October 14, 2020

President Isaias visits Ethiopia amid tensions with the North and pending GERD Negotiations

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Unlike personal interactions of ordinary people, political visits - especially when they are high…

President Isaias visits Ethiopia amid tensions with the North and pending GERD Negotiations

Unlike personal interactions of ordinary people, political visits - especially when they are high profile - have implications, be it political, economic or security related. In an article published in The Hague Journal of Diplomacy titled The Politics of State Visits, Eric Goldstien, drives this point home. Goldstien claims that state visits offer a general utility to advance diplomatic relations as well as in the advancement of key national and international issues. In different circumstances, political environments and depending on the visited and visitor, each state visit may have different implications. 

Goldstien identifies a wide range of categories for state visits ranging from the ones he calls Catalytic Visits such as the one made by the President Charles De Gulle of France to Canada in 1967 to the Alliance Building visits exemplified by the invitation issued by US President Franklin Roosevelt to the British King George VI amid the mounting pressure in Europe between the Axis and Allied powers.

Other visits identified by the scholar include what the author calls the trade sweetener (which aims at increasing bilateral or multilateral trade relations), visits aimed at depicting and salvaging national, regional and international recognition (mostly in cases of formation of new states or transitional governments) and other forms of visits depending on the purpose and circumstances surrounding the particular visits. No two state visits are the same due to the complex diplomatic nature of each visit.

On Monday, October 14, 2020, the President of Eritrea kicked off a three day official state visit to Ethiopia. The president traveled to Addis Ababa first and was welcomed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed upon arriving at Jimma Abba Jifar Airport later that day. Since his arrival the president of Ethiopia’s northern neighbour has visited several pertinent projects in the country including the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the Koysha dam. Following their visit to the GERD, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia Dr. Abiy Ahmed sent out a tweet with a message of further cooperation accompanied by clear strategies for partnership between the two countries.

There are a number of determinants that must be considered before spectating on the political implications of the state visit by President Isaias to Ethiopia this week. “Whenever making policy assumptions about state visits it is important to take a holistic approach and consider all variables.” says a political analyst that wished to stay anonymous. In this context, the analyst continues - it is important to consider the newly refurbished relations between the country, important internal diplomatic issues in Ethiopia and the timing of the visit must be considered. The following article explores these implication from two perspectives, the #GERD and the deteriorating relationship between the Federal government and the Tigray Regional State.


One of Ethiopia’s international relations priorities is its controversial mega dam erected on the Nile, the longest river in World. As negotiations remain pending and pressures from the US and other countries alike continue to ramp up, exploring the relevance of the visit by the Eritrean President is worth doing. As the first head of state to visit the dam since the appointment of Dr. Abiy in April 2018, what important implications does the visit from President Isaias have?

For Gidey Digafu - an independent political scientist - the joint visit is a significant diplomatic victory for the Abiy Ahmed administration because of the important political message it sends in addition to the image of solidarity between Ethiopia and Eritrea helping the cause of the dam. However, Gidey also noted that the important diplomatic role of Eritrea and Isaias is also depicted in this trip to the GERD construction site. “If you recall at the peak of tensions between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan President Isaias made similar state visits to Egypt and Sudan. This trip only goes to show the important regional role played by Eritrea in recent times.” stressing the important role being played by Eritrea in the GERD negotiations. 

Yayehsew Shimeles - an independent political analyst - couldn’t disagree more. He recalls the previous position taken up by the President of Eritrea in relation to the GERD prior to the Abiy administration. “In an independence day speech in 2014, 2015 and 2016, the president clearly said he opposes the erection of the dam and that his administration would do everything necessary to halt the project’s progress.” said Yayehsew telling Addis Zeybe that not only was it wrong to visit the dam with President Isaias, but it also raises security questions around the dam. “It is not customary for heads of state to visit high profile and sensitive projects like the GERD. It definitely raises security questions to allow access to the GERD, especially under current circumstances.” said Yayehsew.

A message to the North?

Another important factor to consider is the implications of the visit by the president of Eritrea to Ethiopia is the growing tension between the federal government and the Tigray regional state. In this regard Herman J. Cohen - former US Assistant Secretary of State and closely tied with the construction of the Ethiopian Federalism system - tweeted on Monday upon the arrival of President Isiaias that the state visit was a message to the Tigray regional state to not consider force in its worsening relationship with the Federal government.


Kjetil Tronvoll’s response to the above tweet on the other hand considered the message from the perspective of the TPLF led Tigray Regional State. Tronvoll claims that rather than a warning the state visit could be considered as an escalation into violent conflict by the Tigray people as well as the TPLF. suggesting the state visit could be provocative in nature from the perspective of the north.


Martin Plaut - the author of the book Understanding Eritrea - on the other hand highlighted the importance of respecting the rights of the Tigray people to guarantee the two nations have long lasting relations in the future.