By Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion
Earlier this week, President Isaias Afwerki traveled to Kenya to meet with President William Ruto, following up on the latter’s visit to Eritrea late last year. During the two-day working trip to Nairobi, President Isaias, accompanied by a high-level delegation, held extensive talks with his counterpart and other Kenyan government officials. To conclude the trip, the two leaders held a short press conference, and a joint communiqué was signed by FM Osman and Dr. Alfred N. Mutua, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Foreign and Diaspora Affairs. While the press briefing and joint communiqué offered numerous significant points, a few interesting ones are highlighted below.
The two leaders demonstrated their mutual respect on several occasions. In comments directed to President Isaias, President Ruto stated, “Your wisdom in making sure we build a more harmonious region speaks for itself. I look forward to working together.” Similarly, President Isaias praised his counterpart, encouraging him to, “Keep it up,” and declaring, “Kenya is my second home, and Eritrea is your second home.” President Ruto also thanked President Isaias for his “gracious support of Kenya” during its campaign for a seat on the United Nations Security Council.
This was extremely positive and highly welcome, particularly within the context of a region that has historically been characterized by– and frustratingly held back through – bitter rivalry, animosity, and hostility. Mutual respect is a key building block to cultivating trust and developing tight-knit, enduring relationships. Greater cooperation and a strong, effective partnership between Kenya and Eritrea, with mutual respect and understanding at its fundamental core, will not only greatly benefit the peoples of the two nations, but also have a positive and multifaceted impact across the Greater Horn of Africa.
Establishment of Kenyan embassy in Asmara and abolishment of visas for citizens
It was announced that Kenya would soon open an embassy in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital and that the two countries have abolished visa requirements for their citizens, effective immediately (9 February 2023).
The establishment of a Kenyan embassy in Eritrea is a noteworthy milestone. Not only is it a reflection of the two countries’ rapidly growing bilateral ties, but it also represents the underlying commitment that both states share to deepen their relationship and strengthen long-term cooperation across various spheres (e.g., political, economic, commercial, people-to-people, cultural, etc.). To consider just one dimension, a large body of scholarly work has demonstrated how the establishment of embassies and foreign diplomatic posts can have a significant and positive effect on increasing bilateral trade, facilitating investment flows, and deepening commercial or other engagements.
As well, the mutual waiver of visa requirements for citizens should help to increase the number of visitors traveling to each country and boost the two countries’ travel and tourism sectors. Eritrea has a rich biodiversity, an abundance of unique socio-cultural and historical sites, untouched and unspoiled islands, and a favorable climate, combined with general peace, relative security, and a population that is extremely warm and welcoming. Kenya, meanwhile, is globally renowned for its scenic landscapes, breathtaking mountain highlands and Great Rift Valley, vast wildlife reserves, and spectacular coastline.
While a broad array of factors can impact international travel (e.g., general economic conditions, currency exchange rates, bilateral relations, etc.), reducing the inconvenience, time, and costs that are generally associated with visa application processes can help to increase the number of travelers. In turn, this can play a positive role in creating jobs across a variety of interlinked sectors, supporting economic growth, raising foreign exchange revenue, and promoting sustainable development.
Eritrea’s critical contribution to peace and security in Somalia
During the press briefing, President Ruto expressed his appreciation to President Isaias for Eritrea’s contribution to training Somali troops and promoting regional security.
Although it holds a rich history, the past several decades in Somalia have unfortunately been characterized by a tragic cycle of prolonged civil war, chaos, insecurity, and terror. Throughout, however, the country’s resilient people have continued to seek peace and worked to improve the situation of the country, with recent times involving renewed efforts to form a credible government and establish a professional, competent national defense and security force.
Over the past few years, Eritrea and Somalia have made efforts to strengthen bonds, establish genuine cooperation, and tackle mutual challenges, rooted in a shared vision of a region that is safe, at peace, and prosperous. One dimension of the two countries’ growing solidarity and multifaceted cooperative framework has been within defense and security; upon the expressed will, desire, and request of the government in Somalia, Eritrea has trained Somali troops.
While these developments have disappointingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, led to disinformation and elicited a loud chorus of extremely hypocritical condemnation from a number of Western voices, the Somali trainees are expected to positively contribute to peace and security in Somalia (and the wider region). It is also worth noting that on several occasions, Somali officials, including President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, have thanked Eritrea for its partnership and commended the quality of the training delivered, while Somalis in the country and around the world have continued to express their appreciation and gratitude for Eritrea’s support.
Eritrea to reactivate membership in Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)
Among the major developments of the trip was the announcement that Eritrea will reactive its membership in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). It was also reiterated that the country is ready to play a part in revitalizing the Horn of Africa’s regional organization.
Created in 1996 to supersede the earlier Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development, IGAD has largely failed to achieve its lofty mandate or objectives and only scratched the surface of its vast true potential. Rather than embodying a genuine regional bloc undergirded by the cooperation and trust of its member states, it became a platform for toxic rivalry and mistrust. IGAD was repeatedly instrumentalized to attack some member states and achieve politicized aims, ultimately doing little to genuinely promote peace, cooperation, security, or sustainable development across the region.
Eritrea suspended its membership in IGAD in 2007 in the wake of TPLF-led Ethiopia’s illegal invasion of Somalia and the failure of the regional body to condemn the acts of aggression against a member state (which not only violated international law but also IGAD’s own charter, principles, and prior resolutions). When Eritrea subsequently went on to attempt to resume its participation in the bloc, its efforts were repeatedly blocked by TPLF-led Ethiopia, which had monopolized the presumably “rotating” chairmanship of IGAD (again violating fundamental tenets of the bloc’s charter) and sought to use the organization as a mechanism to pursue its narrow interests throughout the region.
Looking forward, a truly reformed, revitalized, and cooperative IGAD would be a tremendous boon for the region. In addition to assisting to effectively prevent or mediate conflict and improving regional peace, stability, and security, it would help to coordinate collective solutions to various mutual challenges (e.g., hunger, climate change, etc.) and promote economic interdependence and development. As well, with high and growing interest in the Horn from an array of established and rising regional and global powers, a stronger, more unified IGAD would allow the region an opportunity to more effectively leverage or bargain its diverse advantages and achieve outcomes that better meet the interests of the region.
Another important dimension of Eritrea’s renewing its membership in IGAD is that it serves as even further evidence that the longstanding attempts to isolate Eritrea – which were primarily led by some Western states and their regional proxy, the TPLF – are failing. Instead of being isolated, Eritrea continues to establish and deepen ties with a growing number of partners, large and small, both from within the region and across the world.