World News

After 20-Year ‘State of War,’ Champagne and Roses on Flight From Ethiopia to Eritrea

Posted July 18, 2018 10:35 a.m. EDT

In a further affirmation of a breakthrough agreement to end one of Africa’s most enduring conflicts, an airplane from Ethiopian Airlines flew Wednesday to neighboring Eritrea across a frontier that had once been a front line in two decades of deep, mutual hostility.

Flight 312 left Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, at 9 a.m. local time, for Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, just nine days after the two countries announced the formal end of the “state of war” that followed a bloody conflict over their shared border. The war raged from 1998 to 2000 and claimed 80,000 lives, but a peace deal was never fully implemented.

The newest agreement, announced July 9, has been depicted by analysts as the harbinger of an unfamiliar stability — or renewed volatility — in the Horn of Africa, a region known for seemingly intractable disputes stretching back to the Cold War era.

Eritrea, for instance, fought a decadeslong struggle against Ethiopian dominance and annexation to secure independence in 1993. Five years later, war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a former Italian colony, broke out over the delineation of their shared border.

The latest deal was announced by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea. The agreement foresaw renewed trade, economic and diplomatic bonds, including reopened embassies and a resumption of flights.

“The state of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea has come to an end,” the leaders said jointly. “A new era of peace and friendship has been opened.”

The inaugural flight carried passengers including former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia and other government officials, as well as Ethiopian artists, journalists and potential investors, news reports said. Tewolde GebreMariam, the chief executive of Ethiopian Airlines, called the flight, which followed the reconnection of phone lines last week, a “unique event.”

Such was the demand for seats that the airline ran a second flight that took off 15 minutes after the first. Flight attendants served Champagne and handed out roses, according to an Agence France-Presse reporter on the second flight.

“With the demand we are witnessing, I think we’re going to increase the frequency to twice a day, thrice a day and even more,” Tewolde, Ethiopian Airline’s chief executive, was quoted as saying by AFP.

The agreement could give landlocked Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous nation after Nigeria, access to Eritrean port facilities on the Red Sea.

The shift away from hostility is the latest sign of pell-mell reform since Abiy, a 41-year-old former army officer who is among Africa’s youngest leaders, came to power in April following the resignation of Desalegn.

As the inaugural flight headed for Eritrea, Ethiopian Information Minister Ahmed Shide announced plans to sell off some state-owned companies, telling Reuters in an interview that authorities wanted to “unleash the potential of the private sector.”

He said the government would retain majority stakes in the state’s airline, logistics, energy and telecommunications companies. While the fate of the tightly controlled financial services sector remained unclear, other businesses including hotels, sugar farming and cement could be up for sale, he said, according to Reuters.

The peace agreement with Ethiopia has also encouraged some Eritreans to ask whether the opening will encourage greater freedoms in their own country, which is known as one of the world’s most repressive and secretive societies.

According to U.N. figures, hundreds of thousands of young Eritreans have fled across the Sahara and the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in recent years to escape compulsory and indefinite conscription once justified by the state of war with Ethiopia. The autocratic Isaias has been in power since independence in 1993.

Writing in The New York Times in June, Michela Wrong, an author who has followed events in Eritrea closely, noted that, with the peace agreement, Isaias’ critics “believe the sustained bluff that was mass conscription may have just been called.”

“If they are correct,” she wrote, “Ethiopia’s recent peace overture could actually make the region more, not less, volatile.”