A famous and often-cited quotation of Harold Wilson, the former British Prime Ministe, reads: “ A week is a long time in politics.”
Indeed, there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” After years of stalemate and tension between Eritrea and Ethiopia, things are certainly happening and moving rapidly. On Sunday July 8, 2018, Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed, accompanied by a small Ethiopian delegation arrived in Asmara, Eritrea, where they were warmly welcomed at Asmara International Airport by the Eritrean President, H.E. Isaias Afwerki, alongside high-level government officials and ministers, as well as religious and other representatives. As PM Abiy Ahmed, who took office in April, disembarked from the plane, the two leaders smiled and warmly embraced on the red carpet. Soon after, the two leaders, surrounded by a large military band, stood side-by-side as the flags of both Eritrea and Eritrea were raised and their respective national anthems were played. The leaders then traveled across the capital in a large motorcade. Across Asmara, shops were closed, and the streets, overflowing with citizens, were filled with excitement and joy, as Eritreans came out in their tens of thousands to show their unreserved support for the ongoing initiatives toward peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed’s visit to the Eritrean capital for peace talks marks just the latest step in a recent series of significant positive developments between the two countries. Weeks ago, Ethiopia announced that it would abide by the Algiers Agreement and Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) boundary decision. The EEBC, formed in accordance with the terms and conditions of the Algiers Peace Agreement of 2000 and composed of five prominent and highly respected lawyers, unanimously delivered its final and binding delimitation and demarcation decisions in April 2002 and November 2007, respectively. While Eritrea fully accepted the decision, hoping that the final determination of the border would open doors for lasting peace and development between the two countries and the region as a whole, Ethiopia’s position has continually shifted, with it effectively refusing to accept the 2002 ruling of the UN-backed boundary commission and continuing to occupy Eritrean territories. After PM Abiy Ahmed’s statement of full acceptance of the EEBC last month, on June 26, 2018, a high-level Eritrean delegation, including Presidential Adviser Mr. Yemane Gebreab and Foreign Minister H.E. Osman Saleh, travelled to Addis Ababa, the first time in more than two decades that a top-level delegation from Asmara had visited Ethiopia. During the historic visit, the delegation delivered a message from President Isaias Afwerki to Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed, and also held extensive discussions with the PM and other senior Ethiopian officials on current relations and the prospect of ties between the two countries.
Also on Sunday, in several towns throughout southern Eritrea, near Ethiopia, such as Adi Keih, Senafe, Adi Quala, Mai Mne, and Tsorona, throngs of Eritreans gathered to demonstrate their support for peace with Ethiopia. Large Eritrean and Ethiopian flags were held aloft proudly, colorful banners proclaiming “peace” were waved, both young and old people sang and danced cheerfully, elders shed tears of joy, and the slogan “Yes peace, no war!” was loudly and excitedly chanted.
As an African and an Eritrean, it is quite difficult not to be touched or moved by this momentous occasion. History weighs heavily on Africa. As put by Young (1996), “If we journey backwards to the hour of African independence…we may summon from remote corners of our collective memory, perspectives and visions of radically different content” (Young 1996: 2). For too long across the continent, our countries have been synonymous with conflict and war. We have often acted like crabs in a bucket, pulling each other down and ensuring our collective demise, rather than working cooperatively to raise ourselves up collectively. In few areas of the continent has this mentality been more tragically apparent than the Horn of Africa, where relations between the various countries have been characterized by stalemate, bitter rivalry, antagonism, tension, and conflict.
While these are still early days, and despite the fact that certain (albeit small) elements within Ethiopia appear to be set against the ongoing developments toward peace, the signs are highly promising and very encouraging. Both countries are faced with a number of significant challenges, and thus an end to the costly – and largely unnecessary – conflict and tensions will allow the two to better focus their attention on addressing their various and considerable challenges (as I have discussed in prior articles). With peace and stability, vital human and fiscal resources can be used to combat poverty, improve education and human capital, or promote development, rather than having to be diverted toward defense and national security.
Observing the ongoing developments, it is also important not to overlook what peace will mean for the young peoples of the two countries. Although Eritrea and Ethiopia are dramatically different in terms of the size of their respective populations (approximately 4.5 million in the former, and 100 million in the latter), both have very young populations. Peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia can present the youth of both countries with a renewed sense of optimism and hope. They can both look ahead to the future with great excitement and enthusiasm, instead of being weighed down or greatly burdened by a dark past.
As a final point, it is notable and quite interesting that the ongoing peace initiatives between Eritrea and Ethiopia are largely being led and carried out by Eritreans and Ethiopians themselves. Of course, while the support and commitment of the international community and various other partners is vital, tangible solutions have to involve and be led by local actors. Simply, if you formulate your own solutions to your problems, you have every reason and incentive to see them work. Historically, external or foreign solutions were often not viable in Africa since they were either “imported” or “dictated” to Africans. Ultimately, in order for sustainable peace to stand any chance, those affected by — and involved in — conflict must own and identify with the responses and solutions to it.