Ethiopia-Eritrea relations are looking up after both countries agreed to peace talks.
First off the bat on June 5 was the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which reached out to Eritrea, which in turn responded after two weeks of silence.
“We will send a delegation to Addis Ababa to chart a plan for future action,” Eritrean President Isayas Afeworki told a gathering in Asmara.
This is an important development in the Horn of Africa, overriding concerns whether the parties are genuinely committed to peace.
A slew of political, social and economic developments in Ethiopia is bringing positive changes to the region.
Domestically, new Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed faces multiple political, security and economic challenges in seeing his reform plans through. Naysayers claim the proposed peace deal with Eritrea may cost him dearly.
From Asmara’s perspective, the political developments in Ethiopia constitute both a threat and an opportunity. Eritrea is likely to try to influence Ethiopia’s political overtures towards its best interests.
The Eritrean delegation’s first visit to Addis Ababa is expected to be largely symbolic, aimed to facilitate the way for subsequent discussions at a higher level.
History, geopolitics and internal political dynamics of both countries will determine the chances for peace between the two.
Eritrea, a former Ethiopian territory, gained independence in 1993 after three decades of a bitterly fought war.
The Ethiopian ruling party, and particularly the coalition member Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have had a long love-hate affair with Eritrean liberation fighters.
After the fall of the Ethiopian military regime of Mengistu Hailemariam in 1991, both the TPLF and Eritrean rebels become part of government in their respective countries.
However, the separation was complicated. Post-war Eritrea, without viable economic resources, rushed to launch its own currency, the Nakfa.
At the time, Eritrea had plans to use Ethiopian resources to build the war-torn nation, including use of its currency, the Ethiopian Birr.
Decades later, Eritreans still control a significant portion of Ethiopian businesses.
The Eritrean security apparatus also had an underground operation in Ethiopia that enabled Asmara to interfere in the security and economic affairs of Ethiopia.
Early 1993, some political elites in the Ethiopian ruling party questioned Eritrea’s unfair advantage over Ethiopia and proposed a formal border arrangement, a trade agreement and a tariff.
Some pro-Eritrea politicians in Ethiopian ruling party resisted the plan. Due to this reason, later in 2001, the ruling party split in two camps after the end of the border war.
All the way from 1996-1998, the mistrust grew between the two countries, resulting in frequent border skirmishes.
In 1998-2000 a full-scale border war broke out that claimed an estimated 95,000 lives from both sides, although the number varies up to 130,000.
The US, the African Union and the UN mediated a ceasefire in Algiers and the two countries signed a peace accord in 2000.
In July 2000, the UN deployed 4,000 peacekeepers (United Nations Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia) on the common border for eight years but in 2008, Eritrea expelled the peacekeepers protesting against the UN’s failure to enforce the Algiers agreement.
Keeping such large forces to secure their common border requires huge resources for both countries. Early this week, the Ethiopian prime minister admitted as much to parliament.
The economic burden is even harsher for the smaller Eritrea. Will Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki and his Ethiopian counterpart Abiy Ahmed rise to the occasion for now?