Ethiopia’s decision this month to implement an earlier peace agreement with neighbouring Eritrea brokered by the African Union brings hope, despite the problems that loom ahead. The agreement signed by the two countries in Algiers in December 2000 was intended to bring an end to a conflict triggered by Eritrea, but the pact was never fully implemented. The two neighbours remained deadlocked in a conflict that has over time claimed more than 50,000 lives over a dispute concerning the border town of Badme. A boundaries delimitation commission had awarded the area to Eritrea in 2002, but Ethiopia refused to cede control. The presence of Ethiopian troops served to prolong the confrontation, as Eritrea mobilised its own forces under its autocratic leader, President Isaias Afwerki. The conflict gave the dictator a pretext to expand a large conscription programme, in the process enslaving thousands of young men and women and triggering a mass exodus to European countries. Desperate Eritrean migrants were among the hundreds who drowned off Italy’s Lampedusa island in 2013.
Ethiopia’s decision to honour the terms of the peace accord is credited to its popular and young Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, who assumed office this April. The rapprochement is part of a string of democratic reforms he has unveiled — including lifting the state of emergency, releasing thousands of political prisoners, and removing some Opposition parties from the list of terrorist groups. But there are already rumblings in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, between the country’s ethnic Oromo majority and the politically dominant Tigrayan minority. The choice of Mr. Ahmed, an Oromo, as Prime Minister was aimed at restoring stability in the light of growing unrest in the community for greater political representation. Unless managed tactfully, these internal tensions within the governing coalition could impede the peace process. For Eritrea, a lasting settlement to the prolonged conflict on the Horn of Africa will constitute a major milestone, one that has come 25 years after it gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, following a prolonged guerrilla war. All the same, the end of hostilities could mean a diminishing role for the military and a loosening of President Afwerki’s grip over the state apparatus. The former rebel leader has resisted holding general elections since independence and has not honoured the 1997 constitution. Restoration of peace and democracy is an urgent priority in both countries, which are among the poorest in the world. Greater transparency and political accountability at home are also prerequisites for stability across the borders. Ethiopia and Eritrea are strategically located, both as gateways for global trade and for counter-terrorism operations. Peace will allow landlocked Ethiopia to access Eritrean ports, and tie the two countries into greater economic cooperation. The international community must step up to engage Ethiopia and Eritrea on fairer terms than it has during the course of the bitter conflict. But the path to redemption will ultimately lie in the political wisdom and vision of their leaders.
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