An embrace may have melted the historical tensions between two former Italian colonies. And it could have positive repercussions for the entire Horn of Africa, a geopolitically strategic region saturated with violence and deprived of human rights.
On July 8, in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, the government welcomed an Ethiopian prime minister for the first time since the outbreak of the border war with Addis Ababa in 1998. Abiy Ahmed was received at the airport by Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, and then accompanied to a summit in the presidential palace. The next day the two leaders signed a declaration of peace and friendship that should put an end to the conflict between the two states.
The meeting was prepared some time ago and announced in June by the Executive Council of the Democratic Revolutionary Popular Front of Ethiopia (FDRPE), the ruling coalition in Addis Ababa. The turning point was made possible by the arrival of Abiy Ahmed, an orome who replaced Hailemariam Desalegn as prime minister on March 28, at the head of the village. Ahmed not only tried to appease the frequent and violent street protests by releasing thousands of political prisoners, but he also promised peace with Eritrea and the liberalization of certain strategic sectors of the economy.
The heart of the agreement between Asmara and Addis Ababa is the full acceptance and implementation of the peace agreement signed in 2000 in Algiers, but which was never implemented. And the reopening of the diplomatic channels provides for the restoration of the telephone connection between the countries, the resumption of direct flights between the two capitals, and the reopening of roads to the Eritrean ports of Assab and Massawa. The latter is vital for Ethiopia, which has no access to the sea.
But the hope of peace between the two countries could have important repercussions also in neighboring Somalia. Indeed, for some time Eritrea and Ethiopia have fought a quiet war in that country. Asmara is accused of supporting Al Shabaab, the jihadist rebels, who continue to attack African peacekeeper forces, including Ethiopia.
The rivalry between the two former Italian colonies began at the end of the Second World War, when the UN established that Eritrea should have been federated with Ethiopia, maintaining its autonomy. Gradually the government of Addis Ababa transformed the federation into an annexation, which took place in 1962. Since then, 30 years of conflict have followed, which ended in 1991, when the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (FPLE), led by the current president Isaias Afwerki, brought the country to independence from Ethiopia.
Four days after FPLE’s entry into Asmara, the Ethiopian capital also fell on May 28, 1991, liberated by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray, backed by the Eritrean front which was then a close ally. Two years later, on April 27, 1993, the results of the referendum on self-determination said that 99.83 percent of the voters had opted for secession, and Ethiopia was the first country to recognize Eritrean independence.
It seemed that many of the long-standing problems inherited from the decolonization process had been solved. However, the idyll between Asmara and Addis Ababa did not last long. Only seven years later, on May 6, 1998, a skirmish for a territory that had always been disputed, the Badme plain (of no economic or strategic value), triggered a devastating conflict, bringing out tensions accumulated over the years. The war, which caused tens of thousands of deaths, ended with a laborious agreement signed in Algiers in December 2000. But the conflict never ended. Indeed, Ethiopia did not recognize the verdict of the Permanent Arbitration Court in The Hague, which, in 2003, assigned Badme to Eritrea. Therefore, it never withdrew his army from that territory, nor dismantled its civilian administration there.
The meeting on July 8 seems to have closed that chapter. Even if there are still many obstacles on the path to peace. For example, there remain territorial issues. The openings in Addis Ababa were not well received by the people living on the border with Eritrea. After the announcement of Ahmed, thousands of people took to the streets in Badme against the implementation of the Algiers agreements. The demonstrators are claiming that the city belongs to Ethiopian territory.
And the problems aren’t just Badme. The Eritrean Afar have also declared that they will oppose decisions concerning their territory—Dancalia, including the port of Assab—if they aren’t considered as protagonists.
The most important signals are expected from Asmara. The regime does not have any excuse now. It has always justified the blockage of the democratization of the country by the “cold war” situation at the border. And now? Concrete gestures are expected, such as, for example, the release of political prisoners, or at least the formalization of the accusations made against them. Even military advantage without a certain end no longer makes sense.
But the concern that is spreading in the diaspora is that the peace borne on July 8 may turn out to be a new peace under an old dictatorship.