The leaders of two African countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea, ended their 20-year-old conflict on Sunday, July 8. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister (PM) Abiy Ahmed met the Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki in the capital city of Eritrea, Asmara. Afwerki greeted Ahmed at the airport which was telecast live by Eritrea’s state television, as reported by the Independent.
With hugs and laughter
As soon as the Ethiopian PM alighted the plane at the airport, he smiled and gave a big warm hug to the Eritrean President.
“The Ethiopian delegation was greeted & received with overwhelming joy & love by the kind people of Eritrea. The yearning for peace was palpable & we’ll decidedly move forward for the good of our people,” said Fitsum Arega, the Chief of Staff for Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, as reported by National Public Radio.
Observers were shocked by this gesture because the two countries have been locked in conflict for nearly two decades that has killed tens of thousands of people.
“The visit is part of efforts to normalise relations with Eritrea. [Abiy] is expected to talk with the Eritrean leadership [about] how to mend fences,” said Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesman Meles Alem to South China Morning Post.
Asmara’s streets were decorated with Ethiopian and Eritrean flags. A huge crowd gathering was seen to greet the two leaders. People danced and sang for them. Both the leaders travelled across the Capital in a motorcade, and people are wearing T-shirts with photos of the two cheered for them. Eritrea’s Information Minister Yemane G. Meskel said in a tweet:
— Yemane G. Meskel (@hawelti) July 8, 2018
As per the National Public Radio reports, it was the first time in the last two decades that leaders from the two countries met.
‘No Ordinary visit’
Ethiopian human rights analyst Mesfin Negash told The New York Times that this was not an ordinary visit. It was an emotional day for all of them. “This is no ordinary visit. This is no ordinary diplomatic relationship. It is an emotional day. The peace process now belongs to the people. Both leaders cannot deny the public pressure anymore,” she said.
Mending the relationship
A state dinner was arranged for the two leaders this Sunday evening where Mr Abiy announced that he had agreed with the Eritrean president to “resume the services of our airlines, to get our ports working, to get our people to trade and to open our embassies again.”
Direct telephone lines were restored between the two countries on Sunday afternoon for the first time in two decades, reported the New York Times. “There is no longer a border between Eritrea and Ethiopia because a bridge of love has destroyed it,” Mr Abiy said at the dinner.
The 20-year-old conflict
Ethiopia and Eritrea are part of Africa’s peninsular region called The Horn of Africa. It gets its name as the region resembles a shape similar to that of a rhinoceros’ horn. The dispute between the two countries was for gaining control over the border town of Badme. It is a humble, dusty market town with no apparent value. Both the countries wanted it on their side of the border. The war began on 6 May 1998. At the time, the war was described as “two bald men fighting over a comb”.The war left an estimated 100,000 dead and more than a million displaced.
As per Al Jazeera reports, At the height of the war, Ethiopia had increased the total size of its army from 60,000 to 350,000. $3bn was the cost of the battle for Ethiopia.
Meanwhile, the size of Eritrea’s army increased to 300,000 (almost 10 per cent of the population) through National Service Conscription following the outbreak of the war. The war came to an end in June 2000.
The Algiers Agreement
At the end of the war, Ethiopia managed to gain control over all the disputed territory. The Algiers treaty was signed on December 12, 2000, and Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission was established.
It provided for the exchange of prisoners and the return of displaced persons. The commission said that the disputed territory at the heart of the conflict, Badme, belongs to Eritrea. This was unacceptable to Ethiopia without the preconditions of further negotiations with Eritrea.
After assuming office in April 2018, PM Abiy said that Ethiopia would abide by the 2002 boundary ruling.