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New power balance emerges in The Horn

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New power balance emerges in The Horn

The stunning rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, ending a bitter, two-decade-long conflict, is likely to lead to a redrawing of the geopolitical map of The Horn, with considerable ripple effects across the region. James Jeffrey reports.

Ethiopia and Eritrea continue to shake up the geo-political scene in the Horn of Africa – and for once the news appears good, very good, while the pace of change has left everyone gasping. 

At the beginning of June, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stunned all by announcing Ethiopia was ready to give the disputed territory of Badme back to Eritrea, leading to a rapprochement between the two sworn enemies that shows no signs of slowing down, with potentially momentous implications for the countries’ economies and peoples, and for the surrounding region.

Badme is where a terrible two-year war broke out in 1998 between the two countries that were once comrades in arms, and even after the 2000 ceasefire, Badme continued to act as a lightning rod for antipathy between the two after Ethiopia refused to comply with the internationally brokered Algiers Peace Accord, which included ceding Badme to Eritrea.

Initially Eritrea’s leader, Isaias Afwerki, seemed as caught off-guard as everyone else by Ethiopia’s announcement, before sending a delegation led by his Foreign Minister to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, a week later.

Then on 8 July, Abiy became the first Ethiopian leader to visit Eritrea in nearly two decades. After touching down at the airport in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, Abiy embraced Isaias before conducting an official state visit during which Eritrean state television showed the two leaders smiling and laughing together. 

“We have agreed to open up embassies in our respective countries, allow our people to visit each other’s cities, and allow our airlines and ports to operate freely,” Abiy said at a banquet capping the historic visit and officially announcing that relations will be normalised. “Love is greater than modern weapons like tanks and missiles. Love can win hearts, and we have seen a great deal of it today here in Asmara.”

Ethiopian Airlines made the first flight to the Eritrean capital, Asmara in over 20 years. Passengers, who sang and danced in the aisles during the 60-minute flight, were given roses and champagne to celebrate the occasion but many broke into tears on landing on Eritrean soil.

The flow of goodwill has only continued, and in mid-July Isaias made an equally historic visit to Ethiopia, which included reopening the Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa as the flags of the two nations flew bright and sharp, and people danced and ululated in celebration.

Redrawing the geopolitical map

Following more than two years of anti-government protests in Ethiopia, in which people have demanded more freedoms, Abiy has turned Ethiopia’s stagnant political scene on its head. Since coming to power in April after the shock resignation of his predecessor, he has introduced a wave of reforms, releasing journalists and opposition figures from prison, and opening up the state-run economy.

“Historic,” said Hallelujah Lulie, a political analyst specialising in the Horn of Africa, on Twitter about the visit. “This isn’t peace between two ordinary neighbours. Ethiopia and Eritrea share complex memory and heritage. Recognising their intertwined past and common destiny will have a positive political and socio-economic dividend for them, and will redraw the geopolitical map of the Horn.”

Nearly 30 years ago, when Eritrea was Ethiopia’s most northern province, the future leaders of the two countries were fellow rebels in the struggle against Ethiopia’s communist dictatorship. But after defeating that dictatorship, and a peaceful referendum that gave Eritrea its independence in 1993, relations began to sour over political and economic frictions.

In 1998, Eritrea invaded Badme, claiming it was historically Eritrean land. Two years of fighting followed at a cost of over $4bn for two already poor countries, resulting in trench warfare and slaughter that left more than 70,000 dead.

But even with the 2000 ceasefire, a state of war persisted between the two countries due to the unresolved issue of Badme and the Algiers Peace Accord never being properly implemented. That appears all changed now, with Ethiopia indicating it is looking to normalise relations with Eritrea on a much larger scale, politically and economically. 

Part of Abiy’s reforming strategy, observers say, has been to link political, social and economic transformation in Ethiopia to regional dynamics, and especially to Eritrea due to the historically close economic, cultural and social ties between the two countries.

“Every Ethiopian should realise that it is expected of us to be a responsible government that ensures stability in our region, one that takes the initiative to connect the brotherly peoples of both countries and expands trains, buses, and economic ties between Asmara and Addis Ababa,” Abiy announced before his visit to Asmara.

At the same time, Eritrea’s relations with Arab countries, and even with the West, have improved, Hallelujah notes, making the Eritrean regime more open to rapprochement. Also, he adds, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have forged increasingly close ties with Eritrea in the past few years, have probably helped mediate and lay the groundwork for the breakthrough.

West roundly criticised

The West, on the other hand, has been roundly criticised over the years for not doing more to heal the rift between Eritrea and Ethiopia, especially as the fallout badly impacted the region and further afield. Both countries have engaged in hostile activities against each other, including proxy wars in South Sudan, Somalia and even as far away as Chad.

Meanwhile, Eritrea continued to come off worse against Ethiopia’s stronger regional sway and diplomatic clout, becoming increasingly isolated, and the target of international sanctions.

As a result, life became increasingly miserable for Eritreans – hence the unending exodus of Eritrean refugees into Ethiopia – which was compounded by the Eritrean government using the border war with Ethiopia and the subsequent perceived existential threats and belligerencies against Eritrea as an excuse for the state becoming increasingly repressive and militarised.

Hence, the formal end of hostilities could open the way for an end to mandatory conscription in Eritrea, and even to reform of some sort in a country that’s been called the North Korea of Africa, due to it being so closed and authoritarian. 

“The limited possibility to enjoy civil, religious and political freedom in Eritrea was justified by the state of emergency which the country has been experiencing since the border conflict,” says Milena Belloni, a researcher in the Department of Sociology at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, who is currently writing a book about Eritrean refugees. “If the peace is now agreed, this could have huge implications for the life of Eritreans. There will be little excuse not to implement the constitution – ratified in 1997, but never put in practice – which was drafted soon after Eritrean independence.”

Even with normalisation between the two countries, though, there remains a complex process of returning disputed territory and figuring what happens to those there, accompanied by the possibility of disagreements flaring up.

Nevertheless, many watching the whirlwind of events remain optimistic that the shared history of the two countries, underpinned by a shared culture, religion and familial ties, will prove more important than the differences.

Thousands of families separated by the war could now be reunited, as well as life made easier for mixed Ethiopian-Eritrean marriages, a common occurrence once. Commentators note that beyond the obvious economic and political benefits of the detente, are psychological comforts after decades of trauma and loss.   

“The decision to finally implement the Algiers Peace Accord is of crucial importance for both countries, as it represents the basic stepping stone for the change of a number of political, economic and social ‘frozen’ situations in both countries,” Belloni says. NA

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