Ever since Eritrea was bloodily carved out through decades of war and struggle against its overbearing neighbor, Ethiopia, peace and stability have been difficult to come by between these two nations. Although relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia were never especially great from the country’s creation in 1993, things have been even worse in the last 20 years, as there has been no official peace between the two since the end of their last conflict, which took place between 1998 and 2000. But in an instant, the status quo changed over the course of this summer, when the two sides surprisingly agreed to a landmark peace deal that normalizes relations between the once contentious states. The question that now looms large is what this peace deal means for Eritrea and the future of the region.
First, with peace achieved, the Eritrean military will certainly be the first to undergo major changes, as there is now no longer a need to use a significant portion of government money to bolster the military in case of a potential Ethiopian attack. A little more than 20 percent of Eritrea’s GDP goes towards military spending, which means that Eritrea is set to spend more than 772 million dollars (602.13 million GBP) on its military in 2018 alone. It is entirely possible that these funds could be reduced and redistributed into other areas of government that desperately require it, such as infrastructure and education. Beyond spending, Eritrea will also require fewer soldiers. This has already resulted in a reduction of Eritrea’s infamous conscription policy, which states that all Eritrean men ages 18-50 must serve in the armed forces for twenty years. This harsh policy has driven mass migration from Eritrea, as the UN estimated in 2015 that 400,000 Eritreans had fled the country. By 2017, this number had risen to over 486,000 refugees. Since the peace was first signed in the summer, Eritrea has promised to cut down the time of mandatory enlistment to 18 months. Such a move would certainly lower migration rates out of Eritrea and lead to a decline in the number of those serving in the Eritrean armed forces, which will certainly result in the military playing a smaller role in the nation.
Beyond the implications for Eritrea’s military, there are also important economic developments in motion as well. The newly consecrated peace with Ethiopia can certainly attract new foreign investment, something that the country has been thoroughly lacking in. Before the conflict and war with Eritrea, landlocked Ethiopia relied on Eritrea’s ports in order to export their goods by sea. Ethiopian businesses are now looking to gain access to these ports again and both governments are working with one another in an effort to rebuild the once bustling roads that connected Eritrea’s ports to Ethiopia. Beyond local and regional investment, Eritrea is also finding other new sources of foreign investment that see that Eritrea’s economy is becoming more open. For example, Australian and Chinese mining companies have already secured rights to certain mines within the country, with a Chinese company looking to extract ore as early as 2019. All of these developments indicate that the future looks bright for Eritrea’s economy.
So what do demilitarization and a growing economy entail for Eritrea’s and this region’s future? While the current developments are promising and indicate that positive change will be coming, everything hinges upon how Eritrea’s government deals with this newfound international interest. Although Eritrea’s government has fulfilled its recent promises to undo the draconian aspects of its conscription policy, this government has a knack for scaring away foreign investors with its unethical behavior. Peace deal aside, there is still a multitude of issues surrounding doing business in Eritrea. First and foremost, Eritrea is still and will likely remain under UN sanctions that were passed in 2009 due to their support of Somali militants, which will likely still hinder foreign investment. Furthermore, the government has a tendency to abuse human rights. This is predominantly seen through government-mandated forced labor. Due to the Marxist-Leninist ideology, the Eritrean government will often exert a significant amount of control over private enterprises. The Eritrean government has also been known to use said forced labor in private industries due to this fact they control a significant portion of the daily operations. This was seen clearly in 2014 when a Canadian mining company found itself in hot water after it was revealed that the Eritrean government had been using slave labor at their Bisha zinc-copper mine. Although the peace deal was a step in the right direction, scandals like these show that the future is still largely uncertain and that Eritrea must reform from within if the country is to take more steps toward a prosperous future.
In regards to the future of the region, as relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea thaw, the future appears to hold greater regional cohesion. As the deal was initially implemented in the summer, it has lead to other countries in the region taking steps to call for and formalize peace with Eritrea as well. In July, Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party released a statement discussing their wishes to pursue common interests with their neighbor Eritrea. Later in September, Djibouti and Eritrea also agreed to normalize their ties after a decade-long dispute that occurred after a border clash in 2008. Through these examples, one can see that this region is squarely on the road to peace, largely due to the trickle-down effect of the historic peace deal signed between Eritrea and Ethiopia. While the future of Eritrea is still uncertain due to various internal factors, we are seeing that the future of regional relations appears promising due to the recent push for peace amongst Eritrea and its neighbors.
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