Ethiopia and Eritrea: A new chapter?

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After nearly 20 years of stalemate, the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments have mutually agreed on a peace treaty. On July 9, the leaders of the neighboring African nations signed the “Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship” into effect, putting the decades-long contention behind them. But, what was the dragged-out conflict all about? How will the peace treaty truly serve the region? And how can the border dispute end once and for all?

Prolonged conflict

To understand recent advancements in Ethiopia-Eritrea relations, one must understand the history behind their long-lasting dispute. In 1882, Italy began establishing settlements on Eritrean land, forming what was known as “Italian Eritrea” by 1890. At the same time, their neighbor Ethiopia agreed to give up some land to Italy, in exchange for military and economic support. Decades later, Italy decided to further increase its presence in Africa by taking over Ethiopia.

After World War II, Italy began losing its grip in Africa. The British took control and immediately permitted independence for Ethiopia. On the other side, Italian Eritrea became simply Eritrea. However, the British did not grant them complete independence, forcing Eritrea to operate under an Ethiopian federal government to some degree. Keep in mind that at this point, Eritrea possessed the land that Ethiopia had given up to the Italians decades earlier. The Ethiopian government then began imposing further restrictions on Eritrean authorities, which eventually led to the collapse of the Eritrean parliament in 1962. Thereafter, Ethiopia invaded Eritrean territories and this resulted in the commencement of the Eritrean War of Independence.

The war went on for 30 grueling years, resulting in nearly 100,000 causalities and a major negative impact on the economic well-being of both countries. In 1991, the Ethiopian regime was overthrown by domestic rebels. This ended the war, leading to the independence of Eritrea and the election of the first Eritrean president.

Six years after independence, President Isaias Afwerki ordered the seizing of an Ethiopian village located at the border, claiming the village was actually on Eritrean territory. This effectively launched a deadly two-year border war, costing some 80,000 lives and displacing nearly a million people. With the help of global intergovernmental discussions and the United Nations, a peace agreement was reached in 2000 known as the Algiers Agreement. This halted the border war, but the peace treaty was never fully implemented. An independent committee, formed in The Hague, was given the responsibility of determining the borders by 2003. The committee granted the key border-village of Badme to Eritrea in their submission. Ethiopia was not at all happy with this decision, resulting in disapproval and stalemate ever since. And that brings us to today.

Peace treaty

On July 9, recently-appointed Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed agreed to fully implement the peace treaty signed in 2000, and called on President Afwerki to help start a new chapter in Ethiopia-Eritrea relations. We must remember that President Afwerki welcomed then-Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi for peace talks in 1993. Within a few years, a border war broke out. Nonetheless, today’s talks do not have to end the same way. And while this peace treaty regards the border dispute at its very center, it serves as a positive light for much greater issues facing the two neighboring nations.

The treaty will certainly provide for the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Besides border tensions, the long-running conflict has done major damage to the military and economic resources of both countries. This peace treaty will cut military expenses, promote regional stability, and re-establish a prime trade partnership. Not only will Ethiopia and Eritrea benefit, but also so will the African horn as a whole. This historic peace agreement could influence the transformation of the violent Eastern African region into a region of stability and development. This will not happen overnight, but a major step is being taken.

At the same time, some African nations may be negatively affected by the treaty. Sudan, for example, might be one of those affected given that Ethiopia will no longer have to rely on Sudanese ports. Eritrea’s strategic location between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea is something that Ethiopia will surely be hoping to benefit from during economic and trade talks in the near future.

On the other hand, some of the terms within the treaty will not be of much immediate benefit. For example, the two nations have opened borders and resumed flights between Addis Ababa and Asmara. While opening the troubled border is of symbolic significance, what is the real benefit of resuming flights between the capitals? Many within the media found this to be a monumental step that will bring economic benefit. However, we must sit back and think. Who will be flying from Asmara to Addis Ababa in the coming months? Only those involved in peace talks will be hopping back and forth, along with some Ethiopians with family across the border. Eritrea remains a state restricting the freedom of movement of its people. Now is the time for President Afwerki to make domestic changes that complement his foreign ambitions. After all, Eritrea is still under major governmental sanctions due to its support for Somalia’s Al-Shabab and interference in Djibouti’s internal affairs. The good news is that President Afwerki seems to be motivated to make positive changes. Let’s hope Prime Minister Ahmed builds a continuously strengthening relationship with Asmara, and influences change across the region.

Border solution

In order for a decision to be reached regarding the Ethiopian-Eritrean border, there must be an increased degree of trustworthiness, flexibility and generosity from both sides. The boundary submission of 2003 was constructed in a manner the two governments insisted on. They wanted a completely solid and legal border, with no flexibility whatsoever. This resulted in the proposed-border cutting through towns and villages. This was ultimately rejected by Ethiopia, not willing to give up any village or to split territories. This time, flexibility must be considered. Eritrea will win some. Ethiopia will win some. However, both sides must be somewhat generous and understanding in order to satisfy the masses. This will be particularly difficult due to the long-term history of tensions and drastic death tolls between the two, but they must put the hostility aside for this to work. The mentality must differ from that of past attempts, in order to justify the optimism behind this peace treaty.

With some diplomacy from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and some reform from President Isaias Afwerki, the Ethiopian-Eritrean train wreck can be repaired and steered in the right direction.

The writer is a young Saudi political analyst who specializes in foreign affairs and protocol. He can be reached at: waleedaasa@gmail.com


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