BREAKING THE ICE: The Historic Tale of Peace in Eritrea and Ethiopia

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J.D. (Law), Ph.D. (Economics)
Graduate Certificate in Environmental and Natural Resources Law
Nonresident Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution
Attorney & Counselor at Law (Licensed in Utah)

Brady Presidential Distinguished Professor of Economics, Weber State University (USA) & Nonresident Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution.


In July 2018, Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afwerki signed a declaration officially ending the state of war that has existed between their countries since 2000. The declaration was welcomed by citizens of both countries, although some Ethiopians have questioned their government’s decision, arguing that it was made without adequate consultation with all relevant stakeholder groups.

The border demarcation between the two countries, which has been disputed for many years, became the site of a war that lasted from 1998 to 2000. The war caused the deaths of more than 100,000 people, displaced more than a million of them, and destroyed a lot of potential for economic growth and development in both countries.

In addition to the diversion of a significant amount of scarce resources from the provision of public services (e.g., education, healthcare, and infrastructure) to the war effort, the war had a significantly negative impact on the social fabric and the economies of both countries. At the height of the war, Ethiopia’s army rose from 60,000 to 350,000 and the conflict eventually caused Ethiopia nearly $3 billion. The bloody conflict closed opportunities for significant improvements in the quality of life for many people, not just in Ethiopia and Eritrea, but also in the entire region.

With respect to Eritrea, by the time the war ended, the army’s size had risen to 300,000, amounting to almost ten percent of the small country’s population. For a country struggling to deal with significantly high levels of poverty and material deprivation, the war represented an unexpected economic and social burden that was bound to stunt poverty alleviation efforts.

Officially, the fight was over a boundary dispute between the two countries. However, there have been speculations that the actual impetus to the war was the desire by both countries’ leaders—Meles Zenawi (Ethiopia) and Isaias Afwerki (Eritrea)—to seek a diversion from deteriorating economic conditions in their respective countries. Rising poverty, the failure of these economies to create jobs, especially for restless urban youth, the inability of both governments to deal effectively and fully with pervasive rural poverty, and continued sectarian conflict, some experts argue, had become major challenges to regime security in both Eritrea and Ethiopia.

After the disputed border town of Badme fell to Ethiopian forces, serious mediation efforts began at the international and continental levels to peacefully resolve the conflict. Efforts by the then Organization of African Unity and other multilateral organizations resulted in the signing, by the two countries, of the Algiers Peace Agreement on December 12, 2000. Through this agreement, the two warring parties agreed to “permanently terminate military hostilities between themselves,” as well as establish a “neutral Boundary Commission” that would have full authority to “delimit and demarcate” the permanent boundary between them. Both countries agreed that the “delimitation and demarcation determinations of the Commission shall be final and binding” and that they would “respect the border so determined, as well as the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the other party.”

On April 13, 2002, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) issued its final and binding decision. The government of Ethiopia declined to accept the decision of the EEBC regarding the border, setting the stage for a stalemate that has lasted until Abiy became prime minister of Ethiopia on April 2, 2018. Of course, Abiy’s visit to Eritrea was made possible by behind-the-scenes negotiations involving many actors, who helped both countries realize that the status quo was no longer tenable and that peaceful coexistence is the only viable option for them and the region.

The risk of peace to regime security

The Cold War between Eritrea and Ethiopia has forced both countries to maintain extremely large armed forces and regularly infringe on the fundamental rights of their citizens. Each country’s government has been able to use the claim of threats to national security to continue to divert scarce resources to military spending. If peace is restored, each government would be forced to face the issue of human rights violations and the need to restore basic freedoms, as well as the imperative to create jobs for the thousands of retrenched soldiers. Each government must also deal with poverty, especially that which has forced many people in the region to migrate abroad.

In Eritrea, there is need for the government to significantly improve its human rights record, release political prisoners, and restore basic freedoms. It must also restructure the economy and provide the private sector with the wherewithal to create the jobs that returning soldiers will need. Then, the government will have to engage the people in democratic constitution making to produce a new set of laws and institutions that is capable of adequately constraining the state and minimizing government impunity. Such a new constitutional order must provide for an independent judiciary, free media, as well as enhance the eventual emergence of a robust civil society, which can serve as a check on the exercise of government power. With such a constitutional order in place, Eritrea can then proceed to conduct free, fair, credible, and peaceful elections to choose a new crop of leaders that will lead the country into peace and prosperity. With respect to Ethiopia, a cessation of hostilities and the Cold War should eliminate tensions on its border with Eritrea, as well as provide the land-locked State with access to the sea. In addition, there will be many reunions between families that were split up by the war, allowing various ethnocultural groups to return to traditional and cultural ceremonies that have been the foundation of social life among many of these peoples for several centuries.[i]

Our objective in this paper is to draw the attention of the leaders of Eritrea and Ethiopia to the fact that how history will judge them will be determined by the path they take at this important point in the history of the region, as well as remind Ethiopians and Eritreans of the destructive impact of war.

War and other forms of sectarian violence are major causes of poverty

War and other forms of sectarian violence have trapped many African economies in a state of underdevelopment for many years. The most effective way to fight poverty and promote human development is for governments to help their private sectors develop the capacity to create wealth. The public sector has an important role to play in the creation of wealth: it maintains law and order and provides the regulatory framework within which the private sector can function effectively to create wealth. For example, by guaranteeing the security of property rights, the government can enhance and promote savings and investment in capital formation. In economies with secure property rights, people are more likely to engage in entrepreneurial activities, since these investors are more able to have full access to the earnings generated by their assets, as well as the right to change the form of their assets (e.g., sell them and use the proceeds to enter another line of business). War and sectarian violence reduce the security of property rights and lead to reduced savings, capital flight, and brain drain, as is evidenced by the large numbers of young people who flee war-torn countries in the Horn of Africa every year in search of more stable economies in Europe, the Middle East and North America.

Of course, as the statistics from the Eritrean-Ethiopian war have shown, war and sectarian violence kill a lot of people, depriving societies of some of their most productive human resources—most of the people killed during the 1998–2000 conflict were young people, in their most productive years, who could have contributed significantly to both political and economic development in these countries. In addition, war destroys national infrastructure—structures, such as roads, railways, various communication installations, health facilities, schools, and other forms of social overhead capital, that form part of a country’s productive capacity, and which took many years to build. Such damage to the infrastructure may significantly reduce a country’s productive capacity, stunt economic growth and wealth creation, and constrain the economy’s ability to feed the people and effectively deliver improvements in the quality of life of the citizens. There is a lot of evidence to support the proposition that many of the African countries that have been involved in wars or some form of violent sectarian conflict are among the continent’s poorest performers economically.

During war, capital formation, including especially the education of the young is totally neglected. In fact, many young people, who ought to be in school acquiring the skills that will help them evolve into productive adults, are most likely in the frontlines fighting and dying. Of course, during war, funds for education are usually diverted to the war effort, educational facilities may be destroyed, and children drafted to fight for the government or other fighting force. In addition, most of a country’s skilled manpower is usually reassigned to the war industry and skilled professionals who are able to do so, leave to seek employment overseas. Perhaps, more important is the fact that many students who were receiving training at foreign universities are not likely to return home to war-torn economies.

Examples of the destructive impact of wars and sectarian violence on African economies abound—one need only look at South Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and of course, Eritrea and Ethiopia, to see that war is a major constraint to human development.

War and sectarian violence can seriously damage a country’s food supply. Forced conscription of people to fight deprives the agricultural sector of critical productive resources. Of course, military activities may destroy farms, livestock, farm-to-market roads, and generally create an environment in which agriculture and food production can no longer be undertaken effectively or at all. Few governmental regimes, faced with a fight for their very survival would grant priority to agriculture or environmental protection. Both Ethiopians and Eritreans are in a much better position to appreciate this problem, given their knowledge of the damage done to both agriculture and the agro-ecological system during the war that led to the independence of Eritrea on May 24, 1991.

During war, trade between the rural agricultural sector and the urban centers, which is very important for the survival of non-food producing urban dwellers, is either destroyed or significantly interrupted. In addition, important supplies (e.g., fertilizers and farm equipment) from the urban centers that are critical for productivity in the agricultural sectors cannot be obtained during hostilities. War, thus, can cause significant damage to a country’s food supplies. For example, many of the countries which were on the United Nations’ list of African countries that were most affected by famine in 1985 were at the time fighting civil wars or were suffering from some form of violent sectarian conflict: Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad, Angola, and Mozambique.

Of course, war usually creates humanitarian crises—in addition to the fact that war can separate families, it can also uproot many people from their ancestral villages and force them to live in crowded refugee camps indefinitely, as evidenced by the thousands of Somali that now languish in refugee camps in Kenya and other places in East Africa. Of course, the senseless use of terror, which is usually part of war, can have long-lasting impacts on children and young adults—many of these youngsters, argue some observers, “are growing up without any sense of values. . . . They know nothing but the gun.”[ii]

It is surprising that it took Eritreans and Ethiopians this long to see that peace is the only effective way for them to move forward. After all, they share a history of bloody confrontations, all of which have produced extremely unpleasant results—thousands of people killed, capital flight and brain drain, significantly damaged economic potential, and others that have stunted development. Nevertheless, peace can help both countries begin the process of rebuilding their societies and creating institutional environments that finally put them on the road to peaceful coexistence and sustainable human development.

A final note—to Ethiopia’s and Eritrea’s leaders

To the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea, your countries are now at a crossroads and it is time for you to make a choice, and do so carefully and wisely. The choice that you make will determine not only your place in history but significantly affect the future of your country and its peoples. Each one of you can choose personal power and self-enrichment, using the groups that support you as a foundation for your individual quests. Such a decision would plunge your countries into further sectarian violence, effectively foreclosing opportunities for peaceful coexistence, nation building, and the generation of the wealth that is needed to fight poverty and enhance human development. Alternatively, each one of you can choose, instead, a different path, one that can create, for your people, opportunities for self-actualization, peaceful coexistence, and prosperity. You can also choose to restore basic freedoms and create opportunities for all citizens, including especially those who have historically been marginalized (e.g., women and rural inhabitants), to participate fully in governance.

As citizens of Eritrea and Ethiopia watch events unfold, it is time for you, the leaders of these countries, to decide whether you want to bring your fellow citizens into a future filled with unrelenting violence, hunger, hopelessness and desolation, or into one in which all citizens, regardless of the subculture to which they belong, or their religious affiliation, or their gender, or their economic status, can live together peacefully, without molestation from state- or non-state actors.

Finally, how do you want history to judge you? As tyrants, political opportunists, exploiters, and oppressors, who used their political positions to enrich themselves and their supporters or public servants who bravely spearheaded the transformative processes that brought peace and security, as well as, hope and development to their people? The choice, of course, is yours.

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