Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has welcomed a high-level Eritrean delegation to the capital, Addis Ababa, the latest sign that one of Africa’s most intractable conflicts may soon end. Peace between the countries could be transformational, especially for Eritrea, where the population has suffered considerably in the years since a bloody border war with Ethiopia. But experts on the region warn a quick resolution to years of antagonism isn’t a foregone conclusion.
In 1998, clashes in the border town of Badme triggered a border war, during which tens of thousands of lives were lost, until a peace treaty brought an end to the conflict in 2000.
That agreement required both sides to accept a binding decision that would be made by an international border commission. When the commission finished determining the border two years later, Ethiopia left troops on land that had been awarded to Eritrea, including Badme, preventing demarcation.
Since then, heated rhetoric, proxy wars and, at times, open conflict have deepened scars, pitting people who share language, culture and heritage against one another.
Author Michela Wrong has studied the Horn of Africa for more than a decade and wrote I Didn’t Do it For You, a book about Eritrea’s history. She told VOA many events set the stage for this week’s meeting, beginning with the sudden death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 2012.
Zenawi, a member of the Tigrayan ethnic group and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front party, was unable to sway party hardliners to cede land to Eritrea. Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where the TPLF enjoys considerable support, borders Eritrea.
In a Martyr’s Day speech earlier this month in which Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki announced his intention to send a delegation, he assigned blame for hostilities between Eritrea and Ethiopia squarely on the TPLF and relished their apparent fall from power.
Prime Minister Ahmed is from the southern Oromo region, and reconciliation now appears easier.
‘Peace depends on a lot more’
Bronwyn Bruton is the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center deputy director, and has talked recently with the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments, along with Ethiopian opposition leaders.
“Peace depends on a lot more,” Bruton told VOA. “The conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea wasn’t really over the border. It was about a whole range of differences, and those differences need to be resolved in order for peace to happen.”
The deeper problem, Bruton said, is Afewerki’s disdain for Ethiopia’s move to an ethnic-based federalist system of government. That system involved the creation of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a multi-party coalition made up of ethnic-based political parties, including the TPLF.
The Ethiopian system needs to be reformed, Bruton said, to prevent the TPLF from coming back to power, thus ensuring enduring peace.
On Tuesday after the talks, the Eritrean delegation, including Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed, long time presidential adviser Yemane Gebreab and Eritrea’s ambassador to the African Union, Araya Desta, projected optimism.
Mohammed said, “This peace is not something that came now and will be stopped later. We wish this will bring an everlasting peace.”
The implications of peace are significant, according to Wrong. Ethiopia, a landlocked country with Africa’s second-largest population, could gain access to the Red Sea. And keeping soldiers at the border has been costly and unsustainable.
Changes could be even more profound for Eritrea. “There would also be massive pressure on the Eritreans and the Eritrean government to start changing and reforming,” Wrong said.
That pressure could result in an end to forced, open-ended military service by the Eritrean government on the premise it is necessary to protect against threats from Ethiopia.
It could also prompt Eritrea to implement its constitution, legalize opposition political parties and allow a free press. The government put these developments on hold, Bruton said, because of a perceived Ethiopian threat.
But Wrong says this isn’t the first time Ethiopia has said they’re ready to adhere to the border commission’s ruling. To prove things are different this time, Ethiopia needs to begin drawing down troops, she said.
‘So much joy’
Many Ethiopians greeted the Eritrean delegation with open arms Tuesday in Addis Ababa.
Megabi Zerihun Degu is the council general secretary at the Inter-Religious Council of Ethiopia.
“This has created so much joy,” Degu said. “Both sides — Ethiopia and Eritrea — have religious followers. Therefore, religious leaders will play a role in serving the people, and the government, to strengthen peace.”
But the rapid-fire changes in Ethiopia could also be undone quickly, Bruton said, and that creates a risk for Eritrea.
“Less than six months ago, Ethiopia was on the verge of imploding. There were protests destabilizing the entire country. The prime minister was forced to step down. They had to release thousands of political prisoners. They had to put a new prime minister in power,” Bruton said. “And none of the issues that caused that unrest have really been resolved.”
But Bruton is optimistic about the chances of a new chapter in the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Ahmed, meanwhile, has focused on the intangible benefits of peace.
“We want to come to Asmara and hug and kiss our brothers there, and anything beyond that is a small problem,” he said at a reception on the delegation’s visit.
“There is no measurement that competes with love. If we agree with love instead of demarcating borders, we might not even need borders.”
Salem Solomon wrote this analysis and reported from Washington. Eskinder Firew reported from Addis Ababa.