Thursday August 9, 2018
By Maggie Fick, Alexander Cornwell
FILE PHOTO: Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed during the national anthem at the Inauguration ceremony marking the reopening of the Eritrean Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
ADDIS ABABA/DUBAI (Reuters) - When the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea embraced in Asmara last month, promising to end the two-decade-old state of war between their two countries, it looked like a sudden breakthrough.
But the rapprochement was, in fact, the culmination of a year of
back-channel talks, sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
One of the drivers behind that process was the United States, which has been a major player in the Horn of Africa for decades.
More surprising was the role played by a much smaller nation: the United Arab Emirates.
oil-rich Gulf state has gained increasing influence in the region in
recent years, according to UAE and Ethiopian officials and diplomats. Driven
in part by a desire to tap Ethiopia’s growing economy and in part by a
fear that rivals such as Iran and Qatar could gain a foothold in the
Horn of Africa, the UAE has pushed into the region for more than a
Its newfound assertiveness underscores the shifts underway in the
continent, where China now challenges the historic power of western
nations and where Russia, Brazil and the UAE and its Gulf States are
growing in prominence.
Publicly, the UAE downplays its influence.
Minister of State for International Cooperation, Reem al-Hashimy, told
an event in Washington last month that her country had “played a humble
role in trying to bring these two countries together”.
But two diplomats in the Gulf told Reuters that the UAE has privately taken credit for the peace agreement.
Ethiopian prime minister’s chief of staff, Fitsum Arega,
acknowledged meetings with UAE officials, but said the leaders of
Ethiopia and Eritrea were responsible for ending the war.
information minister, Yemane Ghebremeskel, was not available for
interview when Reuters visited the country’s capital, Asmara, last
The UAE has enjoyed virtually unchallenged influence in Eritrea for at least a decade.
Eritrea is the most diplomatically isolated state in Africa. The
United Nations imposed sanctions including an arms embargo in 2009,
accusing the government of supporting Islamist militants in neighboring
Somalia - a charge it denies.
But Abu Dhabi has a military base there which it uses to help prosecute the war in Yemen, located just across the Red Sea.
this year, Hashimy, the UAE minister, met with Ethiopian Prime Minister
Abiy Ahmed’s predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, in Ethiopia.
Abiy took office in April, Abu Dhabi ramped up that effort. The timing
was fortuitious: the UAE’s relationship with Somalia, another nation in
the Horn of Africa, was falling apart and Abu Dhabi was looking for a
“After years of investing in Somali security forces,
the UAE saw its gains swept away by what it perceived to be an axis of
Qatari and Turkish influence,” said Elizabeth Dickinson of the
International Crisis Group.
A month after taking office, Abiy
visited the UAE capital Abu Dhabi to meet Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed
bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The new Ethiopian leader offered to mediate between
Abu Dhabi and Somalia, two diplomats in the Gulf said.
from the UAE affiliate of the Red Crescent society, Emirates Red
Crescent, later visited Ethiopia to discuss aid projects with Abiy.
Those visits complemented efforts by Washington to move toward a restoration of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
United States has been conducting shuttle diplomacy for more than a
year, according to regional diplomats. In 2017, Eritrean officials
visited Washington twice and again once this year, leaving messages that
the Americans passed to Ethiopian officials.
In late April this
year, Donald Yamamoto, then the top U.S. official on Africa, met
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki in Asmara – the first visit by a U.S.
official of that rank in more than a decade – before meeting Abiy in the
With the promise of financial support from the Gulf and with Washington’s backing, Abiy made his move.
Ethiopia nor Eritrea benefit from a stalemate,” he said on June 6, a
day after his ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary
Democratic Front (EPRDF), announced it would implement a peace deal with
Eritrea dating back to 2000.
“We need to expend all our efforts
towards peace and reconciliation and extricate ourselves from petty
conflicts and divisions and focus on eliminating poverty.”
days later, Sheikh Mohammed visited Addis Ababa with officials including
Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, the head of the state-owned oil company.
The prince announced a $3 billion support package, made up of a $1
billion deposit in Ethiopia’s central bank and a pledge of $2 billion in
Ethiopian officials said the deposit, plus an
offer from Saudi Arabia of a year’s supply of fuel with payment delayed
for 12 months, helped ease a foreign exchange crisis that had caused
shortages of medicine and a slowdown in manufacturing.
UAE’s] good relationship with both parties helped with re-establishing
the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea and we see that as a
positive thing,” Saad Ali Shire, Foreign Minister in the semi-autonomous
state of Somaliland told Reuters.
It’s been a long time coming.
and Eritrea are linked by blood and history. An Eritrean secessionist
movement helped overthrow a military regime in Addis Ababa in 1991 and
the new Ethiopian government then gave Eritrea its independence.
a few years the two countries co-existed peacefully. Landlocked
Ethiopia depended on Eritrea’s main port, which sits on one of the
world’s busiest shipping lanes.
But in 1998, the two
went to war after a border dispute. Two years of brutal fighting left at
least 80,000 dead. A shaky ceasefire followed.
began to change after the death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
in 2012. Members of his ruling coalition began quietly discussing how
to approach Isaias Afwerki in Eritrea.
“It became clear to us
that normalization was not only beneficial to Ethiopia but for the
entire region,” said Hailemariam, who succeeded Meles before resigning
Ethiopia’s ruling coalition agreed in principle
during Hailemariam’s tenure to accept the peace deal and withdraw
Ethiopian troops from a border town awarded to Eritrea in 2002, he said.
His story was confirmed by other senior politicians and diplomats in
But it was the appointment of Abiy that really
encouraged Eritrea, Ethiopian officials, politicians and diplomats in
the region say.
Preaching forgiveness and an end to the Ethiopian
state’s preoccupation with security, Abiy cuts a very different figure
from his two predecessors.
“The PM made it clear he will work to
ensure lasting peace and ... he proved himself through real gestures
like releasing political prisoners,” said his chief of staff Arega.
was able to act because his party had seen off the Tigrayan People’s
Liberation Front, long the dominant force within the ruling coalition
and traditionally opposed to Eritrea.
When Isaias, the Eritrean leader, accepted the olive branch, he praised Abiy and welcomed the TPLF’s weakening grip on power.
When Abiy and Isaias embraced last month, some in Africa likened the moment to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
few weeks later the two leaders traveled to Abu Dhabi. A photo from
that meeting shows the two men holding hands with the crown prince as he
led them up a palace staircase.
reporting by Aaron Maasho in Asmara, Aziz El Yaakoubi in Dubai, Yara
Bayoumy in Washington, and Cecilie Kallestrup in Nairobi; Writing by
Maggie Fick; Editing by Giles Elgood