Chatham House/allAfrica by Jason Mosley

The latest report from the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea has stirred tensions between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Eritrea has seized on a selective reading of the report to call for the lifting of UN imposed sanctions, a call already rebuffed by the Monitoring Group’s Coordinator. The diplomatic fallout is likely to continue as Ethiopia and its allies push for continued (or tightened) sanctions on Eritrea.

It is a sensitive time in the Horn of Africa. Tensions are rising along the region’s main political and security fault-line between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Ethiopia’s government has taken an increasingly bellicose tone towards its former province, perhaps signaling an increased willingness to push more actively for regime change in Eritrea. This would have major but uncertain security consequences across the region.

In January, Ethiopia accused Eritrea of being behind an attack by ethnic Afar gunmen on a tourist convoy travelling in Ethiopia’s north-western region. The attackers were most likely criminally motivated. However, given that the Afar people range across the Ethiopia-Eritrea-Djibouti border area, the attack significantly worsened Ethiopia-Eritrea relations. In March, Ethiopia staged raids across the Eritrean border – the most significant military activity along the border since 2000. Ethiopia said it was targeting Eritrean-sponsored training camps for Afar militants. Ethiopia’s government may have hoped to trigger a reaction from their Eritrean counterparts, but there was no retaliation.

Long History

Successive governments in Addis Ababa have been challenged with ensuring Ethiopian security in the context of a volatile regional security landscape. The last two decades have seen civil wars in Somalia and Sudan, as well as the 1998-2000 border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Since 2002, lingering animosity between Ethiopia and Eritrea has contributed to regional tensions, as both governments have sought to undermine the other’s interests, such as by sponsoring proxy militia in each other’s territory, and in Somalia.

Ethiopia has successfully exploited its important geo-strategic position to ensure that Eritrea remains isolated, within the region and internationally. Ethiopia’s failure to abide by the terms of the binding arbitration over the two countries’ border delineation and demarcation led to the current impasse. Eritrea’s poor diplomatic engagement has not helped its position, although it could benefit, in principle, from holding the legal high ground in the decade-long stalemate with Ethiopia. In practice however, the African Union (AU) and the Horn of Africa’s regional grouping, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), have fairly consistently followed Ethiopia’s lead in applying pressure on Eritrea, widely portrayed as a regional spoiler. Read more…