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Eritrea: Back to the IGAD after 16 years

  Jerry Franklin

Eritrea: Back to the IGAD after 16 years

Jerry Franklin A

On 13 June, the Eritrea Information Minister, Yemane Meskel, stated that Eritrea had resumed its activity in the East African Bloc, Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Additionally, Meskel stated that the country is ready to function toward peace, stability, and regional integration. Eritrea quit the regional bloc in 2007 to express its objections to Ethiopian forces being sent to Somalia, to drive out al-Shabaab extremists who controlled most of southern Somalia at the time. The announcement came following Eritrea’s participation in the 14th Ordinary Summit organized by the seven-nation bloc in Djibouti on 12 June.

The following four reasons could be identified for the withdrawal of Eritrea from IGAD.

1. Complex relationship with IGAD

On 22 April 2007, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki suspended the membership with Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). IGAD is a regional organization consisting of eight member states, Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan Somalia, and Eritrea. IGAD is a regional organization in East Africa that aims to promote regional cooperation and integration among its member states. Eritrea's decision to exit the IGAD in 2007 was primarily due to its strained relationships with other member countries, particularly Ethiopia, and disagreements over regional issues.

2. The conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia

Eritrea had a long-standing border dispute with Ethiopia, which led to conflict between the two countries from 1998 to 2000. The conflict was primarily over the border town of Badme. The conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia resulted in a significant loss of life and escalated tensions between the two countries. Several peace agreements were signed during the conflict, including the Algiers Agreement in December 2000, which established a ceasefire and mandated the creation of an independent Boundary Commission, Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) to demarcate the border. Despite the ceasefire and the establishment of the Boundary Commission, the implementation of the demarcation process faced numerous challenges. As a result, tensions remained between the countries, and unresolved issues continued to be the sources of dispute.

Eritrea used to accuse Ethiopia of using its influence within IGAD to isolate and pressure Eritrea. It felt that the organization did not adequately address its concerns and favoured Ethiopia's position. IGAD member states have been involved in mediating the conflict and promoting a peaceful resolution, but Eritrea has expressed dissatisfaction with the outcomes and accused IGAD of bias towards Ethiopia. As a result, Eritrea decided to withdraw from IGAD in protest. However, on 9 July 2018, Eritrea signed a peace treaty with Ethiopia, officially ending the state of conflict that had existed since the border conflict began. It also re-established diplomatic connections with Somalia, normalized relations with Djibouti, and reinforced relations with Kenya.

3. Dissatisfied with the assigning of Kenya by IGAD to mediate the border dispute

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) assigned Kenya as the mediator between Eritrea and Ethiopia for the border dispute in 2007. Eritrea expressed dissatisfaction with the IGAD for assigning Kenya to resolve the border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Eritrea believed that Kenya had a biased stance toward Ethiopia, which could potentially affect the fairness of the mediation process. Eritrea argued that Kenya had historical ties and a close relationship with Ethiopia, leading to concerns about impartiality. Kenya had previously shown support for Ethiopia during the 1998-2000 Eritrea-Ethiopia war, Eritrea’s dissatisfaction with the IGAD in resolving the dispute led to a prolonged stalemate, and therefore questioned the ability of IGAD to assign an appropriate mediator. Furthermore, Eritrea preferred the involvement of an international actor to resolve the border dispute. They believed that an international approach would ensure a fair and unbiased decision-making process.

4. Accusations by the IGAD members

Eritrea was accused by Ethiopia and other IGAD member states of supporting armed opposition groups in Somalia. Eritrea was accused of providing arms, military training, and financial support to various armed groups in Somalia, including the Islamic militant group al-Shabab. These allegations have been made by the United Nations (UN) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). In 2009, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Eritrea, accusing it of providing support to armed groups in Somalia. The sanctions included an arms embargo and targeted sanctions on Eritrean individuals and entities. Eritrea was blamed for using Somalia as a proxy to destabilize Ethiopia, its long-time regional rival. Ethiopia had been involved in Somalia's internal affairs with its own military presence and supported the Somali government. Eritrea's alleged support for armed groups in Somalia was seen as a response to Ethiopia's involvement in Somalia. Additionally, Eritrea was accused of undermining the interim administration by providing aid to insurgents involved in the Battle of Mogadishu. Eritrea denied the allegations. These allegations strained Eritrea's relations with other member countries and created further divisions within IGAD. Following the accusations, Eritrea boycotted the regional bloc in response to an IGAD report that linked it to terrorist organizations in Somalia.

Why did Eritrea rejoin the bloc?

On 10 February, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki visited Kenya for a bilateral meeting with Kenyan President William Ruto, and it was during this visit that he proposed rejoining the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). The statement came amid multiple allegations of Eritrea's human rights breaches in the conflict between Ethiopian federal government forces and the Tigray rebel group that began in November 2020. The main reason which has been considered vital for the return of Eritrea to the regional bloc is because of its ties with Kenya. Ruto has been crucial in persuading Afwerki to rejoin the bloc. Afwerki stated that the decision is a commitment owed to the people of the Horn of Africa and they must take responsibility and revitalise IGAD so that the region would have an effective organization.

(This commentary has been originally published as part of the NIAS-IPRI-KAS Conflict Weekly.)

About the author

Jerry Franklin is a Postgraduate Scholar at Madras Chritian College, Chennai.

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