Will Detente Lead to Democratic Reform in Ethiopia And Eritrea?

Can the changing relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea will lead to reforms for each country?
The detente has opened opportunities for prosperity and better circumstances for ordinary Ethiopians and Eritreans. But will the governments in each country pursue the reforms necessary to turn those opportunities into a better reality? Can governance and democracy in these states improve with the same vigor as their relations?


The rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea is as surreal as it is wonderful. For decades, politics and governance in both states were defined by their bitter conflict. Now that they have suddenly embraced as friends, Africans and international observers have numerous questions about what this means for each nation.

In 1991, I worked to facilitate a peace agreement ending a 33-year civil war in Ethiopia, creating Eritrea as an independent state. Just seven years later, it was upended in a border war which lasted until 2000, killing another 80,000 people.

In 2002, a Hague commission negotiated a new boundary, but Ethiopia never fully implemented this agreement – in particular by retaining a small town of great symbolic significance, Badme, where the war began. Relations remained frozen in acrimony and military tension.

All this has changed with the election of a new prime minister in Ethiopia, 42-year-old Abiy Ahmed. Détente with Eritrea is the centerpiece of Ahmed’s agenda.

His administration has accepted the Hague border agreement, ceding Badme to Eritrea and sending the message that his country was prepared to swallow its national pride and embrace its historic enemy. Weeks later in Eritrea’s capital of Asmara, he did so literally, hugging Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki to cheers from Ethiopians and Eritreans alike. The two leaders formally declared an end to their state of war.

Diplomatic relations have been restored, embassies reopened, and direct flights from capital to capital are now available. Trade discussions are in progress, including the restoration of access to Eritrea’s important ports. Phone lines are open, and Eritreans and Ethiopians are excitedly calling each other for the first time in decades. Comparisons to the fall of the Berlin Wall abound.

The detente has opened opportunities for prosperity and better circumstances for ordinary Ethiopians and Eritreans. But will the regimes in each country pursue the reforms necessary to turn those opportunities into a better reality? Can governance and democracy in these states improve with the same vigor as their relations?

For Ethiopia, the future is beginning to brighten. A member of the Oromo ethnic minority, Prime Minister Ahmed has instituted domestic reforms at an astonishing pace. He has ended the “state of emergency” imposed by the last regime to enforce military rule and restrict political freedoms.

He has released thousands of political prisoners and eliminated “terrorist” designations for opposition groups. He fired the head of Ethiopia’s prison service and declared an end to torture, calling it “our act of terrorism.” He has also begun to open the economy, announcing that some state-owned corporations would be privatized, and that investors would be invited into key economic sectors like energy.

The strongest bellwether for reform in Ethiopia will be a shift to true multi-party democracy. Mr. Ahmed remarked that the country has “no option” but to pursue it. He has referred to democratic elections as “my dream and ambition.”

Over the past twenty years, the Tigrayan minority ethnic group has exercised constant political dominance and repression. In spite of this, the country has enjoyed significant economic growth amid widespread infrastructure improvements – which can be a potent means to secure political power – but several generations of university-educated citizens are now clamoring for democratic freedoms.

Ahmed is an Oromo, representing an ethnic group subjected to tyrannical oppression by the Ethiopian state over the past several years. His rhetorical promises for democracy are backed by genuine progress on domestic reforms, a strong reason for the hope that Ethiopia will indeed move towards a more democratic system.

The burning question is what all this means for Eritrea and President Isaias Afwerki, who has served for twenty-five years. The 1998 war was a major setback for the newly independent state, especially its economy. Cross-border commerce, a key to the Eritrean economy, stopped completely. Before the war, Ethiopian use of the Eritrean ports at Assab and Massawa had been a major source of rental income for Asmara. Young men and women, who form the labor base of the Eritrean economy, went to war – and continued to patrol the border with Ethiopia until recent weeks. To make matters worse, a major exodus of young Eritrean men fled to Europe to escape the country’s compulsory, indefinite military service, and to search for regular employment.

The 1998 war ended any early prospect that the authoritarian Maoist system instituted by Isaias might become less rigid and more responsive to popular aspirations.  Nevertheless, after the end of actual fighting in 2000, Eritrea’s stability and a relative absence of corruption made the country an attractive destination for foreign investors, particularly in the mining sector. At the same time, Eritrea’s strategic geographic position in the volatile Red Sea sub-region continues to make its ports attractive to adjacent powers, including Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

Will peace and normalization between Eritrea and Ethiopia open a new era of gradual sociopolitical liberalization within Eritrea? President Isaias, a disciple of Mao, now has an opportunity to emulate Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, who encouraged indigenous Chinese capitalism and greater freedom of choice.

Eritrea’s compulsory national service is expected to end as the conflict with Ethiopia comes to a close, a development which Europe will cheer, but which will create a wave of unemployment unless appropriate steps are taken. As it looks to stem the tide of young Eritrean refugees seeking better opportunities, Europe appears willing to assist Eritrea’s economic development, and the country’s changing relationship with Ethiopia could lead to new economic growth and a more hopeful future for its workforce.

Within the Eritrean diaspora in the United States, there are growing voices calling for democratic reform. As the hero of the Eritrean independence struggle, as the architect of a growing Eritrean economy, and as the leader of the fight to preserve Eritrean independence against Ethiopian aggression, President Isaias should not fear a more open Eritrean system. Now would be a good time to start the process.

Herman J. Cohen is former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1989-1993), the U.S. Ambassador to Senegal and The Gambia (1977-1980), a National Security Council member, (1987-1989) and a 38-year veteran of the Foreign Service.