Peace is in the works between Ethiopia and Eritrea, ending two decades of strong animosity between the two neighbours originally triggered by a fierce border war that killed more than 80,000 people.
Eritrea’s Foreign Minister Othman Saleh and Waiman Djibril, adviser to President Isaias Afewerki, arrived in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on 26 June aboard an Emirates flight. They were met by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and senior officials in the fields of culture, sports and religion.
Saleh’s trip came as a response by President Afewerki to “positive signals” from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, 42, who came to power in April.
A few weeks ago, Abiy Ahmed said his country was ready to implement the peace treaty between Addis Ababa and Asmara signed in Algeria in 2000, and the conclusions of the independent international working committee about demarcation of borders in 2002.
Eritrea declared independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a conflict between the two ruling parties in those countries to overthrow the communist Ethiopian regime led by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam (1974-1991). All ties, diplomatic, economic and others, were severed since the 1998-2000 war.
A remarkable change has swept across Addis Ababa, with Ethiopian and Eritrean flags fluttering side-by-side along the road from the airport to the guest residence, along with billboards welcoming the visitors printed in both the Tigrinya and Amharic languages.
The two sides held historic talks after which Abiy Ahmed declared flights will resume to Eritrean cities. “I am telling all Ethiopians who want to travel to Massawa (the Eritrean port) for tourism, to start packing because flights there will begin soon,” he said.
Eritrea’s Saleh said: “Today, is a celebration because two similar peoples and generations have been separated for a long time. After much suffering, we have opened the gates to peace.”
Abiy Ahmed hoped the conflict would end and reiterated his willingness to accept transferring control over disputed territories. “Land between the two countries will be exchanged, but this is not important. There will be no borders between us because our relationship will grow stronger,” he said at a state dinner.
Conciliation between the two appears to be forging ahead strongly. The national broadcast authority FANA in Ethiopia announced Friday that Abiy Ahmed will meet with Aferwerki soon, which would end the longest conflict in Africa.
Since he came to power, Abiy Ahmed has focused on solving domestic and international problems facing his country.
He released political prisoners, met with leaders of the opposition, visited the Oromo region from which he heralds to listen to the complaints of the people who have fought with the government for many years.
Abiy Ahmed also took steps to free the economy of this fast-growing country. For an entire decade, economic growth in Ethiopia remains the highest on the continent at 10 per cent.
Under former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Ethiopia received $6 billion in direct foreign investment focused on textiles and leather production and infrastructure, which quickly developed in this country with the second largest population on the continent.
The government refused, however, to open up the communications and financial sectors because the domestic economy was not ready.
Overseas, Abiy Ahmed visited Sudan and Egypt which are in negotiations about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which is 40 per cent complete.
In Cairo, he tried to reassure the leadership that Egypt’s quota of Nile water will not be affected, and talks between Abiy Ahmed and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi appear positive despite cautious statements by both leaders.
Abiy Ahmed also extended a hand to Ethiopia’s former enemy and smaller neighbour to the south, Somalia, to help end instability there since the overthrow of president Siad Barre in 1991.
He launched a joint initiative to develop Somali ports to diversify Ethiopia’s access to the world, since his country is landlocked and almost entirely relies on Djibouti via a railway network that China is currently overhauling. Peace with Eritrea will open up another port for Ethiopia.
Abiy Ahmed’s endeavours will not be easy despite his courage. Some doubt his intentions and accuse him of treason by seeking peace with an archenemy.
Detractors do not want to compromise to besieged Eritrea and end its isolation which Addis Ababa largely contributed to. They also want to take advantage of tensions in the Arabian Gulf since Asmara supports the Arab coalition in the war on Yemen and four countries that are boycotting Qatar.
In fact, Afewerki was one of the first in the region to support the Qatar boycott and supported the Egyptian leadership since the 30 June Revolution.
These positions helped end Eritrea’s isolation, which lasted longer than a decade, but this would not be enough if the conflict with Ethiopia continued – and by extension with Ethiopia’s ally Djibouti – as well as Sudan which is leery of Afewerki’s previous support of the armed Sudanese opposition.
Once reconciliation begins, Ethiopia’s experienced diplomacy will also focus on a parallel track of complex talks on the Renaissance Dam with Egypt and Sudan.
Though tensions remain on that front and others, the overall atmosphere of peace and conciliation that the young Ethiopian premier has launched will be difficult to reverse.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Peace train for Ethiopia and Eritrea