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Ethiopia and Eritrea advance towards normalizing their relationship

This past July 9th there was a historic meeting; the Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed Ali, visited Asmara –the capital city of Eritrea– to meet with Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki and close an agreement to end the armed conflict. The text signed says; “The state of war has come to an end.”

The joint statement promises to respect the frontiers established since the year 2000 with the Algiers Peace Agreement and endorsed by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) after a two-year conflict which left 100,000 people dead. Furthermore, they also agreed to open the border and embassies, renew flights and establish trade relationships between both countries.

The agreement comprised of seven articles, was officially signed the last 16th of September. The formal validation of the peace was carried out in a meeting held in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) with the participation of the UN General Secretary António Guterres, and the King of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz.

The agreement includes the creation of special economic zones, a joint battle against terrorism, human, weapons, and drug trafficking, besides a High-Level Joint Committee to supervise compliance of the agreement.

Changes to the status quo

Of the factors which influenced, three basics details will be discussed:

  • The arrival of a new regime to Ethiopia,
  • The acceptance of implementing the Algiers peace agreement
  • The interest to renew economic ties between both countries

Since Abiy Ahmed Ali was elected Prime Minister of Ethiopia he began implementing changes to the domestic and international policy of this country. His government released political prisoners, provided amnesty to people accused of political crimes and promised to privatize state-run companies, including the national airline.

Despite belonging to the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, the same political collation as his predecessor, Ahmed belongs to the Oromo ethnic group, which despite being the largest group in Ethiopia, it has always been underrepresented. The vision of the new government, contrasting from other leaders who belong to the Amhara and Tigray minorities, has allowed the deployment of a renewed foreign policy and received with approval from Eritrea.

Meanwhile, Isaias Afewerki, Eritrean President since 1993, in face of the approaches of his neighbor, did not doubt to accept the conversations to solve a long armed conflict. The war with Ethiopia has had a profound impact in developing his interior policy, due to the constant militarization and violation of human rights, a consequence of his military conscription, which caused the massive exit of Eritreans from the country. Therefore, signing an agreement is hope of demilitarizing the country and improving the living conditions of Eritrea, besides more respect for human rights and a democratic opening of the country.

However, the arrival of Abiy Ahmed Ali has not been enough to explain the deicing of relations between both counties. To open the borders, it has been essential to accept the peace mechanism stipulated in the Algiers agreement but never implemented.

Eighteen years ago, the countries agreed that an impartial panel in The Hague would work as an international border commission. It would solve the allotment of territories using a criterion known as ex aequo et bono, in other words, using the principle of equity, given the legal agreements, the principles of international laws and the existing treaties.

The Algiers Peace agreement caused great discomfort to the former presidents of Ethiopia, as it implied that many border communities under the Ethiopian regime would pass to form part of Eritrea. By accepting this mechanism by part of President Ahmed it is very probable that although conceding territory, they can come to more flexible agreements where each country can minimally reduce the division of the border communities.

The interest of the Ethiopian Prime Minister also lies in improving the economic conditions of his country, which is one of the most prosperous emerging economies in Africa, with a 10% GDP growth, and also to maintain this growth rate he needs to diversify their trade relations. In this context, the relations with Eritrea are vital, as since the independence of Eritrea they lost their exit to the Red Sea and access to the ports of Assab and Massawa.

Domino effect in the region

Besides the clear effect over the two countries, implementing the agreement represents a regional political advancement. When they were at war, both countries supported armed groups to fight among themselves for power, some fighting which took place in Somalia, where, for instance, Ethiopia sent troops to battle Al-Shabaab (an extremist group linked to Al Qaeda), while the same group received military and economic support from Eritrea. Now all this transforms into a domino effect to guarantee the security of the region.

Eritrea also has border disputes with Sudan and Djibouti, but as Ethiopia has good relations with them, now is the time to solve these issues. Definitely, the end of the conflict promises stability for the Horn of Africa, a not so minor issue, as the region has long suffered the brunt of being a weak state, such as piracy, Islamic radicalism, and extreme poverty, among others.

Reactivating the diplomatic ties between both countries which seem lethargic by consequence of the war, continued due to inertia, and now opens a slight ray of hope for  the region. Meanwhile the African Union and the United Nations carefully observe.


Consejo Editorial