Ethiopia and Eritrea agree to end two decades of war

By David Pilling , Financial Times
Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed (left) and Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki sign the peace declaration

ASMARA - Ethiopia and Eritrea have signed a declaration formally ending their 20-year-old war in an effort of blitzkrieg diplomacy that could radically alter the political and economic landscape in the Horn of Africa.

The two countries, which have never implemented a peace deal that was meant to have ended their 1998-2000 border conflict in which 70,000 people died, have also agreed to open up diplomatic, trade, telecoms and transport links.

Apart from starting air routes between the two countries, landlocked Ethiopia will gain access to two Eritrean ports, Massawa and Assab, giving it an alternative to transporting goods through Djibouti or Somalia.

Yemane Gebre Meskel, Eritrea’s information minister, said on Twitter that the agreement ushered in “a new era of peace and friendship”.

“This is a huge deal for both countries,” said Ahmed Soliman, an expert on the Horn of Africa at Chatham House, a UK think-tank. “This is not just a peace deal between two disputing leaders but one between countries with so many commonalities: culturally, ethnically and linguistically.”

Hallelujah Lulie, a regional security analyst based in Addis Ababa, said the end of hostilities could lead to “a meaningful peace dividend in the subregion”.

The rumbling conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia had spilled over into Somalia, whose recent efforts at political and economic stabilization could be bolstered by the agreement between Asmara and Addis Ababa, he said. Ethiopia might also now act as a mediator in a long-running border dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti, he added.

The peace deal marks rare progress towards stability in a volatile neighborhood, one that includes an Islamist insurgency in Somalia, a war in South Sudan and, until recently, waves of political unrest in Ethiopia.

For Ethiopia, the peace deal is the culmination of three months of a rapid change that has followed the election of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister and Africa’s youngest leader. Mr. Abiy has implemented a breakneck agenda, releasing political prisoners, lifting a state of emergency, opening up the economy and pushing for stronger links with neighbors and with Gulf states.

For Eritrea, where continued hostilities with Ethiopia had provided cover for conscription and a deeply repressive political regime, analysts wondered whether the peace deal might spark a change of direction. “Ethiopia has been positioned as providing an imminent threat to national security for Eritrea,” said Mr. Soliman. With that threat gone, it was hard to predict what might happen to Eritrea’s political system, he said.

Mr. Lulie said the biggest effect of the peace deal would be on the imagination, especially when thousands of families separated by the war were reunited. “Eritrea has always captured the imagination of Ethiopia’s poets and artists,” he said. “The social and emotional element of all this is definitely the most overwhelming one.”

Eritrea was part of Ethiopia until it won independence after a 30-year war and a 1993 referendum after the overthrow of Ethiopia’s Marxist Derg regime in 1991.

Last month, Mr. Abiy agreed to cede land occupied by Ethiopia for two decades to cement a formal end to hostilities.