29.10.2023 Author: Ivan Kopytsev

Ethiopia and Eritrea: is a new confederation in Africa possible?

Ethiopia and Eritrea: is a new confederation in Africa possible?

Is a new African confederation possible between Ethiopia and Eritrea? This list does not exclude the international arena; hence, on the political map, one can observe at least a few “pairs” of states whose historically conditioned confrontation is taken for granted and continues to be a source of sporadic escalation or ongoing conflicts for many years. North and South Korea, Azerbaijan and Armenia, Turkey and Greece, Iran and Israel, India and Pakistan, China and Taiwan, and, until recently, Ethiopia and Eritrea are a few examples of these unforgiving opponents. After centuries of tense relations between these governments, nearly two decades of open hostility (1998–2018) appeared to have ended with the signing of the peace agreement in 2018, in Asmara. But while this diplomatic breakthrough, so highly praised by the Nobel Committee—Ethiopia’s prime minister was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the same year—was a promising development that launched a dramatic rapprochement between the two countries, recent political turbulence in the Horn of Africa has set the stage for new concerns. The relationship between Addis Ababa and Asmara, which were formerly seen to be unresolved enemies, is therefore riddled with inconsistencies. While there are conditions that must be met in order to anticipate political integration leading to the formation of a confederation, it is also impossible to overlook the potential causes of a rapid deterioration of relations or even outright hostilities between the two nations. Therefore, the future of collaboration between Ethiopia and Eritrea continues to be crucial to understanding the dynamics of conflict in the Horn of Africa today.

History of relationships

Political entities like Ethiopia and Eritrea did not exist historically inside their current borders; the ancient civilization covered the region that is now known as Eritrea and was situated north of modern-day Ethiopia and the Red Sea coast. The most potent state formation in the area in the second and third century AD was the Kingdom of Aksum. It covered not just the coastal plain of Eritrea but also the highlands of northern Ethiopia. Nevertheless, by the end of the 19th century, Ethiopian monarchs had taken control of most of the modern-day Ethiopia, having not been a part of the Kingdom of Aksum. In turn, the presence of Portuguese, Ottoman, and Italian colonists caused the Abyssinian Neguses (monarchs) to eventually lose control of the Red Sea coast. As a result, Eritrea, which served as a staging area for waves of migrants traveling from the Arabian Peninsula to East Africa for several millennia B.C., has progressively grown into a multiethnic community that practices both Islam and Christianity. In general, Ethiopia lost the ability to use Eritrea’s ports for foreign trade after Italian colonization of the coast began in the 1880s. The Ethiopian emperor succeeded in regaining control of the country’s “sea gateway” until after World War II, despite Italian forces failing to build on their victory in capturing northern Tigray during the 1894–1896 war.

In 1952, the UN decided to reunite the Ethiopian Empire with Eritrea, under the condition that the latter grant self-government within a federation. However, the idyllic period was short-lived: the federation was disbanded in 1962, and Eritrea began an almost 30-year war for independence. Since then, Addis Ababa found it increasingly difficult to use the ports of Massawa and Assab, and lost control of its former territory entirely in 1993.

The two countries’ brief attempts to forge mutually beneficial cooperation were marred by significant contradictions that surfaced in 1998. These stemmed from issues with border demarcation as well as the history of the relationship between the ruling parties, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), during their joint struggle against the socialist Derg regime. Because of this, Ethiopia has no other option for maritime trade except the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway, which goes through the state capital of the same name and has been the backbone of the Ethiopian economy for several decades (generating up to 95% of total trade turnover).

Confederation: the pros and cons

The first indications of what would soon be a barrage of rumors suggesting Ethiopia and Eritrea’s likely political integration within the confederation surfaced in July 2018, during a rapid thawing of relations between Asmara and Addis Ababa that included the normalization of bilateral relations and a series of summit visits and high-level visits. For instance, during their discussions and joint statements, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki—who has held the position since the country’s independence—and newly elected Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed not only displayed extraordinary levels of regard and consideration for one another, but they also made some very noteworthy remarks. The Eritrean leader in particular called attention to the myth that the peoples of Ethiopia and Eritrea are not the same. He also stated that the Ethiopian prime minister has the authority to make decisions and should represent both Ethiopian and Eritrean interests when needed. There have been a lot of conjectures about the idea of a confederation because of the abrupt shift in Isaias Afwerki’s and the Ethiopian government’s rhetoric, their shared political history, and, last but not least, unsubstantiated reports that the president of Eritrea wanted to preserve Ethiopia’s territorial unity as early as 1991. The peace agreement between Addis Ababa and Asmara is not accessible to the public.

Simultaneously, the primary obstacle to political integration between the two nations is a notable disparity, sometimes known as the “unequal marriage” factor. This obstacle is undoubtedly very challenging to overcome. Basically, Eritrea is genuinely deprived of the opportunity to assert a partnership format of relations due to Ethiopia’s enormous superiority in terms of population and area, as well as the degree of urban infrastructure development and the quantity of natural resources. Therefore, in the event of an alliance, the political goals of Ethiopian leaders would essentially depend on their ability to control resources, which would unavoidably jeopardize internal peace.

Naturally, the Ethiopian government’s propensity to give in to its northern neighbors in terms of political power and economic leverage is largely justified by its proximity to seaports. However, any integration, even if undertaken in a truncated format while maintaining broad political autonomy and the control of the Eritrean elite over its territory, would lead to the gradual establishment of a common political space. Because Eritrea’s political system differs fundamentally from Ethiopia’s in terms of institutional design and modes of political engagement, a similar series of events would be disastrous for Eritrea’s political system. Furthermore, any long-term coalition is highly susceptible due to the historical political unrest in the Horn of Africa and the degree to which the parties’ activities depend on the state of affairs at the time. Therefore, even though Eritrea would have economic opportunities in the event of a confederation with its southern neighbor, it should be understood that a return to the status quo is unlikely to be peacefully implemented in practice given the tensions in Ethiopian-Eritrean relations. Ethiopia, having access to the Red Sea, will likely not be interested in breaking the alliance and may even refuse to release Eritrea out of its “clutches”.


Ivan Kopytsev, political scientist and research assistant at the Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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