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Djibouti president expected to visit Eritrea this week amidst historic thawing of relations in Horn of Africa

Djibouti president expected to visit Eritrea this week amidst historic thawing of relations in Horn of Africa

The Djibouti President, Ismail Omar Guelleh is expected to visit the Eritrean capital Asmara later this week to engage in direct bilateral talks with his Eritrean counterpart President Isaias Afwerki, Hiiraan Online has learned.

Relations between Eritrea and Djibouti have been in tatters since the latter’s decision to support Ethiopia during the Eritrean-Ethiopian War of 1998–2000. Djibouti did not participate directly in the fighting but provided intelligence and logistical support to Ethiopia. As a result of the 1998 border war, Ethiopia – a landlocked country – lost access to the Eritrean port of Massawa and began to form an economic and political partnership with Djibouti that was born of out mutual necessity. Djiboutian ports delivered up to 95% of Ethiopian imports and in return import fresh water and electricity from Ethiopia

Tensions between Eritrea and Djibouti reached a crescendo in June 2008 when armed clashes broke out between the two neighbours after Djibouti accused Asmara of moving troops across the disputed Ras Doumeira area.

A fragile Qatari-brokered peace deal was reached in 2010 that was responsible for monitoring the disputed area and working towards fostering a lasting peace between the two sides. The presence of the nearly 500-strong troops created a seven-year no-peace-no-war stalemate that was threatned last June when Qatar abruptly pulled out of the border region in protest of both countries’ decision to support the Saudi Arabia led coalition in their blockade on Qatar. 

Djibouti said that Eritrean troops began moving into the disputed areas of Doumeira Mountain and Doumeira island immediately after the Qatari peacekeepers completed their unannounced withdrawal. 

According to sources privy to the development, Guelleh is expected to travel to Asmara this week. If the reports are accurate, it would renew optimism for a breakthrough in one of Africa’s most complicated border disputes and may possibly lead to the removal of U.N. sanctions on Eritrea.

The news comes on the heels of an unexpected state visit to Asmara by Somalia’s President, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo and follows the extraordinary diplomatic thawing of relations in recent weeks between Eritrea and Ethiopia. 

Eritrea, which has been described as Africa’s most isolated dictatorship, cut off ties with Ethiopia in 1998 after a brutal border over the town of Badme. Somalia has not had diplomatic relations with Eritrea for over 15 years.

During his meeting, President Farmajo joined Ethiopia in asking the U.N. to remove the sanctions placed on Eritrea.

“We urge all economic sanctions and embargo imposed on the people of Eritrea must be lifted so that the economic integration of the Horn of Africa region can be realized,” Farmajo told a banquet hosted by Eritrea’s president Sunday night.

One of the main justifications for the sanctions on Eritrea has been its alleged support for the Somalia-based militant insurgency group Al-Shabaab. Eritrea has vehemently denied the charges and has accused the U.N. of being manipulated by Eritrea’s political adversaries in the region.

However, Djibouti has gone on the record to say that the sanctions should remain in place until the contentious border dispute between the two countries is amicably resolved.

Last month, the Djiboutian Ambassador to the UN, Siad Doualeh, wrote an open letter to the UN Security Council calling on the world body to mediate in their border dispute with Eritrea. In the letter, Doualeh asked for the U.N. to bring the two sides together “with the aim of facilitating an agreement between them upon a mutually acceptable means of peaceful dispute settlement,” emphasizing that they wanted a “judicial settlement or arbitration” that would be legally binding.

Doualeh reminded the Security Council that one of the reasons sanctions were placed on Eritrea in 2009 was “because of its aggression against Djibouti and its refusal to withdraw its troops from the disputed area, and its rejection of all efforts aimed at mediating between the two parties.”

“Eritrean forces continue to occupy Djiboutian territory, prisoners of war remain unaccounted for, threats of force continue to emanate from the Eritrean side and the risk of violent confrontation is once again high,” Doualeh said.

On Monday, Doualeh made a statement before the Security Council where he doubled down on Djibouti’s position. He accused Eritrea of continuing to recruit, train and equip Djibouti rebels – including children – at the Anda’ali training camp in the Southern Red Sea region of Eritrea who attacks Djibouti villages and security forces. Doualeh says that Eritrea’s actions “defiantly ignore Security Council resolutions”.

He urged the Council to keep sanction on Eritrea intact so as long as they refuse to comply with the resolutions.

“If Council’s resolutions are to be regarded as more than empty and meaningless gestures, the sanctions for non-compliance must remain in place as long as Eritrea refuses to comply with them.  

He added that “at the same time, Djibouti would support action by the Council to facilitate Eritrea’s compliance by laying out a clear path and a reasonable timetable towards this end.”

The Ambassador also included three recommendations to the Security Council.

  1. In respect of ending Eritrea’s support for armed groups, the Council should resolve to send a Monitoring Mission to Eritrea within one month, with the condition that Eritrea commit to full cooperation with the mission, including full access to all information and records the mission deems necessary to review and all personnel it finds necessary to interview. The Mission would then report to the council within 30 days of its return from Eritrea.
  2. In regard to prisoners of war, the Council could require that Eritrea account for them to the same Monitoring Mission and permit access to the Mission as well the ICRC.
  3. Finally, in respect of the good offices of the Secretary-General in close collaboration with the Security Council, the Secretary-General could convene an urgent meeting of the Principal Parties to facilitate an agreement between them upon a mutually acceptable means of peaceful dispute settlement from among those identified in Article 33 of the Charter.

Doualeh called on the Secretary-General to issue the U.N.’s solution within 120 days and require that Djibouti and Eritrea accept the solution. If either country refuses to accept the recommended solution laid out by the U.N., then the case should be referred to the International Court of Justice for a binding resolution.

Sweden’s U.N. ambassador, Olof Skoog, the current council president, said the future of sanctions is being discussed by council members. 

“There is a promising diplomatic initiative” involving Eritrea and Djibouti, he said, adding that “there is a willingness to support the region in these efforts.”

“The Swedish point of view is that we need to be cautious not to set targets and benchmarks that hinder the current positive momentum, and instead really ensure that we allow Eritrea now to partake in the international arena and let peoples in the region enjoy the peace dividends. We believe that the council should seize this moment to firmly recognize peace and normalize the relations between the international community and Eritrea by deciding to review the sanctions regime as soon as possible.”

The UK’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Karen Pierce, who will become President of the Security Council on Wednesday said “It’s something the Council needs to discuss. I think the developments are very positive. They’re very welcome, and at some point, that will need to be reflected in the coming months on sanctions. But the Council hasn’t had a full discussion of that yet, so it’s something we need to talk about.”

That sentiment was not shared by all members on the council.

Dutch deputy permanent representative to the United Nations Lise Gregoire-van Haaren said Monday that “all the criteria” should be examined when the international community conducts a review the sanctions against Eritrea.

“We have to look very closely at all the criteria in place for the sanctions regime on the basis of which we can decide whether to change them or not.”

Coincidentally, Ethiopia announced to the U.N. Security Council on Monday that to would work towards normalizing relations between Djibouti and Eritrea, both of which share a border with Ethiopia.

Takeda Alemu, Ethiopia’s envoy to the United Nations told the Security Council on Monday that his country would like to bring the leaders of two countries to the negotiating table.

“The Djibouti Foreign Minister was in Addis Ababa last week to deliver the message of President Guelleh to my Prime Minister and he was able to conduct very productive and useful discussions, both with our Prime Minister and his counterpart, our Foreign Minister,” Alemu said.

He added that “Ethiopia has expressed its readiness to do whatever is necessary to contribute to the normalization of relations between Eritrea and Djibouti and it is our firm commitment this is critical for peace and security in our region”. 

Alemu credited Eritrea and Ethiopia’s dramatic rapprochement in recent weeks as the catalyst for the change in political dynamics in the region.

“It is downright impossible to deny that the politics of the Horn of Africa is in the process rapid change and with salutary implications. All this is the result of the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea which would have been thought to be inconceivable only a few months ago.”

In addition to President Ismail Omar Guelleh, there are reports that Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is also planning travel to Asmara as IGAD members seek to normalize relations with Africa’s hermit kingdom. Eritrea walked out of the eight-country trade bloc in 2007 in protest of Ethiopia’s invasion into Somalia to fight Al-Shabaab and an IGAD report accusing Eritrea of supporting the militant extremists.

The tiny nation of Djibouti has emerged as the de-facto winner in the two-decade-long standoff between Ethiopia and Ethiopia, benefitting economically and through forming strategic security partnerships. However, as the winds of change blow in the Horn of Africa, many will be watching closely to see if this political tectonic shift will resolve the decades-long conflict between these East African neighbours.

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