Eritrea and Ethiopia: A Response to Herman Cohen

News Opinions
ethiopia and eritrea relation
Cohen’s suggestion that Eritrea’s engagement with Arab countries in the region is a step toward “Sharia Law in the Horn of Africa” respectfully borders on the ludicrous.

By Dr. Samuel Mahaffy,

Herman Cohen’s post on Eritrea – Ethiopia (“The Red Sea Is Slipping into Total Arab Control” December 28, 2015 ) deserves a thoughtful response. In the face of deliberate mis-information campaigns against Eritrea, Cohen has had the courage to invite the world to consider positive engagement with Eritrea. His premise, that the ending of sanctions against Eritrea serve the cause of peace and stability in the Horn of Africa, is accurate. There is merit in his highlighting the importance of normalizing relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

At the same time, Cohen’s broad-stroked commentary with ideas for peace between the two countries contain significant deficiencies that cry for response. Cohen’s is an important voice that must be respected. It deserves more than the sometimes caustic response it has received. The dialogue about Eritrea must be deepened in the interests of peace and justice. 

Eritrea has historically respected a diversity of religions while disallowing fundamentalist extremism. In the Capital of Asmara, people of faith from Moslem, Christian and Jewish traditions worship in close proximity to each other. Cohen’s fear of Sharia Law overshadowing Eritrea because of its engagement with Arabic countries in the region, borders on the ludicrous.

It sadly echoes anti-Islamic rhetoric that is rampant in the West and particularly in the United States. Perpetrating fear of Islam simply does not serve the cause of combating extremism perpetrated in the name of religion. The Islamic faith will always be respected in Eritrea as are other faith traditions.

Recently published Civil and Penal Codes of Eritrea respect customary laws and local traditions. Eritrea’s dual respect for the religious traditions of Islam and its rejection of fundamentalist extremism is a note-worthy model for other countries.

Cohen’s analysis is glaringly missing mention of rampant violation of free speech and human rights in Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s oppression of its own people is a conundrum for the U.S. which has long had a propensity for supporting ‘strong-men’ and dictators in African countries. This dilemma is pointed out cogently in Cohen’s own significant work, “The Mind of the African Strongman“. In this work, Cohen asks: “How do we cope with the human rights atrocities committed by our best friends?” “Such is the dilemma of US policy in Africa” (p. 51).

The suppression of Oromo protests by Ethiopia simply cannot be ignored in any conversation about peace in the Horn of Africa. It was nearly a year ago that I traveled to the office of a U.S. Senator on the Foreign Relations Committee as a private citizen to ask this question: “How can the U.S. turn a blind eye on Ethiopia’s emerging suppression of its own people, while continuing support for sanctions against Eritrea?”

There is indeed momentum for normalization of relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia. I grew up close to the border between the two countries. I have deep friendships with both Eritreans and Ethiopians in leadership positions who I respect. Peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia would cause my heart to sing. Indeed, this is an active and organic conversation in Diaspora communities in the U.S.

Despite horrible conflicts in the past, Eritreans and Ethiopians have enduring historic social, cultural, and religious connections. Respect for the integrity of Eritrea’s internationally recognized borders and the ending of sanctions against Eritrea, must set the context for peaceful engagement.

Finally, Cohen’s post fails to acknowledge the emerging food security crisis in Ethiopia. Peace initiatives will not endure where children are starving. The world must respond with compassion to the food crisis in the Horn of Africa, while simultaneously asking where our foreign aid and development models have failed us. The Eritrean model that supports self-reliance, rather than dependency, should inform Western engagement in the Horn of Africa.

The people of Eritrea and Ethiopia are the parties that must lead the conversation about peace and sustainable economic development in the Horn of Africa. The natural resources and assets of Eritrea and Ethiopia are not prizes to be divided up, but the inheritance of the peoples of the region.

It is time for the world to be better informed about the Horn of Africa. Foreign policy, in the West, must be shaped around supporting peace, security and self-determination. We ignore the Horn of Africa to our great detriment. At the same time, no country in Africa is a prize to be divided up. It is time for constructive and respectful engagement with both Eritrea and Ethiopia that supports peace and stability in the region.

Dr. Samuel Mahaffy, Senior Advisor to Salaam Urban Village Association (SUVA). He was born and raised in Eritrea and earned his PhD from Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He writes regularly about Africa, peacemaking and relational practices on his website at