How a 20-year African war ended in an embrace

How a 20-year African war ended in an embrace

Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict saw thousands of Eritreans fleeing to Europe during the refugee crisis.

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki (second left) and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (centre) hold hands as they wave at the crowds in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Sunday. (AP)
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki (second left) and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (centre) hold hands as they wave at the crowds in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Sunday. (AP)

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, the second largest country in Africa by population, embraced President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea in that country’s capital Asmara, announcing to the world, finally, the end of a 20-year war that has killed at least 80,000 in two of the continent’s poorest countries. The two leaders announced the resumption of trade, diplomatic, and travel ties, and “a new era of peace and friendship” between their countries.

The Horn of conflict

Eritrea broke from its federation with Ethiopia in April 1993, becoming an independent country located strategically at the mouth of the Red Sea on the Horn of Africa, next to one of the world’s most crucial shipping lanes. Just over five years later, war broke out between the two countries over the control of Badme, a border town of no apparent significance, but which both Addis Ababa and Asmara coveted. Massive displacements of population followed, families were torn asunder, and the local trading economy was utterly destroyed.

In June 2000, the two countries signed an Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities, followed, in December that year, by a Peace Agreement in Algiers, Algeria, which formally ended the war and established a Boundary Commission to settle the dispute. When the Commission gave its “final and binding” ruling in April 2002 awarding Badme to Eritrea, however, Ethiopia refused to accept the decision without additional conditions, and a stalemate ensued. Badme remained under Ethiopian control, and the border kept erupting in clashes.

While Ethiopia’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) had indicated a year ago that it was looking to change its relationship with Eritrea, things moved rapidly after the 41-year-old Ahmed, a former Army officer who had fought in the war, became Prime Minister in April. In June, he announced Addis Ababa would abide by the full terms of the 2000 agreement. On July 8, a day before he travelled to meet President Afwerki, Prime Minister Ahmed declared there was “no longer a border between Eritrea and Ethiopia because a bridge of love has destroyed it”.

The context of peace


Ethiopia is landlocked, and through the years of the war with Eritrea, has been dependent heavily on Djibouti, which sits on the Bab al-Mandab strait, for access to the Gulf of Aden and onward to the Arabian Sea. (See map)It will now seek to use Eritrean ports, most prominently Assab, located at the tip of the country’s ‘tail’, to balance its reliance on Djibouti.

Peace is in Eritrea’s interest, even though President Afwerki has used the war to keep himself in power since the country’s independence in 1993. Over the past two decades, even as Eritrea has sunk steadily into economic stagnation and social and diplomatic isolation, he has built and maintained a large conscription army, kept the constitution under suspension, and muzzled the press, all in the name of fighting the “continuous occupation of Eritrean territories by Ethiopia”. While the UN Human Rights Commission has repeatedly accused Eritrea of serious violations, the international pressure on its government increased greatly after Eritreans fleeing the war and compulsory military service flooded European shores at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015-16.