John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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“Time to Bring Eritrea in From the Cold”

by John Campbell
December 18, 2013

An Eritrean soldier sits on guard duty as a UN military observer and his Eritrean counterpart inspect a frontline trench near the Eritrean town of Senafe on October 20, 2000. (Reuters Photographer/Courtesy Reuters)


The former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Herman J. (Hank) Cohen wrote an important article in African Arguments entitled “Time to Bring Eritrea in From the Cold.” For those involved in policy formulation and implementation in the Horn of Africa it is a “must read.”

In a few short and lucid paragraphs Ambassador Cohen reviews the sorry history since 1997 of the tangled relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia, with the complications posed by Somalia and al-Shabaab, the jihadist organization with ties to al-Qaeda, and the U.S. response. By 2008, the administration of President George W. Bush determined that Eritrea was a “state sponsor of terrorism” and imposed sanctions. Subsequently, President Barack Obama’s administration said that Eritrea allowed arms shipments to be delivered to al-Shabaab. In 2009, the administration sponsored a UN Security Council resolution (UNSC 1907) that in effect made Eritrea the international pariah it is today.

But, times change. Cohen recalls that “all available intelligence” indicates no Eritrean contact with al-Shabaab since 2009. Further, as Cohen points out, Eritrea is fearful of Islamic radicalism. There are signs of a warming in the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea. This confluence provides a special opportunity for a new approach to Eritrea with positive implications for the Horn of Africa. Normal relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea would be a win-win not only for both countries economically as well as politically, but also for the Horn of Africa region.

How to move forward? Specifically, Cohen suggests that a European member of the Security Council should propose the repeal of UNSC 1907, and the United States should agree to abstain. He also proposes a face-saving solution to the long standing border issues between Ethiopia and Eritrea, to be mediated by a neutral European nation.

Cohen shows that the benefits for U.S. policy would be significant. Normalization of Ethiopian/Eritrean relations would open the space for the United States and others to encourage better governance in both countries, and military cooperation between the United States and Eritrea could materially assist in the struggle against jihadi terrorism in the region.

Ambassador Cohen makes a compelling case for a rethink of U.S. policy in the Horn and he proposes a practical strategy for moving forward.

Post a Comment 13 Comments

  • Posted by Yohannes

    I absolutely agree that it is time for the U.S. to rethink its policy towards Eritrea and the whole region. Isolating Eritrea and pushing for sanctions has done nothing to bring peace to Eritrea, Ethiopia or Somalia. If anything, it has emboldened Ethiopia to skirt the border agreement and tear apart Somalia. The one positive role the U.S. played was to bring Eritrea and Ethiopia to the table to sign the ceasefire agreement (Algiers Agreement) which set up the border court. The U.S. was a guarantor of the border court and really the moving force behind it. The failure to encourage Ethiopia to follow the decision has led to the tensions and to Ethiopia occupying Eritrean land. The only moral thing to do is enforce the decision so both countries can mend relations and move forward against a common enemy — radical islam.

  • Posted by Simon Tesfamariam

    First of all, I think its great that we are finally starting this begin this very much needed discussion.

    The US is a guarantor of the 2000 Algiers Agreement between the two countries. As Cohen points out, Ethiopia is now occupying Eritrean territory despite the boundary commission’s “final and binding” decision and demarcation of the border. As guarantor of the Algiers Agreement, the USA has not shouldered it’s responsibility on account of “anchor state” favoritism/policy towards the Ethiopia. However, things have changed now. Meles Zenawi is now gone and according to “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Trends” published by the US National Intelligence Council, Ethiopia is among the top 15 states expected to disintegrate in the next 15 years. Hank Cohen has already revealed in an interview on ESAT (Ethiopian Satellite Television) that the current “minority regime” rule in Ethiopia is “unsustainable.” Despite the US’s misguided post-2000 policy to isolate Eritrea based on calculations that the Eritrean government would not survive past 2008, the reality now is that the Eritrean government has survived. In fact, signs are pointing to the fact that Eritrea is now on track to meet the MDGs and the Eritrean economy–to the surprise of respected analysts–has been surging since 2011 and continues to surge (according to EIU).

    The balance of power may now be shifting from Ethiopia to Eritrea. Thus, the question now is this: given the USA’s long term interests in the sub-region, is it time to start moving away from short-term appeasement of the EPRDF regime in Ethiopia and towards greater engagement of Eritrea and the broad Ethiopian opposition? It seems Eritrea may serve as a strong US ally and has showed clear efforts to engage (joined “Coalition of the Willing” in 2003; pushed for US military base in 2002; offered assistance on GWOT in 2002; friendly letter from Isaias to Obama in 2011). However, until recently, US-Eritrea relations soured in spite of these efforts and officials from Foggy Bottom often blame lack of engagement on Eritrean officials who allegedly “won’t pick up the phone” (Amb. McMullen, 2009) or are “difficult to talk to” (Amb. Rice, 2007). Surely, we have to try harder than that. We have waning leverage with the Eritrean government, which does not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. Perhaps this is why articles like these are starting to emerge and why the new Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, seems to be interested in engaging. We are also seeing a warming of relations regarding the two Embassies and their consular services. It seems that the time is now for a policy change towards the PFDJ. If US-Eritrea relations prior to the 1998 war and US favoritism towards Ethiopia are any indication, I suspect that strengthening of the relationship between the two countries may serve both of them very well in many fields, which includes, inter alia, the following: counterterrorism, economics/trade, geopolitics, regional cooperation, etc.

    Despite Cohen’s wise and interesting conclusions regarding engaging Eritrea, his piece does contain many factual errors surrounding the cause of the 1998-200 war and Eritrea’s regional role following the Algiers Agreement. I suggest reading this piece for clarification on what actually caused the war:

    I also suggest reading this piece to see how US-Eritrea relations were indeed soured by design as opposed to being the sole work of the Eritrean government (based on too simplistic of an analysis):

    According to Terrence Lyons at the Woodrow Wilson Center talk in 2009 on “Eritrea’s External Relations,” the Eritrean government has always had a good history of diplomacy until recently: “The EPLF had the best engagement…best diplomacy imaginable here in Washington–at least much better than the embassy of Mengistu Hailemariam and much better than the TPLF representation…they were smart. They had great public diplomacy. They had outreach out to NGOs, think tanks, academics. How did those early years of positive interaction between US and EPLF get lost?” (Link: Therefore, it seems that the potential is there; it seems the US just needs to take a step forward. The results may be surprising.

    For more, I can be followed on Twitter: @RedSeaFisher

  • Posted by Semhar B

    Amb. Cohen makes a strong case in his article and seems to advocate for US authorities to engage Eritrea as equal partners in fighting terrorism in the Horn of Africa and beyond. This should be lauded as a positive approach given Eritrea’s proven record in fighting terrorism since the 90’s ( As mentioned in the article, there is no credible evidence linking Eritrea to terrorism to-date and the sanctions imposed on Eritrea (2009, 2011) should lifted immediately. Eritrea could be a valuable defense and economic partner to the US in the Horn of Africa.

  • Posted by Kidane

    I agree.

  • Posted by Dawit

    what difference does lifting of sanctions make if the constitution is not implemented and mandatory national service is extended for decades?

  • Posted by Haile

    No body will benefit to allow another North Korea in East Africa.
    Long term policy shouldn’t be overlooked.

  • Posted by Alem

    Mr. Cohen’s proposal is no different from his proposal in London 22 years ago. His interest is to advance American regional interest – that is, war on terrorism and minerals and oil. Eritrea will be the beneficiary of this proposal. Ethiopian rulers are despised by the general public and they know it; they have miserably failed to raise the living standard for the majority. Much of revenue is from aid money and much of that ends lining pockets of same rulers who talk at great length about growth and transformation.

    Multiparty democracy is unthinkable the way things are. It is the one antidote to quash terrorism. Donor governments know all this and still prefer to uphold a system that is no less a police state. Cohen’s proposal should be vehemently opposed as is the silly idea of “normalizing relations.” Ethiopian opposition groups should distance themselves from Eritrean leaders. Ethiopians should distance themselves from opposition groups that nurture contacts with Eritrea. Eritrea is and will be a separate nation from Ethiopia. Isaias Afewerki knows his days are numbered. He will go to any length to extend his tenure; that fox.

    Opposition inside Ethiopia should keep mobilizing and readying the public and also not get too close to the disoriented opposition outside our homeland, especially Ginbot 7.

    With Cohen’s first shot ringing the battle now should be waged in the public policy arena. Ethiopians with the appropriate expertise and deep concern for our homeland have their work cut out for them. When it comes to Ethiopian security and economic interests one should not trust the Brits or the Americans.

    US/Britain: How about democracy-aid? Ethiopia: The last time you promised that you installed a liberation-cum-tyrannical group and look what we have – a one-party police state. US/Britain: This time it is serious. Ethiopia: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

  • Posted by Bebbedawi

    Cohen’s invitation to reconsider Eritrea is welcome. It should be done. But he was previously so gracious to deny Ethiopia a port, which effectively left the country of 90 million landlocked. Now he is reasoning to prevent Islamic extremism in the horn let Ethiopia use its port (Eritrea’s) for the greater peace. So Ethiopia is a means to sustain Eritrea? Why not the international community negotiate a way for Ethiopia to get its port back for sustainable peace than this ponzi game?

  • Posted by Tekeda Alemu

    Normalization of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea is an objective whose realization would be of enormous benefits,to the two countries,the region and,I might add ,the international community.
    Cohen should be commended for highlighting the issue.But that is the only value that his piece has which otherwise is rather poor in terms of fidelity to known facts.Frankly speaking,Cohen doesn’t seem to care very much for the the peace of the region.If that was not the case then why would he try to embellish the track record of the Eritrean regime?Does he really believe that the removal of the sanction regime would contribute to peace in the region?I doubt it.But,no doubt,whatever the intention,he appears to be driven by the urge to achieve it.Otherwise,why ignore all relevant facts which indicate that the Eritrean regime has in fact not abandoned those practices which,in the first instance,were the reasons for the imposition of sanctions.Turning to his lack of fidelity to known facts,it would only suffice to look at how he sees the genesis of the crisis between the two countries.This is of interest not only as a matter of care for historical accuracy,but perhaps more important is that an honest analysis of the genesis of the crisis might also provide clues for why the problem between the two countries continues to be so intractable.Normalization of relations between the two has so far been a chimera.It shouldn’t.The ball is in Eritrea’s court.This is unlikely to change with the easing of the sanction regime which in fact is likely to have the opposite outcome,The sanctions haven’t had major impact in terms of encouraging change in Eritrea’s foreign policy conduct.But the indications are that they have in fact had some impact.More should be expected from Eritrea.Cohen’s proposal,if it were to be take up ,would for sure bring to an end Eritrea’s recent charm offensive which Cohen’s piece might perhaps be a result of.Cohen is not helping the region move closer to sustainable peace.

  • Posted by observer

    The basis for the sanctions (Somali anti-gov support) has been proven false. The time is now for cooperation and the renormalization of relations between the United States and Eritrea. This can take place with the enforcement of the final and binding demarcation that has thus far been held hostage for over a decade.

  • Posted by Abraham Facts

    “over the past decade thousands of young Eritrean have ‘illegally’ left their country”

    I challenge you Mr. Cohen to make a more biased statement.

    Number of Eritrean Refugees Last Year WORLDWIDE: 18,000
    “More than 1,500[18,000/year] Eritreans, including unaccompanied minors, flee the country monthly.”
    Number of Ethiopian Refugees Last Year in YEMEN: 84,000
    “Some 84,000[7,000/month], or more than 80 per cent, of the arrivals [in Yemen] were Ethiopian nationals.”

    Its interesting how the writer made no mention of the fact that 30% of Ethiopia is suffering from goitre as a result of “no peace no war.”
    Is there a reason why the fact that ’28 MILLION Ethiopians suffer from goitre’ is not important enough to mention in the article?

    “In Ethiopia, around 28 million people suffer from goitre, and more than 35 million people are at risk of iodine deficiency. More importantly, 50,000 perinatal deaths are related to iodine deficiency each year in Ethiopia.”

    “But Ethiopia is landlocked and its soil is iodine-poor. The country used to get its salt from the Eritrean port of Aseb, where iodization factories added the nutrient. But since the war, most Ethiopian salt comes uniodized from the salt flats of northern Ethiopia.”

  • Posted by Not Tekeda

    About time that major institutions such as, the Council on Foreign Relations address issues pertaining to the Horn of Africa in a wholesome fashion equally and fairly in order to ascertain a new yet constructive US foreign policy that will end up ensuring the best interest of the people in the region.
    The minority TPLF regime is afraid of any stability in the region because peace cannot and does not serve its interest. If peace reigns the people of Ethiopia would have to elect their representative and that means the ouster of the minority regime. The TPLF’s position highlighted by Tekeda Alemu is then a reflection of that fear, TPLF’s fear. The TPLF can only survive if the US keeps supporting its stances against Eritrea which undermined as highlighted by Mr. Cohen, Dr. Frazier’s attempt to nullify or renegotiate the agreement in support of the TPLF. When and if the US focuses its attention on Eritrea it becomes a threat because the only way the TPLF (believes) can exert pressure on Eritrea is by the stick the US accords it.
    There is also another unspoken panic that Tekeda Alemu deliberately glossed over. The issue of Aseb that Mr. Cohen outlined. Aseb is central to the agenda of TPLF’s (that Tekeda Alemu is a part of) greater Tigray. On a recent document posted on Aiga, a website that supports/sponsored by the TPLF, a new Afar liberation organization’s agenda that claims to seek independence from Ethiopia and Eritrea is highlighted. The TPLF has for a long time tried to use US Ethiopia relations to benefit the greater Tigray idea by diverting major resources to Tigray region according Tigray disparate advantages. Hence, relative to other Ethiopian regions Tigray is faring better.
    It is imperative therefore for the US to take a balanced approach in the region. Unfortunately, the US is in a serious dilemma as it relates to Ethiopia. The TPLF that Tekeda supports is difficult to dislodge because the people of Tigray are a part of Ethiopia and have managed to control major aspects of Ethiopia’s social, military, economic, diplomatic and political infrastructures. That means the US must change its policy and take harder-heavy handed approach against the TPLF to save Ethiopia. To work with Eritrea then is the first step and costs the US nothing. Thanks Mr. Cohen for shedding a light on this issue.

  • Posted by Merhawie

    Former Ambassador Herman J. Cohen’s piece reflects the long-term benefits to both Eritrea and Ethiopia of normalization. Current policy of is a reflection of the perceived short-term advantage to Ethiopia. I disagree with Tekeda Alemu’s article comment which makes assertions meant to diminsh the credibility of former Amb. Cohen’s piece.

    Tekeda fails to substantiate his argument that “all available intelligence indicates that Eritrea has not had any contact [with a Somali insurgent group] since 2009.” Although this may be to protect confidential information its effect is to distract from the key point that intelligence failed to find further Eritrean involvement once Ethiopian troops left Somalia, giving credence to the theory of international observers, that the conclusion of the Eritrea-Ethiopia border decision will add to regional peace. This is part of the reason that former Amb. Cohen’s piece is so important.

    Tekeda also misses the purpose of the United Nations sanctions regime, which was meant to restrict Eritrea’s connection to non-UN sponsored actors in Somalia and to promote a UN based (as opposed to a independent bilateral or multilateral) process in the Doumera Island conflict. To the contrary, Eritrea has changed its Somalia policy and since the sanctions regime has been implemented Eritrea has engaged in a multilateral process on the Doumera Island conflict with Djibouti and Qatar as partners. Tekeda’s comment is therefore mistaken, and possibly misleading.

    Former Amb. Cohen’s piece reflects an improved crystallization of the situation in the Horn of Africa by a former policy maker. It is an important step forward as recognized here on CFR.

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