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5 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:22pm

After 20 years, can Ethiopia and Eritrea ever reconcile?

The omens on the Ethiopian side are promising. 

By Martin Plaut

Africa is – tragically – no stranger to conflict. But the war that erupted between Ethiopia and Eritrea on 6 May 1998 was unlike any the continent had seen since the Second World War. This was no slaughter between troops and rebels mainly armed with Kalashnikovs and machetes. This was a full-blown conflict using everything from heavy artillery and trench warfare to ariel combat involving modern aircraft. No-one knows the numbers dead and wounded, but estimate as many as 100,000 were killed. Some put the figures even higher.

The outcome of the war hangs like a dark cloud over the whole region. The Algiers Peace Agreement, signed on 18 June 2000 was meant to end the conflict. It was a Rolls Royce of an agreement, brokered by the international community. Prisoners were exchanged, compensation paid for losses on both sides and a UN peacekeeping force was despatched to patrol the border.

Both sides were required to abide by the findings of a Boundary Commission which would define where the border lay. This was duly completed, only for Ethiopia to insist that further discussions be held. This Eritrea refused – as it had every right to do. Instead of peace, relations between the two countries have been frozen for the past 20 years. The border is sealed and tens of thousands of troops face each other over the barren frontier.

The result? Eritrea hosts Ethiopian rebel movements, who attempt from time to time to overthrow the government in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia does much the same, in reverse. But the Eritrean government went further, training and supplying Islamist rebels of al-Shabab in Somalia. It was aggressive intervention across the region that resulted in the United Nations imposing sanctions on Eritrea in 2009, which remain in force

Ethiopia too has suffered. Its natural outlets to the sea, the Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab are unavailable and Ethiopia has had to develop a convoluted transport network via Djibouti get its goods to the outside world. Communities on both sides of the border have been divided; unable to reach the lands they once tilled and neighbours they once married. It is a tragedy all round.

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Two decades on, this confrontation serves neither people. There are – at last – some small signs of progress. The first is an informal and unofficial. In recent years a few hundred Eritrean villagers have been allowed to cross the disputed border to visit the town of Axum for the festival of Maryam Zion. A chapel in Axum is said to contain the Arc of the Covenant and is sacred to the Christian Orthodox church to which most highlanders in both countries belong.

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The potential for peace was reinforced by the World Council of Churches, during a rare visit to Eritrea in October last year. It was – as the press release put it “the first such visit in more than 10 years” and the church leaders left promising to “pray and work for peace between Eritrea and its neighbor Ethiopia as they attempt to resolve a border dispute.”

Others have followed. Most recently the most senior African official in the Trump State Department, Donald Yamamoto. A consummate diplomat, with extensive African experience, he completed a visit to Eritrea, Djibouti and Ethiopia on 26 April. It’s not yet clear what the Yamamoto managed to broker, but he is unlikely to have made the trip without a clear objective in mind.

The omens on the Ethiopian side are promising. Former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn began talking of a “new policy” towards Eritrea a year ago, without going into any detail. He was replaced in April by Abiy Ahmed, who called for an end to “years of misunderstandings” between the two countries. “I call on the Eritrean government to take the same stand,” he said.

The Eritrean response was less than enthusiastic. Eritrea’s official spokesman declared that the ball remained in the Ethiopian government’s court. “Ethiopia needs to honour its treaty obligations and respect Eritrea’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by withdrawing from occupied territories,” the spokesman insisted.

These moves to end the stalemate come at a difficult moment. Ethiopia is still coming to terms with the ethnic divisions that have riven the country for many months. A state of emergency has been ruthlessly enforced and thousands arrested. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is struggling to introduce reforms, but needs to establish his authority.

On the surface Eritrea is far more stable. In reality there is deep anger among its citizens. The country’s youth are trapped in a permanent system of conscription that can be extended indefinitely. Rather than spend years, if not decades, manning trenches along the Ethiopian border tens of thousands have fled into exile.

This suits Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, an absolute ruler, who brooks no opposition. The no-war, no-peace confrontation with Ethiopia has provided the perfect excuse for permanently keeping the lid on Eritrean democracy. There are few incentives for him to make concessions to resolve the situation with Addis Ababa.

Only a dramatic gesture from Ethiopia, reinforced by a promise that UN sanctions will be lifted and closer economic and possibly even military ties with Washington might end this stalemate.