It has been 18 years since Ethiopia and Eritrea signed the Algiers Peace Accord that officially ended the 1998-2000 war, which killed an estimated 100,000, displaced more than a million, and splintered thousands of families.
The Accord, brokered by the African union, the United Nations and the United States, was not designed merely to end one of the most senseless and deadliest conflicts in the world. It was also meant to iron out the underlying issues and pave the way for peaceful co-existence between the two nations. Nearly two decades on, however, the two countries are still at loggerheads and see each other as the number one geopolitical threat that they face.
On June 5, the Ethiopian government announced its readiness to fully comply and implement the Algier peace Accord, an agreement it refused to comply with for 18 years. It also said that it will accept the outcome of a 2002 border commission ruling, which awarded disputed territories, including the town of Badme, to Eritrea.
Why now and what does this mean for the future of the two countries and the region?
The Badme conundrum
In 1998, Ethiopia and Eritrea went to war over Badme, a desolate piece of land very few Ethiopians or Eritreans had ever heard of. Although Badme was a mere pretext to start a conflict fuelled by much deeper political problems, it has since been etched into the imagination of many Ethiopians and Eritreans and has taken on a deeper meaning.
Today, the name Badme condenses within itself a series of fundamental political and economic anxieties and hegemonic aspirations, acting as a byword for brutality, anguish, guilt, shame, fear, and pride.
In 2002, the Eritrea=Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) issued its final and binding ruling on the border between the two countries, which awarded Badme to Eritrea. Ethiopia refused to withdraw from the contested territory, effectively blocking the demarcation of the border. The international community, which brokered the peace deal, failed to hold Ethiopia accountable for flouting the EEBC ruling.
Consequently the two countries remained on a war footing and engaged in hostile activities against each other, spawning proxy war in neighbouring Somalia, and further destabilising an already unstable region. Ethiopia used its relatively stronger regional sway and diplomatic clout to isolate Eritrea, which was subjected to international sanctions.
The political anxieties that led to the war were compounded by the anxieties that resulted from the war, creating the intractable predicament that made dialogue between the two parties almost impossible.
A new era?
Ethiopia’s change of heart towards Eritrea is genuine, and is directly tied to the momentous change taking place domestically. Since coming to office a little over two months ago, Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has reconfigured the Ethiopian political landscape and its strategic direction, moving with incredible speed to drive changes aimed at widening the political space and narrowing the social divisions and antagonism within the country.
Since assuming power, Ahmed linked the political, social and economic transformations in Ethiopia to regional dynamics, particularly Eritrea, with which Ethiopia has closer security, economic, and social ties.
During his inaugural address, the prime minister directly addressed Eritrea, expressing his readiness for dialogue and engagement. He urged his Eritrean counterpart to reciprocate his efforts to find a negotiated settlement to the conflict and to forge a mutually beneficial relationship for the sake of “the common blood relations between the peoples of the two countries”.
Two months after making this commitment, he followed up with a decisive announcement committing Ethiopia to a full compliance with the Algiers Agreement. In a speech after the announcement, Ahmed said, “Putting an end to this situation and finding peace is necessary beyond anything else not just for Ethiopia but also for the wider Horn of Africa”.
The prime minister rejected the characterisation of relations between the two countries as a “no war no peace” situation, arguing that the psychological burden and the endless antagonism means that we are still in a state of war.
Ahmed said, “Every Ethiopian should realise that it is expected of us to be a responsible government that ensures stability in our region, one that takes the initiative to connect the brotherly peoples of both countries and expands trains, buses, and economic ties between Asmara and Addis Ababa.”
While subsequent Ethiopian leaders have expressed their readiness to resolve the crisis with Eritrea, no previous Ethiopian leader has expressed the desire to end the stalemate with the determination, clarity and sense of purpose as Ahmed has.
The ball is in Eritrea’s court
However, Ethiopia needs a responsible partner on the Eritrean side to resolve the dispute. So far, Eritrea has not yet replied to Ethiopia’s call. The Eritrean government has consistently demanded Ethiopia’s full compliance with the EEBC’s decision before normalising relations.
However, the insistence on unilateral withdrawal as a condition for normalising relations is not tenable, not least because Badme was under Ethiopian rule before the EBBC’s ruling and continues to be under the effective control of the Ethiopian government. The two countries must come together in good faith to hammer out a number of details including the fate of the population there.
The ball is now in Eritrea’s court and Asmara can no longer claim Ethiopia’s occupation of its territory as an excuse for inaction.
Ethiopia’s call is genuine, and Eritrea stands to benefit as much, if not more, from a rapprochement with its western neighbour. By normalising relations, Eritrea can eliminate the biggest security threat it has been facing; it can end the compulsory recruitment of its youth into the military, and gain access to the largest market in the region.
Prospects for peace
While there will be some resistance to the prime minister’s move to return the flashpoint town of Badme to Eritrea, Ahmed has an unprecedented opportunity to close this dark chapter in the history of the two countries. He was elected at a critical moment for Ethiopia’s history with a strong mandate from his party. He has created substantial excitement and optimism about the direction of the country. He has the vision, the determination, and, above all, the political capital, necessary to commit Ethiopia to the deal.
The political landscape in Eritrea remains the same. While a rapprochement with Ethiopia may bring its own political risks for the regime in Eritrea, these are minuscule compared with the significant social, political, and economic advantages.
The Ethiopia-Eritrean conflict is one of the most important latent conflicts in the region, with serious consequences for regional and global security. The international community, particularly the West, has ignored the dispute for long.
Now that there is a newfound optimism for peace, the international community must seize the opportunity and act proactively and preemptively before local and regional dynamics change.