The swift resolution of Ethiopia-Eritrea tensions still feels like a dream come true
5 months ago, 16 July 09:01
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed last week visited neighbouring Eritrea and was greeted by President Isaias Afeworki.
The vast crowds that thronged the normally quiet streets of Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, were simply overjoyed. They sang and they danced as Abiy’s car drove past.
Few believed they would ever see such an extraordinarily rapid end to two decades of vituperation and hostility between their countries.
After talks, the president and prime minister signed a declaration ending 20 years of hostility and restoring diplomatic relations and normal ties between the countries.
The first indication that these historic events might be possible came on June 4. Abiy declared that he would accept the outcome of an international commission’s finding over a disputed border between the two countries.
It was the border conflict of 1998-2000, and Ethiopia’s refusal to accept the commission’s ruling, that was behind two decades of armed confrontation. With this out of the way, everything began to fall into place.
The two countries are now formally at peace. Airlines will connect their capitals once more, Ethiopia will use Eritrea’s ports again – its natural outlet to the sea – and diplomatic relations will be resumed.
Perhaps most important of all, the border will be demarcated. This won’t be an easy task. Populations who thought themselves citizens of one country could find themselves in another. This could provoke strong reactions, unless both sides show flexibility and compassion.
For Eritrea there are real benefits – not only the revenues from Ethiopian trade through its ports, but also the potential of very substantial potash developments on the Ethiopia-Eritrea border that could be very lucrative.
For Ethiopia, there would be the end to Eritrean subversion, with rebel movements deprived of a rear base from which to attack the government in Addis Ababa. In return, there is every chance that Ethiopia will now push for an end to the UN arms embargo against the Eritrean government.
This breakthrough didn’t just happen. It has been months in the making.
Some of the first moves came quietly from religious groups. In September last year, the World Council of Churches sent a team to see what common ground could be found. Donald Yamamoto, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, and one of America’s most experienced Africa hands, played a major role.
Diplomatic sources suggest he held talks in Washington at which both sides were represented. Eritrean Minister of Foreign Affairs Osman Saleh is said to have been present, accompanied by Yemane Gebreab, President Isaias’s long-standing adviser.
They are said to have met the former Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, laying the groundwork for the deal. Yamamoto visited both Eritrea and Ethiopia in April.
Although next to nothing was announced following the visits, they are said to have been important in firming up the dialogue.
But achieving reconciliation after so many years took more than American diplomatic muscle.
Eritrea’s Arab allies also played a key role. Shortly after the Yamamoto visit, President Isaias paid a visit to Saudi Arabia. Ethiopia – aware of the trip – encouraged the Saudi crown ...
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