The diasporan community of Eritrea, a small country in the Horn of Africa, has been deeply affected by the long-standing conflict and hostility between Eritrea and its larger neighbour, Ethiopia.
The two countries fought a brutal war from 1998 to 2000 over a disputed border, which left tens of thousands dead and millions displaced. The war also isolated Eritrea from the rest of the region and the world, as it faced sanctions, accusations and mistrust. Moreover, the Eritrean government used the threat of war as an excuse to impose a harsh and repressive system on its people, forcing them to serve indefinitely in the military or other state-controlled sectors. As a result, many Eritreans fled their country in search of freedom, safety and opportunity, forming a large and diverse diaspora across the globe.
However, in 2018, a historic peace deal was signed between Eritrea and Ethiopia, ending two decades of stalemate and opening a new chapter of cooperation and reconciliation. The peace deal was hailed as a breakthrough for regional stability and development, as it promised to restore diplomatic ties, trade links and people-to-people contacts between the two countries. The peace deal also raised hopes and expectations among the Eritrean diaspora, who saw it as a chance to reconnect with their homeland and contribute to its progress. But the peace deal also posed challenges and dilemmas for the Eritrean diaspora, who faced questions about their identity, loyalty and future.
This article explores the significance of Eritrea-Ethiopia relations for the diasporan community by examining three main aspects:
- The impact of the peace deal on their support for the liberation struggle and reconstruction of Eritrea
- The effect of the peace deal on their migration patterns and aspirations
- The role of Kenya’s former President Uhuru Kenyatta as a peace envoy in facilitating dialogue and trust between Eritrea and Ethiopia
Support for Liberation Struggle and Reconstruction.
The Eritrean diaspora has been a vital source of support for the people’s liberation struggle against Ethiopia, lasting 30 years until 1991. The diaspora provided financial, political and moral support for the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which led the armed resistance and later became the ruling party in independent Eritrea. The diaspora also supported the reconstruction of Eritrea after independence by paying a mandatory two per cent tax to the government, investing in development projects, sending remittances to their families, and lobbying for international recognition and assistance for Eritrea.
The peace deal with Ethiopia challenged the narrative of the Eritrean government, which had justified its authoritarian rule and indefinite national service by claiming that Eritrea was in a state of emergency and siege. Many Eritreans in the diaspora hoped that the peace deal would lead to democratic reforms and human rights improvements in Eritrea, as well as open borders and reunifying families. However, there have been few signs of change inside Eritrea, and many fear that the regime will use the peace deal to consolidate its power and legitimacy. The peace deal also exposed some divisions and tensions within the diaspora, as some embraced it as a positive step forward, while others rejected it as a betrayal or a sell-out. Some also expressed ambivalence or scepticism about the motives and outcomes of the peace deal, especially regarding its implications for the sovereignty and security of Eritrea.
Migration Patterns and Aspirations
The peace deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia has had mixed effects on the migration patterns and aspirations of the Eritrean diaspora. On the one hand, some Eritreans who had fled their country due to the conflict and repression have returned to visit their families and friends or to explore business opportunities and contribute to the development of their homeland. On the other hand, the peace deal has also reduced the risk of violence and harassment for Eritreans living in Ethiopia, especially in the border areas. Some Eritreans have also expressed hope that the peace deal will lead to political and social reforms in Eritrea that will improve the human rights situation and create more economic opportunities.On the other hand, many Eritreans have continued to leave their country despite the peace deal, as they face ongoing challenges such as indefinite national service, poverty, lack of freedom and persecution.
The peace deal has not resulted in any significant changes in Eritrea’s domestic policies or practices, and many Eritreans still need to be convinced about the intentions and outcomes of the agreement. Some Eritreans have also faced difficulties returning to their country or obtaining travel documents from the Eritrean authorities. Moreover, some Eritreans living in Ethiopia have felt insecure and unwelcome due to the war in November 2020 between the federal government and the Tigray region, which borders Eritrea and hosts many Eritrean refugees. Therefore, the peace deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia has not yet resolved the root causes of forced migration from Eritrea, nor has it guaranteed the safety and well-being of Eritreans living in Ethiopia or elsewhere. The peace deal is a positive step forward, but it needs to be followed by concrete actions and measures that address the Eritrean people’s humanitarian, political and economic needs, both inside and outside the country.
Role of Uhuru Kenyatta as a peace envoy.
The role of Kenya’s former President Uhuru Kenyatta as a peace envoy in facilitating dialogue and trust between Eritrea and Ethiopia is another aspect of the significance of Eritrea-Ethiopia relations for the diasporan community. Kenyatta had previously been involved in peace efforts in both countries when he was president, and he has continued to engage with the leaders and the parties to the conflict. His visit aimed to support the implementation of the peace accord signed in Pretoria on 2 November 2020, which ended the war between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in northern Ethiopia. During his visit, he held talks with Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki on regional peace and stability.
Kenyatta’s visit was also seen as a gesture of goodwill and reconciliation between Kenya and Eritrea, which had strained relations in the past due to Eritrea’s alleged support for Somali militants and its refusal to allow Kenyan flights over its airspace. In 2015, a plane carrying then-President Uhuru Kenyatta 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. Kenyatta’s visit coincided with Eritrea’s announcement that it would return to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional bloc it had left in 2007 due to disagreements with Ethiopia and other members over Somalia. Kenya and other countries welcomed Eritrea’s return to IGAD as a sign of its willingness to cooperate and integrate with its neighbours. Kenya also expressed its interest in taking over the leadership of IGAD from Sudan, which has been facing political and economic challenges. Therefore, Kenyatta’s visit was an essential step in advancing peace and stability in the Horn of Africa and enhancing Kenya’s role and influence in the region.
In conclusion, the peace deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia has significant implications for the diasporan community, as it affects their support for the liberation struggle and reconstruction of Eritrea, their migration patterns and aspirations, and their role in regional peace and stability. The peace deal is a positive development that offers new opportunities and challenges for the Eritrean diaspora, who have been an integral part of the history and future of both countries. The peace deal also reflects the efforts and contributions of Kenya’s former President Uhuru Kenyatta as a peace envoy, who has played a key role in facilitating dialogue and trust between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The peace deal is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. It needs to be followed by concrete actions and measures that address the humanitarian, political and economic needs of the Eritrean people, both inside and outside the country. It also needs to be supported by the international community, especially the African Union and IGAD, which have a stake and a responsibility in ensuring the success and sustainability of the peace deal. The peace deal is a historic opportunity that should not be missed or wasted. It is a chance to transform the Horn of Africa from a region of conflict and crisis to a region of cooperation and prosperity.
By: Eric Muhia
Author Image Attribution: Eric Muhia
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