A paraphrase of a famous cliché goes like this: “To err is human, to forgive divine, to repeat the same mistake foolishness!”
In the first week of June 2018, reports came out from within the Ethiopian state mechanism that Ethiopia would accept all the terms of the Algiers Treaty signed by Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2000 to bring a semblance of normalization between the two countries.
One of the items agreed upon in Algiers was to refer the border issue to an International Border Commission tasked with determining where the border between the two countries should be and that its decision would be final and binding. The “guarantors” of the Algiers Agreement were the UN, the United States and the European Union as well as the OAU (the current AU) under whose auspices the Agreement was implemented.
Fast forward two years after the signing of the Agreement and the Border Commission delivered its verdict awarding some territory to Eritrea that it had claimed as its own and some that it never lay claim to and the same with Ethiopia. However, the border-village of Badme, which was supposedly the spark that ignited hostilities – if one is to believe that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the spark that started World War I – was rightfully awarded to Eritrea!
This was unpalatable to the minority Tigrean-led Ethiopian government which would have to account for the thousands of lives lost over this small, inconsequential village which it turns out had belonged to Eritrea after all.
The brazen government led by the smooth-talking late premier, Meles Zenawi, the very next day reneged on the agreement and decided that Ethiopia would not accept the ruling after all but would prefer to sit around and discuss the situation with Eritrea.
Eritrea refused to move the final and binding decision of the Algiers Agreement away from the agreement and to the negotiation table as that would, in all senses, make the decision null and void, a point not lost on the Ethiopian government nor its American and European backers. Fortunately, too, not lost on the Eritrean government which till this day has stood its ground.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Fast forward sixteen years and we come to June 2018. Ethiopia is on the brink of disaster. It has just gone through three years of turmoil; the double-digit economic growth has benefitted the few – mostly those in government and from a specific ethnic group, the Tigreans – the majority Oromo ethnic group whose fertile lands were forcibly seized and their populace forced to leave their home regions – had had enough!
Demonstrations erupted all over the country and in typical fashion, the TPLF-led government tried to quell these by force. Soon after, the Amharas followed suit and the country was brought to a standstill through the mostly peaceful demonstrations. The economy staggered; the TPLF had no answer to the problems; the Prime Minister, Hailemariam Dessalegn – a Vichy-like puppet – had enough and tendered his resignation.
The United States and other Western allies of Ethiopia were at a loss as to what to do and how to resolve the situation. Africa’s second-most populous country and the West’s darling and “key ally in the war against terror” – a euphemism for “we’ll turn our backs at the atrocities you commit as long as you label the victims terrorists” – was on the verge of breakup. Something had to be done. The question was, what?
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Suddenly news came out that a successor prime minister had been selected. In an eerie resemblance to the trajectory that Vladimir Putin took to the Kremlin, a young, former Security Intelligence Head, who was a member of the ruling EPRDF to the bone, was selected. The country needed time and he knew what the people wanted to hear and the fact that he spoke all three major languages of the country meant he could pacify the large swathes of the disgruntled population and buy time.
Reforms were promised; criticism of the previous government’s policies (of which he was part and parcel) were aired in public; dissidents were released as well as journalists whose only crime was to write blogs criticizing the government and who were labeled terrorists and sentenced to life and long-term prison sentences, were released. Things were looking up. Hope has been restored and the people of Ethiopia await the promised concrete reform steps.
There was, however, a big elephant in the room that needed to be addressed. This was the Eritrean issue.
When the whole of the country had risen against the minority Tigrean-led establishment, the latter had figuratively and literally withdrawn into their province and were busy shipping their ill-gained wealth overseas (speaking of wealth, was it mentioned that despite over a decade of double-digit economic growth, the country suddenly found itself short on foreign exchange? Could the two events be linked somehow i.e. the stashing of the wealth overseas and the scarcity of funds?)
Facing the wrath of the people of Ethiopia whom it had blatantly embezzled, imprisoned and humiliated for over two-and-a-half decades, the Tigrean clique was cornered within its own province. Sure, they had moved the air force from its original base in Debre Zeit (Oromo territory) to Tigray region and fears were mounting that if pushed too far they might do a Ceausescu as a last-ditch effort of survival. They still might do, by the way.
Before you know it, suddenly the Ethiopian government announces that it will abide fully with the decisions of the Algiers Agreement and hopes that Eritrea will follow suit. Positive news indeed for the peoples of the two nations while at the same time, begging the question “how many lives would have been spared on both sides had Ethiopia made this decision sixteen years ago. Is this “Peace at last” or is it more a case of Neville Chamberlain’s “Peace in our times”? We will probably find out in the very future.
At the time of writing, the Ethiopian Parliament had not debated over the issue and so has not yet endorsed it. Eritreans should remember that this very parliament – living up to its rubber-stamp status – declared war on Eritrea back in 1998 even while various envoys were shuttling between Asmara and Addis trying to find a diplomatic solution.
The fact that this announcement was not debated in parliament – even if it is a parliament comprising 100% of the ruling EPRDF party – makes one wonder if the announcement will be followed by concrete steps such as pulling out of occupied Eritrean sovereign territories.
While “hope flows eternally” and the two peoples pray that it comes, a few days after the announcement was made, an interview by the VOA’s Tigrigna service conducted with a Tigrai Regional Government executive has flagged how elusive that peace might yet be, as the interviewee unashamedly declares that the Tigrai Regional Government doesn’t accept the announcement made by the government!
Since the announcement, the interviews have been flying left and right and opponents of the Eritrean government have weighed in with their two-cents worth on the subject – mostly confining themselves to criticizing the government of Eritrea for not issuing a statement welcoming the Ethiopian announcement. Some have even gone as far as criticising it for not congratulating the newly-selected Ethiopian premier on his selection.
Others seem to have latched on to a new phrase claiming that the ball was now in Eritrea’s court. Nothing could be far from the truth in this regard. The ball has been in Ethiopia’s court for over a decade and a half and it has refused to play it. Last week it announced that it is finally going to play it but so far hasn’t touched it.
The laws of logic and physics dictate, therefore, that the ball is still where it was. When it is played by the Ethiopian authorities – whomever that might be: TPLF, Parliament or the Executive – then Eritrea will come forward and fulfil its obligations under the Algiers Agreement which it had already accepted right after the border decision was announced.
So, there is really no need, at this juncture, for the Eritrean government to make any statement regarding the recent announcement, seeing as nothing has changed in real terms. Former Ethiopian Prime Ministers have been saying one thing (mostly for foreign consumption) but doing either nothing or the total opposite of what they say. How do we know this one will be any different? Wasn’t it Meles who kicked out thousands of Eritreans simply because he could? This after the EPLF took him by the hand and brought him into power in Addis. Wasn’t it Meles whom, at the behest of his western paymasters, attacked and vilified his own African brothers and sisters and vowed to implement regime change? Wasn’t it Meles and his EPRDF that made it their crusade to see the end of Eritrea as a sovereign nation? What has changed between Meles and the new Prime Minister? Don’t they belong to the same party? Haven’t they both made their political fortunes through this party? Is the new Prime Minister a wolf in sheep clothing or is he genuine? Is he indeed the Gorbachev that he portrays to be or the Putin that is biding his time? Will he walk the walk or is it just talk? History has taught Eritrea that it is best to wait and see before taking any decisions, lest it regret doing so should the wolf shed its skin? As the Amharic saying goes: “early adoration makes later criticism difficult” (አስቀድሞ ማመስገን ኋላ ለሃሜት ያስቸግራል).
Worthwhile to remember that one of the major criticisms that the government of Eritrea faced when hostilities began in 1998 was “how could you trust the TPLF after what history both recent and distant had taught us?”
Eritrea paid and continues to pay dearly for that misplaced trust. The cautionary step that the Eritrean government is now taking in waiting to see what will really aspire, shows that it has learnt its painful lesson from the past.
As they say, “once bitten, twice shy”!