“Time to bring back Eritrea from the cold” A reply to Ambassador Hank Cohen

January 27, 2014

Professor Minga NegashBy Professor Minga Negash


Many observers agree that recent unfortunate developments in the Middle East can easily spillover to the Greater Horn of Africa region. There are groups that are fanning ideologies advanced by the various actors in Middle East’s sectarian conflict. In the light of the new developments in the region, it makes sense for the United States to review its relationship with Eritrea and Ethiopia and rebalance its portfolio. The interesting question for Eritrea and Ethiopia is therefore how to respond to the apparent shift in superpower policy towards the region. In this rejoinder I review the recent articles that were written by two former Ambassadors, examine the difficult areas in the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and outline the options that are available for Ethiopia.

On December 16, 2013 Ambassador Hank Cohen, the Former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa wrote an important article under the title “time to bring back Eritrea from the cold”. Between 1989 and 1993 Ambassador Cohen drove the United States’ policy towards Africa. He not only witnessed the birth of new states in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 but also in the Horn of Africa. The birth of the State of Eritrea was a concomitant event that took place with the takeover of the rest of Ethiopia by the rebel forces of the Tigrean People Liberation Front (TPLF). On January 13 2014 Ambassador David Shinn, the Former United States’ Ambassador to Ethiopia also wrote a commentary supporting Ambassador Cohen’s piece4. Ambassador Shinn drove United States’ policy towards Ethiopia during the 1996-1999 period. His term of office was also characterized by another historical episode. Despite the radical change in Ethiopia that was supported by Eritreans and the United States, the conflict
between Eritrea and Ethiopia resurfaced again and consumed close to 80 000 people. Ambassador Princeton Lyman, the Former United States’ ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa also supported Ambassador Cohen’s piece and enumerated his effort to bring back Eritrea out of the cold. The articles have sparked intense debate. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia has also responded. In short, the authors of the pieces are witnesses and have the institutional memories of the events that were unfolding in the Horn of Africa. The series of articles that came out in a short period of time suggests that Washington might be rethinking its policy towards the region and the lobby industry is at work. Notwithstanding these, their continued engagement on the Horn of Africa will also help to reflect on the achievements and failures of the past, and more importantly help in charting the roadmap for sustainable peace and development in the region.

Ambassador Cohen’s article contains two central issues. His first point is that the sanction against Eritrea must be lifted because there is no evidence which incriminates the country to be “a state sponsor of terrorism“. As flabbergasting as it may sound, as Professor Jack Derrida notes “a text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game”. Derrida’s analogy is similar to the Eritrean-Ethiopian q’ene, a form of philosophical enquiry commonly referred to as the wax and the gold. Ambassador Cohen has been successful in hiding the gold in the wax. The task of critical enquiry is to find the gold. At face value, in the wax, the article is just an addition to the chorus for the removal of the sanctions which have seriously undermined development efforts in Eritrea.

Ambassador Cohen’s second key message relates to the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Here there are many tricky issues which the Honorable Ambassador appears to have either hidden them in his wax or totally missed them. What is hidden in his piece is his call for the continued landlocked-ness of close to 90 million people in the Horn of Africa. Many agree that the TPLF/EPRDF has made a bad mistake on three occasions:- (i) during the time of the war for the separation of Eritrea, (ii) during the 1991-93 period, and (iii) at the end of the 1998-2000 war. Even today the TPLF dominated Government of Ethiopia is still proud of its mistakes. The recent statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia did not raise the problem of Ethiopia’s landlocked-ness. Evidently this policy can change at any time. Except those that are dependent on the Government of Eritrea, Ethiopians including the new breed of TPLF/EPRDF are unlikely to condone a policy that has created the largest landlocked country in the world. Ambassador Cohen neither separated the government of the day from the country nor did he identify the incentives for Ethiopia for accepting the decision of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) nor did he outline how Ethiopia’s landlocked-ness is going to be resolved.

The “free port” offer by Eritrea which is also echoed by Ambassadors Cohen and Shinn does not adequately address Ethiopia’s economic, geopolitical and security interests. In other words the interest of the United States and the interest of Ethiopia are not necessarily the same. Most commentators on the issue consider the “free port” offer as one of the diplomatic gamesmanships which were played in the 1991-1993 period. Visionary diplomats and scholars of substance must be able to observe beyond what ordinary politicians see. The fact that the Government of Ethiopia has not yet put the landlocked-ness issue on the table shows the policy error of the government of the day, but cannot be construed that Ethiopia has permanently abandoned its right over Assab. In this respect, Ambassador Cohen wrote the following;-

To break the stalemate between Eritrea and Ethiopia over the implementation of the EEBC decision, there needs to be a mutually face-saving solution. I propose that Ethiopia offer to accept a symbolic initial takeover by Eritrea of territory awarded by the EEBC, followed by the same day opening of dialogue with a totally open agenda”.
It is important to note that the EEBC was established based on the Algiers Agreement, and Ambassador Cohen exonerates Ambassador Anthony Lake (National Security Advisor, 1993-97), who was one of the architects of the Algiers Agreement. Ambassador Cohen wrote the following:-

They [EPLF and TPLF/EPRDF] maintained a common economic system that allowed landlocked Ethiopia full access to the Eritrean Red Sea ports of Asab and Masawa, including control of their own handling facilities for the transit of cargo…Under Algerian Government mediation, a cease-fire was accomplished in 2000. In view of the border as the ostensible main issue in contention, the Algerians established the Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Commission (EEBC) to arbitrate the exact boundary line. While the EEBC was doing its work, the long border remained heavily armed on both sides”.

Ambassador David Shinn’s January 13, 2014 article echoed Ambassador Cohen’s statement.  In fact Ambassador Shinn’s piece narrated already known events and did not address the thorny issue of landlocked-ness. Hence, like Ambassador Cohen’s piece Ambassador Shinn’s rejoinder has created a rare situation of irritation on both the pro TPLF/EPRDF and anti TPLF/EPRDF camps.


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