Introduction of the issue
It is said that diplomacy is the art of persuasion, and together with money and military force an ability to persuade sets a Government’s power to shape the unraveling of international events to meet its own interests. Persuasion is an art requiring myriad alliances – not forgetting careful agreements and a multitude of compromises with friends as well as with enemies. New dangers will approach unexpectedly and can require friendships being curtailed in an unprecedented manner or warmth to be given in frozen relationships with old adversaries. We can say that there is no place where this argument is more important for Eritrea than when we look at the world’s newest country – South Sudan.
It does not require a mighty theorist of international political relationships to deduce that today the most menacing threat to Eritrea does not come from Ethiopia – but from the collapse of Sudan. Whereas with Ethiopia we find the bitter and dark legacy of battle and occupied sovereign territory with the menacing sense of soldiers on the border, we can nevertheless say that the situation there is stable because we c an see the stasis over the last few years and Meles has his attention in other places. On the other hand, we can see that Sudan represents the unfathomed danger of crisis waiting to unfold over the map of east Africa. Indeed the referendum went better than many people had predicted but we must remember that the time is not yet up for this particular show. We know that Eritrea and Ethiopia had five years before the secession referendum declined inexorably into war even though that event was under many angles a more straightforward separation. With Sudan however, we have a delicate and inflammable situation and many issues are lurking that can provide the spark of ignition – the Government in Khartoum might resent its lost access to oil and start to drag its feet: Bashir might slow progress about the demarcation of the border: the border town of Abyei could reveal itself as another Badme: or the stressful and unsteady relations between Bashir and Kiir could decline beyond any recovery. The list goes on and on and Sudan is a country unaccustomed to peace because it has only had few years without war since the independence from Britain in 1956. The so-called Comprehensive peace agreement made by the Americans in 2005 brought much fanfare in the international community as well as temporary peace – but the development of history might show it to be an anomalous sidetrack away from a more embedded pattern of relationships in Sudan and only a false diversion away from years of war. If a spark is needed that returns the country to its usual business of conflict and war then what could be better than to split the country through the middle? What can be more unsettling for a fragile balance of political actors than a national split in law as well as on the ground? And what can be better to generate forceful feelings of anger and defensiveness in the leader of a previously proud and united Sudan than when he wakes up in one morning and finds that half of his country is disappeared into mere memory?
When we look at Sudan and its population of 45 million people and long history of multiple forms of violent conflict with huge numbers of weapons piled high in every region across the nation – we can clearly expect that any new conflict in Sudan will be grand and unrelenting in its nature and will have manifest effects without stopping at national borders. Therefore we can predict the repercussions to be felt in every one of Sudan’s neighbors. Remember that hundreds of thousands have died in Sudan’s conflicts already and millions of refugees have been created.
But why should Eritreans become interested in South Sudan?
What will a new conflict mean in Eritrea? Eritrea would see violence spill freely across the border and create conflict for land, food and water because Sudanese rebels will gather themselves on Eritrean territory and inevitably take a share of the limited resources for their own sustenance – and cause disputes of the use of land when they come to contact with historical inhabitants of the region who will be forced against their desires to become embroiled in a conflict that they wish to avoid. We can fear that the split of Sudan into two countries (one Mulsim and one Christian) – can promote persuasive narratives that threaten to capture the imaginations of unsuspecting Eritreans. Fires might be started from the ashes of historic divides between Muslims and Christians in Eritrea which will re-inflame old religious disputes. Another danger to Eritrea is refugees because if conflict blazes up in Sudan we can expect up to hundreds of thousands of refugees leaving Sudan with no clear destination except for escaping the immediate danger. So many of these people will find themselves on a path destined for Eritrea and pressure will be put on short supplies of food and water as refugees find no other possibility than to contest for the resources of the people of Eritrea, already in terror from the Isaias regime and who only want to manage their land and their families and their lives with no interference. Having no method to manage and organize these many newly arrived people, Eritrea will find itself under unmanageable pressures on its border. Trade routes will also be undermined by conflict in Sudan as well as major supply lines in and out of Eritrea. Of greatest significance is Eritrea’s need for food and oil from Sudan because if these supply chains start to break under the corroding force of Sudan’s internal disruption – the shortages might be critical within days and industries in Eritrea will grunt to a halt when fuel runs low, buses come to stop and the remaining lights will be forced to flicker and switch themselves off.
How can Eritrea avoid these dangers? Three strategies.
So how can Eritrea avoid these dangers? We avoid them by looking back to the three strategies of power: Money, military and persuasion. The first one (money) we are forced to disregard because there is no money due to the disastrous economics policies of the regime. Military power is also a bad option because the army is weaker day by day as people flee from National Service, sanctions will be pushing up the price of weapons and the military is forced to focus on the Ethiopia border in any case. This means that we can only use influence – where Eritrea must do more through its foreign ministry and its diplomatic service and even its woeful President. Influence on Sudan is needed from all sides in order to avoid war and find a peaceful solution – Eritrea has a big role it can play because only few of the players in the region understand Sudan like Eritrea can. For good (and sometimes perhaps ill) as expert commentators have revealed, Eritrea has historically woven itself into the material of Sudan’s complicated internal conflicts – by building relationships and by influencing the power balance. But the question of Sudan today is not about clandestine military operations by Eritrea. It is about the ‘art of diplomacy’. Eritrea has influence it must use to push the leaders of both sides away from war but this doesn’t just need talking to the Governments in Khartoum and Juba. Eritrea must see itself as a wheel in a mechanical system – the machine cannot move without all the parts turning. This requires making alliances and cooperation with people who see things the same way. Even with his undeniable delusional nature Eritrea’s dictator must see that he cannot do it all alone.
Question and uncomfortable answer:
This leads to a question with an answer that many people will find as uncomfortable:. Who has the closest perspective on Sudan as Eritrea? The answer is Ethiopia.
Of course Isaias and Meles aren’t talking to each other about Sudan or about anything else – but this does not imply that they don’t agree. Both of the leaders would have in instinct preferred a united Sudan because they know the multiple dangers that can be produced by secession, but they have accepted the inescapable reality. Meles has said that the north and south of Sudan must both accept the results from the referendum, saying that: ‘Ethiopia will continue supporting the Sudanese Government and the Southern Sudan Administration to end the South Sudan crisis peacefully.’ Isaias believes the same thing as he doesn’t want Sudan to split – but if it does happen he doesn’t want to face violence across the border and to see one of his very few allies fall in pieces. If Sudan collapses then Eritrea will have deep problems at its door. Isaias’ regime is indeed one of the ugliest on the earth (the brutal depths of its actions were exposed for the world to see in the Wikileaks about the regimes’ prisons) but I admit that I agree with the dictator on one thing – until now he is right to insist that demarcation must necessarily come before talks. Meles is not to be trusted regarding this issue and Ethiopia must become cured from its unhampered arrogance and learn that international law does not come with an exemption for any country that doesn’t like the decision. But the situation is changed and Eritrea must start limited talks with Ethiopia because the threat from Sudan is loud, clear and real for Eritrea and there are areas where Eritrea and Ethiopia must open their communications. I do not mean secret talks (which allegedly are happening already) but real political discussions in order that it would be possible for the countries to cooperate at the worst case scenario when Sudan starts a violent slide downwards. Even though the HGDEF regime in Asmara is illegitimate we have to face the fact that at the moment it is the regime in control and it must prevent the danger of Sudan causing even greater suffering for the people of Eritrea – even if that requires talks with the regime in Addis Ababa. In coming months Sudan will be more dangerous for Eritrea than Ethiopia, so – It is time to talk.
Why should we talk to the woyane?
But why should we talk to the woyane ‘enemy’? Because not to talk will cost both sides a lot in the long term and Eritrea will feel this with more acute pain than Ethiopia. If the countries can coordinate then they will have more influence in Sudan as we know that Eritrea and Ethiopia can both separately influence where peace or war follows in Khartoum and Juba – but a united position would be more powerful than if we have separate messages coming from Asmara and Addis Ababa. Coordination of Eritrea and Ethiopia about how to handle the inexorable flows of refugees will help in order that in the inevitable new refugee camps on the borders they can match the space and food in the camps against the demands from the refugees. If this is successful then the refugees have shelter and safety and this holds them away from the treacherous lure of hazardous groups and radical views they promote and which can corrupt and damage Eritrea’s society. Ethiopia and Eritrea also need to share information on radical terrorist groups in order to fight the extreme views we can expect to infiltrate the region if Sudan starts to separate and disintegrate. This is difficult because no country wants to share secrets with its enemy but there is a bigger danger here – and both countries must see this. So does this mean that Eritrea should start talks on the border with Meles? No! Because that is a different issue and it should remain as separate. But there is no reason why Eritrea can’t talk to Ethiopia about Sudan without talking about the border – except for the pride and stubbornness of the ruling dictator.
The lesson which must be learned:
When we speak to the enemy it is not a sign of weakness, but to the contrary – where a country is threatened it can be a display of leadership and political maturity. This does not change the fact that Ethiopia is obliged by law to withdraw from the illegally occupied territory and it does not require that talks must continue if Sudan stops being a threat in future years. Talks do not bring red faces of shame. Indeed talks would mean that Eritrea would have bigger influence over events in Sudan and they would be a shield for Eritrean people against even greater sufferings under the Isaias regime. That is the lesson of South Sudan. We can only hope that the message will be heard by the dictator and his diplomats.