Eritrea has reopened its mission to the African Union, ending years of self-imposed exile from the continental organization. But diplomats say the move does not signal a thaw in relations between Eritrea and its archrival, the African Union host Ethiopia.
Eritrea’s ambassador to the African Union Girma Asmerom Tesfay presented credentials this week to AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping. An AU statement said Ping expressed delight at seeing Eritrea return to the 53-member organization after several years’ absence.
Eritrea recalled its previous ambassador in an angry protest at what it called the African Union’s ‘failure’ to condemn Ethiopia’s alleged violations of a peace agreement that ended a 1998-2000 border war. The continental body was one of the main brokers of the agreement.
Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia and declared independence in 1993 after a 30-year struggle. But a border dispute sent the neighbors back to war five years later, and relations have been frozen since.
At Ethiopia’s urging, the AU took the unprecedented step in 2009 of asking the United Nations to penalize Eritrea for providing aid to Islamic fighters in Somalia. Despite Eritrea’s strong denial, the UN Security Council imposed tough sanctions on the Asmara government, including an arms embargo, asset freezes and travel bans.
AU Chairman Ping last year rejected Eritrean allegations that Ethiopia was using its position as AU host to block Eritrea from reopening its mission in Addis Ababa. Diplomats say Ping has worked tirelessly to bring the estranged member back into the fold.
Ethiopia’s foreign ministry has strongly denied any attempt to block Eritrea’s return. But in a telephone interview, ministry spokesman Dina Mufti said the re-establishment of Asmara’s AU mission will have no effect on the frozen bilateral relationship.
"It has nothing to do with the situation. We are the host country of the African Union," said Mufti. "We are under obligation to facilitate anything for the African Union. That has nothing to do with the status quo."
The Ethiopian spokesman rejected a suggestion that the arrival of an Eritrean government representative in Addis Ababa might be a sign of a thaw. He said there has been no change in the status quo.
Eritrea sent a high-level observer delegation to the most recent AU summit in Kampala last July as a sign of its renewed interest in continental affairs. There was no immediate word on who might represent the Asmara government at the next continental summit beginning later this month in Addis Ababa.