Ethiopia’s new regime seeks to stem security dilemma

By Sarah Coughlan, CNN African Business Correspondent

Ethiopia’s new reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has a tough job ahead to tackle a years-long fight against an insurgency that is already moving in his country’s direction.

Since arriving in office three months ago, Abiy has opened talks with Eritrea, dramatically freed political prisoners and cleared hundreds of cases of political prisoners. But the reforms so far have not translated into more security in the north.

“It’s clear that our country is on a path to destruction,” Ethiopian journalist and commentator Biteen Akyusan recently told CNN. “I think that it’s partly due to the brutal regime of the current Prime Minister (Hailemariam Desalegn). The last two administrations had failed to establish any links with the civil society. And as long as this regime continues to remain in power, it’s highly unlikely to live up to what the Ethiopian people want.”

Akeyusan’s fears echo those of others in the country.

“Many Ethiopians now believe that the decades-long war against the arch-enemy Eritrea is nearing its end. The gains that can be made by the Ethiopian government will have a positive impact on the rest of the country,” Tsegaye Kassa, head of the Chatham House think tank, told CNN last week.

Abiy has signed deals to give Ethiopia’s more than 200,000 displaced persons “reciprocal refugee status” in the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, and to grant them special status within an unemployment fund. Ethiopia and Eritrea currently only allow some citizens from their respective countries to work in each other’s territory.

Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a bloody eight-year war in the late 1990s and early 2000s that claimed tens of thousands of lives, and rivalled the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region.

But while Ethiopia’s security team on the ground seems be frustrated by the lack of progress in terms of security in rebel-held areas — and abandons key key regional institutions to keep the peace process on track — Abiy’s messaging is different. The leader has repeatedly argued that Ethiopia should not be defined by its conflict with Eritrea, and called on all areas “pursuing the path of peace” — with a distinct emphasis on Eritrea — to work in the same direction.

A regional security body, set up by the rival governments after the war, has also been disbanded in recent weeks, as Abiy and President Isaias Afwerki agreed to set up a joint reconciliation committee to oversee the release of political prisoners and resume diplomatic and economic relations.

The committee, tasked with re-establishing diplomatic relations, is comprised of government and opposition figures from both countries.

But while Abiy — who is thought to have suffered head injuries in an assassination attempt on January 3 — has a strong mandate from his people, leaving security on the continent in the hands of Ethiopia’s security forces still has some wondering if his “wholehearted embrace of peace” is more about the short-term gains than the long-term security of his country.

Biteen says that Ethiopians need to be prepared for a long battle to put an end to the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

“It will be a long road ahead. The government may win this war on the streets. The extremist Islamist rebels will simply go back into hiding,” Biteen says. “But the ongoing peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea will not mean anything unless it’s extended to other parts of the country.”

Akeyusan agrees. “With this new government, in the short term, we can see a very positive trend; however, in the long term, this peace will fail. And if this war continues for too long, the country will be divided.”

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