Scramble for Eritrea likely to change Horn, Nile geopolitics

Thursday October 4 2018

The railway line from Massawa Port into Asmara

The railway line from Massawa Port into Asmara, Eritrea. There is a Free Zone Authority in Massawa targeting investors in energy, tourism and fishing. PHOTO | AFP 

By FRED OLUOCH
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Eritrea, once seen as a pariah state, is opening up in a manner that is likely to change the geopolitics of the Horn of Africa, courtesy of the initiative by the Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali.

Dr Abiy ended the 20-year state of war between the two neighbours by agreeing to give up the disputed border town of Badme and normalised relations, with Somalia and Djibouti also extending a hand of friendship to Eritrea.

But as countries in the Horn still ponder how to relate to Eritrea and its long-term leader Isaias Afeworki, the Middle Eastern axis led by Saudi Arabia has moved in to strengthen its security and economic ties with Asmara.

President Isaias and Dr Abiy on September 17 signed the Jeddah Peace and Comprehensive Co-operation Agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, presided over by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in the presence of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

A day later, Saudi authorities organised another rapprochement in which President Isaias made peace with his Djibouti counterpart, Ismail Omar Gelleh, with whom he has been feuding over the Dumeira mountain and island for the past 10 years.

Experts on the Horn of Africa say that the Saudi-led coalition in the Middle East, which includes the UAE, is trying to forestall the other axis led by Qatar and Turkey from taking advantage of the opening up of Eritrea to gain a foothold in the strategic region.

Kennedy Abwao, a specialist in Horn of Africa affairs, says that it was important for the Saudi axis to cement its relations with Eritrea which they have been using as base in their war against the Houthis in Yemen.

“After the rise of the ISIS and the fact that Eritrea is the main migration route to the Middle East and eventually Europe, getting a foothold in the country and being able to influence it politically and economically was critical,” said Mr Abwao.

He said that Eritrea is now joining the global process to control the movement of migrants and terror elements from the region and around the world, with the tacit support of the United States and some European countries.

This means that Eritrea — which has been under UN sanctions for allegedly supporting Somalia’s Al Shabaab — is now joining the global war against terror.

According to the Jeddah Agreement, Ethiopia and Eritrea will combat terrorism as well as trafficking in people, arms and drugs in accordance with international covenants and conventions.

“The two countries will promote comprehensive co-operation in the political, security, defence, economic, trade, investment, cultural and social fields on the basis of complementarity and synergy,” says the agreement.

Keenly watching the unfolding events in the Horn is Egypt which, prior to Dr Abiy’s coming to power in April, had been using Eritrean soil to campaign against the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

In January, Sudan — which is a key supporter of the hydropower project — closed its borders with Eritrea and sent troops to Kassala border town following reports that Egypt has deployed troops in Asmara.

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