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Eritrea and Ethiopia: ‘The beginning of a beautiful friendship’

Abraham T Zere Despite all the difficulties, Eritreans and Ethiopians are hopeful that lasting peace will be concluded soon. On June 26, a high-level Eritrean delegation led by Foreign Minister Osman Saleh arrived in the Ethiopian capital, Addis

Abraham T Zere

Despite all the difficulties, Eritreans and Ethiopians are hopeful that lasting peace will be concluded soon.

On June 26, a high-level Eritrean delegation led by Foreign Minister Osman Saleh arrived in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, for talks on ending the decades-long conflict between the two countries.

Earlier this month, Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, had extended an olive branch to his country’s longtime enemy by stating that Ethiopia is finally ready to fully accept and implement the terms of an 18-year-old peace agreement between the two countries. Last week, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki acknowledged his Ethiopian counterpart’s peace offer.

The Eritrean delegation arrived in Ethiopia only yesterday, but significant progress has already been made – Ahmed announced that Ethiopian Airlines would restart flights to Eritrea for the first time since 1998.

The positive steps taken by Eritrean and Ethiopian leadership to achieve sustainable peace have been applauded by regional and global organisations and powers, including the UN, EU, US and the African Union. More importantly, the peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia, who had been suffering the most as a result of the ongoing conflict, are now ready for peace and normalisation.

All in all, Eritrean delegation’s visit to Addis Ababa – to borrow a line from the classic film Casablanca – is expected to be “the beginning of a beautiful friendship”. Yet, for both countries, there are many roadblocks ahead in this path to peace and reconciliation.

The TPLF may cause problems in Ethiopia

Ahmed’s domestic reforms and reconciliatory attitude towards Eritrea have already started to bear fruit at home. Some Ethiopians, who have been living in exile in Eritrea as a result of their government’s repressive policies towards them, are returning home. The armed opposition group, Gimbot 7 – whose fighters had mostly been based in Eritrea – announced that it will cease armed attacks on Ethiopia following reforms announced by the government. 

However, a recent attack on a political rally signalled that not everyone in Ethiopia is happy about the new prime minister’s reconciliation efforts and progressive reform agenda. On June 23, as thousands gathered in Addis Ababa’s Meskel square to attend a rally in support of the new government, a blast left more than 150 injured and at least two dead. The grenade attack, for which no group has yet claimed responsibility, clearly demonstrated that there still is a tough road before for the reformist prime minister.

In addition to such security threats, Ahmed is also likely to face multiple challenges from within the state, especially from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). 

The TPLF, a faction of the ruling coalition that dominated Ethiopian politics for more than two decades prior to Ahmed’s rise to power, had been sending mixed signals about the new prime minister’s attempts to end hostilities with Eritrea. The Tigray people of Ethiopia are the most affected by the conflict, and as their representative in Addis Ababa, the TPLF feels responsible for making sure Tigray interests are protected throughout this new peace process. Moreover, the TPLF is threatened by Ahmed’s reform agenda and do not want to give up its dominant position within the state.

There are also reports suggesting that some groups living in Ethiopia’s Tigray region are already rejecting the peace proposal. This is partly because they feel Ahmed did not consult them before making a move that would inevitably affect their lives.

They want a return to the non-conciliatory tone of the previous administration. The Tigray region’s negative response to recent developments may eventually encourage the TPLF to increase its pressure on the prime minister and hinder peace efforts. 

Despite these difficulties, Ahmed already made a name for himself as a peacemaker and many Ethiopians seem to support him in his effort to advance the peace initiative. Of course, any success Ahmed may achieve would be dependent on the developments on the other side of the border.

Expectations even higher in Eritrea

Expectations and hopes about the peace process are even higher in Eritrea. Eritreans at home, who have been forced to live in a police state for decades, want normalisation. Eritreans abroad, who had been forced to flee their homeland, want to be able to go back. And most Eritreans believe peace with Ethiopia can make their wishes come true. 

It won’t be easy for the Eritrean government to suddenly reverse course and tacitly acknowledge its own chronic wrongdoings, but peace with Ethiopia will eventually force Asmara to implement reforms and loosen its grip over its citizens.

The Eritrean government has long been using “the Ethiopian threat” to justify systemic militarisation, oppression and censorship. With the disappearance of the Ethiopian threat, Afwerki’s government will be forced to start the process of demilitarisation and the rest will hopefully follow through.

The areas most affected by the perpetual “no peace, no war” between Ethiopia and Eritrea are the border settlements that have been effectively reduced to ghost towns and villages.

Once Ethiopian troops leave the area, the Eritrean government will have no excuse for not investing in these towns and villages. Partners and stakeholders, such as the EU, that have been significantly affected by the migration waves caused by Eritrea’s long, despotic rule, will likely extend a helping hand.

Eritrea’s economy is in a dire state, mostly as a result of the state’s self-defeating policies. The situation became even worse in January when the border with neighbouring Sudanwas closed. Ever since, Eritreans inside the country have been suffering from acute shortages of basic goods. Now that a peace process with Ethiopia has started, Asmara has no excuse for keeping the borders closed.

It will soon need to allow trade with neighbouring countries to resume which would help businesses thrive once again. This would wake up the desperate population and allow it to raise demands for reform.

Over the last decade and a half, Eritrea has gradually been transformed into a penitentiary state, with tens of thousands of prisoners rotting in underground prison centres, mostly run by military commanders. The peace process, and Ethiopia’s decision to free thousands of prisoners, is putting pressure on Asmara to do the same. 

President Afwerki’s landmark decision to send a delegation to Ethiopia got many Eritreans’ hopes high. While there are forces within both countries that continue to try and block normalisation efforts, sustainable peace between seems closer than ever before. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Abraham T Zere is the executive director of PEN Eritrea in exile


Review overview
  • ባራኪ June 28, 2018

    ህግደፍ አይንፋለጥን እንዳበለ ተዛሪቡ አዛሪቡናስ ሂዚ ክልተ ሕዝቢ ዘይኮናስ ሃደ ሕዝቢ ኢና ይብለናሎ! ከም አጋዕዝያን ተጋሩ ኢና ግዳን ዘይምበለ?

  • AHMED SALEH !!! June 28, 2018

    May God bless the good man’s good
    will to end injustices on
    innocent people of Eritrea and Ethiopia .
    Thank you Dr. Abiy for honorable step taken under your leadership .

  • k.tewolde June 28, 2018

    ‘While there are forces within both countries that continue to try and block normalisation efforts, sustainable peace between seems closer than ever before’……concise,to the point,prudent political analysis,The article describes the situation objectively with no emotion, bias or rhetorical bribery.That is what Dr. Ahmed is,he is a disrupter,he is flushing out the dinosaurs from their caves,he is a blessing not only to the two brotherly people but also to the region,he is changing the narrative,the rest are simply responding to his irresistible and as a matter of fact call for peace,love and reconciliation,we ain’t got no choice but to love this brother back . his approach will trigger a Rocky Mountain High avalanche burying those who tormented and kept us awake at night for years.

  • musie keflay June 28, 2018

    i agree, i have never been this hopeful in my entire adult life for this God forsaken land of Eritrea. Thanks to a non-eritrean, Dr. Abiy AHmed for having the wisdom, the courage, compassion and intellect to take such a shrewd approach and changing the history of the the Horn Africa forever. President Isseyas better get the message and reform fast before the avalanche crushes him for good.Eritrean are more educated, and free of weyane syndrome and are never going to see their Ethiopian brother as enemies but as our two brotherly people.This is the prescription for the death of weyane and PFDJ. God bless Dr. Abiy Ahmed.

    • Gezae June 28, 2018

      In the near future Ethiopian Air line will fly Addis Abebe.- Asmara As the same way Eritrea will open the Road Assab Addis Ababa.

      • k.tewolde June 29, 2018

        Fine and dandy! including cable cars zipping from Asmara to Massawa……nothing impresses those who are level headed and know what is important,where is my brother and my dear sister?where are those people who fought on my side?where are the combatants like Bitweded and Mengsteab Tecle? where is the constitution and rule of law?who represents and speaks for the vast majority who never got to enjoy the fruit of their sacrifice and got a chance to elect their own leaders? Why is the youth including the underage hauling ass in droves leaving their loved ones behind? and you are talking about Airlines that doesn’t belong to you and a highway to hell.Shame.

        • Gezae June 29, 2018

          You are very different from the Assenna family. Nevertheless you take a group of mostly like-minded people. Hence your continuing tendency is somehow to blame you. Because most of the Assenna family members including Amanuel himself are a little emotional; more specifically by their choice they don’t have a clue about the probable impacts of clawing back. More sadly, they run man to man fight in the streets like a highway boy gangs in shamefacedly shy away.
          Needless to say, they raid embassy and vandalized the people’s [the peoples’ tax paid] properties. These are all where grown-up people must not permit their queasiness to over-rule their sense of decency which is a great sign of hostility and anachronistic acts. Those behind what’s happened and happening again and again I fear don’t want a properly thought-through, coherent set of social policies.

          Certainly, anger is a response to an object that is inhibiting or frustrating a relevant goal, particularly when the challenger is identifiable and perceived to be unjust. Perhaps most importantly, anger is thought to affect the content of cognition. Anger drives attitudes towards punitive policies and punishment, a potentially powerful response in the political arena, but in a modest and civilized way. They must insist, before the damage is irrevocable, that they come clean about their perennial antipathy to remain

          Overall, although I said that these applies to the assenna’s political compass/ spectrum it can apply to any set of opposing beliefs. I bet may be you are doing your homework and I think you need, but insofar as fault is the issue, it lies rather more specifically with the present than in general. Now, immediately, is the time to challenge I don’t put a lot of faith into your horseshoe like alluded feeling, but there are phenomena that come up that I think might help your feelings.
          Every one is hurt and have/had a feelings. but if all our feelings are one way kill or conquer it will be OK. Hurt feelings are inevitable in relationships, bound to arise in a fast-paced world of imperfect communication between people. As long as we are avoiding feeling of our bad feelings and taking responsibility, by closing our heart and self-rejecting ourselves, we will not be able to hear our guidance. However it’s not an overnight process. You have to learn to set limits with others. And to move the sources of approval inward, from outward. “This is the story of my life,”

          You know the one thing that people tend to misunderstand when it comes to political issue is that the end is not the delineation point for determining such things. I don’t think it’s possible to end up on the other side of a political spectrum in any sense of the thought, though, because it’s not what lies at the end of one’s political beliefs that makes the determination of whether one is right or wrong. To the contrary, Right and Wrong define the process of how one arrives at those ends

          • Simon G. June 30, 2018

            Man, you are one of the most clueless people at this forum! I am not sure what you are inhaling but you are all over.
            Half a sentence would be much better than this nonsense Hateta, like your boss at Adi Halo.

          • Sol June 30, 2018

            Gezae,countries like Somali, Iraq etc which are on a bloody Civil War were ruled by tyrants like IA and tyrants never care about their countries and its people they exercise dirty politics for long years which after their downfall the countries they ruled end up as a failed states. Gezae, stop the character of opportinists that clearly see the Elephant but stabb its shadow.

        • Gezae June 29, 2018

          Instead of we are avoiding feeling please read me ” we are not avoiding our feeling”

        • Gezae June 30, 2018

          conquer it will be OK read conquer it will be not OK

  • Danilo June 28, 2018

    We heard and see the welcome plus the dinner ( except ) good wishes for brotherhood and ( weird ) non computing to the mission but the real pic – nick does happened. Nevertheless, what was the outcome? God knows. Dr Abiy spoke to Afars the day after. Dia is silent while the Eritrean people eagerly awaiting for information. መንቀጽ!!!

  • rezen June 29, 2018

    The following is what I commented under another Article (*):
    Quote “I do not believe the new dynamic young Ethiopian Leader can help Eritrea. The calling of a meeting is a good gesture as well as a smart way of detraction of local inflated problems. At the risk of being nuisance to my Readers I repeat (over and over again) that the problem of independent Eritrea can only be solved by free Eritreans only. Less than that, we go back to history.” Unquote
    (*) “Eritrea delegation arrives in Ethiopia ahead of landmark talks June 26, 2018”

  • Anonymous June 29, 2018

    There is a wind of hope blowing over the horn of Africa. Thank God there is a young leader in Ethiopia that he is trying to solve the unnecessary war between two poor nations. Unfortunately on the other side there is a leader who has no legitimacy, who is ruling with iron feast and hated by his people ,has no right to represent the people of Eritrea .Solution is in the of Tigray and Eritrean people.

  • huzun June 29, 2018

    The image of Eritrea,

    Just look at the faces of the delegation of Erirtea- Kab hamed zwetzu yemeslu- this is our collective image inside the country. Amlak rahwa yewrdelna.

  • rezen June 29, 2018

    “Amlak rahwa yewrdelna” huzun, June 29, 2018 Well lamented

    In the absence of rational thinking and cooperation among ourselves to solve our own sociological problems, the ultimate salvation to Eritrea is left to the super natural force. If we do not believe in our collective entity where else can we go except to the Almighty LORD up in Heaven? In the mean time, the Almighty Earthly Lord is showing us the way to absolute destruction. It is hard to resist saying >>> “WE DESERVE IT”.

  • Amanuel June 30, 2018

    A good article and direct to the point analysis. Good intellectual integrity too. We know who is opposing peace from ethiopian side. Weyane seems has not changed it’s shameful lame precondition for a verdict that does not allow a precondition. But who could be the force that is not happy about peace on eritreans side? The people are very happy including the blind supporters. But is iseyas honestly happy about it? If so why would he say game over for weyane when he is talking about sending delegates to Ethiopia? Just exposing his childish behaviour or trying to offend them so that they would reject it and resist it’s implementation? In any case he can not be happy for that may lead to eritreans saying game over to him and his criminal gangs group aka hgdf.