Moment that mattered: The border between Ethiopia and Eritrea is reopened after 20 years
| Interview: Andrew Picken |
The opening of the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea would have been almost unimaginable only a year earlier, when the countries were still locked in a bitter dispute over territory. But on 11th September hundreds of people from the two east African nations travelled to the Burre crossing for tearful family reunions that were 20 years in the making. To make the situation even sweeter, the reopening took place on the Ethiopian New Year’s holiday.
“People got used to the conflict and the lack of progress on peace, so for things to change so quickly was a huge surprise,” says Elias Gebreselassie, a freelance journalist based in Addis Ababa. Gebreselassie says that the diplomatic breakthrough came as a result of the appointment of Abiy Ahmed as Ethiopian prime minister in April. The 42-year-old replaced Hailemariam Desalegn, who resigned in February following three years of anti-government protests in which hundreds of people died. Within weeks of coming to power, the country’s first prime minister from the Oromo ethnic group implemented a series of major reforms: the release of thousands of political prisoners, the ending of an extremely restrictive state of emergency that had been in place since Desalegn’s resignation, and the lifting of bans on independent news media. And, perhaps most unexpectedly, the offer of an olive branch to president Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea. “Ahmed said that sorting the Eritrean dispute and reopening the border would be a priority if he was elected, but nobody expected it to be this speedy,” says Gebreselassie.
“I didn’t see a breakthrough coming. But it appears that trade has trumped fighting.”
Eritrea gained independence from its larger neighbour in 1991 but only after decades of armed insurgency, and despite what Gebreselassie describes as “back channels” between the countries over the years, formal relations appeared a distant prospect. To secure peace, Ahmed’s government had to do something his predecessors had been unwilling to consider – give up disputed territory.
The countries signed an agreement in 2000 after two years of fighting that left around 80,000 people dead, but Ethiopia didn’t honour the deal, saying it rejected the findings of a boundary commission established by the peace resolution. On 5th June 2018, the Ethiopian government said it was finally ready to “fully accept and implement” the 2000 deal – and the border opened little more than three months later. “Ethiopia giving up the disputed border territory was crucial and it seemed to really take off from there,” says Gebreselassie. “Eritreans were also surprised that their government delivered this and Afwerki deserves credit too.”
Gebreselassie was also caught on the back foot by the deal. “Like everyone else I didn’t see a breakthrough coming,” he says.“But it appears that trade has trumped fighting.” Indeed, the economic benefits of peace appealed to both countries. With a population of 105 million – 21 times the size of Eritrea – Ethiopia has the fastest growing economy in sub-Saharan Africa according to the IMF, and the peace deal provides the landlocked nation with easy access to the sea. “There are lots of smaller wins,” says Gebreselassie. “For example, the border town used to be fairly quiet but now its people are making good business; selling products, renting out homes, building hotels, everything really. And the national Ethiopian carrier can now go to the Middle East and other destinations through Eritrean air space.”
Eritrea is also benefiting – on 14th November the UN security council cited reconciliation with Ethiopia when voting to lift its decade-long sanctions on the country. There are signs that Isaias Afwerki, described by a former US ambassador to Eritrea as an “unhinged dictator” in a confidential document published by Wikileaks, might seize the opportunity to emerge from many years of diplomatic isolation.
The most visible consequence of peace has been the family reunifications on the border. After Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia in 1991 relations between the countries were initially stable and it was common for members of the same family to live on different sides of the border. However, this changed dramatically when war broke out in 1998 over where the border should lie, dividing families overnight. With the border reopened, many Eritreans have travelled to their southern neighbour – and it looks like many hope to settle there. In the first four weeks after the reopening a total of 9,905 Eritreans arrived in Ethiopia, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Gebreselassie says many migrants are fleeing Eritrea’s harsh national service regime. “After the outbreak of the war in 1998, Eritrea instigated a policy of military conscription so all adults were forced to fight, but also had to do hard labour,” he says. “So this was why people were desperate to leave the country.” Human Rights Watch has said that Eritrean conscripts “are subjected to 72-hour work weeks, severe arbitrary punishment, rape by commanders if female, and grossly inadequate food rations.” Eritreans are also escaping political repression, but Gebreselassie says that the biggest group of people leaving are economic migrants. “I spoke to one mother who was coming to Ethiopia with five kids,” he says. “She said the Eritrean economy doesn’t allow her to support her family.”
The raft of reforms instigated by the new Ethiopian prime minister prompted ‘Abiymania’ in his country. “There was a moment when people thought Abiy Ahmed could walk on water and the border reopening was very much part of that honeymoon,” says Gebreselassie. On 16th October Ahmed appointed women to half of the posts in his cabinet, saying they are less corrupt than men, and announced the opening of a ministry of peace.
Gebreselassie is optimistic about the future of Ethiopia-Eritrea relations. “People in both countries are wary of one another after 20 years of hostility but there is lots of goodwill behind making the peace sustainable,” he says. “The border opening has created a positive wave. It has made people optimistic.”
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