Eritrea, Ethiopia: broadening cross-border cooperation

The presidents of Eritrea and Ethiopia met January 7 to open the Omhajer-Humera border crossing between the two countries. Located at the westernmost point of the shared border, the opening is the third such development and is a further validation of bilateral political and economic confidence building between the once-hostile neighbors.

The Omhajer-Humera border crossing is a strategic crossing point for the supply of agricultural products from the fertile Humera area of Ethiopia and the Gas Barka plains of Eritrea. The connection also complements the two other heavier-travelled routes that Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reopened September 11. The three border crossings, comprising an eastern/southern route at Debay-Sima (Eritrea) and Burre (Ethiopia) that connects Ethiopia to the Red Sea at the Eritrean port of Assab, a central route at Serha (Eritrea) and Zela Ambesa (Ethiopia) that channels traffic to and from the Red Sea as well as the Eritrean capital and its central port of Massawa, and now Omhajer-Humera, provide for redundant supply chain options along the course of the Eritrean-Ethiopian border.

The January 7 inauguration is important not just for reinforcing cross border trade and broader economic coordination between Eritrea and Ethiopia but also in how the leaders of the two countries are building bilateral political confidence both at their respective national levels and at the sub-national regional levels. It is not unreasonable that the implications and outcomes of the state of peace achieved in 2018 between Eritrea and Ethiopia are still a work in progress insofar as respective government and popular expectations are concerned.

For one thing, the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia are both undertaking reforms within their respective national security apparatus to redress what had until 2018 been a standing mobilization to counter each other’s real or perceived aggressions. The decision by the Abiy administration to withdraw, during the last week of 2018, large numbers of Ethiopian military forces and equipment from the border region with Eritrea was a significant development toward security confidence not only with Eritrea but also in how the youthful and reformist Ethiopian prime minister is managing domestic political tensions, especially with members of his ethnic Tigray constituency who populate the Tigray regional government bordering Eritrea (and who, until Abiy’s leadership appointment in April 2018, dominated the Ethiopian federal government).

Toward this end it was notable that Abiy invited and brought together the Tigray as well as the Amhara regional leaders to participate in the Omhajer-Humera border opening ceremony. Abiy’s purpose in doing so was to address the concerns the Tigray regional government holds as to its perceived isolation and intimidation by its Amhara regional neighbors as well as by Eritrea. Furthermore at the Omhajer-Humera ceremony, the Eritrean president met with the Tigrayan regional president, Debretsion Gebremichael, to convey confidence and trust so as to extend support for Ethiopian federal government reforms imperatives.

Establishing terms of trade, to include customs and tariffs agreements, are among other outstanding items the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia continue to negotiate going into 2019. As political and economic cooperation normalizes and deepens, it is the intention that perhaps by February a compressive trade and security cooperation agreement will be signed between the pragmatic Horn of Africa neighbors.

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