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Djibouti border dispute could roil Ethiopia-Eritrea peace deal

Tuesday July 24, 2018

The decision by Ethiopia and Eritrea to abandon war paths for peace and re-establish diplomatic and economic links has gotten everyone’s praise.

Kenya, for instance, argued it meant one less problem for the region and “a step closer to lasting peace and stability” in the Horn of Africa.

Even the UN Security Council said in a statement: “This represents a historic and significant development with far-reaching positive consequences for the Horn of Africa and beyond.”

But that growing rapprochement between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias Afwerki seems to have angered Djibouti, another of Eritrea’s neighbours.


Last week, Djiboutian Ambassador to the UN Siad Doualeh wrote an open letter to the UN Security Council to mediate in their border dispute with Eritrea.
Mr Doualeh asked for a judicial settlement which would be legally binding to both sides.

The border dispute between Djibouti and Eritrea is perennial, starting from the colonial days when the former was under French administration while the latter under the Italians.

They have argued over ownership of the area called Ras Doumeira since the 1900s. They clashed in 2008, leading to several deaths. The UN Security Council responded by imposing sanctions an arms embargo on Eritrea over claims Asmara was financing trouble-makers in the Horn.


In 2010, Qatar agreed to mediate the conflict and offered to provide troops as a buffer between the two sides.

Both sides seemed amenable to the offer and it somehow quietened the trouble.

That was until last year in June when Doha withdrew the troops, in the wake of a blockade imposed on Qatar by its Middle East neighbours.

Incidentally, neighbours like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates accused Qatar of financing terrorists, a charge it has denied.


So how does this affect the Ethiopia-Eritrean deal?

First, the conflict over the border means Djibouti and Eritrea are fighting over an area their colonial masters had initially agreed to demilitarise.

This could occupy Asmara’s mind when in fact they should be implementing the peace deal officially known as the Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship.

Eritrean academic Berhe Habte-Giorgis argues the key cog in the Addis-Asmara deal will be implementing the border dispute between the two countries, something he argues brought all the animosity.

“The key factor in the relations between the two countries is the implementation of the border decision. As simple as it looks, the TPLF leadership refused to allow demarcation of the border despite its approval both before and after the decision,” he argued on Friday, referring to the Ethiopian Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, the party then led by former PM Meles Zenawi when the war began in 1998.

Prof Berhe says the refusal to accept the border decision arising from the 2000 Algiers Accord opened windows for Eritrea to be ‘smeared’ with dirt, isolating in internationally.

“That was the monkey wrench in the peace process. It started with attempt to reject the Border Commission decision at the UN Security Council, imposition of sanctions on trumped-up charges for allegedly supporting Al-Shabab, and continued to this day using ‘moving goalpost’ series of false charges.”


But there is a more prominent reason for Djibouti.

Last week, a Djiboutian diplomat lamented Ethiopia was using its position as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council to lobby for the lifting of sanctions on Asmara.

Renewed last November, the UNSC imposed restrictions on Asmara until November 2018.

The Council partially lifted an arms embargo and exempted humanitarian relief heading to Eritrea but continued an asset and travel freeze on certain leaders.

Earlier this month, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters in Addis Ababa that he hoped the sanction regime will be lifted soon.

“The sanctions were motivated by a number of events that took place, (but) it is my belief that those events will no longer exist, they will naturally become obsolete,” Antonio Guterres he said.

If the sanctions are lifted, admitted Djiboutian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Ali Youssouf, there could be negative impact on his country.

In a brief to his envoys leaked to the media, Youssouf claimed Eritrea was yet to abandon its war-like behaviour towards neighbours and that Addis could be making a mistake to quickly accept it into the fold.

In actual sense, Djibouti had gained the most when Ethiopia and Eritrea were fighting, getting 95 per cent of all Ethiopia’s importation deals coming through its ports as Asmara sealed off sea route for Addis Ababa.

The peace deal has seen Ethiopia renew interest in importing through Eritrea, which could in the near future deny Djibouti business.

In the meantime, Eritrea is still considered failed and is at the tail-end of the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders.


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