It does not happen very often: while I was at an aikido retreat in the Swiss Jura, with very limited network coverage to follow news of any kind, the architecture of the Horn of Africa, and in particular the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia, was thoroughly transformed, potentially.
It all happened at breath-taking speed and, following the many commentaries written since, has not only taken me by surprise. The pictures of joy, celebration and jubilation from Asmara and Addis Ababa sent a joyous jolt down my spine as well – after all, I had not that long ago written a piece that expressed a faint hope for an end of hostilities between both countries following the first overtones for peace by Ethiopian PM Dr Abiy Ahmed in June.
Some observers were reminded of the euphoria that greeted the end of the Eritrean war for independence and the overthrow of the Ethiopian Derg government in 1991, with large crowds of people dancing in the streets and expressing their joy by various means. But we all know how short this new period of deep friendship and cooperation was to last – a mere seven years, thus maybe this is not the best of comparisons.
In the present, the joint singing of a declaration on 9 July 2018 during Dr Abiy Ahmed’s visit to Asmara marked the re-establishment of formal relations between both countries. It also paved the way for the re-opening of embassies, the restoration of flights and telephone links between both countries, and for Ethiopia to use port facilities in Eritrea again (spare a thought for Djibouti, but that is another matter). Eventually, the border between both countries will also be demarcated on the ground.
Dr Abiy’s visit was reciprocated by a return visit of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki last Saturday, during which the Eritrean embassy in the Ethiopian capital was dusted off and reopened. Flights between both countries are to resume this Wednesday, and telephone lines have already been re-opened, reportedly leading to complete strangers calling each other to share the excitement on both sides of the divide.
Thus on the face of it, Eritrea’s stance during those 16 long years since the verdict of the Boundary Commission that was to end the state of war, its insistence that it was ready for peace and that it was Ethiopia who was holding this up through intransigence and the refusal to withdraw its troops from land declared Eritrean, seems vindicated – as sources close to the Eritrean government have not failed to point out. Nobody on the Eritrean side mentions that this acceptance also includes the tacit acknowledgement that Eritrea was responsible for starting the war, as that is also part of the Commission’s ruling.
That nobody seems in the mood to dwell on the past too deeply is in many ways a good thing for a continent and its leaders, who too often carry long memories of past wrongs and grievances, often not only for generations but over centuries. After all it took a while for Eritrean President Afwerki to respond to various efforts of his Ethiopian counterpart to grab the hand outstretched for peace – initially continuing to insist on the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops first before any conversations or actual encounters could take place.
This leaves the question what next, in particular for Eritrea, the country to benefit most from this renewed relationship. Eritrea has in the past years been in the headlines for the large numbers of people who flee the country – mostly due to indefinite national service obligations that should in theory end after 18 months, but were extended with the prevailing state of war as the main justification. Thus will the Eritrean leadership grasp this opportunity and set them free after 18 months? Just imagine, the graduation ceremony in Sawa at the end of their 18 months of service as a real celebration of the start of a new life, a life where citizenship obligations can be aligned with the pursuit of a normal life, the start of a family if desired, the development of a professional career – instead of being determined by a ‘no war no peace’ scenario that has treated such ambitions as a form of betrayal. This to be followed by the availability of exit visas for those who wish to travel (and have completed their 18 months of service) would do wonders to change the political dynamics within Eritrea and in relation to the outside world. Wider political change will undoubtedly follow, in its own time.
Thus far, we know very little about the concrete actions that may follow the initial euphoria, and a number of wise commentators have pointed out some of the potentially disturbing parallels to 1991: In both scenarios, major developments were brought about by charismatic leaders, but institutionalised arrangements to create an underbelly for the euphoria these brought with them remained wanting.
What might be a more worrying tendency is the fact that a blame culture has started to emerge, not least from the Eritrean side: The narrative now blames TPLF stalwarts and Tigrayan networks that captured the Ethiopian state for the long years of suffering – in a not dissimilar vain as the Derg government was blamed for all past wrongs in 1991. This is not only ahistorical but dangerous, as for peace to prevail between Eritrea and Ethiopia, Ethiopia needs to be at peace with itself. A new beginning is seldom served by old patterns of blame – which in the case of Eritrea and Tigray have a rather unhelpful ancient history. And we should not forget, the two countries that went to war in 1998 were until the outbreak of that war characterised by deep economic and social ties, even if undercurrents of tensions were also present for those who wanted to see them.
But while all this is certainly the case, then and now, I am more hopeful: Emotions are important for political developments and breakthroughs, and in this case the emotions of the people on the ground, even if they were not asked or told about the plans of their leaders, have been quite overwhelming. While no institutions are in place that would pass the test of democratic accountability as commonly understood, the sense of joy and relieve of a majority of people should not be underestimated – something did really break free here and there is hope that this makes peace irreversible. In the past, I have heard the phrase ‘the war is between our leaderships not between our people’ in too many conversations with friends and acquaintances on both sides of the divide, without the hope that they, the ordinary people, could do much to overcome the stalemate. Now that the stalemate is broken, it seems impossible to imagine a return to hostilities – regardless of where the actual line of border demarcation falls, as a regime of easy border crossings makes that line, including the line around the symbolic hamlet of Badme, mostly irrelevant.