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Eritrea-Ethiopia: Who Benefits from the Sudden Peace?

Three Questions to Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer

Eritrea-Ethiopia: Who Benefits from the Sudden Peace?
 Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer
Director of the Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM)

Addis Ababa was, after Djibouti, the second stage of President Macron’s visit to East Africa from 12 to 15 March 2019. A few months earlier, between Ethiopia and its direct neighbour, Eritrea, a sudden peace had emerged, after a long war of independence (1961 - 1991), a shorter but violent war in 1998-2000 and a "neither war nor peace" status quo since then. What are the reasons for this peace agreement? What are the international implications of this rapprochement and what role should France play? Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, Director of IRSEM and author of a recent note on the causes, consequences and scenarios of peace between the two countries, answers our questions.

Is this peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia likely to be long-lasting and beneficial to both nations?

The agreement is very likely to last because it is in the interest of both parties. On the Ethiopian side, it is of obvious economic interest, not so much for the access to the Eritrean market, which is modest, but for the access to its ports. This détente also allows Addis Ababa to relieve the military as well as political pressure resulting from the maintenance of a heavy defensive posture on the northern front, to focus on other regional issues, starting with Somalia. At the same time, it is a means of scuttling Eritrea's and Egypt's alliance against it, which was beginning to become a threat.
On the other hand, by making peace with Asmara (the capital of Eritrea), Ethiopia is taking on the good role, even though it was illegally occupying a portion of Eritrean territory. Above all, it deals the final blow to Isaias’ regime by removing its main justification, the Ethiopian threat, and paves the way for a normalization of the regime. Finally, we must not ignore the parameter of domestic politics in Abiy's motivation: peace weakens the army and the intelligence services, hence the Tigrayans who traditionally dominate this sector. This further marginalizes the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated the ruling coalition from 1991 to 2018 - an objective that Ethiopia shares with Eritrea.

On the Ethiopian side, it is of obvious economic interest, not so much for the access to the Eritrean market, which is modest, but for the access to its ports [...] On the Eritrean side, peace is not only beneficial: it had become a necessity.

On the Eritrean side, peace is not only beneficial: it had become a necessity. The regime no longer had much choice to avoid asphyxiation: since the closure of the Sudanese border in early 2018, the only one that could still provide it with supplies, Eritrea was in a very difficult economic situation - which indirectly constituted a risk for Isaias' continued power. Not because the population would have risen - it has been broken for many years - but because some members of the regime could have attempted a coup d'état, in particular the generals commanding the regions whose loyalty is only guaranteed because Isaias allows them to enrich themselves personally through various trafficking. Isaias' main motivation is therefore to maintain his power and the survival of his regime.

Another motivation was to obtain the lifting of UN sanctions after having tried everything in previous years, in vain. Not that they concern the relationship with Ethiopia - the United Nations Security Council accused Eritrea of supporting Somali armed groups and not seeking to resolve its conflict with Djibouti - but a rapprochement was a sign of goodwill and above all a means of recruiting Addis Ababa to lift sanctions: this is exactly what happened.
Finally, like Abiy, Isaias also sees peace as a way to marginalize the TPLF, his historical enemy. Defeated by Abiy, withdrawn to Mekele, it is trapped. There is an objective alliance of Isaias and Abiy against what remains of the TPLF, and more broadly a common concern to avoid the rise of a Tigrayan independence feeling.
For all these reasons, because peace is in the interest of both parties, it should last - and even survive the heads of state. If Abiy was murdered (he has already escaped a grenade attack on 23 June 2018), or if Isaias died from illness or was overthrown by a coup d'état - scenarios that must be considered - the previous reasons would still be relevant. The worst for Ethiopia, already surrounded by Somalia and southern Sudan, would be the "somalization" of Eritrea, in other words the collapse of the state, the fragmentation of the territory and the emergence of a jihadist hotbed. It will therefore be prepared to make concessions if necessary, to avoid this dark scenario.

What are the links between China and Djibouti, and what is the Chinese strategy that Washington is trying to counter?

The United States has been one of three regional supporters of Ethio-Eritrean peace, along with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. Everyone had their reasons. In the American case, the first and foremost objective is to counter Chinese ambitions in the region. China has a strong presence in East Africa in general, but Djibouti is a special case, as it hosts the first Chinese military base overseas. This allows Beijing to increase its projection capacity in the Indian Ocean and Africa, Djibouti being at a strategic location at the entrance to the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb, at the crossroads of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. China is not the only one to have understood this, since many other states have a military presence in Djibouti (France, United States, Japan, Italy, Germany, Spain), which constitutes an important financial windfall for this small state, one of the poorest in the world.
The Chinese base is subject to much speculation about its actual size and function, which seems to be moving away from what was initially presented as a "logistics base". In particular, it has an impressive underground complex that would cover approximately 23,000 m2, connected to a network of tunnels and bunkers. We are talking about a theoretical capacity of 10,000 men, even if it has much less now. For Beijing, this base is only the first milestone in a network of ports for at least dual use (initially civilian but potentially military) all around the Indian Ocean, known as the "String of Pearls" and which worries not only the United States but also India, which considers itself the victim of an encirclement strategy.

China's strategy is also, if not essentially, economic: it consists in pushing states into a "debt trap", lending them more than they can ever repay. In Djibouti, China has invested heavily in infrastructure (ports, railways). Today, Djibouti is 80% indebted, and 60% of its debt is said to be Chinese. It is difficult, under these conditions, to refuse anything to your creditor. This threatens Djiboutian sovereignty. This is the message sent by President Macron when he said: "I would not want international investors to weaken the sovereignty of our partners".

Today, Djibouti is 80% indebted, and 60% of its debt is said to be Chinese.

This is precisely what the Americans (but also France) fear: that the Chinese will eventually force the Djibouti government to take decisions contrary to American (and/or French) interests. For example, the US base in Djibouti - which is the largest US base in Africa - depends on the container terminal at the port of Doraleh for its supply. Until February 2018, it was controlled by an Emirati company, but the government nationalized it, alienating the UAE in the process (which only strengthened their determination to work for Ethio-Eritrean peace to give this landlocked giant Ethiopia an alternative to Djibouti for its access to the sea). The fear now is that the Djibouti government will entrust the management of the terminal to China, which will then be in a position to affect the supply not only of the American base but also of US Navy vessels in the region.
This development has de facto eroded the United States' confidence in Djibouti and, as in the case of the UAE, has contributed to strengthening its motivation for Ethio-Eritrean peace, which has the advantage of reducing Djibouti's monopolistic situation and therefore the magnitude of the risks involved.

In addition to French military interests in Djibouti, what is the nature of the interests of the region that President Macron defended during his visit?

On a continental scale, there is, first of all, an interest in terms of the perception of France's "African policy" which, for legitimate reasons, is very present in the West, and which must therefore regularly show that it does not forget the East. In Nairobi, President Macron recalled that "as crazy as it may seem, this is the first visit of a French president to Kenya". This rebalancing is all the more necessary as the region has many assets and is the link of a "great game" between the great powers. We have talked about the United States and China, but Russia could be discussed too, particularly in Sudan.
Indeed, there are military interests in Djibouti, with the largest French contingent in Africa, many of whom have come with their families, which is also significant for the French presence in the country. This presence is not only a colonial heritage, it now has a triple legitimacy: the protection of French nationals and maritime traffic along one of the world's main trade routes; the protection of an area of responsibility formalised by defence agreements with not only Djibouti but also the Comoros; and finally, its overseas departments and regions in the Indian Ocean (Réunion and Mayotte) make France a neighboring  country. Djibouti also offers excellent training opportunities, in terms of open areas and firing ranges, for the operational preparation of the military, in climatic and geographical conditions very close to those of current theatres of operations, particularly in the Sahel-Saharan strip (Operation Barkhane).
Given these strong and long-standing ties, President Macron could not make a regional tour without visiting Djibouti. In addition, the country needed to be reassured of France's support at a time when Paris' relative weight in the country is decreasing, while Beijing's is increasing, and Djibouti fears suffering from Ethio-Eritrean peace, i. e. competition from Eritrean ports - a fear which I believe must be put into perspective. Assab and/or Massawa do not have the qualities, in the medium term, to become serious alternatives to Djibouti. But this fear suits Addis Ababa in the meantime, because this psychological competition is putting pressure on Djibouti in terms of price and quality of service.

One of the objectives of the President's tour, was to sign a defence agreement with Ethiopia, which involves in particular the development of an Ethiopian navy.

There are also military issues elsewhere, since one of the objectives of the President's tour, who was accompanied by the Minister of the Armed Forces for the occasion, was to sign a defence agreement with Ethiopia, which involves in particular the development of an Ethiopian navy. Peace with Eritrea, and more generally the peace activism deployed throughout the region by the new Ethiopian Prime Minister since he came to power less than a year ago, are a reason to support him.

There are, of course, also economic interests. Ethiopia and Kenya were not chosen at random: they are important, dynamic and promising countries. Ethiopia, with a population of 105 million and an 8% growth rate, became France's first trade surplus in sub-Saharan Africa in 2017. In Kenya, which is also experiencing strong growth and is a regional hub in several areas (financial, air, port), President Macron has announced several billion euros in new contracts for French groups.
Finally, let us not forget that Addis Ababa, which hosts the headquarters of the African Union (AU), is the diplomatic capital of Africa. More than 110 countries have an embassy and most international organizations have their continental headquarters in the city. It is, structurally, an important place of influence, and not only on African issues. This scene is dominated by English, while nearly half of the African countries are French-speaking, and the promotion of the French language is one of the issues at the AU. Language is not neutral, it conveys a vision of the world and part of the international elite present in Addis expresses a need for French. So, there is, for France, an opportunity to seize.



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