Reforms currently sweeping through Ethiopia under the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed have implications for the relationship between Ethiopia and its neighbours. Ethiopia is seen as the de facto leading state in the region. But it has a history of clashing with neighbouring states.
The current reforms have the potential to bolster Ethiopia’s leadership role in the region. And an Ethiopia that is perceived as a unifying force could lead to more stability.
Two recent announcements stand out: the normalisation of relations with the northern neighbour Eritrea and the signing of a peace deal with the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a separatist movement that has sought self-determination for the Somali region of Ethiopia.
The reasons these two developments are so important is that the tension between Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the Ogaden National Liberation Front have each contributed to instability in the region. The peace deal brokered between Ethiopia and Eritrea will not only affect internal tensions within Ethiopia. It’s also likely to signify a new chapter in the politics of the region.
For its part, the peace accord with the Ogaden National Liberation Front will end a long-standing conflict with the Ethiopian state. This conflict has shaped Ethiopia’s relationship with its Somali region, as well as Ethiopia’s relationship with the Republic of Somalia. The Somali region of Ethiopia is one of nine regional states under the current ethnic federal system in Ethiopia. It is mostly inhabited by Somali-speaking people.
Tensions – both within Ethiopia and between Ethiopia and its neighbours – are rooted in history. The formation of Ethiopia’s Empire state in the late nineteenth century was shaped by the absorption of smaller kingdoms in the south, east, and west of Shewa.
Shewa was Ethiopia’s political centre located north of the current capital Addis Ababa. By the late 19th century the incorporation of these territories was almost complete. By this time the capital had been moved to Addis Ababa.
This incorporation of territories is how the idea of the modern “Ethiopian state” emerged. But this imposition of state power on the new territories was contested. It has been the root cause of much of the country’s internal upheavals.
The importance of territory in Ethiopian statehood was further demonstrated by the 1952 incorporation of Eritrea as an Ethiopian province. Most Eritreans resisted the occupation and took up arms. The occupation was followed by nearly 30 years of conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrean liberation movements.
Ethiopia has also been in conflict with neighbouring Somalia since Somalia gained independence in 1960. Shortly after its independence, the new government in Mogadishu began to prioritise clan loyalties as it formed a new centralised state. This pitted various clans against each other and widened the chasm between clan loyalty and nationality.
The foreign policy objectives of the new Somali Republic were influenced by the level of influence it enjoyed in the Somali-inhabited regions of its neighbours. This included the Somali region of Ethiopia.
Eventually, the push and pull between the republic and its diaspora contributed to the rise of a separatist narrative within the Somali-inhabited regions. This spawned organisations such as the Ogaden National Liberation Front. The front is a separatist rebel group fighting for the self-determination of Somalis in Ethiopia’s Somali region.
Conflict and territory
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Ethiopia was mired in conflicts that challenged its territorial integrity. One was the Ethiopia/Eritrea war.
Self-determination was at the core of the conflict between the Ethiopian government and Eritrean liberation movements. Throughout the conflict it was viewed as a civil war since Eritrea was regarded as a province of Ethiopia.
Similarly, the tension between Ethiopia and the Somali separatist movements was triggered by the Somali belief that their territory belonged to the Somali Republic.
These conflicts led to regional instability.
Ethiopia taking centre stage
Ethiopia has been on a path of reform since 1991. In the intervening years it has become the most economically dominant country in the region. This has cemented its leadership position. The current political reforms can be seen as part of a process of redefining Ethiopia’s role in the broader East African region – and the continent.
The governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and the Ogaden National Liberation Front have been in peace talks since the early 1990s. The unsuccessful talks were accompanied by low-intensity conflict that severely affected the region.
That could be about to change. Thanks to Abiy Ahmed’s reform efforts, the front announced a unilateral ceasefire in August 2018, and by September peace talks had begun with the Ethiopian government and a peace deal was signed. There is cause for optimism that the deal will last because of the current leadership in Addis Ababa.
The peace deal with Eritrea has already had a number of positive outcomes that could contribute to regional stability.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias Afwerki have met several times to announce concrete evidence of the peace deal. Abiy also recently hosted his Eritrean and Somali counterparts to cement regional ties.
Ethiopia’s ruling coalition has re-elected Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as its chairman. This means that Ahmed will continue as prime minister until the next party congress. It is with this certainty that he has taken the opportunity to reassemble his cabinet for the second time this year.
The latest reshuffle has downsized cabinet departments from 28 to 20. Ten of the new ministerial appointments are women, meaning that Ahmed has achieved a 50% gender balance in his new team.
This is a significant milestone. But perhaps of more importance is the creation of a ministry of peace. Ahmed has made it clear that peace is central to his reforms agenda. The new peace ministry is therefore an effort to ensure that this agenda remains on course. The question is: how effective can it be in the long run?
The new peace ministry will oversee intelligence and security related agencies, federal affairs, immigration and others. It has been created with the hope that it will improve ethnic relations in the country, and work towards reconciliation among communities ravaged by unprecedented levels of ethnic violence over the last two decades.
This is a broad mandate, which one single ministry might not be able to achieve. Ahmed’s intent, nonetheless, is to show his administration’s desire to pursue a peace agenda with the view to building a stable and more tolerant nation state.
But his ‘peace ministry’ approach might prove problematic.
Firstly, it will need to recognise the root causes of ethnic tension in Ethiopia. So far, Ahmed’s administration has continued to prioritise ethnic politics and the furthering of the rights of groups over the rights of individual citizens. This approach has historically pitted ethnic groups against each other, often resulting in inter-ethnic violence.
Secondly, the power structure in Ethiopia has not changed. The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front remains the most powerful political force in the country. If Ahmed wants to transform Ethiopia, he must also take strides to create democratic change within the coalition. The front must embrace internal, ideological reforms for peace and security to be achieved in Ethiopia at large.
Revolutionary democracy, or the idea that the enlightened élites should lead the unconscious masses to the revolution, has been the ruling coalition’s main political and economic ideology. In Ethiopia, it has prioritised the party agenda over the sanctity of the country’s constitution, which is also problematic. If the coalition refuses to expand its democratic space, Ethiopia’s history of exclusion and oppression may continue uninterrupted.
The creation of a ministry to work exclusively on peace and security matters is admirable. However, Ahmed’s administration must also attempt to reform the country’s ethnic federal system of government, which is built around regional administrations.
Disparities between these administrative regions pose serious challenges to Ethiopian unity. Some regions like Oromia, Amhara, Tigray and the south are considered developed. While others, like Gambella, Benishangul Gumuz, Somali and far flung regions, are still developing. This economic inequity has precipitated ethnic competition, a race for resources and evictions of people from certain areas.
The ruling coalition must also look beyond the demands of survivalist politics. Ahmed and his peers in leadership therefore need to focus on legacy, rather than short-term gains.
An important legacy would be the peaceful co-existence of ethnic groups, and the re-imagining of Ethiopian nationalism. This can be achieved by encouraging citizens to participate in politics, not by constraining their rights to associate freely. Thus, if Ahmed’s administration maintains a clear focus on the rights of every Ethiopian, it could end up being one of the most consequential political administrations in Ethiopia’s modern political era.
All eyes are now trained on the new peace ministry, headed by Muferiyat Kamil. The former speaker of the house has a hefty job on her hands, given the high expectations that have been placed on her ministry. She is privileged, however, to have a self-professed reformist as an ally at the helm of government.
The creation of the ministry has been lauded but it has also been criticised for concentrating political power in Kamil’s hands. She is one of Ahmed’s most loyal allies in the ruling coalition.
A time for reform
Since Ahmed became prime minister he has taken great strides to transform Ethiopia’s politics.
The historic peace agreement signed with Eritrea has also had a transformational effect on the greater East Africa region. Regional peace discussions are slowly being replaced with talks of economic integration.
Unfortunately, Ahmed’s reform agenda has been threatened by flurries of ethnic conflict in his own backyard. Hundreds of thousands of people have been evicted from their homes because of their ethnicity. Going forward, this could challenge the stability of the Ethiopian state.
Moreover, questions are beginning to arise about Ahmed’s sincerity and commitment to genuine political change. When 25 people were killed in Addis Ababa a few weeks ago, the city’s youth staged demonstrations to call for better security. The government responded with undue force; scores were killed and thousands stayed in unlawful detention for over a month.
After their release some of those who spoke up for them were arrested by the security forces. Among those arrested was Henok Aklilu, a young lawyer and human rights defender. International organisations like Amnesty International demanded and successfully secured his release but others remain in detention. Amnesty released a statement saying that his arrest
… highlights the difficulties human rights defenders continue to face despite the Ethiopian government’s stated commitment to open up space for dissenting voices.
It’s safe to say that Ahmed’s push for political change is now under scrutiny. He must regroup with haste and address the injustices that have been meted out by the state infrastructure for decades.
Roses and champagne have been given to passengers on the first commercial flight between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 20 years.
Ethiopian Airlines said its "bird of peace" flew to Eritrea, after the end of the "state of war".
Passengers sang and danced in the aisles during the 60-minute flight. But they wept once they landed in Eritrea's capital Asmara, as they met relatives and friends for the first time since the 1998-2000 border war.
This led to the closure of air and road travel between the two nations.
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has spearheaded a peace process with Eritrea since he took office in April. He signed a "peace and friendship" agreement with Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki on 9 July, declaring that the "state of war" was over.
The deal was signed in Asmara, during the first visit by an Ethiopian head of state to the country in 20 years. Mr Isaias made a reciprocal visit to Ethiopia about a week later.
The two leaders agreed to restore diplomatic ties, and resume air and road travel.
Who was on the flight?
Former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was among the passengers on the historic flight. He told the BBC's Emmanuel Igunza that he was emotional about making the trip.
"It's a golden moment for the two countries and the two people," he said.
Family members separated by the war hugged and sobbed when they met in Asmara. Flight attendants had handed out roses and had served champagne to passengers in all classes during the flight.
The passengers included 33-year-old Izana Abraham, who was deported from Eritrea during the war because he was born in Ethiopia.
"I'm super excited. You have no idea," Mr Izana was quoted by AFP news agency as saying.
"This is history in the making," he added.
More than 450 passengers were on board, Ethiopia's privately owned Addis Standard news site reported. Demand was so high that a second flight left within 15 minutes, AFP reported.
Why is this a big deal?
Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993. Five years later, their armies fought over disputed territory along their border. Some 80,000 people were killed in the conflict.
A UN-backed boundary commission ruled in 2002 that Ethiopia should cede the town of Badme to Eritrea. It refused, and the two countries remained in a state of "no war, no peace".
Mr Abiy has promised to hand over territory, but it is unclear when this will happen.
This week Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed visited neighbouring Eritrea, to be greeted by President Isaias Afwerki. The vast crowds that thronged the normally quiet streets of Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, were simply overjoyed.
They sang and they danced as Abiy’s car drove past. Few believed they would ever see such an extraordinarily rapid end to two decades of vituperation and hostility between their countries.
After talks the president and prime minister signed a declaration, ending 20 years of hostility and restoring diplomatic relations and normal ties between the countries.
The first indication that these historic events might be possible came on June 4. Abiy declared that he would accept the outcome of an international commission’s finding over a disputed border between the two countries. It was the border conflict of 1998-2000, and Ethiopia’s refusal to accept the commission’s ruling, that was behind two decades of armed confrontation. With this out of the way, everything began to fall into place.
The two countries are now formally at peace. Airlines will connect their capitals once more, Ethiopia will use Eritrea’s ports again – its natural outlet to the sea – and diplomatic relations will be resumed.
Perhaps most important of all, the border will be demarcated. This won’t be an easy task. Populations who thought themselves citizens of one country could find themselves in another. This could provoke strong reactions, unless both sides show flexibility and compassion.
For Eritrea there are real benefits - not only the revenues from Ethiopian trade through its ports, but also the potential of very substantial potash developments on the Ethiopia-Eritrea border that could be very lucrative.
For Ethiopia, there would be the end to Eritrean subversion, with rebel movements deprived of a rear base from which to attack the government in Addis Ababa. In return, there is every chance that Ethiopia will now push for an end to the UN arms embargo against the Eritrean government.
This breakthrough didn’t just happen. It has been months in the making.
Some of the first moves came quietly from religious groups. In September last year the World Council of Churches sent a team to see what common ground there was on both sides. Donald Yamamoto, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, and one of America’s most experienced Africa hands, played a major role.
Diplomatic sources suggest he held talks in Washington at which both sides were represented. The Eritrean minister of foreign affairs, Osman Saleh, is said to have been present, accompanied by Yemane Gebreab, President Isaias’s long-standing adviser. They are said to have met the former Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, laying the groundwork for the deal. Yamamoto visited both Eritrea and Ethiopia in April.
Although next to nothing was announced following the visits, they are said to have been important in firming up the dialogue.
But achieving reconciliation after so many years took more than American diplomatic muscle.
Eritrea’s Arab allies also played a key role. Shortly after the Yamamoto visit, President Isaias paid a visit to Saudi Arabia. Ethiopia – aware of the trip – encouraged the Saudi crown prince to get the Eritrean president to pick up the phone and talk to him. President Isaias declined, but – as Abiy Ahmed later explained – he was “hopeful with Saudi and US help the issue will be resolved soon.”
So it was, but one other actor played a part: the UAE. Earlier this month President Isaias visited the Emirates. There are suggestions that large sums of money were offered to help Eritrea develop its economy and infrastructure.
Finally, behind the scenes, the UN and the African Union have been encouraging both sides to resolve their differences. This culminated in the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, flying to Addis Ababa for a meeting on Monday – just hours after the joint declaration. Guterres told reporters that in his view the sanctions against Eritrea could soon be lifted since they would soon likely become “obsolete.”
It has been an impressive combined effort by the international community, who have for once acted in unison to try to resolve a regional issue that has festered for years.
Risks and dividends
For Isaias these developments also bring some element of risk. Peace would mean no longer having the excuse of a national security threat to postpone the implementation of basic freedoms. If the tens of thousands of conscripts, trapped in indefinite national service are allowed to go home, what jobs await them? When will the country have a working constitution, free elections, an independent media and judiciary? Many political prisoners have been jailed for years without trail. Will they now be released?
For Ethiopia, the dividends of peace would be a relaxation of tension along its northern border and an alternative route to the sea. Families on both sides of the border would be reunited and social life and religious ceremonies, many of which go back for centuries, could resume.
But the Tigrayan movement – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) - that was dominant force in Ethiopian politics until the election of Prime Minister Aiby in February, has been side-lined. It was their quarrel with the Eritrean government that led to the 1998–2000 border war.
The Eritrean authorities have rejoiced in their demise. “From this day forward, TPLF as a political entity is dead,” declared a semi-official website, describing the movement as a ‘zombie’ whose “soul has been bound in hell”. Such crowing is hardly appropriate if differences are to be resolved. The front is still a significant force in Ethiopia and could attempt to frustrate the peace deal.
These are just some of the problems that lie ahead. There is no guarantee that the whole edifice won’t collapse, as the complex details of the relationship are worked out. There are many issues that have to be resolved before relations between the two countries can be returned to normal. But with goodwill these can be overcome, ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity from which the entire region would benefit.
To the west of Ethiopia near the Sudanese border lies a place called the Asosa zone. This may be the location of the oldest gold mine in the world. Dating back some 6,000 years, it provided a key source of gold to the ancient Egyptian empire, whose great wealth was famous throughout the known world. It may even have supplied the Queen of Sheba with her lavish gifts of gold when she visited King Solomon of Israel almost 3,000 years ago.
The excitement in this part of the world is more about the future, however. Some local inhabitants already make a living from prospecting, and several mining companies have been active in the area in recent years, too.
But what comes next could be on a much bigger scale: I have just co-published with my colleague, Owen Morgan, new geological research that suggests that much more treasure might be buried under the surface of this east African country than was previously thought.
The Asosa zone is made up of flatlands, rugged valleys, mountainous ridges, streams and rivers. It is densely vegetated by bamboo and incense trees, with remnants of tropical rainforests along the river valleys. The zone, which is part of Ethiopia’s Benishangul-Gumuz region, is spotted with archaeological sites containing clues to how people lived here thousands of years ago, together with ancient mining pits and trenches.
Local inhabitants have long taken advantage of these riches. They pan for gold in Asosa’s streams and also extract the precious metal directly from outcropping rocks.
More substantial exploitation of the region’s riches dates back to the Italian invasion of the 1930s. The Italians explored the Welega gold district in West Welega, south-east of Asosa.
Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, believed the country had the potential to become a global leader in gold. But when the revolutionary Derg government deposed him and the country plunged into civil war, gold mining disappeared off the agenda for a decade and a half. It took until the early 2000s before the government started awarding exploration licences.
Several mines are up and running, neither of them in Asosa. One is at Lega Dembi slightly to the east, owned by Saudi interests. The other, at Tigray in the north of the country, is owned by American mining giant Newmont, and just started production late last year.
More is already on the way: the beneficiary of the Italian efforts from the 1930s in Welega is the Tulu Kapi gold prospect, containing 48 tonnes of gold. This was most recently acquired in 2013 by Cyprus-based mining group KEFI Minerals (market value: roughly US$2.3 billion (£1.7 billion)).
As for Asosa, the Egyptian company ASCOM made a significant gold discovery in the zone in 2016. It published a maiden resource statement that claimed the presence of – curiously the same number – 48 tonnes of gold. Yet this only looks like the beginning.
The Asosa zone geology is characterised by various kinds of volcanic and sedimentary rocks that are more than 600 million-years-old. The region has been intensely deformed by geological forces, resulting in everything from kilometre-long faults to tiny cracks known as veins which are only centimetres in length.
Some of these veins contain quartz, and it is mainly here that the region’s gold accumulated between 615m and 650m years ago – along with silver and various other minerals. The gold came from molten materials deep within the Earth finding their way upwards during a process known as subduction, where tectonic forces drive oceanic crust beneath a continent. This is comparable to the reasons behind gold deposits in island arcs like some of the ones in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
Our field observations and panning suggest that gold should be generally abundant across the Asoza zone – both in quartz veins but also elsewhere in the schist and pegmatite rocks in which they are located. We also see signs of substantial graphite deposits, which are important for everything from touch-screen tablets to lithium-ion batteries.
There is undoubtedly much more world-class gold within this area than has already been discovered, pointing to a promising source of income for the government for years to come – much of the region remains unexplored, after all. It probably is no exaggeration to say that Ethiopia’s gold potential could rival South Africa’s, which would put it somewhere around the top five gold producing nations in the world.
There are still some substantial challenges, however. Dealing with governmental red tape can be difficult. In an area like the Asosa zone there are dangerous wildlife to avoid, such as venimous snakes, baboons and even monkeys. The vegetation also becomes forbiddingly wild during wet seasons.
It is also important to strike up good working relationships with local inhabitants, showing the utmost respect to local cultures – it’s the ethical way to operate, and failing to do so can make life harder with the authorities in the capital. This includes the need to preserve the natural beauty of the region; gold mining already has a very bad international reputation for environmental damage.
With the right approach, however, western Ethiopia will be a literal gold mine that could bring economic benefit to the region. What the Queen of Sheba may have known 3,000 years ago, the modern world is finally rediscovering today.
The global tourism industry has huge economic importance. It contributes 10% of the world’s gross domestic product and 6% of exports. One billion people a year travel somewhere in the world.
Africa’s natural and cultural points of interest give the continent tremendous tourism potential. This shows in the numbers. In 2015, the sector generated USD$ 36 billion in Africa (7% of all exports in the region), up from USD$ 10 billion in 2000. Travel and tourism also directly supports 466,000 jobs. It’s expected that by 2030 the number of tourists will reach 134 million annually.
But African countries’ tourism industries are often constrained by a lack of infrastructure development, air connectivity and financing.
Ethiopia, in East Africa, is an example. The country has immense natural, cultural and historical attractions, but is a largely untapped tourism market. It suffers from a lack of infrastructure and the negative publicity the country received after the famine in the 1980s and various conflicts. It needs to make a big effort to market its potential and develop the measures to support the industry.
Ethiopia’s tourism sector showed a steady increase in the last decade. International tourist arrivals rose from 64,000 in 1990 to 680,000 in 2013 and are expected to reach 815,000 by 2024. This 2024 figure would mean a contribution of USD$2 billion to the country’s GDP. Over the next five years the sector is expected to create over a million jobs, or 3.6% of total employment.
Comfortable hotels play a vital role in attracting tourists. After the fall of the communist government 27 years ago, Ethiopia started privatising most of the state owned hotels and tourism establishments. To support this, the government adopted a policy that allows duty-free imports of hotel furniture, fixtures and equipment. It also provides for favourable loans to investors for the construction of new rated hotels.
But, while the hotel industry is growing, the number of available hotel rooms is still the lowest. In terms of room availability, Ethiopia is globally ranked 134 out of 140, compared to Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania at positions 122, 121 and 118 respectively. Furthermore, there are few hotels of an international standard, and many are old and unattractive. Infrastructure to support the hotels is lacking. There are no zoning policies to establish the areas where hotels should be constructed, or tourist activities to complement them when they are built.
Until recently, Ethiopia did not have enough hotels recognised under international rankings or ratings – they generously awarded themselves their own stars. This made it hard for visitors to judge the quality of a hotel. This changed in 2015 when the Ethiopian government, with the help of World Tourism Organisation, started rating hotels in the country. Though participation in the grading process is mandatory, the graded hotels still haven’t undergone annual audits to ensure they’re keeping up with the standard they were awarded.
Ethiopia also only has six internationally branded and managed hotels. This is a very low figure bearing in mind that the average number of tourists per year is nearly 700,000 and these six hotels have a combined total of less than 1,500 rooms. By comparison, Nairobi in neighbouring Kenya already hosts most of the international hotel brands – and expects 13 more to open their doors over the next five years.
There are also only three five star hotels in Ethiopia and the majority of the “rated” hotels which guarantee a certain standard of service are situated in the capital, Addis Ababa. Other hotels, rated only by online travel agents based on the guests’ comments and with fewer than 100 rooms, are scattered throughout major towns. This is a problem because most of the tourist attractions are located in the countryside. There is also a scarcity of budget facilities, like youth hostels, to cater for budget travellers and backpackers.
Another major issue is the hotel structures. After the fall of the communist regime, from 1995, Ethiopia started privatising. Over 287 enterprises were transferred from the public to the private sector – out of which 34, or 11.8%, were hotels. The aim was to improve economic efficiency, stimulate the private sector and mobilise more foreign and domestic investment. However, the process has been weighed down with problems which include; corruption, loss of jobs and a lack of ownership and transparency. The state retains control of many of the most valuable assets in the sector. These are not well maintained, as they are about to be privatised. For example, Addis Ababa’s Hilton hotel, completed in 1987, now needs urgent refurbishment.
Finally, the hotel industry needs to be supported by tourism infrastructure. It needs physical facilities like car parks, sewerage and water works, transport projects and roads. These have to be based on zoning policies, to establish where the hotels should be built. With the exception of Addis Ababa, there are also hardly any offerings of recreational or entertainment activities like parks, concerts or cinemas. And there are logistical gaps like the lack of adequate ATM machines and foreign exchange bureaus outside Addis Ababa. This means visitors need to carry large amounts of cash in local currency, which is inconvenient and unsafe.
To spur tourism growth and development, Ethiopia must improve the hotel industry and the infrastructure that supports it. It will take the cooperation of all stakeholders – government, hotel professionals, hotel owners and hotel trade associations – to achieve a competitive and sustainable sector.