How a Warrior Poindexter Helped Ethiopia and Eritrea Make Peace

Eritrea's President, Isaias Afwerki talks to Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed during the Inauguration ceremony marking the reopening of the Eritrean Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri - RC13F9FB50E0

An easing of cross-border tensions, a zeal for free trade, and a more globalist-minded young leader have brought change to the Horn of Africa. Can this formula catch on across the continent?

On June 23 in Addis Ababa, a hand grenade exploded within earshot of Abiy Ahmed Ali, Ethiopia’s newly inaugurated, widely adored prime minister. Due to either good luck or ineptitude on behalf of the assailants (likely both), Abiy emerged unscathed. Regardless, this was no way to treat a strong contender for next year’s Nobel Peace Prize: The 42-year-old premier had just ended the two-decade-long conflict between Ethiopia and its recalcitrant neighbor, the mountainous redoubt of Eritrea. Five suspects were charged following the attack, which appears to have been an attempt to derail Abiy’s aggressive slate of reforms—an agenda with its share of motivated critics along with its legions of supporters.

Abiy is a warrior poindexter, a former military man who co-founded and directed Ethiopia’s domestic cyberintelligence agency, and who most recently served as the science and technology minister. The international press has portrayed him as an educated, Western-style reformer, and with good reason: His early economic policies are lifted straight from the liberal orthodoxy, and his speeches promote a secular, Bono-esque “one love” that is bracingly rare in an age of rampant sectarianism. His Ph.D. thesis, entitled “Social Capital and Its Role in Traditional Conflict Resolution in Ethiopia: The Case of Inter-Religious Conflict in Jimma Zone State,” is an incisive diagnosis of the ethic, cultural, and religious problems blighting his country, and perhaps the planet.a

Nothing symbolizes the transformative nature of Abiy’s efforts better than Ethiopia-Eritrea rapprochement. Beyond the images of families uniting for the first time in decades, peace has upended the region in hard geopolitical terms, with talk of the United Nations Security Council lifting its sanctions on Eritrea, and the very real prospect that Ethiopia could elevate itself to a regional superpower. There are winners in such an arrangement, and losers—and observers fear that the latter will start expressing their displeasure in terms more forceful than ad hoc grenade attacks.

First, though, the good news: Ethiopia’s economy was the fastest growing in the world in 2017. But despite the ecstatic figures, on a per capita basis Ethiopia isn’t much better off than Haiti, making it one of the poorer countries in the world. Long run by devout Maoists suspicious of anything smacking of free-market capitalism, Ethiopia’s economy was under tight state control until Abiy’s ascension. While Addis Ababa transmogrified into a tower-clogged megalopolis, social discord rendered parts of the nation virtually ungovernable. Abiy has promised to change all that, in no small part by opening his borders. As if presaging his endeavors, and certainly designed to encourage such reforms, since 2014 African countries have been adding their signatures to the Niamey Convention, which calls for increased cross-border cooperation. (Only about 10 percent of African trade is intracontinental.)

Nothing articulated the insanity of African border regimes better than the Ethiopian-Eritrean deadlock. In 1952, the United Nations rolled tiny Eritrea, a former Italian colony, into an Ethiopia-dominated federation. Emperor Haile Selassie unilaterally annexed his neighbor 10 years later, sparking an insurgency which bubbled away until Eritrea was liberated in 1991. The country officially celebrated independence in 1993, when Isaias Afwerki, who became president after leading the liberation movement, rejected the overtures of the international community, and turned the country into a one-party state, ruled by one man, with no room for concessions. In 1998, he launched a war against Ethiopia over a disputed patch of desolate borderland. Two years later, tens of thousands were killed in trench warfare reminiscent of the worst of World War I. The resulting Algiers Agreement, which upheld most of Eritrea’s territorial claims, was ignored by the Ethiopians, resulting in a stalemate grimly described as “no peace, no war.”

In the ensuing decades, fears of terrorism and the threat of regional instability rendered Eritrea one of the most isolated countries on Earth. In 2008, George W. Bush’s administration declared Isaias’s fiefdom to be a state sponsor of terrorism; Barack Obama’s administration doubled down on this view after finding evidence that the regime was shielding Somali-based insurgents. In June 2015, the UN Human Rights Council published a comprehensive 480-page report documenting the boundless cruelty that Eritrea visited upon its own citizens. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as of December 2014, more than 363,000 refugees have originated from Eritrea, along with a further 54,000 asylum seekers—nearly 10 percent of the country’s population. At least 3,000 people are said to flee a month, most of them into scorching Sudan and then north across the Mediterranean, contributing significantly to the largest global refugee crisis since World War II.

Across the border in Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, who became prime minister in 1995, worked to keep al-Shabaab insurgents at bay while viciously repressing his own Muslim population. He was not known for walking away from a confrontation, and on Eritrea he was particularly intransigent: There was every reason to think the détente would last forever. But following a short illness, Meles died in 2012. Into the vacuum walked Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, a former sanitation engineer without a significant power base, who stood down in February, after waves of violent protests sparked by attempts to ethnically gerrymander the capital.

Suddenly, the ruling party anointed Abiy Ahmed Ali prime minister. Popular but untested, he was an anomaly for a number of reasons. First, he was said to be Ethiopia’s first Muslim premier. This is not precisely true—while his father is Muslim, his mother is not, and he exists in a sectarian middle ground that makes him acceptable to an array of constituencies. Second, he belongs to the traditionally marginalized Oromo ethnic group that constitutes around 40 percent of the Ethiopian population. Within weeks of his inauguration, he freed thousands of political protesters and journalists from jail, and introduced economic reforms that would have been unthinkable under Meles. (They are by no means universally embraced by the ruling elite.) In short, he has rendered the country unrecognizable to itself. Most notably, he accepted the terms of the Algiers Agreement, a gesture that finally ended the “no peace, no war” impasse and has cracked open the Horn of Africa, perhaps for good.

Where do we situate Abiy in the pantheon of up-and-coming geopolitical superstars? African politicians have for years been visiting Davos and World Economic Forum events, and the ideas promulgated in such spaces appear to have taken hold. It’s not a great time for the Davos crowd: The bastion of free-market, entrepreneurial, liberal esprit has been slammed by the hard right and the hard left alike. But it remains the home of young centrists looking for ideas and support. Abiy has clearly internalized the Davos-minted “everything is connected” view of the liberalized, border-lite nation-state, making him fashionable in elite African circles, at least by current standards. Angola and South Africa, which recently inaugurated new leaders with relatively progressive ideas, have been either advocating for a single African passport or reducing visa requirements for their neighbors. There has even been talk of a single, bitcoin-esque African currency. (Emphasis on “talk.”) In Rwanda in March, under the eye of the country’s business-minded autocrat Paul Kagame, 44 African states signed an agreement to create an African free-trade area. The dusty, inflexible socialism of Isaias Afwerki’s generation has given way to Abiy Ahmed’s brand of reformism.

Or so the theory goes. There are 54 countries in Africa, and it’s lunacy to suggest that they’ll all transform into Western-style liberal democracies within the next few years. But the speed with which Abiy has implemented his reforms implies a confidence in ideas that have lost their flavor in the West. What’s more, Abiy’s version of liberalism hasn’t been adopted wholesale like any old colonial consumer product—rather, it’s been adapted to local conditions and requirements. Our “identity is built in such a way that it is inseparable,” he said in his inaugural address. “It is threaded in a manner that cannot be untangled. It is integrated out of love.” Ethiopia, in this conception, is a microcosm of the planet. Divided it cannot thrive.

That said: Since America became distracted by terrorism following 9/11, and as Europe continued to see Africa as a basket case instead of a market, other players have entered the African sphere. China is the continent’s single largest trading partner, while the Middle East is a big player in Ethiopia and Eritrea. These relationships are radically reshaping how African leaders see the world.

Abiy, however, proves that there is still a home for pragmatic, business-first centrist-liberal rhetoric, and the Eritrea-Ethiopia reconciliation is the greatest expression of this. By no means is it a done deal; there are many snags to be worked out. After all, it bears remembering that Abiy is a former intelligence hack, and he may end up reverting to type when the going gets tough, as it most surely will. Still, with the ideological (and literal) grenades flying in from all directions, Abiy the reformer appears resolute. There’s almost certainly a Davos keynote slot open for him next January.


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