Cold or warm, keep Eritrea at bay

By H. Mikael 
January 20, 2014

Recently, I came across commentaries on by Ambassadors Cohen and Shinn and, as an Ethiopian, I wish to share my reflection by commenting on the matter as it concerns all Ethiopians at present and the generations in the future,

As the case might be with all diplomats, Ambassadors Cohen and Shinn’s proposals emanate from their interest which may not be in the interest of Ethiopia. We Ethiopians must model our journey more by what is useful to us and less by smart outside tips. General diplomatic talks like “normalized relations would provide economic benefits for both” can be dangerously misleading.

A closer look at the state of things in Ethiopia and Eritrea will show that Ethiopia will sustain perils to its wellbeing in the event of restored relations with “independent Eritrea”. Eritrea is different from Djibouti or even from Somalia in that the state of mind of many Eritreans who are in a position to sway is contention inspired. It is no secret that hostility driven contest against Ethiopians is the soul of the independence quest and it has become even more apparent now that all other excuses that were raised by the Eritrean elite have melted away in Ethiopia in the course of time. Included is the nullifying of the argument that Ethiopia was behind Eritrea for modernity by the facts on the ground now that many cities and places of Ethiopia are more advanced than even Asmara. Yet, Eritreans are still in antagonistic mood towards Ethiopians. An Ethiopian can make a few visits to or dehai as a sampler and he or she will have a lasting depression. Why do we need to pick up depression when we can leave it where it is? It must be clear to Ethiopians that it is highly likely that an Eritrean will use any occasion, including the type of relationship the 1991- 1998 period saw, to inflict damage on Ethiopia. I know there are some Eritreans who are not bad but a few dolphins are little solace in a sea of sharks.

In the event of a relationship between Ethiopia and independent Eritrea, Ethiopia will lose in many fronts. Top among them is the economic front. In such event, the northern border of Ethiopia will become porous and Ethiopia will start spilling its collections through these porosity and it will incur unimaginable loss which it can not tabulate on accounting balance sheets. The other catastrophe Ethiopia will confront in such event is what I call, “the tesfaye gebreab plague.” Since most Eritreans are indistinguishable from any other Ethiopian, given their propensity to do harm, they will use it to the maximum extent possible since they will have been empowered with both knowledge of Ethiopia’s weakest links and the disposition to snap them.

The foreign adversaries of Ethiopia who had been assailing her using proxies since long time ago will also be empowered by the same “restored relations” deal. This deal will provide them with the perfect opportunity to go covert. Eritrea will oblige since it will be a beneficiary of covert operations against Ethiopia and its rewards for engaging in such operations will be greater because it has now more access to Ethiopia and will be a much sought entity by the adversaries. Only Ethiopia will stand to lose in such event. It has to be remembered that disconnect from Eritrea has made it possible for Ethiopia to see its historical enemies in the open. Getting to know one’s enemies is the first step to deal with them effectively.

Besides economic adversities, the harmful repercussions of “restored relations” with independent Eritrea will be deeper and wider especially in the social sphere. Since the Eritrean antagonism towards Ethiopia has crystallized more for its religious component, its hostile reflection will be particularly injurious to the otherwise harmonious Ethiopian inner cohesion.

I have seen some activities by Ethiopians and Eritreans to foster relations in recent years. It is courageous to do so but ill advised in substance, especially on the part of the Ethiopians. I have read the dialogue between the two groups over two choices: “federation” vs. “confederation”. It is not productive for Ethiopians to engage in such discussion since both options are non-starters for most Ethiopians and especially for Ethiopia as a nation. It also excites Eritreans with false hopes. Ethiopia can not entertain options that it can not afford to provide to its own citizens. The motivation for the Eritreans to engage in such efforts is clear; however, there are no grounds that encourage Ethiopians to stretch this far. It must be understood that there is zero material benefit to Ethiopia in any relationship with Eritrea including in total unity. In fact, federation, confederation and what Ambassadors Cohen and Shinn called “normalization” with Eritrea will hurt Ethiopia seriously. If warring Eritrea was bad in unity to warrant separation, then what followed immediately after it was worse. It is economically cheaper for Ethiopia to keep Eritrea at a good distance and spend on security than to enter into a relationship which will eventuate in colossal economic costs. I am not opposed to unity but only for historical reasons. The current Eritrean craving for relationship is material driven. Clearly, the Eritrean desire for economic gains will only come from Ethiopian losses. Those who claim that both will benefit citing port use are in error. For one thing, the value of port did not rise to significance by those in authority when Eritrea seceded. Neither did it play any since 1996. For another, accessing a port for fee should not be considered a benefit that comes on par with economic risks. Not to be forgotten is the fact that any intent in “restored relations” with Eritrea will encourage a fiery of port diplomacy between Eritrea and Ethiopia’s other options, which will be eternally damaging to Ethiopia. Since the part played by port in national wellbeing was downplayed at the time of the secession of Eritrea, the government will surely find itself in a logical dilemma if this time around it attaches such significance to port use as to settle for desperate deals. If they do so, they will be the embodiment of the famous adage: “A fool barters away his chicken for a bird and dies chasing in empty belly.” I am sure they are not that stupid as to resort to deals of loss unless they perceived the letters of Ambassadors Cohen and Shinn as some kind of coercion from the big powers.

I was concerned by the matter and by the unwelcome proposals of these two foreigners and spoke with Ethiopians in my area. I spoke with about seventy five Ethiopians of varying persuasions and background. Some of them oppose the government and some of them support the government. Some are neutral. I tried to reach diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. I made a tally of their responses to my questions and the following is what I collected.

For my question of whether simple “normalization with Eritrea” as proposed by Ambassador Cohen would be acceptable to them, all of them rejected the proposal. For my question of whether “confederation with Eritrea” would be acceptable to them, zero percent accepted the alternative. For my question of whether “federation with Eritrea” would be acceptable to them, twenty percent accepted the alternative. For my question of whether “total union with Eritrea” would be acceptable to them, forty eight percent of them rejected the alternative. The fifty two percent that accepted were not all enthusiastic about it. The degree of passion for it varies. Historical kinship was the main reason given by many of those who accepted the union alternative. I was limited by time and resources to go beyond seventy five people and I understand that more data needs to be gathered for a clearer picture, but the sample is a good indicator that the majority of Ethiopians reject any relationships with Eritrea with the exception of total union.

It will be a shame if the desire and right of Ethiopians is once more violated by powerful outside forces with ulterior motives.

The writer can be reached at

Print Friendly