Robert Rotberg is founding director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict, former senior fellow, CIGI, and president emeritus, World Peace Foundation
After 20 painful years, Ethiopia and Eritrea have finally decided to create a meaningful peace.
The side-by-side new polities that went to war in 1998 – largely because of the narcissistic needs of their ethnically aligned leaders – have finally resolved the relatively minor issues that separated them. Ethiopian Airlines resumed flying from Addis Ababa to Asmara, their neighbouring capitals on Wednesday. Landlocked Ethiopia will soon be able to send freight trains to Assab, Eritrea’s port on the Red Sea. Telephone service has been restored. Long separated families can visit.
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This sudden resumption of diplomatic, political, economic and social ties came about because Ethiopia’s ruling political party (the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) selected a dashing new young prime minister in April. Abiy Ahmed, 41 – although a long-time member of the party and a former soldier – doesn’t come from the Tigrayan-dominated guerilla group that overturned the Marxist Derg movement in Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1991 and has run the nation ever since.
Isaias Afwerki, President of Eritrea from 1993, and the late Meles Zenawi, the first prime minister of a post-Derg Ethiopia, were both Tigrayans united against the Marxists and seeking freedom for their respective countries. After they jointly liberated their countries, they had a bitter personal falling out that led to a two-year war of rivals and Africa’s only interstate war in modern times.
The elevation of Mr. Abiy to Prime Minister has altered for the better the entire trajectory of relations with Eritrea and many domestic conflicts as well. Abiy is a member of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo. No Oromo has ever achieved a high leadership position in a country long run by Amhara monarchs and Marxist generals, and then by Tigrayan revolutionaries.
Abiy flew to Asmara in June and promised to return the town of Badme to Eritrea. Isaias has since visited Addis Ababa. At home, Abiy’s accession to power has also largely eliminated the Oromo-led protests that have roiled Africa’s second most populous country for three years. Abiy has released political prisoners and promised to respect freedoms of press and assembly.
Ethiopia, a very poor but fast-growing country of 102 million people, has begun to benefit from Abiy’s modern and clear-sighted leadership.
Whether the peace deal will also initiate an internal transformation of Eritrea from a oppressive dictatorship with few human rights has yet to be seen. Eritrea brutally conscripts most citizens into the national army and refuses to let them go. The country has thousands of political prisoners.
Among the many outcomes of Isaias’ oft-condemned control of his people and his country has been a clandestine exodus across nearby Sudanese borders and a massive surge of smuggled migrants to Libya and, eventually, the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. The newly forged regional peace might, if Isaias accepts some loosening of his grip, lead to greater economic development, greater human and political rights for Eritreans, and greater opportunities for higher living standards in that long isolated country.
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With relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia restored, Ethiopia is able to use Eritrea’s nearby ports rather than the longer (and recently completed) rail connection to Djibouti. Both countries will be able to exploit significant potash reserves that lie along their border. The peace pact will make it easier for foreign firms to consider investing in gold mining and other sectors of the hitherto weak Eritrean economy.
Ethiopia also will benefit in the security sector when Eritrea ends its support for anti-Ethiopian insurgents. Presumably, the UN sanctions and arms embargo against Eritrea will be lifted soon.
Bringing improved conditions to Eritrea has long been the goal of the African Union and the United Nations. Indeed, a remarkable coalition of persuasive diplomatic brokers from the U.S. State Department, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia helped to support Abiy’s initiative and, behind the scenes, helped orchestrate Ethiopia’s surprising decision to concede territory and forge a durable peace.
As the crowds that enthusiastically welcomed the sudden and unexpected peace deal in Asmara and Addis Ababa exclaimed, good news has finally emerged out of Africa – a possible harbinger of more conflict resolution to come.