A joint declaration of “peace and friendship” between Eritrea and Ethiopia has brought an end to over two decades of hostilities and war. The agreement was signed on Monday, 9 July in Eritrea’s capital of Asmara by the Eritrean President, Isaias Afwerki, and the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed. The landmark deal includes measures such as the removal of a wall separating the two brother nations, the resumption of flights and the re-establishment of embassies. It includes the ambitious goal of developing seaports in joint ventures and will impact diplomacy, trade, transport, and communications. The historic visit of Ethiopia’s recently-elected prime minister to Eritrea has been dubbed a “surprise move” and its outcome has the potential to encourage cooperation and bring stability to the Horn of Africa.
After the signing, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed reiterated the deal´s goals to Al Jazeera: “We will demolish the wall and, with love, build a bridge between the two countries.” In a like manner, the Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel tweeted “[the] state of war that existed between the two countries has come to an end.” The reaction from both sides has been resoundingly positive. Further, Al Jazeera claims this deal could be the “most important political changes in East Africa in the past 20 years.”
The rapprochement process has been long and complex, and Ahmed’s election as Prime Minister was key to closing the deal. Institute of Commonwealth Studies senior research fellow Martin Plaut told Al Jazeera the “election of prime minister Abiy broke the deadlock.” In the same interview Hallelujah Lulie, programme director at Amani Africa Genuine, similarly highlighted the instrumental role of Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister. Lulie believes these developments work to heal past wounds and open a “new chapter” of peace.
The conflict has torn communities apart along the border and evoked violations of human rights. Due to the intensity of the conflict, much work lies ahead to ensure the deal benefits those most affected. Agreeing on a demarcation of the border will take time as it requires changes to jurisdiction. There is also the deep-seated issue of fostering institutions of democracy and peace, which have been promised before but never fully realized. Martin Plaut highlights the importance for both sides to be open and flexible if they are to improve conditions for the affected population. Certainly, it will require both nations to build trust to engage in meaningful cooperation.
Still, the peace agreement comes as a relief after years of hostilities between the countries. In 1993 Eritrea voted for partition, leaving Ethiopia landlocked. Tensions boiled over between the former ‘brothers-in-arms’ in 1998, resulting in around 100,000 deaths. The BBC described it as “Africa’s deadliest border war.” In 2000, the UN prepared a peace agreement and, eventually, the contested borders were demarcated by the International Boundary Commission. But the UN-backed division of borders occurred without regard to ‘fairness and justice,’ according to Martin Plaut, due to a focus on coordinates rather than natural boundaries.
Until now, none of the parties believed it was in their interest to make a truce. According to the International Crisis Group, both sides have persistently blocked international efforts to end the dispute. The Ethiopian government refused to accept the UN-backed accord, leaving its troops on the disputed territories, and Eritrea dismissed any possibilities of normalization of relations until Ethiopia recognized the deal. Over a million civilians were internally displaced throughout the past two decades.
The fact Ethiopia’s new leader extended an olive branch to his country’s bitter rival is to be applauded. According to the BBC, Prime Minister Ahmed is widely seen as a capable leader and could be instrumental in the country’s transition to democracy. According to Ahmed, Ethiopia has “only one option and that is to be united, not only cooperating and helping each other but uniting in order to live together.”
The impact of the deal on the Eritrean side will depend on their leaderships’ commitment too. Over the last decades, discontent towards Isaias’ administration, the militarization of the state, and reclusive policies put forth by the Eritrean government have resulted in a migration crisis. A more stable geopolitical context might encourage ex-pats and exiles to return and contribute positively to the country’s development. Also, the African nation has justified its continued militarization due to Ethiopia’s occupation of disputed territories. A peace deal could diminish the domestic importance of Eritrea’s military apparatus, and its use of draconian measures. Ideally, efforts and money previously financing the defence forces could be redirected to more productive sectors, benefiting the general population. Regional peace and stability would also enable the re-introduction of Eritrea to the regional market.
Realistically, hostilities may not disappear at once, but that should not detract from efforts towards strengthening bilateral relations. Between the neighbours, peace would bring economic and social benefits for two countries that were once tightly connected by culture and trade. The deal is a great first step for two of Africa’s poorest nations – particularly Eritrea, described by Al Jazeera as “the world’s most reclusive state.” It offers them the chance to refocus their attention on internal social issues, particularly those that impinge on human rights and force citizens to become refugees. If the agreement is followed by concrete reforms, it has the potential to make a real difference.
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