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The Eritrea-Ethiopia Border: A Zone of Social and Economic Interaction

Following Ethiopia’s 2018 acceptance of the EEBC and Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s groundbreaking reforms, the tense relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia have been repaired. So far, President Isaias Afewerki has made three official visits to Ethiopia and PM Abiy has come to Eritrea twice. Telephone services and regular flights between both countries have resumed. The once militarized borders have opened and the embassies resumed service.

Numerous high-level bilateral discussions have been conducted to outline plans and harmonize actions. In addition, other agreements have been signed, aiming to create a favorable environment for peace and security. In September 2018, a Joint Declaration on Comprehensive Cooperation between Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea was signed in Asmara.

The National Charter of Eritrea states that economic and cultural development will be immensely enhanced in a conducive environment of regional cooperation. The document indeed states that, “Establishing active and comprehensive cooperation with our neighbors and throughout the world is important for our economic and cultural development.”

Usually, a country’s foreign policy is an extension of their internal policy. The internal operations of Eritrea focus on peace, security, and stability. Similarly, Eritrea’s foreign policy is based on peace and non-alignment. That is why Eritrea has worked to establish peaceful relations with its neighbors and the countries of the region.

Tibor Nagy, the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, recognized, during his last visit to the country late last year, Eritrea’s potential contribution to regional peace and stability, stating, … “we see strong potential for Eritrea’s contributions to improving regional security. Eritrea has resisted extremist threats, and could provide lessons to others on how to maintain a diversity of communities free from violent extremism. Eritrea can also contribute to regional peace and stability, as we have seen with Eritrea’s engagement with Somalia and South Sudan, and Eritrea’s role brokering agreements among Ethiopian opposition groups.”

Eritrea firmly believes that insecurity and instability cannot be confined within borders. Peace with Ethiopia and the lifting of sanctions have contributions in lubricating and expanding Eritrea’s prevalent interactions with the wider world. Eritrea must recognize and accept its role as an important regional player to promote cultural, economic, and social cooperation in the region.

After the Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship between Eritrea and Ethiopia was signed on July 9, 2018, in Asmara, many initiatives were begun. The countries came to understand that it was time to move forward t h r o u g h peace and cooperation. In his speech on June 20, 2018, President Isaias stated , “The complementarity of both peoples and countries, their common bilateral interests and prosperity, are sacrosanct objectives to which we have toiled and paid sacrifices for two generations. As such, it remains a priority for which we will be actively engaged.”

Months later, the border between the two countries was opened, allowing for the free movement of peoples and goods. The movement of goods and peoples, if implemented with appropriate systems and procedures, can be a positive force for socio-cultural and economic development. It can remove the cloud of mistrust and hatred and promote cooperation. Through cross-border movement, the two countries can cultivate cooperation and solidarity, as well as improve the living conditions of their peoples.

Inevitably, the movement of people, goods, and services will require better infrastructural linkages and connections. The TPLF-instigated war completely ruined the infrastructure around the border region. With the borders closed for the past twenty years, there was also little reconstruction or development there. Today, however, large renovation projects are underway, especially on the strategic roads that link Eritrea with Ethiopia. The ports of Assab and Massawa are also being rebuilt.

It is interesting to consider that Africa’s position in global trade is still in its infancy. Various reports and indices show that Africa plays only a small role in global trade. For example, in 2016, Africa represented only 3 percent of the world economy. Many experts suggest that Africa first boost trade within the continent in order to boost its standing in the global a r e n a . According to the 2018 A f r i c a n Trade Report, in terms of intra- African trade, Africa continues to trail other regions. At about 15%, Africa compares unfavorably to Europe (68%), North America (37%), and Latin America (20%).

Apart from the economic benefits, cross-border movement can increase familiarity and understanding. In order for peace to be sustainable, we need to have respect for each other. People of both countries have been able to interact and build a platform for understanding. The divisions that existed previously have been broken down and progress is being made. In order to translate political agreements into reality, a strong social foundation is necessary.

Of course, there are certain challenges associated with the free movement of people and goods across borders. The various challenges will require well-thought out regulatory mechanisms developed and agreed by the two countries so as to stem and offset deleterious implications and consequences.

Eritrea and Ethiopia remain low-income, developing countries. This is in spite of the considerable resources that they are endowed with. Sustainable and durable peace will thus enable both countries to funnel their energy solely towards development and to that extent induce rapid economic growth. Indeed, if the two countries cooperate fully and harness their resources, their people’s standard of living will be lifted. If Eritrea and Ethiopia move together, there is no limit to how high they can reach.

In a nutshell, the optimal arrangement is for both countries to cooperate and move forward; to struggle together and pull ourselves up. While remaining proud of our respective national identities and sovereignty, the peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia are determined to transcend their former divisions to forge a common destiny.

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