Armed Conflict: The Ethiopian government declared on 05 June that it would unilaterally act to implement the Algiers Agreement, demark the border outlined by that agreement, and cede the town of Badme to Eritrea. The Agreement formed the basis for the cessation of armed conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2000 and its implementation had been a precondition of the Eritrean government for further dialogue; previous Ethiopian governments had insisted on dialogue prior to implementation.
The border conflict resulted in approximately 100,000 deaths between 1998 and 2000 and has since remained frozen with a tenuous peace deal. This has prevented major violence but resulted in both countries maintaining an aggressive military posture in the contested regions.
A potential thawing in relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea could end the longest running conflict in Africa, bringing a significant peace dividend to both populations, but raising the risk of instability, particularly in Eritrea.
Ethiopia has remained land-locked since Eritrea gained independence in 1993, as the culmination of a bloody 30-year war. Normalisation of relations would potentially give Ethiopia significantly enhanced access to international trade through Eritrea’s ports, bolstering the prosperity of both countries as port cities increase in prominence. An indication that this formed a key part of Ethiopia’s motivations for the unilateral action was the reformation of an Ethiopian navy announced by Prime Minister Abiy 01 June, along with an array of other deals with Djibouti, Kenya, Somaliland, and Sudan to enhance marine access.
Whilst these are clear benefits for Ethiopia, they do not come without significant risks to internal stability. The town of Badme, key to the Algiers Agreement and due to be ceded to Eritrea, is populated primarily by Ethiopian troops, and veterans of the 1998-2000 war, whose employment is dependent primarily on providing these troops with supporting services. Representatives of this community have promised violence in response to any efforts to implement the agreement; however, the relatively small population means they pose a relatively minimal threat themselves.
More significant is the threat posed from the wider region adjacent to Badme. Members of the Tigrayan ethnic group, whose party is a key element of the governing coalition and originate from region adjacent to Badme, have indicated their refusal to support the ceding of the town. There is a realistic possibility that this group could incite protests against the proposed withdrawal of troops, actively seeking to test Prime Minister Abiy only ten weeks into his tenure. Ethiopia has just emerged from a state of emergency enacted due to widespread and violent civil unrest in the Oromia region. Whilst Prime Minister Abiy appears less inclined to use such measures compared to his predecessor, any protests may still develop into violence, and local security forces may feel compelled to respond aggressively.
The Eritrean government’s response to this development has been heavily muted in the face of international attention, despite it apparently representing a clear-cut diplomatic victory over their long-term rivals. This is likely because Eritrea’s government is dependant on the spectre of threat from Ethiopia to justify its repressive security regime and the failure to implement the 1993 constitution or democratic elections. As such, any overt acceptance of normalised relations runs the risk of undermining the regime’s already limited legitimacy and could potentially lead to violent unrest or a coup. If the Ethiopians push through and conduct a unilateral withdrawal from the contested areas, it remains unclear how the Eritrean government will be able to meaningfully respond.
There also remains the question of how this rapprochement will influence a series of regional issues. Ethiopia is due to begin using the River Nile’s waters to fill the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), with significant effects for countries downstream, including both Egypt and Sudan who suffer water scarcity. Sudan has entered a deal with Ethiopia to mitigate some of the impacts and reach a mutually agreed compromise; Egypt, however, has not. Egypt has sought to station military assets in Eritrea, in an apparent effort to deter the operation of the dam and provide a credible threat of military action against the GERD. As such, the capitulation over the Badme border issue may be seen as an effort to neutralise the threat posed to GERD by reducing or removing Eritrean support for Egyptian military action against Ethiopia. This may also explain Eritrea’s reluctance to officially recognise Ethiopia’s offer; the positive impacts of simple acceptance may have a greater negative effect on their regional alliances than retaining the status quo.
The border between Ethiopia and Eritrea is likely to remain highly militarised for the foreseeable future, particularly due to the unilateral nature of this measure. Should Ethiopian conventional forces withdraw from Badme and the surrounding area, there is a realistic possibility that local civilians will resort to violence in order to resist either their eviction or occupation by Eritrean troops.
There remains an additional possibility of civil unrest in both countries. As the media is highly restricted in both Ethiopia and Eritrea, travellers should remain in contact with local advisors or security personnel in order to keep track of local developments and changes in atmospherics which may precede an outbreak of violence.
Travel to Eritrea is tightly-controlled and the recent events are unlikely to impact this in the immediate future. All foreigners will require permits to travel beyond the capital. Local guides or business contacts should be used for all travel. The country is extensively mined and travel on non-metalled roads or rural tracks may result in injury or death. Communications are heavily restricted, with international communications often entirely curtailed. Calls on the national mobile network are often monitored by security forces, and electronic goods may be seized or examined upon both arrival and departure.
For most travel to Ethiopia, including the capital Addis Ababa, Solace Global would advise clients to employ the minimum of an airport meet and greet and a locally-vetted driver for all travel. It is advisable that this level of security is increased for other areas of the country or for specific client profiles. The Ethiopian government also closely monitors communications and media throughout the country, travellers should therefore consider all communications as non-private, and monitor their actions appropriately.
Travellers are also advised to use travel-tracking technology with an intelligence feed. This should enable a traveller to be alerted of any security updates within their vicinity and to update others of their movements in case of an emergency.