Ethiopia and Eritrea – Does Rational Politics Work?

By Dessalegn Asfaw — I read with great interest Dawit Wolde Giorgis’ article, “The Way Forward For Ethiopia And Eritrea”. The article has several wonderful qualities. It is very informative, having been written by someone with first-hand experience in managing Ethio-Eritrean relations. There is a level of introspection and a willingness to re-assess previously held positions that is rare among government officials, even former officials. Finally, the article is written in an honest tone, in a way that reaches out to Eritreans in an open and transparent way, without trying to hide the dirty laundry, so to speak.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the article is its application of the concept of ‘rational choice’ to Ethio-Eritrean relations. Rational choice is the idea that people do what is in their best interests. That is, they don’t necessarily do what the say they will do, or what they advertise that they will do, but they will do what is best for them. This is a sound model to use, but we should keep in mind it is a simplification of a more complicated reality.

Based on rational choice, Ato Dawit’s thesis is that a cooperative relationship between Ethiopian and Eritrea is in the interests of both countries. Few people would disagree with this. Ethiopia needs a port. Eritrea needs a market. Ethiopia could use more skilled labour. Eritrea needs primary goods. And so on. There is no doubt that Ethio-Eritrean cooperation would result in a win-win situation. The historical and cultural ties between the two countries would only further leverage the benefits of such cooperation.

So the question is, if cooperation is so clearly in the interests of both nations, why are they not cooperating now? Or why didn’t the Dergue and the EPLF cooperate in finding a solution instead of wasting lives and money in a futile war?

There are several answers to this, but let us boil them down to three. The first is that within nations and institutions, there are various differing interests at play. For example, it may be in the interests of both nations, as a whole, to cooperate, but there are some individuals and groups within the nations who think cooperation that is not good for them. These elements would work to maintain or promote a conflict that they think is in their interests.

Second, people tend to have a very short term outlook on life, and so unknowingly end up sacrificing their long term interests for short term gain. They may opt for a conflict in the short run, not knowing or ignoring the long term consequences. Looking back on their actions, they realize that they did not act according to their interests.

Finally, people can be emotional, even delusional, and inconsistent in assessing their needs, wants, and interests. They can often end up not making the ‘rational choice’.

A good illustration of this is the last Ethio-Eritrean War, a war instigated by friction between the TPLF and EPLF. The conflict was clearly against the interests of both the TPLF and EPLF, whose alliance was until then mutually beneficial. The TPLF and EPLF together presented a formidable foe for oppositions in both Ethiopia and Eritrea. The TPLF, being minority-based, benefited from EPLF support. The EPLF benefited from having a friendly government in Addis Ababa. It was, by any calculation, a match made in heaven. Yet, the TPLF and EPLF, to the shock of both analysts and many within the two parties, went to war.

Another example is Eritrea’s, or perhaps more accurately, Isayas Afeworki’s intransigence on the Badme question. In 2002, once the border decision was rendered, it was, as it remains today, in Eritrea’s interests to normalize relations with Ethiopia, even at the cost of a few hectares of land around Badme. Normalizing relations would have resulted in an economic and international relations windfall at no cost, except perhaps a small political risk to Isayas, which he no doubt could have handled. Yet, Eritrea has opted to shut its borders and adopt the model of the garrison state.

Whom does the status quo benefit in Eritrea? No one but perhaps Isayas and his ever-shrinking clique, and even then, only in the short term. It is evident that in the long term, Isayas’ current policy goes against his interests as well as those of the rest of the ruling party and the population as a whole. Yet, the EPLF embarked on this irrational policy, guided, in part, by the desire for vengeance against the TPLF, a party that the EPLF for so long its considered junior partner. An excellent example of emotion overwhelming rationality.

It is this tendency of not making the ‘rational choice’ that makes politics in Ethiopia and Eritrea so unpredictable. Political actors tend to be inconsistent, make gross miscalculations, and often act for reasons of pride and emotion against what would seem clearly to be in their interests.

This is why it is debatable whether cooperating with the EPLF would be of benefit to the Ethiopian democracy movement. As I mentioned above, rationally speaking, it is in both the EPLF’s and Eritrea’s interests to normalize relations with Ethiopia today, even with the TPLF in power. It is only Isayas and a small ruling elite who have a short-term interest in maintaining the status quo. Obviously, this makes for a very volatile situation. At any time, Eritrea may abandon its ‘support’ of various Ethiopian anti-TPLF forces and begin rapprochement with the TPLF!

Therefore, the various groups that make up the democracy movement should be very careful in assessing the positions of the EPLF and its leadership. Cooperation should be limited to risk-free areas, that is, where there would be little or no risk to the democracy movement if the EPLF suddenly decided not to cooperate. And there is scope for such cooperation. But, as long as the EPLF, like other actors in the Horn, tends to be more unpredictable and inconsistent than rational, it will be impossible to establish a long term interest based relationship with it.

These same principles and ideas of rational choice, or lack of it, should be applied to the analysis of the TPLF’s behaviour. But I do not get the sense that Ato Dawit is doing this in his article. He portrays the TPLF in, dare I say, simplistic terms, as a party that just wants the worst for Ethiopia.

But of course from a rational choice perspective, this cannot be the case. In the rational world, the TPLF, like all political parties, is primarily interested in maintaining power. As a party whose main constituency is a small minority, it has an interest in using divide and rule tactics for the sole purpose of keeping the majority opposition at bay. However, if these tactics are so successful that they cause real and perhaps irreversible fractures in Ethiopian society, the first and biggest losers will be TPLF and its constituents. After all, they have nowhere to run – no Greater Tigray or some other mythical nirvana. It took the TPLF a while to learn this, and though still many within the party have not, as a whole, there certainly has been a change of direction from the raw ethnic hatred it propagated in the 1990’s.

Today, many in the TPLF are keenly aware that their destiny is tied with Ethiopia’s destiny. As a minority, in order to prosper and in order to maintain power, they have to increase public goods’ provision and create and environment for economic growth. This is the only way that they can placate the Ethiopian public and hope to stay in power.

On the matter of TPLF relations with Eritrea, one can argue that the status quo benefits the TPLF. Every day that the current state of ‘no war no peace’ continues, Eritrea gets weaker and the power balance keeps shifting towards Ethiopia. When the parties eventually get to the negotiating table in the future, Ethiopia will have a lot of accumulated leverage with which to deal. The TPLF can maximize its negotiating returns, which would help it prolong its stay in power.

These are the political calculations that the TPLF would make in a rational world, in a world where it looks after its own interests. There are elements within the TPLF who understand this. Unfortunately, like the EPLF, there are also many in the TPLF who tend towards an irrational approach to their own interests. These folks, including most of the leadership, for sentimental or ideological reasons, persist in carrying out policies that go clearly against the interests of their party as a whole.

The best example is Meles Zenawi’s relations with Eritrea. From publicly and unrestrainedly celebrating Eritrean independence, to declining Assab during the Ethio-Eritrean War, to signing the Algiers Agreement, Meles has been a disaster on this issue and has greatly hurt the interests of his party. To this day, he makes no acknowledgment of his failings in this area. Meles continues to indulge his emotional attachment to Eritrea (and emotional detachment from Ethiopia), putting the TPLF as a whole at great risk.

If tomorrow, there were regime change in Eritrea, one cannot exclude the possibility that Meles will negotiate a horrible agreement for Ethiopia. In fact, even today, without regime change, Meles might have done so had he not been constrained by elements within the TPLF and EPRDF. Such is his record.

There are other examples of irrational TPLF policy, such as the current land policy, which has been stifling agricultural productivity at great risk to economic growth and social stability. There are the decisions to give away Ethiopian land, worsening the already hopeless public image of the TPLF. And so on.

All this to say that the Ethiopian democracy movement has to be very careful about its strategies and alliances. Using the assumption of rationality to analyze the interests of the EPLF, TPLF, and other actors is a good basis on which to start. This forces one to maintain a certain level of objectivity and avoid doing things out of impatience or hatred of the TPLF dictatorship. However, as illustrated above, political actors in Ethiopia and Eritrea also often act irrationally, violating their own interests. (The democracy movement has not been immune to this – witness the Kinijit collapse of 2007.) The democracy movement has to keep this in mind and avoid making hasty and risky decisions.

It also has to be sensitive to public opinion. I think that by now, it is universally understood that increasing public (financial) support, both diaspora and local, is the primary task of the Ethiopian democracy movement. Anything that might set back this effort should be avoided if at all possible. Cooperation with the EPLF can be unpopular, and this is must be an important consideration. Are the returns worth it?

Finally, in this irrational world of Ethio-Eritrean politics, the only reliable ally that the Ethiopian democracy movement can have is itself. It must endeavour, therefore, to strengthen itself from the inside with minimal reliance on external partners, be it Eritrea, any other country, or any outside institution. Alliances are important and necessary, but the focus should be on building internal capacity over the long run.

Dessalegn Asfaw Can be reached at:

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Posted by on July 4, 2009. Filed under NEWS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.