Peace at last: Eritrea and Ethiopia end 20 Years of standoff

The article reflects the views of its author, Meron Semedar*

The 1998-2000 War between Eritrea and Ethiopia was Africa’s deadliest border war. An estimated 100,000 troops died from both sides, many families on the border were displaced, many towns were demolished and many civilians who lived in both countries were deported to their respective countries.

In 2000, the two countries finally signed to resolve their dispute peacefully with the Algiers agreement through an international tribunal. Verdict was given in 2003 as final and binding in which the key border town, Badme, was assigned to Eritrea. The ruling gave a clear boundary as final and binding throughout the entire border between the two countries. However the demarcation could not take place as Ethiopia placed a precondition on the border ruling and continued to occupy Eritrea's territory. As a result, what followed for the next 16 year was a "no war, no peace" standoff.

The standoff coated the two countries immensely. Any bilateral relations were cut off and the two countries saw each other as enemies rather than neighbours. Twenty year that could have been used to build cross-border trade and investment were lost. On the Eritrean side, the government used the border pretext as a reason to keep almost all its workforce under indefinite national service. As a result to a lack of respect to human rights, many Eritrean youth found themselves crossing perilous seas, in the hands of smuggler and human traffickers, and in desolate refugee camps. Similarly many Ethiopians also migrated and many stood against their government mistreatment.

The new 41-year-old Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, was elected to power mainly as a direct result of the endless protest against the repressive nature of the Ethiopian administration who came to power in 1991. Sixteen years after the Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission (EEBC) ruling, Dr. Abiy declared that Ethiopia fully accepted the Algiers agreement without any precondition. As a result, Eritrea also sent a high level delegation to Addis Ababa, the first of any diplomatic visit between the two countries since the start of the war in 1998. The ministers were greeted with great welcome. So does Dr. Abiy who was greeted with the entire population of Asmara when he arrived in the capital of Eritrea a few days later. This was followed by the visit of Eritrea's only president since independence to Ethiopia. As does Dr. Abiy, on July 14th President Isaias was also greeted by millions of people in the capital city of Addis Ababa. What seemed unthinkable four months ago brought so much joy and tears among the two nations people.  

The newly elected Prime Minister of Ethiopia Dr. Abiy meeting Eritrea's ministers at the Addis Ababa international airport. The first diplomatic visit in 20 years. Source - Reuters

The two leaders signed a peace declaration that pointed out five points in Asmara and vowed to normalise relations as soon as possible.

Many lined up to welcome the Prime Minister of Ethiopia Dr. Abiy Ahmed in Asmara. Source Getty Images

Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea signing the peace declaration in Asmara. Source - Getty image

Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans flooded into the streets to show their support for the peace process. So did the Ethiopian people in Addis Abba who came out in millions. Experts are calling the peace process between Eritrea and Ethiopia a model for Africa. In 1991, world leaders had similar reactions tothe future of the two countries whose new administration came at the same time to power.  

Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia welcomed by the people of Asmara. Source Getty image

In the following weeks, Ethiopian airline made its first direct flight service available to Asmara. Flights were booked fully within the first few hours. For the first time in 20 years many separated families were able to reunite. However, due to the repressive nature of the Eritrean government, no Eritrean is allowed to fly out through Asmara airport yet, unless they are married women or senior people who are not serving national service. Telephone lines that has been cut for the last two decades also opened allowing people to reach out to family members, friends and even strangers to celebrate the moment.     


First flight from Addis Ababa to Asmara at the Asmara international airport. Source -Getty image


Family members meeting face to face for the first time in 20 years.

Ethiopian politicians and experts shared that the United States and the United Arab Emirates played a key role in bringing the peace deal to light. The visit of Donald Yukio Yamamoto (acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs) to Eritrea and Ethiopia in April 2018, as well as the role played by His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces for rapprochement between the two countries have been hailed by many.

Concern over sustainability of the peace deal

The current development can be described as a peace deal between a democratically elected reformist, Dr. Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, and an oppressive leader who rules his country without any constitution, President Isaias Afwerki. Many on both the Eritrean Ethiopian side have shown some concerns. Eritreans especially feel helpless and worry that they do not have a say in the affairs of their country. For many, his actions were ‘out of character’ which questions his will to make a sustained peace with all of Ethiopia. The people have eagerly shown their desire for lasting and sustained peace. However, President Isaias in his first visit to Ethiopia had said, "we never had border issue." His statements on multiple occasions during the peace process have angered many Eritreans. With that said, it’s the leaders’ responsibility to keep their promises and follow the peace process. To ensure a lasting and sustained peace, here are some of my recommendations:

  • As Prime Minister Dr. Abiy stated it, Ethiopia fully accepted the Algiers Agreement without any precondition after 16 years. Hence they should also fully work on implementing the agreement.
  • For Eritreans to gain the peace of mind and to have faith on the peace deal, the border should be demarcated and Ethiopian troops have to withdraw from occupied Eritrean territory immediately.
  • The United Nations should immediately assist and facilitate both Eritrea and Ethiopia with the demarcation process.
  • The UN should lift its sanction on Eritrea. This would force the administration in Asmara to reform and end the indefinite national service and give the conscripts a  chance to build their lives.
  • The Eritrean President should reform his administration and implement the 1997 constitution in order to allow representatives of the people to have a say in the peace process and the wellbeing of their nation. The 72 years old President also needs to step down and give the youth a chance to lead their country.
  • The people of the two countries along the border line should be given a platform to discuss and reconcile with one another. So far the peace deal has not involved the people on the ground.
  • During the 1998-2000 War, tens of thousands of people were deported by both nations to their respective country. The two nations should provide the right path for the people of both countries to reclaim their properties and businesses.
  • On both sides a buffer zone of 25km free from soldiers should be declared along the border line until the end of the demarcation process. Soldiers to only enter the area in time of natural disaster.

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Meron Semedar is a One Young World Ambassador from Eritrea, who is passionate about addressing the current human rights situation in his home country and the rest of the world. He is also the Founder of Lead Eritrea (Where Eritrean Youth Start Leading) and Refugee Student Association.