. These inward looking Eritrean ultranationalists, whose agenda emanate from an extreme devotion to Eritrea interests without any due regard to that of Ethiopia’s, is a problematic. Otherwise, for heaven sake, “independence” from who? From Ethiopia? Really? Instead of incurring this cost for secession, it would have been virtuous had it been for democracy, freedom and equality. Who in the right mind would take pride in separating families, splitting marriages, and dividing people? Anyways Ethiopia must be cautiously optimistic on Ethio-Eritrean “Normalization”: while working with these ultranationalists, for the following reasons.

Sentiment of hatred against Ethiopia

As an Oromo speaking national of Ethiopia, I have seen this among our own ultranationalists’. A nationalism that is misplaced more on a hate of Amhara (Habasha) or Ethiopia’s flag than on a resolve to bring democracy, peace, and prosperity to the people of Oromia and Ethiopian at large. Likewise, Eritrean ultra-nationalism is also built on a sentimental hatred and disdain toward Ethiopia and its people. For Eritrean ultranationalists, patriotism is expressed not by working hard to improve the lives of Eritreans, instead by how much and loud Ethiopia is hated or denigrated. Individuals’ “Eritrean citizens” is measured by how less Ethiopian friends he/she has or how distant he/she keep Ethiopians at bay.

A good example, is Eritrea’s president, himself, who lived most of his young-adult life in Ethiopia, (i.e., Dessie and Addis Ababa), and yet refuses to speak Amharic not to undercut the hatred he had preached to Eritreans. Another example is lack of resistance to Eritrea’s stalled socio-political progress since 1998. There is no free press, civic organization, political parties, no constitution, no urban development policy, etc….in Eritrea. The only university that Ethiopia established for Eritrea, in 1964, two years into its unification, is disbanded.  Normally, one would expect the ultranationalists would resist and unseat this unfortunate turn, in search of socio-political progress, freedom and democracy. However, none. Instead bear the repression so long as Ethiopia antagonized. The truth is that these ultranationalists resent more with Ethiopia’s strengths, regional influences, peace and well-being than the government that is suppressing them.

On a personal note, I was once a soccer player (2000-2001), for a team known as “Pharcyde’s Warriors”, with an Eritrean friend in Wageningen Netherlands. It was only two of us Africans, the rest were from Europe or Latin America or white Africans.  We used to represent our university and travel through the country to play with teams from other 22 universities in the Netherlands. Mr. Sirak Mehari has never been to Ethiopia. One day, out of a blue, he said this, “We have the best chemistry on the pitch and similar sense of humor off of the pitch. However, there is so much hate in Eritrea as if they can bring the Red Sea between Ethiopia and Eritrea”. I was literally stunned at his statement. The reason was, since Eritreans have always been my playmates as kids, classmates, neighbors, confidantes, family/siblings friends, co-churchgoers, co-workers, my teachers, my students and pastors. Never once I viewed an Eritrean any different from another Ethiopian. Unfortunately, we are on a different wavelengths and there is an Eritrean generation that have been brainwashed into unpleasant sentiment against Ethiopia. Any effort of normalization between the two countries must pay attention to this particular sentiment.

Attitude toward European colonization

No country or nation depicts the tragic and cruel human history of colonization in the brightest possible light. Africans, Latin Americans, Asians, and even American resent the colonial past and wish that tragic history never existed. One could hear Africans engaging in intellectual debates, such as, if British colonization was any better than France’s, or France’s was better than Belgium’s, but there is unanimous abhorrence against colonialism. Nonetheless, because colonization is the foundation of Eritrea’s nationhood, Italian colonization has a positive mark in the minds of Eritrean ultranationalists. Tragically, Eritreans ultranationalists have brainwashed their citizens into proudly talking about them being colonized as a highlight of their history. Their cling on colonial name “Eritrea” is another good indication of that, unlike other African countries, which damped their colonial name for indigenous. For example, Ghana (Golden coast), Zambia (North Rhodesia), Zimbabewe (South Rodesha), Malawi (Naysaland), and Burkina Faso (Upper Volta), all damped their colonial names.  They preferred the colonial name over its indigenous names i.e.,Midri Bahri (land of the sea) or Bahr Negash (Rulers of the Sea).

Colonialism as a process by which a powerful control the legal, social and political lives of subordinate is cruel treatment of humanity. Commonly abhorred treatments of colonization are traumatic racial discriminations, deprived human dignities and massive oppressions that produce a sense of low self-esteem and inferiority.  It is also a deprived indigenous rights to land and hence expulsions to marginal areas, urban squatters, and relegations to living in the reserve habitats. Moreover, it is cultural alienations, natural resource exploitations, and sever social inequalities. Even after independence achieved through tears, sweats and bloods, legacies of colonization (i.e., violence, imperialism, and dependence) are threatening the peace and economic development after independence.

Therefore, it is inevitable that the ultranationalists’ appetite of colonial legacy will have negative impacts on future Ethio-Eritrean relation. The reasons are: first, Ethiopians draw their pride from not been colonized, while Eritrea take pride of been colonized. Secondly, Ethiopians would never entertain Eritrean nationalists’ debate that somehow Ethiopia’s poverty is a result of not been colonized. A debate, which other colonized nations would find despicable and immoral. Besides, Ethiopia’s economic development of the past 27 years, has proven otherwise and so are the pace of development in China, South Korea and many African countries, without colonial footprints. Moreover, according to some studies, in sub-Saharan Africa, the percentage of population living on less than $1.25 a day was far less in now than during the time of colonization.

Drag effect

There is a clear difference in Ethiopia status around the world, with and without Eritrea. Prior to Ethio-Eritrean unification, as a lone African’s independent nation, Ethiopia suctioned the league of nation to pressure Italy withdraw its occupation of Ethiopia. With its diplomacy, Ethiopia captured the imaginations of progressives and African students for protests against Africa’s colonization and Ethiopia’s occupation in major European cities. In just five years of exile, Ethiopia’s robust diplomacy rocked the moral compass of the world’s powerful, for their eventual resolution to liberate Ethiopia. After liberating itself, Ethiopia fought for the liberation of their African brothers including Eritrea, which were then transferred from one colonial occupation to another. On the other hand, Ethiopia, was also part of the UN peacekeeping mission around the world. Ethiopian force was dispatched to the republic of Congo, to help restore peace and tranquility that was regressed into civil war following independence. In what clearly shows Ethiopia’s sphere of influence beyond Africa, Ethiopia was also participant of the UN mission to Korean Peninsula and avert the invasion of the South Korea by the North Koreans.

An outstanding legacy of the Ethio-Eritrean unification (1962 – 1991) is a civil war that lasted almost 30 years. This war devastated Ethiopia’s economy, i.e., the destruction of country’s infrastructures, such as roads, bridges, schools, health posts and big government projects. Additionally, because of hundreds and thousands of workforces engaged in the war, there was massive loss of labor. Millions of internally displaced persons, instabilities from refugees flocking into neighboring countries and gross human right abuses (especially on women and children). All culminated in extreme poverty, hunger, and the eventual famine of 1984 that made Ethiopia’s image synonyms with children’s skeleton on television screens, around the world.

Again, after Eritrea separated from Ethiopia, slowly but surely Ethiopia is re-establishing itself as a positive force in the world stage. Politically, Ethiopia is teaching the world as to how peaceful struggle by the youths on the streets can snatch a nation from absolute grip of totalitarian government into what the world now see as dawn of democracy. Ethiopia is also presenting itself as a catalyst of regional economic and political integration. Economically, in the last 15 years, Ethiopia has grown into an economic hub of east Africa. International agencies attest growth of the country’s economy as among the fastest in the world. On the global peacekeeping front, currently Ethiopia encompasses 8% of the UN peacekeeping force around the world. It has participated in the global UN peacekeeping missions of Ivory Coast, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia. Therefore, Ethiopian’s must know that Ethio-Eritrean normalization to the state between 1962 and 1991 (i.e., Ethio-Eritrean Unification) can be an absolute drag to what the country is currently experiencing as dramatic socio-political and economic advancements.

Predatory tendencies

Soon after independence, Eritrean ultranationalists were envisaging Eritrea soon becoming “Singapore of East Africa”. It is good to have a great vision about own country. However, the following data doesn’t gives a trajectory toward the envisaged “East African Singapore”. For instance, Singapore is 100% urbanized country. Eritrea, which was the most urbanized province of Ethiopia (nearly 18% urbanized), in 1984, after 34 years, the urban population stands at 20.9%, i.e., an only 16% growth. In addition, in 1984, Asmara population was 281,110, and currently its population is 804,000, which is a 186% growth. Obviously Eritrea has a long ways to go to emulate Singapore in Urbanization. In fact, in 1984, only 9% of the population of Shoa province were urbanized, including Addis Ababa, and now the urbanization has increased to 20.4%, which is at least 127% growth, more than 8 times the growth in Eritrea. Dire Dawa, the current second most populous Ethiopian city, had a population of 99,980 people in 1984 and in 2018, the population has grown to 1.3million, i.e., a 1200% growth. Dire Dawa has grown 5 times the growth of Asmara and is now 61% more urbanized. Assab and Massawa are equivalent to the Woreda towns of Ethiopia, with their population that is in the order of 30,000s.

Singapore is also known for its freest economy and best maritime port in the world. One would question if Eritrean government was not successful in emulating Singapore’s the freest economy of the world Or replicating “the best maritime port in the world. Obviously, the later can only happen on the back of Ethiopia, which is failed. The economic policy that mainly aims to survive as predator on Ethiopia’s patronized and blackmailed access to sea can’t be beneficial. Eritrean ultranationalists, made sure Ethiopia’s access to the sea is sealed by force, just as Italian did, 100 years prior. It is farfetched to expect peace to prevail between Eritrean ultranationalists and Ethiopians, when it never prevailed between Italy and Ethiopia in the past. With a population more than 107 million, Ethiopia’s access to sea is unjustly deprived and has exposed the country to predatory port service pricing, that Ethiopians must not accept. If anything, the Eritrea’s ultranationalists’ resolve over the “barren land” Badime must give us a lesson or impetus as to what it takes to secure our sovereign right to access the Red sea by hook or by crook.

I vividly remember, sitting on my couch in Wageningen, Netherlands, when Pres. Isaias appeared on CNN to beg for international community to interfere with the advances of Ethiopian defense forces deep into Eritrean territory. I also remember my conversation with a high ranking European Professor, who had vested interest in Ethio-Eritrean conflict. He said, “Ethiopia troops are in no return mode until they capture Asmara and depose president Isaias”, then a credible source. One has to also remember that the buffer zone for demilitarization was drawn 25km into Eritrean territory not Ethiopian, a clear indication as to who was the victor. Unfortunately, since the occupant of the Ethiopia’s palace, PM Zenawi, was more Eritrean ultranationalist than ordinary Eritrean themselves, Ethiopian did not gain anything from the decisive victory. Not as much as Italian or Eritrean ultranationalists gained with their victories over Ethiopia.


Ethio-Eritrean normalization as a process meant to bring back an old normal state, is not clear in its refereed baseline. However, normalization with Eritrean ultranationalists will travel on a bumpy road amid shared unfortunate experiences in the past. Firstly, Ethiopia has had a glamorous status around the world, when she was without Eritrea than when she was with.  An outstanding legacy of the Ethio-Eritrean unification (1962 – 1991) is a civil war that lasted almost 30 years, devastated Ethiopia’s economy and brought about a famine that tarnished Ethiopia’s image as viable country. On the other hands, legacies of Ethiopia minus Eritrea are global leadership on decolonization and climate change; roles in UN peacekeeping missions around the world and fastest economic growth and democratization led by non-violent youths protest on the streets.

Besides, Eritrean ultranationalists’ sentimental hatred against Ethiopia as shown by their refusal to uphold our shared cultures and resentments on the Ethiopia’s socio-economic and political strength and regional influences would make normalization difficult. Moreover, given Ethiopia’s profounding pride of its un-colonized history, the ultranationalists’ appetite for colonial history will only produce tensions. Furthermore, the ultranationalists’ economic policy that mainly aims to thrive at the expense of the suffering of Ethiopia’s 107 million people will risk the sustainable peace between the two countries. Our Eritrean brothers must know that Ethiopia is unjustly deprived access to sea by colonial power and soon justice will prevail. If Eritrea’s ultranationalists determined to starve 18 years over the “barren land” Badime, surely Ethiopians are more commitment to secure right to access Red sea.

It is therefore, in these lights that I am amused as to why the hype of, Pres. Isaias’s acceptance of our PM’s decision to hand Ethiopia’s land, is shooting through the roof; and perplexed by our PM’s “thank you message” to Eritrea’s president. Again, it is also from a surprise by our PM’s decision, in defiance of the protocol, to welcome the Eritrean foreign minister, going to the Bole international airport himself,…unprecedented. Why is this? Where this Ethiopia’s desperation for normalization is coming from?


1984 Ethiopia – Population and Housing Census 1984 accessed on June 26, 2018 from http://microdata.worldbank.org/index.php/catalog/2745

Richard Alan Caulk (2002) “Between the Jaws of Hyenas”: A Diplomatic History of Ethiopia (1876-1896), Otto Harrassowitz Verlag

Valeria Popa (2013) The impact of civil wars on poverty in sub-Saharan Africa accessed on June 22, 2018 from http://english.geopolitics.ro/the-impact-of-civil-wars-on-poverty-in-sub-saharan-africa/

Pharcyde’s Warriors accessed on June 22, 2018 from http://www.oocities.org/southbeach/palms/3848/warriors.html

Institute for Peace in Partnership (2016) Ethiopia’s Contribution to Global and African Peacekeeping Operations access on June 26, 2018 from https://ippjournal.wordpress.com/2016/04/07/ethiopias-contribution-to-global-and-african-peacekeeping-operations-2/

United Nations Population Division. World Urbanization Prospects: 2014 Revision, Urban population of percent total accessed on July 26, 2018 from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.URB.TOTL.IN.ZS


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