Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki has not always been a go-to man. Considered a pariah and with sanctions imposed on his economy and key people in his government, even Kenya gave Asmara a wide berth.
But President William Ruto seemed to reverse this when he accepted overtures by Isaias early in his presidency. Last December, the Kenyan leader went to Asmara on a two-day state visit and this week, the Eritrean leader was in Nairobi on a reciprocal visit.
At the joint press briefing, Presidents Ruto and Isaias talked of the irony and “contradiction” of regional integration while erecting borders.
“Any meaningful bilateral cooperation has to be seen within the broader context of regional integration,” President Isaias told journalists at State House, Nairobi.
“We cannot achieve bilateral cooperation without integration, which we have been working on for decades. It is not an invention. This is an obligation in the name of the people of the Horn of Africa and we have a responsibility of revitalising Igad (The Intergovernmental Authority on Development). We have to create an institution that is functional and result-oriented.”
President Isaias said his country has “no question about” whether to return to Igad. Eritrea boycotted the regional bloc –where it was an original member – in 2007 citing bias. It was protesting an Igad report linking it with extremist groups in Somalia.
Now Isais wants back in. And it is music to President Ruto’s ears.
“I am delighted and welcome the re-affirmation by President Isaias Afwerki in Nairobi this afternoon of his commitment to rejoin Igad family,” said the bloc’s executive secretary Workeh Gebeyehu, indicating Asmara was important to regional integration.
Igad says President Ruto has been instrumental in convincing Isaias to return into the fold.
Isaias hadn’t made an official trip to Nairobi since December 2018. And before that Eritrea choked under sanctions for alleged sponsorship of al Shabaab in Somalia. Asmara had blamed Kenya and allies for the campaign to besmirch it.
In 2015, a plane carrying then President Uhuru Kenyatta was turned away mid-flight into Ethiopian airspace because Asmara refused to let it fly over its territory. Eritrea denied the allegations but Kenyatta would later cancel the flight.
At that time, both Eritrea and Ethiopia were enemies. But today they are allies, having reopened diplomatic channels since 2018 and fighting alongside each other against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
On Thursday, President Ruto praised Eritrea for helping train the Somali National Army.
So what does Kenya want in rebuilding Igad?
Asmara had begun forming a new partnership with Ethiopia and Somalia, colloquially referred to as the Cushitic Alliance. This alliance now looks unlikely, following a change of guard in Somalia and Kenya’s continued work to rebuild Igad.
“With the operationalisation of the African Continental Free Trade Area, we must team up and map out mutually beneficial strands of trade and investment opportunities for our countries,” President Ruto said.
“There exists immense economic potential for collaboration between Kenya and Eritrea that calls for structured engagement.”
Nairobi and Asmara have since abolished visas, mimicking a decades-old bilateral arrangement Kenya has with Ethiopia on movement of people.
In the December 2022 visit to Asmara, Presidents Ruto and Isaias officially discussed trade and regional security. This saw the gradual withdrawal of Eritrean troops in Tigray, an important step to influence the TPLF to begin surrendering their weapons. The TPLF, who have since signed a peace deal with the Abiy Ahmed administration, had accused Eritrean soldiers of committing atrocities.
Stabilising the region
The two leaders spoke of stabilising the region, but Igad has been hard-put to achieve permanent solutions.
Workneh says tensions between members such as Ethiopia and Sudan over their common land border, and Kenya and Somalia over alleged interference have threatened to break up the bloc.
These countries have since agreed to dialogue.
In its State of the Region report, Igad says cases of border diplomacy and territorial disputes have reduced in the past year, as members routinely accept Igad mediation.
“The Igad family is re-uniting to overcome the deep rifts and tensions that threatened to tear us apart,” Dr Workneh said in Mombasa last week.
Igad sees technology and commercial linkages between member states as crucial to reducing conflict.
Igad is not traditionally a trading bloc and even its commerce numbers are low. But that may largely be due to lack of functioning arrangements, allowing illicit trade to thrive. Igad says illegal goods trade in the region may have reached $2.2 trillion last year.
Reporting by Aggrey Mutambo and Anthony Kitimo