On 20 June 2018, during the commemoration of Eritrea’s National Martyrs Day, President Isaias Afewerki announced that his country was sending a delegation to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to work towards establishing lasting peace between the two countries.
Eritrea's Foreign Minister Osman Sale, center right, is welcomed by Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, center left, upon the Eritrean delegation's arrival at the airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Tuesday, June 26, 2018. The delegation of top officials from Eritrea arrived Tuesday in Ethiopia for the first peace talks in 20 years and were welcomed at the airport by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, signifying the importance of their visit.
Victor Hugo, a poet, novelist, and dramatist who was among the most important of the French Romantic writers, put it well when he noted, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” In Eritrea and Ethiopia, two low-income, developing countries located within the Horn of Africa and which for decades have been plagued by conflict and tension, the idea of peace appears to be quickly taking over. Specifically, over the past several weeks, there has been a rapid rapprochement between the two countries. The series of quick and momentous developments hold the potential to have a significant and positive impact within both countries and throughout the broader region.
Shortly after Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia – de facto in 1991, and de jure two years later – the countries fought a devastating two-year war lasting from May 1998 until June 2000. The conflict, frequently likened to the trench warfare of World War I and partly based on a dispute over the precise location of extensive parts of the boundary separating the countries, led to the death of tens of thousands on both sides (it is estimated that Eritrea lost about 19,000 soldiers, while Ethiopia’s losses are estimated at between 70,000-130,000 soldiers), the separation of families, friends, and communities, large-scale displacement of civilians, the widespread destruction of infrastructure, and cost billions of dollars. The conflict also severed the two countries’ strong economic, social, cultural, and security relations.
By June 2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea signed the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities in Algiers, and then in December 2000, Eritrea President Isaias Afewerki and Ethiopia’s-then Prime Minister Meles Zenawi signed the Algiers Peace Agreement. Inter-alia, the agreement called for both parties to permanently terminate hostilities and refrain from the threat or use of force, and established an independent and impartial Boundary Commission to delimit and demarcate borders. Subsequently, in 2001, the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) was formally established and, after a lengthy investigation and litigation process, it rendered its decisions on 13 April 2002 at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague.
The EEBC and "No Peace, No War"
While the process and decisions were meant to settle the dispute, the two countries remained on a war footing, described as “no peace, no war”. The EEBC ruling presented both Eritrea and Ethiopia with gains and losses; however, one of the EEBC’s most significant decisions saw the casus belli of the 1998-2000 war, the small rural border town of Badme, awarded to Eritrea. Although Eritrea accepted the EEBC’s decisions in their entirety and generally sought to uphold the integrity of the Algiers Peace Agreement, Ethiopia refused to accept the outcome and completely failed to abide by its international legal obligations and responsibilities. Instead, it sought to obstruct or reverse the EEBC’s decisions and continued to militarily occupy large swathes of Eritrean territory, including Badme.
Additionally, the two countries engaged in proxy conflicts with periods of open skirmishes and hostilities, and they also began supporting and hosting rebel opposition movements against each other. In 2009, under the pretext of its alleged support for Somali Islamist terrorists, Eritrea was placed under international sanctions, which were broadened in 2011. The sanctions against Eritrea, which were actively supported by Ethiopia, continue to remain in place, despite the fact that a long series of UN reports have consistently concluded that they have found “no evidence “of Eritrea’s support for terrorism.
In April 2018, Dr. Abiy Ahmed took over from Hailemariam Desalegn as Ethiopia's new prime minister after the latter’s unexpected resignation in February 2018, which arose after years of mass protests had rocked the country. PM Abiy Ahmed, the country's first Oromo leader (the ethnic group at the centre of nearly three years of anti-government protests), quickly began a series of far-reaching and fundamental reforms, including lifting the country’s long state of emergency, ordering the release of thousands of prisoners and condemning their brutal treatment, and unblocking hundreds of websites and television channels.
As well, the Ethiopian PM shocked many by announcing that his country would finally abide by the 2000 Algiers Agreement and EEBC boundary decisions. Weeks later, on 20 June 2018, during the commemoration of Eritrea’s National Martyrs Day, President Isaias Afewerki announced that his country was sending a delegation to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to work towards establishing lasting peace between the two countries. Then on 26 June 2018, a high-level Eritrean delegation travelled to Addis Ababa, the first time in more than two decades that a top-level delegation from Asmara had visited Ethiopia. During the historic visit, the delegation delivered a message from President Isaias to Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed and also held extensive discussions with the PM and other senior Ethiopian officials on current relations and the prospect of ties between the two countries.
The next step in the fast-developing situation occurred when the Ethiopian PM, accompanied by a small delegation, made a landmark visit to Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, to engage in historic talks with the Eritrean President. PM Abiy Ahmed was welcomed very warmly, and at the conclusion of his trip, he and his Eritrean counterpart signed the Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The agreement, inter alia, formally ended the long-standing state of war between the two countries and agreed on resuming trade and ties, opening embassies, restoring telecommunications links, developing ports, and restarting direct flights between the two countries. Subsequently, a week later, the Eritrea president visited Ethiopia for several days of meetings and was warmly and graciously welcomed.
After years of stalemate, bitter rivalry, antagonism, and tension, developments toward peace between the two countries can only be regarded as highly positive and extremely encouraging. Both countries are faced with a number of significant challenges, and thus an end to the costly – and largely unnecessary – conflict and tensions will allow the two to better focus their attention on addressing their various and considerable challenges. For instance, with peace and stability, vital human and fiscal resources can be used to combat poverty, improve education and human capital, or promote development, rather than having to be diverted toward defense and national security. Ultimately, peace and stability between the two can reignite once-thriving cross-border trade and economic activities, while promoting investment, and a number of high-potential sectors, such as manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism.
A relationship between the two countries based on mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation will also contribute to establishing sustainable peace, security, and development across the region. For example, before the outbreak of their conflict, from 1991 until 1998 Eritrea and Ethiopia had worked closely to bring about a solution to the Somali crisis. Moreover, the two countries, working together, can help promote and revitalize important regional security architectures – such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an eight-country bloc which includes governments from the Horn of Africa, Nile Valley and Great Lakes – that can play a pivotal role in the prevention, management, and resolution of conflicts.
In addition, it is important to recall that until the emergence of the conflict in 1998, the two countries enjoyed strong economic, cultural, social, and security relations. Prior to the war, Ethiopia was Eritrea’s top export partner, and thousands of Ethiopians were employed throughout the country. Furthermore, Ethiopia had been using the Eritrean ports at Assab and Massawa at symbolic rates and without any hindrance. Renewed access to the ports of Assab and Massawa could greatly help Ethiopia’s push to boost exports and increase hard currency earnings, particularly important since, as noted weeks ago by PM Abiy Ahmed, the country’s state-owned enterprises are heavily-indebted and “put at risk the economy.”
Observing the ongoing developments, one should not overlook considering what peace will mean for the young peoples of the two countries. Although Eritrea and Ethiopia are dramatically different in terms of the size of their respective populations (approximately 4.5 million in the former, and 100 million in the latter), both have very young populations. Peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia can present the youth of both countries with a renewed sense of optimism and hope. They can both look ahead to the future with great excitement and enthusiasm, instead of being weighed down or greatly burdened by a dark past.