World News

Ethiopia and Eritrea, Longtime Foes, Meet for Peace Talks

Posted July 8, 2018 5:00 p.m. EDT
Updated July 8, 2018 5:06 p.m. EDT

For the first time since a brutal border war in the late 1990s left a violent rift between Ethiopia and Eritrea, leaders of the two nations embraced on an airport tarmac Sunday, hinting at a new era for the two countries.

Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, led his country’s first state visit to Eritrea since the war broke out in 1998 and sat for a meeting in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, with President Isaias Afwerki.

At a state dinner Sunday evening, 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 had been restored between the two countries Sunday afternoon for the first time in two decades.

“There is no longer a border between Eritrea and Ethiopia, because a bridge of love has destroyed it,” Abiy said at the dinner.

Abiy surprised his nation last month when he announced that Ethiopia would “fully accept and implement” a 2000 peace deal that was supposed to end the border conflict with Eritrea.

More than 80,000 people have died in the war, according to some estimates, and the Ethiopian prime minister was among thousands who fought on the front lines.

The rapprochement between the two countries followed the ascent to power in April of Abiy, who at 41 is one of the youngest leaders on the continent.

Ethiopia, which has been a landlocked nation since Eritrea achieved independence in the early 1990s, has a strategic interest in a key Eritrean port, Assab, which it had heavily relied on before the start of the border war. The United Arab Emirates has used a military base in Eritrea to deploy its soldiers for the war in Yemen, which sits across the Red Sea from Eritrea.

The two countries still have not agreed on a demarcated border.

On Sunday, Abiy expressed condolences to the families of Eritrean soldiers killed in the war.

“You deserve peace and calm,” Abiy said at the dinner Sunday addressing Eritreans in Tigrinya, a language spoken in both countries. “Enough with war and the talk of war.”

He later joked that he had been appointed the new foreign minister of Eritrea, a comment that might once have unleashed another war but only led to raucous laughter Sunday.

In a brief speech, Afwerki vowed to resolve challenges through consultation.

“We are in this together,” Afwerki said. “To our guests, I am happy you saw the true feelings of the Eritrean people today.”

Abiy’s overtures, and his state visit, were welcomed by residents of Asmara on Sunday. They took to the streets waving palm fronds and the flags of the two nations. Videos posted on social media showed Eritrean women singing for peace along the city’s main boulevards.

“This is no ordinary visit,” said Mesfin Negash, an Ethiopian human rights analyst in Sweden. “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.”

The visit to Asmara on Sunday is among the changes that the Ethiopian prime minister has made in a series of surprise announcements since April.

His government has released prominent political prisoners and given amnesty to those charged with treason and other political crimes. The second-most-populous country in Africa, Ethiopia also plans to sell parts of its state-owned enterprises, including the national airline, a move that its ruling party opposed for decades.

The “no war, no peace” stalemate between the two countries, coupled with a government crackdown on dissent, has contributed to Eritrea’s economic and social isolation in recent decades. Many of its young and able-bodied citizens have fled the country, choosing treacherous routes along the Sahara over military service at home.

At the height of Europe’s migration crisis, Eritreans were among the largest group landing on Mediterranean shores. The United Nations estimates that nearly 170,000 Eritrean refugees live in Ethiopia.