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Signs of a Thaw for Ethiopia and Eritrea

A cold war that has haunted the Horn of Africa for more than a decade may be thawing, as leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea met on Sunday for the first time in twenty years. Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea’s president Isaias Afwerki embraced as they met at the airport in Asmara. The leaders have since agreed to reopen embassies and ports, allow flights between the countries and signed a “declaration of peace and friendship,” declaring an end to the conflict. It’s a groundbreaking development for countries that share cultural and linguistic ties, as well as a 640-mile border, but have been bitter rivals for years.

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Rumors of the meeting had circulated on Friday, as observers tweeted photos of Ethiopian flags flying in Eritrea. The meeting was confirmed on Sunday, with Abiy’s chief of staff, Fitsum Arega tweeting, “Abiy Ahmed has left to Eritrea, Asmara today to further deepen efforts to bring about lasting peace between the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Our two nations share a history & bond like no other. We can now overcome decades of mistrust and move in a new direction.”

It’s a dramatic turn of events for neighbors whose complicated and closely-linked history has made them both “brothers” and bitter enemies. Eritrea secured its independence in 1993, after a bloody thirty-year war in which the Eritrean liberation movement allied with Ethiopian rebel groups and toppled Ethiopia’s military regime, securing new leadership for Ethiopia and independence for Eritrea. But the alliance did not last. The former comrades-in-arms turned on each other in 1998 over a border dispute, among other issues. The two-year conflict killed an estimated 80,000 people and ended with a stalemate, as Ethiopia refused to implement a UN-backed peace agreement that ceded territories, including the town of Badme, to Eritrea. As a result, the countries’ border remains highly militarized and diplomatic relations, nonexistent.

But that could be changing. The push toward peace began in early June, when Ethiopia announced it would fully implement the peace agreement. Then, in a historic gesture, Eritrea sent a delegation to Ethiopia in late June, for the first time in two decades.

“I’m cautiously optimistic and keep fingers crossed that something tangible, something real will come out of this,” said Awet Weldemichael, a professor at Queens University who specializes in the Horn of Africa.

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Many have credited Ahmed for the momentum. Ahmed took office after his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, abruptly resigned in February. Ahmed has garnered a reputation as a reformist by releasing thousands of prisoners, privatizing key parts of the economy and loosening restrictions on media.

“There’s a new leadership in Ethiopia that’s taking a fresh look. It’s really a generational change in Ethiopia in terms of leaders,” said Terrence Lyons, a professor at George Mason University.

And it’s not just Ahmed behind the momentum – Ethiopia’s domestic politics have been in transition due to a wave of civil unrest that began in 2015 with grassroots activists in Oromia region, which includes the capital, Addis Ababa, leading a push for democratic reforms and basic human rights. The protest spread to Amhara region, and the government responded with a violent crackdown, arresting of thousands of people and twice declaring a state of emergency. But tides have recently turned – the most recent state of emergency was lifted two months early, thousands of political prisoners have been released, and Hailemariam suddenly resigned, in a bid to pave the way for reforms across the country. More recently, the country has moved to fire top prison officials accused of human rights violations.

Eritrea, for its part, has long pushed Ethiopia to recognize the UN-backed peace agreement and subsequent border commission ruling. But its own internal troubles have complicated that campaign. The country is run by a regime so reclusive and repressive that it has been called “Africa’s North Korea.” A UN human rights report in 2015 found spying and surveillance so prevalent that Eritreans lived in fear of arbitrary arrest, detention, torture or death. About 12 percent of the population has fled the country, according to Human Rights Watch, with 52,000 people fleeing in 2016 alone. The country has sought to repair its international image and economic isolation, pushing for an end to UN sanctions imposed in 2009 for its alleged support of al-Shabaab in Somalia. (It rejoined regional economic bloc IGAD in 2011 after walking out in protest of Ethiopian forces entering Somalia.)

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“Eritrea has always said ‘we have a lot of common interests, the moment you pull your forces out the moment you full-heartedly accept and start to implement the boundary commission –  you do that in the morning, in the evening we will start our conversation toward normalization of relations,’” said Weldemichael.

A thawing relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea could bring economic revival to the Horn. The countries are natural economic partners, and peace would create access to ports, cross-border trade and jobs. But creating lasting peace won’t just be about forging diplomatic ties between Addis Ababa and Asmara – it will be about demining and demilitarizing the border and restoring the livelihoods of communities that have long lived near each other.

“Many of them are related, many of them are friends, all of them are neighbors,” said Weldemichael. “So normalization of the lives of the people along both borders, their peaceful interaction with each other, their engagement in localized trade and exchange – those are going to be absolutely essential.”

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