Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki have signed a historic peace agreement that has the potential to drastically shift the political landscape of the region. This declaration closes a chapter of violence that has persisted since Eritrea originally gained independence.
The tension began in 1993 when Eritreans voted to secede from Ethiopia. After 30 years of war, Eritrea received independence, but a border war from 1998 to 2000 resulted in the deaths of 80,000 people. The Border War was never resolved, garnering it the name “the African Cold War.” This is marked as one of the worst conflicts in Africa and generated extreme animosity between the two nations.
This transition towards peace was spearheaded by newly appointed Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed, the first Oromo leader of the nation who has differentiated himself from past prime ministers by implementing a variety of reforms. He has released hundreds of political protestors imprisoned based on “terrorism” charges. Ahmed has removed many restrictions on free speech and internet access. He has approached international relations with a peaceful and diplomatic mindset and many citizens felt hope during his inaugural speech. Ahmed stated publicly, “We are fully committed to reconcile with our Eritrean brothers and sisters and extend an invitation to the Eritrean government to start dialogue and establish rapport.”
Ahmed kept this promise and traveled to Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, to sign the agreement. Despite their differences, he was embraced and welcomed by Afwerki in an incredibly powerful way. About a month prior to this meeting Ahmed accepted another peace agreement which finally concluded the border war. He has been praised for his ceding of Badme to Eritrea, which was granted to them in 2002 by a UN boundary commission but remained unacknowledged as so by Ethiopia. This most recent agreement stated that all communication, trade, and diplomacy channels will be reopened.
Ahmed spoke of the dinner, “We agreed that the airlines will start operating, the ports will be accessible, people can move between the two countries and the embassies will be opened.”
This agreement will hopefully erase some of the militarization that became a deeply rooted part of both Eritrean and Ethiopian societies during the conflict. Eritrean citizens were conscripted into permanent military service as a method of preparation. Ethiopia also became increasingly militarized, investing in surveillance, spying tactics, weapons, and reducing free speech rights. In both instances, the result of militarization was fear, more violence, and a worsening refugee situation. The conflict forced the two nations to become entirely focused on security, leaving little funding for other initiatives or improvements.
For further context in the relations, it is also important to understand who the Eritrean President is. Isaias Afwerki has been Eritrea’s only ruler, taking power in 1993 after the nation gained independence. He actively fought against the Derg Regime of Ethiopia by leading the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). After the majority of people voted for a referendum which ensured independence, he took control of the new nation. One issue that has garnered international attention is Afwerki’s human rights violations, and even more specifically his lack of freedom of the press. Now that Ethiopia is directing attention to social issues, not just security and military ones, hopefully, Eritrea has space to do the same.
This clash has not only been harmful in regards to trade and militancy, but it has hurt families and citizens living along the border. The lack of ability to communicate at all has further separated the two nations. This erosion of trust was exacerbated by bans on travel and cross-border interactions. As part of the effort to move away from past conflicts, embassies will be opened and air/sea travel will be encouraged.
The new agreement includes this statement, “The war that existed between the two countries has come to an end… a new era of peace and friendship is beginning.” The UN has declared this declaration to be a positive move forward for the region, and beyond.
These sentiments of positivity seem to be an indicator of more collaboration between Eritrea and Ethiopia in the future. In the past, efforts to restore peace have failed, but with Ethiopia’s new leadership, many citizens in both nations are hoping that this agreement will bring about lasting change.
“We will demolish the wall and, with love, build a bridge between the two countries,” Ahmed said.
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