Peace depends on a lot more.
No one saw it coming, but a lasting peace deal may have finally arrived for Ethiopia and its long-time enemy, Eritrea. The two countries, which share a common culture, language, and history, have been at odds for years.
By Elias Opongo, SJ
The big news in Eastern Africa in June-July 2018 was the signing of a peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, ending a ‘state of war’ that had gone on for more than 20 years. On 26thJune 2018, Eritrean Foreign Minister, Osman Saleh Mohammed, visited Addis Ababa for three days, taking part in the first bilateral meeting between the two countries in over two decades. On 8thJuly, Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, visited Eritrea, to embrace President Isaias Afwerki. The following day, the two leaders signed a ‘declaration’ that put an end to 20 years of hostility. On 14thJuly, Afwerki visited Ethiopia for his first visit in 22 years; on 16th, he reopened the embassy in Addis Ababa.
Eritrea and Ethiopia were the only countries in open conflict in Africa. War had broken out in 1998 over a border dispute (mainly about the town of Badme, which both sides claimed). The conflict cost the deaths of 100,000 soldiers.
Between 2000 and 2008, the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea – present with 1,676 military personnel, at a cost of $118 million – had the primary aim to demarcate the border and monitor the conflict. The mission was abandoned in 2008, after a long series of difficulties, including non-cooperation from the two countries, as well as fuel and basic supplies shortages.
Diplomats have referred to the peace deal as “joint declaration of peace and friendship”. The two leaders signed a simple five-pillar agreement that puts emphasis on improving relations between the two countries. They agreed to restore reciprocal diplomatic relations and cease all hostilities. Flight routes and phone lines between the two countries would also be opened. In fact, Ethiopia Airlines has already resumed its flights to Eritrea. Many families have been reunited in emotional encounters that have brought relief to the two nations.
Eritrea agreed to give Ethiopia access to its ports along the Red Sea, saving the latter from the long route to Djibouti. In fact, Ethiopia had already constructed, in collaboration with Djibouti, a railway linking the two countries, which is now operational. Ethiopia has promised to withdraw its troops from the border, and indicated that it would respect the 2002 UN boundary ruling that assigned the disputed territory to Eritrea. This means that the key reason for the war is no longer an issue of dispute.
However, there is still a lot that the two countries need to do for peace and stability in the region. Both have faced political upheavals. Now they could use this opportunity to improve democratic conditions at home. Eritrea, for example, has been under authoritarian rule that imposed military service on all young adults for a period of not less than one year, turning what used to be a voluntary six-month military service into a military bondage.
More than 460,000 Eritreans have fled the country, running away for human rights abuses, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and physical abuse. On the other hand, Ethiopia has faced incessant demonstrations in the Oromia region, with hundreds of people killed by police brutality.
Since he became Prime Minister last April, Abiy Ahmed has changed Ethiopia more than many could have imagined. He has brought new hope in the country, promising more dialogue and pursuit of national cohesion. Both countries will have to release political prisoners, cease police violence and open up democratic space to ensure peace sustainability. Further dialogue on the peace deal will flesh out details of key issues that need to be addressed.