A year after peace deal, mistrust wins over hope in the Horn of Africa

  • Mucahid Durmaz
  • 11 Jul 2019

After decades of war and thousands of death, two neighbouring countries signed a peace deal last year to end the war. But the peace deal has not been fully implemented.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, in back, and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerk embrace July 9 at the peace declaration signing in Asmara, Eritrea. Ethiopian Catholic Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel has commended the two governments for the peace pact ( Reuters )

This time last year, with big smiles and hugs, the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea met for the first time in 21 years to end one of Africa’s most intractable military stand-offs, which cost thousands of lives and drastically reshaped the entire region. 

It was a historic two days in Eritrea’s capital Asmara starting on July 8. Thousands of Eritreans came onto the streets to cheer them and the leaders from the two states danced side by side to traditional music. 

Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed and the Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a "Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship" on July 9, ending 20 years of enmity and formally restoring diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The positive warm atmosphere was cemented by a formal treaty last September and it was signed by both leaders alongside Saudi King Salman and UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres. 

Embassies have reopened, telephone lines have been restored, and commercial flights between the capitals have resumed with some long-separated families holding tearful reunions. 

But the positive air has given way to a more negative outlook.

Since the deal, little progress has been made in order to build social, political, and cultural ties between the two countries, which were once ruled as one.

The border disputes

The borders between the countries have officially closed again despite the deal and economic-cooperation, which was one of the main pillars of the agreement has not been fully implemented. 

Projects such as the plan to develop a massive potash mine, which would significantly develop landlocked Ethiopia’s economy are no longer on the agenda. 

Ethiopian militiamen in Adigrat, Ethiopia, prepare to leave for the front lines Sunday, June 14, 1998.The militiamen are fighting alongside the Ethiopian soldiers against Eritrean troops.(AP)

Landlocked Ethiopia fought a bloody war with Eritrea between 1998 to 2000 over a border dispute that killed close to 100,000 people. The conflict ended in an uneasy peace with Eritrea, which earlier fought a decades-long war of independence with Ethiopia.

Even though full-blown fighting ended in 2000, troops have faced off across their disputed frontier ever since.

In fact, the border dispute still stands tall at the centre of the peace agreement. 

When the young reformist leader Ahmed came to power April last year, Ethiopians from all walks of life were filled with hope that the countries would finally unite and prosper but tensions persist.

After the peace accord in 2000, the Boundary Commission, an international body that sits at the International Court of Arbitration in the Hague, to officially demarcate the disputed frontier. Its ruling was supposed to be “final and binding”. 

In April 2002, the commission delivered its decision, notably attributing to Eritrea, the contested town of Badme, a hotspot of the conflict even though it lies in sparsely populated, rocky terrain and has no strategic or economic significance. 

Ethiopia continues to reject the outcome of the commission as “illegal, unjust and irresponsible” and the dispute still remains until this date. 

Closing the borders again despite the recent rapprochement raises concerns that the peace deal is not being implemented. 

A Ethiopian holding an Ethiopian flag waves at the Eritrean president in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Sunday July 15, 2018. Official rivals just weeks ago, the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea have embraced warmly to the roar of a crowd of thousands at a concert celebrating the end of a long state of war.(AP)

Ethnic conflict

The faltering of the attempts at rapprochement has not stopped Ahmed from working with the African Union to resolve the political crisis in Sudan.

But while Ahmed has been working to bring peace between different players, Eritrea’s Afwerki visited Sudan for a different reason. 

The Eritrean leader who was warmly welcomed by the deputy chairman of the Transnational Military Council, General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, has clearly thrown his support to Sudan’s military ruling council. 

Taking contrasting positions to Ahmed does not come as a surprise. The Eritrean leader strongly supports Saudi Arabia and UAE in the war in Yemen and the country allows its ports and airfields to be used by Gulf countries for strikes in Yemen. 

Ethiopia’s internal struggle to unite scores of ethnic groups and the different approaches the two neighbouring countries have in the regional politics, seem to becloud the peace deal. However, the time will show if the people’s hopes will galvanize the peace efforts.