Jun 20, 2018 | 20:39 GMT

3 mins read

Eritrea, Ethiopia: Can Their Rivalry End?

The Big Picture

Stratfor has been closely following Ethiopia's recent reform push. From announcing that the country's telecommunications monopoly will be broken up to changes in the relationship with Eritrea, Ethiopia's new prime minister is making waves in the East African giant that will likely have implications for the broader region.

Dynamics in East Africa have the potential to change dramatically in the near future. After weeks of silence, Eritrea's reclusive president, Isaias Afwerki, finally weighed in on June 5 reports that Ethiopia could give disputed territory to its longtime enemy. During Eritrea's Martyrs Day, Afwerki stated that the recent events in Ethiopia warranted attention and that his country would send a delegation to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, to discuss potential cooperation.

While seemingly insignificant on the surface, the move from Afwerki is likely borne of desperation. The president has justified his decadeslong grip on power by claiming that Ethiopia wanted to wipe his Red Sea country off the map. Indeed, Eritrea's political and economic systems have largely revolved around the need to maintain a huge military apparatus that is capable of going toe-to-toe with Ethiopia. However, Afwerki slowly transformed that system into one that perpetuates his rule, and he has used illicit activities to buy support from military elites.

Addis Ababa's decision to flip the script has, at least temporarily, called into question the narrative that Ethiopia presents an existential threat. Because of this, Afwerki is compelled to at least appear willing to hear out the Ethiopians to appease his people and avoid potential protests. But luckily for Afwerki, there are also signs that hard-liners in Addis Ababa may be prepared to fight the reforms that new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is pushing. For example, the key party in Ethiopia's ruling coalition, the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, recently voiced its concern over the recent zeal for reform and said more deliberations were necessary. In the context of Ethiopia's politics, this likely means the hard-liners are preparing to bite back to reassert control and ensure they continue to profit from the regional rivalry. 

Ethiopia is undergoing a period of potentially significant changes at a time of great change in the region as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and others jockey for influence. Ethiopia is currently positioning itself to better profit from the immense economic potential in its region, but the old guard in Ethiopia and Eritrea may move to block such progress.

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