Searching for water in Northern Ethiopia and the Eritrean highlands, one does not expect to find water just by scratching the surface of the land or even digging few inches deep; no, it takes painstakingly calm character, patience and perseverance to digging deeper until you find water. Sometimes, you might have to do that over and over again and it is easy to lose hope and just give up. If you want water though, giving up is not an option. Similarly, if we really want peace, giving up is not an option either. The people of Ethiopia and Eritrea need and deserve to live in peace with each other.
The Ethiopian and Eritrean psyche can be as thick as their land and it takes just as much patience and time to find a common ground for a possible peace building. The reader might respond by saying, “but they are almost the same people; it is difficult to even understand who is who, not only on the surface, but historically, religiously, culturally and linguistically”. Yes, but so are our Somali brothers and sisters and look how long it is taking them. Having similar or even the same cultural and linguistic or even historical heritage does not guarantee an easier peace making; it might even be more difficult to solve family conflict than those of distance relatives.
While peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea may be extremely complex, it is important to look into all the available options and choose from them in a timely manner. Walk with me as I touch on some of those choices. Before examining the available choices though, here are few of the basic to-do lists for both countries:
It is advisable that the traditional as well as modern academic based conflict resolutions be utilized to deescalate the existing conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea: Stop demonizing each other: the name of the government in Addis is called the Ethiopian government and the name of the government in Asmera is called the Eritrean government. Call each other not by what you thing the other side hates, but what the world calls each government; Kick out each other’s armed opposition groups from each country. In reality, each country knows that they are no more than nuisance and will never be the method of overthrowing the other side; Establish military to military communication to avoid unintended war by miscalculation, misinformation and/or by accident. Create a safe environment for the border communities to attend each other’s weddings, funerals, and community events; Allow athletes, civic leaders, religious leaders and artists to meet and convers on developing future relations; Establish common language experts under “Ethiopian-Eritrean Heritage Foundation” to conduct linguistic, cultural and historical research; Establish a combined commission made up of leaders of all the major religions of both countries.
Some of the challenges with historical facts: There are two extremes: on the one hand, there are people on the Ethiopian side that strongly believe that there is no such a thing as nation of Eritrea. It was an Ethiopian province and would continue to be if the “evil Weyane” has not given it away. This group forgets that history is complex and nations are built all over the world where there were no nations before. On the other side of the Mereb, we have others that propagates that Eritrea was just a colony of Ethiopia and have never been part of it. They are allergic to some of the facts of history such as Alula’s fight with the Egyptians and Turks and that Asmera started as Alula’s military garrison. That Ethiopia is a continuation of the Axumite Empire even if the current Ethiopian boundary is new and improved after we defeated the Italians. Many of our Eritrean brothers and sisters also forget that so many Eritreans fought alongside their Ethiopian brothers against Italy (the real colonizer) and so many Christian Eritreans argued for federation with Ethiopia. Without going deeper into history, let’s just say that the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea is as complicated as any family feud and only time will tell if it will ever be better understood.
I am going to take a calculated risk and state that if given a choice many of us, would prefer to change the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea from where it stands now. Let me just assume you agree with me and keep going with my assumptions then. Let’s look at some of the difficult choices available to both leaders. Leadership is, after all, about being able to examine options and make the most reasonable choice at present with serious consideration for the future.
Choice #1: Accept the “no peace no war” and let things fall as they may. The Ethiopian side may hope that the 72-year-old leader will pass away and that whoever seats at the helm of the Eritrean government will make peace with Ethiopia. This does not sound very strategic; leaving things to all kinds of possibilities, including the longevity of president Isaias and possibility of Eritrea feeling confident to start another devastating war on its own or as a client state to cause serious damage to Ethiopia. For Eritrea, loosing thousands of young people escaping to the level of some villages not having enough men to dig graves for the dead is not going to lead to any positive end. Mainly though, this choice is not fair to the people on both sides that should be given an opportunity to live in peace. Nobody benefits from this choice; it is based on a wrong assumption that the other side is hurting more.
Choice #2: surrender the land that the arbitration gave to Eritrea. This is the only scenario that I am aware of, where a victory at the battlefield did not translate into any advantage, and the victor is being forced to surrender its own territory paid with thousands of lives. The only entity to be blamed for this blunder is the Ethiopian government. This will be a clear failure of the Ethiopian government’s responsibility to protect and defend the Ethiopian people who will be “given” to Eritrea against their will. Surrendering an inch of Ethiopian land and/or one person will be treason at the highest level and the punishment for treason of any leader in Ethiopian government should match the crime. This choice will not tame Eritrea and may even embolden the already militaristic Eritrean government. There will be defiance from those who would not accept this decision and may start a liberation movement once again.
This will not bring Eritrean and Ethiopian people closer as there will be losers and winners and under this scenario, there can never be peace.
Choice #3: Fulfill the needs of both nations and look for a win-win solution Even though the Ethiopian government has been preaching that there are several ports that Ethiopia can utilize, let’s be real; no matter how much Ethiopia develops, without a port, it is always going to be a second-class nation; no way can they keep hopping that “we were great once and we shall be great again” no we cannot! So; port, port and port. If Russian Ukraine example is not feasible, then negotiate for a long term better deal than what we have now. Yes Ethiopia purchased 19% in Berbera port and is paying millions for the use of Djibouti port. The news that Ethiopia may do the same in Djibouti or even in Sudan is great, but I hope it is even deeper; Ethiopia should lease small part of the port in Djibouti for both commercial and naval usage. Let’s not forgot that times have change, and now, Eritrea may get a lot for the port by leasing it to some of the Arab countries including Egypt. The price just took a hike; Ethiopia was too slow on this one. “Only camels will drink at the port” are no longer relevant argument for Ethiopia to make; Eritreans are more interested in Ethiopia’s loss and sufferings than Eritrea’s gain; this is how real enemies behave; get used to it!
The Eritrean elite have dreamed of becoming a Singapore of Africa for a long time, by using raw materials from Ethiopia and selling the product back to Ethiopia. I think they actually believed that possibility. Now, things have changed and just as Ethiopia was too slow in understanding the issue of port, so is Eritrea’s dream of using Ethiopian resource to sell right back to Ethiopia. For any country’s development, energy is one of the key tools. How about Eritrea gets free electricity and Ethiopia gets free port; this is just a thought; it is a win-win. Another important issue for Eritrea is nationalism. A guarantee from Ethiopia once and for all that the Eritrean boundary is respected and there is no second thought. Well, the Ethiopian government has made that so clear that many Ethiopians felt that the Ethiopian argument for Eritrean independence was as strong as that of Eritrean government itself. Ethiopia should go ahead and guarantee that again.
Choice #4: An unfortunate last choice that Ethiopia may be forced to make As I was listening to the new Ethiopian prime minister’s speech, I heard many things that I like, including an olive branch to our Eritrean brothers and sisters. There was one message that I felt was missing. When he offered the Eritreans peace, I wished he included the risk of war for Eritrea by stating that “if I am forced to conduct war, we will make sure that you will never have a second chance to fight us again; so, please let’s make peace”. As Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese general, military strategist and philosopher have said, “To know your enemy, you must become your enemy” As a leader, you should always show you want peace, but not eager for it and that you can conduct war as well. But who am I to give advice to the prime minister of Ethiopia!
The Eritrean president keeps demanding the surrender of all the land that was given to them, including a large chunk of my own home of Irob district before he is ready to conduct any dialogue with Ethiopia. It is amazing to listen to him say that this conflict is
not about boundary and yet he still insists on the boundary and refuses to conduct dialogue. We have not heard the Ethiopian side asking about the “25 km buffer zone” inside Eritrea. Better yet, demand information about what they have done with all the abducted Ethiopians, including over 100 innocent peasants from the Irob district.
As Irob elders keep telling me, that even our cattle know the boundary and that people on both sides should be part of the solution. Yes my Eritrean friends keep reminding me that we both went to court and it is final. My question is; would it be better to include border people from both sides in the resolution for a lasting win-win solutions or listening to some foreign experts who have never set foot in either country make a decision that will not solve our conflict better? How about families who will be split into two countries? Remember what King Solomon’s strategy was when two women came to him fighting over a child. I have a feeling that Eritrea is acting like the evil women in the story. “Just cut the child into two and give me my half”
Ethiopia should start strengthening its military at every level and prepare as if there will be a final show-down on the Eritrean front. Great investment in the defense and intelligence sector would also show Egypt that there will not be a “slum dunk” if they start war. Ethiopia needs a voluntary military training that will provide educational and other benefits to high school and college students participating in the training. There is a need to prepare by strengthen diplomatic, intelligence, and military institutions to once and for all resolve this problem and prepare to pay a high price in human as well as in resource. This choice is not an easy one; Eritrea has a formidable military strength with the support from Arab countries with deep pockets. This is one of the reasons that Ethiopia must think very carefully about waiting too long and giving more time for the Eritrean government to further strengthen its military. As they say in Tigrigna “Mikris Addigrat Terifu”. The time to have tamed or finished off the camel was lost at the end of the last war. Now, they already have their hands in supporting many groups that are destabilizing Ethiopia. Ethiopia must make the right choice; a wrong choice could be its last choice to make.
The most important step that the Ethiopian government can take to safeguard the nation though is to safeguard its citizens; by creating a freethinking citizenry in a transparent and democratic system. The current experiment of ethnic federalism has created some serious challenges for the government and people of Ethiopia. Ethiopia must speed up the process of democratization and make the fast-economic progress fair to satisfy the basic needs of millions of its citizens. A government by the people and for the people would be able to bear any challenge and only when all citizens feel that they have a stake in the nation, will the public defend the nation.