Peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea would benefit the whole region – and Britain

British troops are more active in the Horn of Africa than many realise. 

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The civil war in Yemen has consumed much attention: rightly so, it is one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. But the other side of the Red Sea is just as critical, not least because conflicts in the Horn of Africa, the region that includes Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti, have resulted in air-raids against targets in Yemen. And Britain is directly involved.

The Royal Navy participates in the international coalition attempting to prevent drugs trafficking and terrorism. British training teams have been in Somalia, attempting to bolster the fissiparous government that is attempting to fight Islamists of al-Shabaab. The army continues to have a permanent training base Nanyuki, 200km north of Nairobi. It has been working with the Kenyan army, providing specialist tracking to help to counter the threat from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Somalia. Further West, the British military has 400 troops with the UN attempting to bring some order to the quagmire into which South Sudan has sunk.

Each of these operations functions within specific parameters, but they face the same issues: insecurity and crisis feeding terrorism, piracy and the drugs trade. The only way to understand politics in the Horn is as a single, interconnected system. Conflict in one area soon has implications for another. Borders have little meaning in this vast, desolate terrain. When Eritrea and Ethiopia went to war in 1998, apparently over a border village, it had ramifications all across the region. 

Although the war ended in 2000, Ethiopia, which lost the border village when the frontier was designated by an international tribunal, refused to accept the outcome, demanding more talks. Eritrea refused and both sides began arming and training rebel movements to carry out covert attacks against their opponent. Eritrea not only harboured Islamists allied to al-Shabaab: in 2009, the United Nations found that Eritrea had covertly armed and trained al-Shabaab fighters to infiltrate Ethiopia. These are the same forces British troops are now attempting to counter.

UN Sanctions were imposed on the Eritrean government. The sanctions remain in place, even though the UN accepts it has no evidence of current Eritrean involvement with the Somali Islamists.

Eritrea has allowed its ports and airports to be used by the Saudis and the UAE to prosecute the war in Yemen. This was – at least in part – to counter the restrictions of the UN sanctions. There have been stories of Eritrean troops fighting inside Yemen itself

On Tuesday, though, an Eritrean delegation arrived in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to discuss peace. It could be a propitious omen.The decision to send them followed an olive branch extended by Ethiopia’s new leader, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. It is far too early to anticipate how the border stalemate between Eritrea and Ethiopia will be broken, but if it can be then the whole region could benefit.

The conflict not only resulted in Eritrea stoking the fires in Somalia, it meant that Ethiopia was – as a landlocked state – deprived of its main outlets to the sea. The Eritrean ports of Assab and Massawa had been vital to Ethiopia; Djibouti has been a poor substitute. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has busily signed deals with Somaliland, Somalia and Kenya for access to their ports since coming to power in April this year. But regaining access to Eritrea’s ports would still be a huge prize for Africa’s fastest growing economy

Yet even this would pale into insignificance for the communities strung out all along the 1000km long border. The border closure has deprived them of visits to families and friends, disrupted centuries of trade and prevented them from attending religious festivals. Reconciliation between Eritrea and Ethiopia could make all this possible once more; it would also lower the temperature across the region.

Without the bitterness that has poisoned relations between these neighbours, other conflicts could begin to be resolved, since rebel movements might be deprived of their rear bases and logistical support. For Britain, with its scattered operations across the Horn of Africa and further into the Middle East, this would be a welcome reprieve. It is far too early to speculate, but if Somalia could be brought under control and the Yemeni conflict was resolved then the region would be far more secure.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. His most recent book is a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.