There was animated and passionate discussion when activists from across the Horn of Africa came to discuss how to end divisions between Ethiopia and Eritrea.  A seminar on Saturday, 17th of November looked at  the legacy of the war of 1998 – 2000.

The death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and tentative moves by both Eritrea and Ethiopia gave the organisers of the seminar a hope that the time might be right to reach across the divide.

The former Sudanese Prime Minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi made a powerful appeal for peace: “war will not solve the problems of the region,” he said.

“Ultra-nationalism”

Sadiq al-Mahdi, twice Prime Minister of Sudan

Mr Sadiq described the inter-dependence of the people of the Horn. “This is an inter-dependence that must be realised.

“We were shocked by the outbreak of hostilities in 1998,” he said. “I led a delegation to both sides. We offered mediation.” But these efforts had met with no success.

Mr Sadiq pointed out that radical secessionist movements, like the TPLF, had to prove their nationalist credentials once they came to power. He compared their position to that of Napoleon, a Corsican, who had become Emperor of all France. Like Napoleon, they had become what he termed “ultra-nationalists.”

The only means of ending the hostilities between Eritrea and Ethiopia was to move from polarisation towards what he called “a new dawn.”

Borders had to be retained, but they should be ‘soft borders’ – allowing trade and cultural integration. “We need to change the content of the relationship, not for the form,” said Mr Sadiq.

“War makes states and states make war”

John Markakis, veteran Horn of Africa analyst

The meeting  was chaired by Dr Mohammed Suliman (former Sudanese Education Minster) and among the participants were the Ethiopian ambassador to the UK H.E. Berhanu Kebede and Mr Osman Jamaa, former Somali Minister of Fisheries.

The range of speakers included Prof. John Markakis of Crete University; Gunter Schroder, a German scholar on the Horn of Africa; Martin Plaut of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and  Jason Mosley of Chatham House.

Drawing on his many years of expertise on the Horn, John Markakis said that nationalism led to war, and war led to nationalism. “War makes states and states make war,” he said.

This was by no means unique to the Horn and could be seen across Europe. In the process of nation-building those in power enforce homogeneity and conformity, in order to entrench their power, Mr Markakis argued.

Genuine federalism is rejected by nation-builders, since it would diminish their powers. They wish to contain power at the state level and not share it with others.

Mr Markakis pointed out that war had provided no solution to the problems of the region and the conflicts remained as unresolved as they had ever been. He warned that if opposition movements, now out of power, took control, they would probably make the same mistakes. Only an end to centralised power and allowing local decision making might break this cycle.

Gunter Schroder in discussion

Gunter Schroder considered whether relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia might change under Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, who has just come to power. “He does not have the hang-ups of the Tigrayans,” he said, referring to the troubled relationship between the highlanders of Eritrea and Tigray. But he will have to operate within the geo-strategic realities of Ethiopia.

This, Mr Schroder argued, required movements that came to power in Addis Ababa to defend the state from incursions from the East (Somalia) and the North (Eritrea). He said this was an enduring reality and would not change. Having said this, he believed that it would be easier for Ethiopia to bend than Eritrea, to resolve their border differences.

Not irrational

But this would have to be done without threatening the Boundary Commission decision. “Eritreans worry that if they negotiate with Ethiopia, as Addis Ababa requests, they will negate the Commission’s ruling.” This they would not do, which meant that Ethiopia would need to open discussions while guaranteeing the adjudication.

Jason Mosley challenges assumptions

Jason Mosley spoke of the assumptions underlying much analysis about the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, saying it was wrong to consider President Isaias acted irrationally or against the interests of the Eritrean state in relation to the findings of the Boundary Commission. Mr Mosley said his strategy might be poor, but not without logic. Mr Mosley said Eritrea’s fear was that by entering into talks over the implementation of the Commission’s findings the country would put in jeopardy the ruling itself.

Martin Plaut looked at what was known about Hailemariam Desalegn, and referred to the nature of ethnic federalism encouraged by former Prime Minister Meles. Drawing on the US telegrams in Wikileaks he pointed to the continuity of policy between the two men, and of their calls for a strong developmental state, requiring a powerful centralised political party.