After 20 years of war, the accord between Ethiopia and Eritrea could bring more stability to the Horn of Africa and East Africa as a whole.
If history is made of details, the details that are changing the history of the Horn of Africa go by the names Ahmed Abiy and Isaias Afewerki, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia and President of Eritrea. The history in question concerns the milestone peace agreement signed on 9 July between Ethiopia and Eritrea, putting an end to the border war that has lasted 20 years and left more than 70 thousand dead, paralysing a vast and strategic geographical area and the destinies of tens of millions of people. After years of deadlock, the agreement was reached following a change of government in Addis Ababa. The outgoing leadership, viewed as favouring the Tigray minority that had dominated government for decades, was replaced by Abiy, a young and promising statesman, who has already been described as the new Mandela and the country’s first leader from the Oromo majority. Without this decisive change it would not have been possible to embark on the course of action being pursued today.
The Tigray of northern Ethiopia and the majority of Eritreans share an ethnic origin, culture and even language. However, comradeship turned to enmity, largely due to reasons of diffidence and interests. The decline of the TPLF (Tigray People Liberation Front) within the ruling coalition of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)and the appointment of Abiyun locked a situation that has been entrenched for years, bringing peace with Asmara in the space of just a few weeks. It is here that the personalities and abilities of Abiy and Afewerki are the details that made the difference.
The personal stories of the two men are radically different. Nevertheless, the two immediately managed to come to an agreement based on a shared intuition: to achieve peace immediately. This political gamble and the speed with which events took place brought successful results. Initiating the period of sweeping changes was Abiy. He began on the domestic front: in just two months he rescinded the state of emergency, released political prisoners, removed the heads of the army and launched reforms to liberalize the economy and redefine the role of women. Once he had a handle on domestic affairs, the young leader then focused on a more important goal – peace in the entire Horn of Africa, beginning with Eritrea.
Afewerki was of a similar disposition so the appointment of Abiy and his drive for change was an opportunity that could not be missed and they used the same approach: speed. In the space of just two state visits, a peace agreement was reached to end a border conflict concerning a few square kilometres in the Badme area that the Algiers Agreement in 2000had failed to resolve, giving hope to many people. Afewerki’s visit to Ethiopia was praised by the Oromo and the Amhara peoples because they understood that for more than 20 years Eritrea had helped preserve the unity of Ethiopia by opposing the Tigray desire for independence and preventing the Somaliazation of Ethiopia. Abiy and Afewerki thus completed a diplomatic blitz that few would have bet on succeeding, and it was clear to both populations that they had the right idea.
In addition to earning praise from the international community, the treaty with Asmara has been the catalyst for a process of pacification that concerns the entire area and countries such as South Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti and Egypt. And here lies the key to understanding how it was possible to create such a climate of pacification. The United States, and many European countries, after having supported the hegemonic designs of the Tigray leadership in Addis Ababa for decades, a leadership that was as ineffective as it was spendthrift, changed tune with the arrival of Trump in the White House. The propaganda-fed narrative orchestrated by Ethiopia with the support of the USA and EU – the justification for sanctions against Eritrea – had begun to crack some time ago, until reaching a point at which various diplomats explicitly admitted the existence of a defamation campaign orchestrated specifically to economically weaken and militarily tire Eritrea.
With the Trump administration things changed dramatically: following the admissions from various diplomats, Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabache of the Foreign Affairs Commission, wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, calling for an immediate end to sanctions and the re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Asmara. These openings with Eritrea helped provide value to Afewerki’s achievements during the recent years of his uninterrupted command. The propaganda created to justify sanctions had painted Afewerki as a dictator but few had actually bothered to see that the country had changed significantly under his leadership and that in addition to fighting a war against Ethiopia (6 million people against 95 million) the country had been transforming.
In recent years I have been twice to Asmara and I have been able to confirm that the country differs considerably from how it is depicted in the international media. Today in this small African country the number of AIDS sufferers is lower than in all of Washington, people are not starving because water has been brought to every village, almost every citizen has access to free medical treatment which has had a positive effect on life expectancy, school and university education is free for all, the country is solidly secular, female genital mutilation is prohibited and has not been practiced for years, to name just a few examples. Of course, there are not democratic elections but consultations based on the Chinese single party model, and the country is more closed and controlled than many others. But the point is that for twenty years this country experienced a state of war with its powerful neighbour andcalls for greater democracy were part of the propaganda war orchestrated by Ethiopia.
Now, however, a new era is dawning. Abiy and Aferwerki’s signature of the peace deal has written a new page in African history. They have taken the credit for this achievement, which some have suggested may earn them the Nobel Peace Prize, but more importantly they have assumed the responsibilities. Both of these leaders now have the difficult task of moving forward with the same speed along the path that they have plotted, continuing the reforms, pacifying the area in the interests of everyone, managing the on going issue of migration flows and reinforcing the process of democratic growth in the countries’ institutions. The gamble is a considerable but so are the potential rewards. A Horn of Africa that is peaceful and productive is in the interests of everyone, from China, which has been investing for years in this part of the world, but also for the USA and Europe, both hungry for new markets, and at the same time the African Union, which has its headquarters in Addis Ababa. Italy could have an important role to play, taking advantage of its history and significant presence in region, but it will have to emerge from the shadows where it has been hiding for the last decades to avoid displeasing its Atlantic allies.