Ethiopia moves to end a 16-year standoff, but fails to fulfil a vital condition set by its neighbour. Meanwhile, Eritrea may have interests in maintaining the stalemate

Ethiopia’s ruling coalition has said it will “fully accept and implement” a contentious agreement which helped to end a brutal border war with Eritrea two decades ago, BBC Monitoring reported on June 6th.

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) said on June 5th that it would accept the 2002 ruling by the Ethiopia Eritrea Boundary Commission (EEBC), which was established by the UN after a ceasefire was signed in Algiers.

The commission awarded disputed areas – including the flashpoint town of Badme – to Eritrea. However, Ethiopia refused to accept the ruling and retained thousands of troops in the disputed territories. As a result, the two countries have remained on a war footing.

Significantly, the ERPDF’s statement did not say whether Ethiopia would pull its troops out of the border region, which remains the main bone of contention for Eritrea. Asmara accuses Ethiopia of forcefully occupying its territory and has repeatedly rejected talks with its neighbour until all soldiers are withdrawn.

Following Abiy’s inauguration in April, Eritrea dismissed his pledge to resolve the long-running dispute and once again urged Addis Ababa to withdraw its troops.

The announcement dominated news headlines across the region, with many terming it a momentous development. Eritrea’s information minister said he could not comment until he had seen the full EPRDF statement. But in a terse reply to a Twitter user, Yemane said, “Our position is crystal clear and has been so for 16 years.”

Eritrean Twitter users also seemed unimpressed. “This announcement that #Ethiopia will ‘accept’ the Algiers Agreement is yet another PR stunt. No words needed. Ethiopia simply needs to withdraw its troops from #Eritrea to officially end the conflict,” US-based blogger @RedSeaFisher said.

Some observers warned that the move would not be easy to implement. Despite the unprecedented reforms that Abiy has pushed through since his election, the military remains in the grip of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – historically the dominant constituent party in EPRDF. If he chooses to withdraw the troops, Abiy may have to contend with the generals and the TPLF leadership that remain hostile to his premiership.

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Map showing areas claimed by Ethiopia but awarded to Eritrea (green) and those claimed by Eritrea but awarded to Ethiopia (blue). Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Eritrean government has not responded to Ethiopia’s expression of readiness to implement the Algiers agreement, noted The Ethiopian Herald.

The EEBC’s attempts to demarcate borders on the ground were stalled as Ethiopia insisted on having dialogue before the demarcation, while Eritrea has insisted for the demarcation to be finalised before any dialogue.

There are speculations that Eritrea will either not respond positively or come up with an excuse to fail the peace deal. The “no-war, no-peace” situation is seen as one of the pretexts the regime has used to extend its lifespan as a dictatorial regime.

Now one of the world’s most closed-off countries, Eritrea has been ruled since 1993 by President Isaias Afwerki who has justified restrictions inside the country on the national security threat posed by Ethiopia, noted Deutsche Welle. There is compulsory lifetime national service, and few human or civil rights. Many Eritreans have fled the country to seek refuge in other African nations, as well as Israel and Europe.

Both parties would benefit from Eritrea’s acceptance of Ethiopia’s call, stressed the Ethiopian newspaper. The tension along the border areas has frustrated development activity for fear of confrontation.

At least 6,000 residents of Irob district in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region have been protesting against the government’s decision to hand over contested territories to Eritrea, the BBC reported.

Local residents told the BBC the government’s decision didn’t reflect the interests of the people and needs rethinking. The only opposition party in the region Arena also opposed the move.

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Vol. 55, Issue 4

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